With the senators of Montana suddenly terrified over the prospect of terrorists being housed in maximum-security prisons within their borders, with Cheney going into fear-generation overdrive, and with John Podhortez at Commentary asserting that “Fear was an entirely responsible response to September 11,” I think it’s time to take a step back and ask, “Is it really?”
Even with statistical spikes like 9/11, over the past fifty years the same number of Americans have been killed by lightning as by terrorism, both of which are dwarfed by deaths from food allergies, drowning in your own bathtub, or even lying in bed doing nothing and getting killed by, say, a collapsing roof. There would have to be one 9/11 per month in order for terrorism to equal the risk of driving even on the world’s safest roads (rural highways in the West), and two per week in order to equal the risk of driving in India.
But the problem is not just poor risk assessment. When you go from Franklin Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” to George Bush’s “Be scared. Be very, very scared,” you take a country that once defined itself by life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and you turn its people passive and obedient. And you abandon the identity of an entire nation. All for a risk smaller than that of hiding in bed.
As the Freakonomics guys showed, from the end of the 1940s on there were only nine lynchings of black men in America—spread over roughly twenty years—but it was enough for the Klu Klux Klan to terrify the entire black population into obeying their racist code of behaviour (although, by comparison, at the beginning of that period 10,000 black infants were dying each year from preventable illnesses like diarrhea). No wonder Martin Luther King, Jr., warned that “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”
When fear wins, it turns men into slaves.
There is a reason why of all the “base” emotions, fear is the only one that our society teaches we should respect in others. Why it is not one of the seven deadly sins. Why the fear of crime shifted so smoothly into the fear of terrorism. A touch of slave morality makes a population easier to manage.
If I were writing a bible, there would be just one sin, and that would be fear—because it stands against the divine spark within humanity, the Prometheus in us that would steal fire from the gods and slug it out with the angels. But our religions, governments, and societies do not want us stealing from the gods. Perhaps they grudgingly admire those who do—the artists and Einsteins who change the world—but only so long as what they are doing is abstract enough that it doesn’t frighten (viz Galileo).
The policeman’s worldview is shaped by fear. He pours concrete over a flower in order to preserve it forever. He takes the legal maxim, engraved into the walls of the Harvard Law Library, Lex est svmma ratio in natvra (law is the highest form of reason in nature), and turns it into a prohibition on the climbing of a tree anywhere in New York City. That is why Kafka, perhaps the greatest warrior against fear who ever lived, said, “The meaning of life is that it ends.”
Fear is concrete. It is a form of static that drowns out any musician who gives his ear to it. It is the root of all evil, the hiding place of stupidity.
So, no, Fear was not a reasonable response. It was a useful response for those who wanted to direct that fear. But fear itself is pathetic. And those who would try to make us fearful are usually evil.
As Tacitus said long ago, “The desire for security stands against every great and noble enterprise.”
(This is a modified excerpt of a full article on Fear that will come on in the September issue of C-Arts Magazine. Look for it on news-stands worldwide.)