Interesting point I heard on NPR : in the past 10 years, crime is down 20%, murder down even more, and non-OJ news stories about murder were up 600%. Because of this, most people see an increase in crime. He went on to talk about statistically trivial things that pop up in the news like road rage or internet addiction, and how the media made things seem worse than it was, feeding a general culture of fear...

The stats may or may not be accurate, but this makes sense to me.

America has a deeply-embedded culture of fear, and it is the cause of many problems. Lots of us live in fear all the time. We are scared to go outside alone at night, scared of our bosses, scared of the police, scared of losing our stock portfolio, the list goes on and on. Fear is natural, right? I mean, fear is what kept us alive long enough to evolve into an intelligent species. Fear is the most practical emotion, but in our supposedly advanced society shouldn't we be relatively at ease?

Fear causes people to act more quickly and predictably than other forms of inspiration, this fact was not missed by people trying to convince us of something. The science of marketing has developed quickly over the past 100 years, and fear is now a staple in its grab-bag of mind-control devices. Advertising, however, is not the big problem. We can easily rationalize away fears that arise from advertisements because we know they're trying to sell us something.

The American news media is what I find truly sickening. The way they spread fear under the guise of, "The public has a right to know," is abhorrent. Just look at what kinds of stories they run. Local television news in particular always seems to have a story like "Four level 3 sex offenders live next to this park, find out which one at 10," or "Are your kids safe at school? Find out what school administrators aren't telling parents" (both actual ads for television news). Sure, we have a right to know, but is it really what we need to know? Probably not, but it wouldn't guarantee that we remember to turn on the TV at 6 o'clock. I'm not advocating fluffy happy news where nothing bad is every mentioned, I just think the media grabs onto things and blows them far out of proportion of rational fear. In the past reporting used to cover actual events. Now, following in the footsteps of sensationalism pioneers like 20/20 and Geraldo Rivera, every mom-and-pop news program seems to be going on hidden-camera 'sting' operations to uncover some foul plot.

Another place where fear mongering is quite prevalent is in American politics. For years politicians have gotten elected by pandering to people's fear of crime by vowing to make longer sentences and hire more police. In the last congressional election, Republicans won clear majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives on the platform of Regime Change in Iraq, and more broadly the War on Terrorism. The rhetoric of attacking Iraq with or without international support could be inspired by many things, yet with the decidedly thin evidence the American public has been presented with, it seems most likely that the Bush Administration is simply scared of what could happen.

I never really gave so much consideration of fear as a cultural force before watching 'Bowling for Columbine' by filmmaker Michael Moore. The film addresses America's gun violence problem, and makes a very convincing argument for fear being the root cause. It's enough to make an American want to move to Canada.

What Constitutes Reasonable Caution and When Does The Culture of Fear Cross The Line Into Hysteria?

The conventional wisdom about terrorism seemed to be so overdrawn and the hysteria so under-justified. Extrapolating too much from 9/11seemed to be fairly foolish, or at any rate dangerous and unjustified. Looking at the total amount of damage that terrorism does, it didn't seem to justify the extraordinary attention and sometimes hysteria that it seemed to generate.

— John Mueller, author of "Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them"

This piece will present anecdotal evidence that the United States is in the grips of fear caused by an over-reaction of the media, public safety groups and others. The culture of fear existed prior to the events of September 11, 2001, for example, even though the rate of murders went down in the U.S. after the O.J. Simpson trial, media reporting of murders skyrocketed a whopping 600% according to one research group. Fear sells air time and ups ratings. This resulted in a rise in purchases of home security devices and firearms nationwide. However, the "face" of fear was ambiguous; those who were feared were just "the bad guys."

The effect of 9/11 was to give fear a face: most often the face of a screaming, swarthy-skinned middle-easterner hell-bent on wreaking havoc on U.S. residents and, eventually, destroying our lifestyle and overthrowing the government and replacing it with an Islamic dictatorship. Additionally, 9/11 made true what, during the cold war years, was just an imagined atrocity: an act of war resulting in a significant number of casualties, in this case, civilian casualties, committed on the soil of the continental United States. Until that time, the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was indeed on U.S. "turf," and caused many casualties, but Americans remained convinced (until nuclear proliferation) that they were safe from harm in their own homes.

Duck and Cover

After the first non-testing detonation of nuclear weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan, the world identified the mushroom cloud as a sign of lethal, fiery destruction; trees, buildings and humans literally melted to death at the epicenter of the blast. Then came the news that USSR, The Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan would later call it, had built a bomb a hundred times as powerful as the first U.S. models, and a rocket capable of propelling it onto U.S. soil with amazing speed and accuracy.

In the cities, the familiar yellow signs bearing an icon resembling a three-bladed fan went up, directing the public to the nearest fallout shelters. In the country, bomb shelters with thick concrete walls and supplies were being dug by the thousands. There is a home in Ridgefield, Connecticut that still contains a basement lined with 3/4" lead, where supposedly the family would survive the fallout from an attack on New York City until it was safe for them to emerge.

In the schools during the 1950s and early 1960s, movies were shown to school children young and old, admonishing them to get under their desks and put their heads down when told. This was to protect them from the "bright flash of light" that the Communists might inflict upon them. Nearly every parent had to endure answering their child's question, "Are they going to blow us up?" No possible answer would convince a child the answer to that question was "no" after their own government had told them this was a possibility. Millions of children suffered nightmares; so did their parents.

Fear and Overreaction in Modern Society

The United States Office of Homeland Security, local public safety agencies, and not the least of all the media are responsible for causing Americans to become overwhelmed with thoughts that they or their loved ones may fall prey to serious physical harm or death. This achieves exactly what terrorist organizations are desirous of achieving; the chipping away of America's opposition to the terrorists' political agendas to the point where, they hope, America will cave in to their demands.

This is a fallacy. Bruce Schneier, a noted writer on the culture of fear in America pointed out brilliantly in his essay "Refuse to be Terrorized:"

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics.

The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we're doing exactly what the terrorists want.

Schneier further articulates this concept with supporting evidence in his essay "Correspondent Inference Theory and Terrorism:"

But like all cognitive biases, correspondent inference theory fails sometimes. And one place it fails pretty spectacularly is in our response to terrorism. Because terrorism often results in the horrific deaths of innocents, we mistakenly infer that the horrific deaths of innocents is the primary motivation of the terrorist, and not the means to a different end.

I found this interesting analysis in a paper by Max Abrahms in "International Security." "Why Terrorism Does Not Work" analyzes the political motivations of 28 terrorist groups: the complete list of "foreign terrorist organizations" designated by the U.S. Department of State since 2001. He lists 42 policy objectives of those groups, and found that they only achieved them 7 percent of the time.

Even the John Birch Society has been outspoken in publication and on the web, criticizing the government and the media for fear-mongering and steering foreign policy in the wrong direction. The accuse the current government of a misguided foreign policy which likens terrorism as a threat to the U.S. to the Nazi/Fascist/Imperial Japanese axis of World War II. The Birchers disagree. An article on their website quotes Ted Galen Carpeter of the Cato Institute:

"The closest historical analogy for the radical Islamic terrorist threat is neither the two world wars nor the Cold War," writes Carpenter. "It is the violence perpetrated by anarchist forces during the last third of the 19th century. Anarchists committed numerous high-profile assassinations, including a Russian czar, an empress of Austria-Hungary, and President William McKinley. They also fomented numerous bomb plots and riots, including the notorious Haymarket riot in the United States." Establishment politicians of that time, whom Carpenter calls the "Newt Gingriches of that era," also "overreacted and warned of a dire threat to Western civilization. In reality, though, the anarchists were capable only of pinpricks, and life went on."

The Media: Porn Sells, Terrorism Sells More - The Coining of the Concept of "Terror Porn"

Even ABC Newsman John Stossel wrote a piece that admits that the more terrorism (or mere hint of terrorism) the media can find, the more they write about or broadcast it. While the White House is coming up with dire warnings such as this:

"Our country is still the target of terrorists who want to kill many," said President Bush during his State of the Union Address in 2005. "They're out to hurt us. They're out to hurt us badly."

The fact is, there's more chance that you'll drown in your own bathtub than die in a non-war zone terrorist action. The chances, worldwide, of dying at the hands of terrorists is 1 in 80,000.

Stossel gives the example of a family who lived near New York but relocated, away from family and friends, to Florida. They refuse to fly to visit relatives in New York. Now, in the three months following 9/11, a study found that 1,000 Americans died because they chose not to fly but drive to their destinations.

Terrorism is also lucrative. Economist Veronique de Rugy coined the phrase "Terror Porn," and says that the Office of National Security is handing out millions of dollars willy-nilly. Does a small town in rural Idaho really need $300,000 so they can buy two trailers equipped with extra communications equipment, ATVs, Hazmat Suits and other items they'll probably never use?

Common Sense

All of the writers quoted herein agree on one thing: random bag checks, random patrols of critical sites which are now under scrutiny all the time, and more use of common sense by the Office of Homeland Security on all levels from policy-making down to the airport bag-checkers (who've been known to perform thorough, time-consuming security checks on elderly fliers who use walkers in order to get around).

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous adage, "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" rings true. Fear is a strong emotion. Changing one's lifestyle in order to accommodate fear of terrorism achieves the goals of the terrorists. However, changing a culture of fear in America is going to be a daunting task.

Sadly, many Americans are of the belief that "if it's on the television, it must be so." How can we get the media to give up on making terror scares the lead story on the seven o'clock news? How can we remain vigilant against ostensible terrorist activities without evacuating entire office buildings because of a strange satchel found in a hallway that was making noise (it was a battery-operated toy that had fallen out of a worker's backpack).

Let's finish this piece with some real-world examples of how far things have gone, and how rational people suddenly become irrational when the word "terrorism" is uttered.

Sprinkling a Mysterious White Powder

The Hash House Harriers, or "HHH" or "H3" as they call themselves, have chapters in myriad locations, including nearly every major city in the U.S., and cities worldwide. Their motto is catchy, "A drinking club with a running problem."

A Google* search for "Hash House Harriers" returned approximately 205,000 results on this date. Pretty impressive.

The group made headlines Friday, August 24, 2007 after organizers of one of their hare and hound runs were spotted pouring flour on the asphalt of the enormous parking lot of the New Haven, Connecticut IKEA superstore. The police were called by concerned onlookers, who thought that the harmless, biodegradable flour "hash" route markers being laid were actually poisonous dust, perhaps anthrax, being scattered about by terrorists.

New Haven ophthalmologist Daniel Salchow and his sister Dorothee (who was visiting from Germany at the time) figured that sending runners on a chase around the largest public parking lot in New Haven would be rather humorous. They were the "hares" for this game of hares and hounds, the primary raison d'etre of the H3 (their secondary purpose is to consume copious amounts of alcohol).

Salchow had returned to his home, the site of the H3 chapter's after-party (which coincidentally was also to celebrate Salchow's 36th birthday). His wife called and said there was a problem and he ought to get down to the IKEA store pronto. The police were there en masse, waiting for him. Despite a lengthy explanation on his part, he and his sister were charged with first-degree breach of peace, a felony. They were later released on a promise to appear.

The IKEA store had been evacuated and did not re-open until the following morning. Although the press mentioned nothing in the way of a statement from IKEA. An Associated Press news release did mention that this particular time of year is very busy for the store, the destination of choice for soon-to-return-to school college students wanting to purchase furnishings and accessories for their dorm rooms.

The New Haven Police and a spokesperson for the New Haven mayor's office made it clear that they took this offense very seriously and that Salchow should not have used flour, because he was aware it had caused problems for other chapters of the group in the past. The mayor's advisors have yet to determine an amount they will demand from Salchow by way of restitution.

A mall in Fayetteville, North Carolina was evacuated for two hours following a discovery of flour in its parking lot in 2002. Before that, two runners were arrested in Oxford, Mississippi were arrested after using a white powder to mark their trails in the downtown of that city. Many of the clubs switched to using chalk rather than flour to mark the "checks" used to leave a trail (as well as false ones) for the "hounds" who follow the trailblazers, or "hares" after 9/11 concerns about bioterrorism nixed the idea of using powders of any kind. The New Haven Club says it returned to using flour "because it is biodegradable." (Say, that's true; but chalk is harmless and washes away in the rain.)

The Fayetteville incident and the Mississippi incident both took place during the widespread public hysteria about anthrax distribution and other bioterrorism during late 2001 and early 2002. The men arrested in Oxford Mississippi were actually overheard saying something about anthrax, which resulted in a call not only to local authorities but to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The online newspaper of the University of Mississippi asked that their behavior be taken with a grain of salt, because the outcome was swiftly determined to be harmless.

The New Haven chapter sent an email to many H3 chapters. The first paragraph is a "horse's mouth" explanation of the situation:

Hashers-Thank you for all of your wonderful words and support during this time. We sincerely regret that our run lead to such great confusion for the city of New Haven. Like anyone trying to be good hares, Daniel and Doro saw the great check potential of the IKEA parking lot as something guaranteed to slow down and confuse the pack. Unfortunately a few non-hashers (being non-hashers) were freaked out by their flour and chalk laying behavior. It is too bad that the non-hashers did not use some common sense (not all that common) and ask Daniel and Doro what they were doing as this entire thing could have been avoided. Regardless, the situation unfolded as it did and we cannot change it. We can only move forward by saying On-On and continuing to cooperate with the authorities until this is resolved.

The email goes on to reveal the clubs' knowledge that flour just ain't the right way to blaze a trail, given the potential for hysteria:

Since this incident occurred, we have read many comments from Hashers around the country that had a similar run in with the police but were not arrested and the misunderstanding was resolved on the scene. To our knowledge, no hasher has ever been accused of a felony as a result of setting a trail. If you have "hasher setting trail" police stories or if you know someone who does, please reply to this address (omitted for privacy).

Rather than include the immense list of H3 chapter websites in the sources below, I've cited only the ones used in preparation of this document. Overall, though, the chapters seem to be coordinating quite an effort to either raise funds for the Selchows' legal fees, or actually have members (who happen to be attorneys, and it appears there are many) represent them.

Protecting Fire Hydrants From Terrorist Tampering

In the 1970s, a Georgia contractor named Tom Davidson invented a security device designed to be attached to fire hydrants to keep kids from sticking rocks and bottles into them. Nobody seemed interested in the device and, in fact, he didn't even bother to patent it. Then came 9/11; Davidson patented his device, and re-named it the "Davidson Anti-Terrorism Valve," or "ATV." The rationale behind the valve is to keep foreign substances — anthrax, bubonic plague, cyanide, tennis balls — from entering the water supply. And cities and towns all over the Southeast have bitten, and are purchasing the valves at about $600 apiece.

The City of Augusta, Georgia got a bargain price of $575 per device, because they acted first. The City has hired two employees solely to install the safety device on fire hydrants during a six-year period at a total cost of approximately $3.2 million. Atlanta followed suit, installing the device in certain areas of the city.

The ATV is being marketed by a company called Mainline Homeland Security Products and Services, which claims: "Most citizens don't realize that one of the most easily accessible and dangerous vulnerabilities that terrorists could exploit remains largely unchecked — America's fire hydrants."

Mainline Homeland Security Products and Services has managed to overcome some city officials' reticence about the viability of hiding a pumping device large enough to actually overwhelm the pressure in a municipal mainline water system by giving them demonstrations. However, demonstrations aren't available to the general public.

Now, "flawed logic" is a mild term for what we have here, in fact, the idea is absolutely ridiculous for several reasons:

  • “The United States cannot afford monitoring or treatment technologies that are solely focused on low-probability, high-consequence threats to our water systems.” — Post-9/11 conclusion of Sandia National Laboratories, a government research center run by Lockheed Martin Corporation.
  • Are mid-sized cities in the Southwestern United States viable targets for terrorists? Wouldn't they get more "bang for the buck" if they poisoned the water in Chicago, New York, Miami, Dallas or Washington, D.C.?
  • One hundred thirty tons of Sodium Cyanide would be necessary to spread a lethal dose of the substance through the 125 million gallons of water in Augusta's supply system. One hundred thirty tons.
  • A pumping device capable of overwhelming the pressure in the system, once the hydrant is turned on, would need to be parked near the hydrant, and would no doubt be rather conspicuous (think Fire Department High-Flow Pumper Truck).
  • There's nothing to keep potential terrorists from renting or purchasing a residence, and installing pump equipment in the residence, to insinuate the poison into the water supply a little more slowly, by utilizing "backflow;" taking advantage of the fluctuations in water pressure, but overpowering the normal pressure nonetheless.
  • Even if poison were to be introduced into the system, a few unfortunate individuals (nearest the "poison pump") would likely begin suffering harmful or fatal symptoms long before the poison made its way through the city's entire system. A very small number of sick people in the same area would cause City health officials to notice a regional health threat, and determine its source, giving ample warning to the rest of the city's residents.

What used to be humor has become the equivalent of "Shouting Fire in a Crowded Theater"

Prior to 9/11 and the "War on Terror, bomb threats telephoned to large buildings or areas of congregation, (particularly schools) were overwhelmingly empty threats; meant merely to empty the buildings and perhaps strike a vague, non-specific sense of fear in the hearts of persons involved. I'd hazard a guess that school bomb threats were invariably the result of irresponsible students who'd disturb the entire school day merely because they were avoiding a class in which a project was due, or a test was scheduled.

The horrible events of 9/11 and the anthrax scares of 2001-2002 have contributed more to the American culture of fear than all other incidents combined.

No longer can we afford to perpetuate the culture of fear by discussing bomb threats and the like in a lighthearted manner. Jokes about white powder, etc. should be avoided at all costs. Anyone who has suffered the consequences of joking about possessing contraband on an airliner while in a check-in line can tell you the resultant full-body search and interrogation is no party.

However, it should be clear that when an air passenger points out to security that he saw two Muslims in the airport checking their watches at the same time, that becomes an act of racism.

One of the finest ways to fight the "war against terror" is to go about our business, do what we want to do, and enjoy life. Because life's too short. I'm not suggesting that we go on a tourist jaunt to Baghdad, but that through communication and information, we allay our own fears that we will fall victim to an act of terrorism.

*IKEA is a registered trademark of IKEA, Inc. Google is a registered trademark of Google, Inc. "Just do it." and Nike are registered trademarks of the Nike Corp.


"Bin Laden's Next Target?" by Corey Pein, Metro Spirit, Augusta, Georgia, 5/23/07 (Accessed 8/30/07)

"Terror Nation: Are Americans Allowing Terrorists to Rule Their Lives?" by John Stossel and Gena Binkley, ABC News Website, 2/23/07 (Accessed 8/30/07)

"Refuse to be Terrorized" by Bruce Schneier, Wired News 8/24/06 (Accessed 8/30/07)

"Felony Charges in Ikea Scare" by Cara Rubinsky, The Associated Press,0,3966975.story?coll=hc-aol-yahoo-nws-hed (Accessed 8/27/07)

List-Serv of the Atlanta Chapter of H3 (Accessed 8/27/07)

New Haven, Connecticut H3 List-Serv (Accessed 8/27/07)

"Jokes are a Serious Issue, but not a Criminal Offense," Op-Ed piece, The DmOnline, University of Mississippi (10/19/01) (Accessed 8/27/07)

"Correspondent Inference Theory and Terrorism" by Bruce Schneier,  INFOCON Cyrpto-Gram, July, 2007 (Accessed 8/30/07)

"Terrorism is a Deadly Nuisance - Not an Existential Threat" by William Norman Grigg, John Birch Society News Feed 9/13/06 (Accessed 8/30/07)

"Consequences for road traffic fatalities of the reduction in flying following September 11, 2001" (Abstract) ___________. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour Volume 7, Issues 4-5, July-September 2004, Pages 301-305 (Accessed 8/30/07)

"Safe Bedside Table" James McAdam Portfolio Website (Accessed 8/30/07)

"America's Flimsy Fortress" by Bruce Schneier, (Accessed 8/30/07)

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.