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Fear affects our ability to think and act. It can affect our health. More than that, fear can motivate us to give up our rights – or to take away other people’s rights. If you value freedom and democracy, then it’s important to recognize fear-mongering and know how to combat it.
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” — Franklin Roosevelt 1933, First Inaugural Address
Fear affects our ability to think and act. We can miss important information: our vision can narrow, we can become color blind, our depth perception may weaken. Our sense of time gets distorted. In such circumstances, it is no surprise that scared people start seeing threats where there are none. When the threat is real, scared people miss crucial details that would help them win, or they freeze up. Some people run away, even when others need help.
- There were many false alarms following the terrorist attack of 9/11/2001. People reported all sorts of bomb threats that were purely imagined, at great expense to the affected jurisdictions. In one example, a man opening a birthday card that included some confetti was reported as having anthrax. Many people stopped traveling and many businesses spent millions on the irradiation of their mail to protect against the possibility of anthrax.
Persistent fear can also affect our health. Living under constant threat weakens our immune systems and can cause heart problems, stomach problems, and decreased fertility. Other effects include tiredness, depression, faster ageing, and even early death. Doctors found that people who were most fearful of another attack after 9/11/2001 were also much more likely to suffer from new heart problems.
Many people are willing to sacrifice their rights, or the rights of others, when they are scared. Here are a few famous historical examples of how fear motivated people in the wrong direction:
- The “Red Scare” of 1919-20. After World War One, American workers were eager for wage increases following their sacrifices in the inflationary war years. A series of massive strikes created fear that American workers would follow the recent Bolshevik revolution in Russia and attempted revolution in parts of Europe. Many people were spied on and/or blacklisted from employment. Picketing was outlawed, thus denying workers their freedom of speech and assembly. Laws protecting against child labor and establishing a minimum wage for women were also struck down. A second red scare took place in the 1940’s and 1950s, ending with the McCarthy Trials in 1954.
- Fear of Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor led to the mass incarceration of 110-120 thousand Japanese living in the US from 1942 through 1946. Sixty-two percent of them were US citizens. In 1988, President Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which apologized for the internment on behalf of the S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 to each individual camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
- Decades of fear of terrorist attacks has motivated people in many countries including the USA to submit to warrantless baggage searches, pat-downs, and body-imaging scans. Many Americans believe these should be considered illegal under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, protecting against unreasonable search and seizure. The only way this kind of monitoring can be justified as “reasonable” is to presume everyone is potentially a terrorist. Additional measures include the placement of video monitors in tens of thousands of locations, license place readers, monitoring of social media, and other means of tracking personal location and behavior. Thus far, there has not been any widespread abuse of these new powers, but there is enormous opportunity waiting for anyone determined to do so.
It’s important to be alert to fear-mongering. Most of us don’t listen carefully to what we are hearing, we just take it in. That’s not always a good thing because fearful people can spread their worries, even when they aren’t real. Worse, evil people can deliberately seek to scare us, hoping to manipulate us into making the wrong choices. If you want to detect fear-mongering, here are some things you can be alert for:
- Angry, fearful, or breathless tone of voice in videos and news broadcasts. These reach directly to our emotions and over-ride logic, unless we are alert to the trick and disciplined enough to keep our heads.
- Dramatic music and/or imagery accompanying scary words. Same as above.
- Messages that create a feeling of vulnerability. “They are out there, waiting, and will attack when we least expect it.” The vulnerability comes from not having specific information about who they are, why they want to attack, where they are, when they will attack, or how.
- Us versus them, with “them” being the very bad guys. “They want to take our guns away.” “They want to legislate what we can do in our bedrooms.” “They want to rape our women and enslave our children.”
- Over-generalizing. The fact that a criminal gang in one neighborhood in one city did in fact kill a man does not mean that there are criminal gangs in every neighborhood that intend to kill everyone living in them.
- Wrongful attribution. You may have been told someone in group B attacked someone in your Group A, so you might think there is a real reason to fear people in Group A. You could be very wrong. It might be that the confrontation was actually a drunken argument about football. Similarly, a fight between two religious groups or ideologies might actually be about control of land and resources. (If it were otherwise, the goal would be to convert people rather than kill them, right?)
- Overly dramatic or emotional word choices. “I was viciously attacked.” “They seek nothing less than the total destruction of our way of life.” “Death of our republic.” “Economic nightmare.” “Ruthless.”
- Watch for words like “always,” “never,” “endless,” “relentless,” “overwhelming” and so on.
You won’t be surprised that the news media often become part of the problem. News outlets that rely on viewers to see advertisements are more likely to sensationalize fearful events in order to get your attention. In general, it’s wise to wary of what comes out of any organization or group that profits from your fear.
Double check those fears! Sometimes threats are real. In such cases, victory is much more likely with a cool headed assessment of the who, what, when, where, how and why. With that in hand, a person or an army can out together a winning response. Other times, fears are over-blown or imagined. In those times, it is equally important to see things clearly, as they are, if you want to hold on to your rights and liberty. Here are some tips that can help:
- You might normally trust the people around you but, if they are not taking time to assess clearly, then they may already be panicked. That won’t help you.
- Try to sort out scary possibilities from realistic probabilities. A giant meteor killing us off is possible but the probability that will happen anytime soon is essentially zero.
- Seek a wide variety of opinions and assessments. People who don’t think like you can be valuable if only because they may see some things you missed.
- Look for facts you can verify. Strip away all the descriptive adjectives and adverbs. Look for details about who, what, when, where, how and why. If you can’t find much, then keep digging or consider the possibility that your fear may not require a response.
- Look for other explanations. Your fear might be justified, but it could also be a misunderstanding. Again, the who, what, when, where, how and why can be useful in sorting out competing explanations.
- Keep things in perspective. For example, a lightening strike is violent and scary and there are hundreds of thousands every year. They can strike anywhere. Yet, very few people are harmed by them. The chances of dying from a lightning strike in the USA are more than 10 million to 1.
- Are you being manipulated? Keep in mind people often do scary things to intimidate their voters, victims, or opponents — but what are they after, really?
Freedom House, 2016. The Civil Liberties Implications Of Counterterrorism Policies, chapter in Today’s American: How Free? https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-reports/todays-american-how-free
Brad Schmidt and Jeffrey Winters, January 2002, Anxiety after 9-11, Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200201/anxiety-after-911
Holman, Silver, Poulin, Andersen, Gil-Rivas, and McIntosh, 2008. Terrorism, Acute Stress, and Cardiovascular Health: A 3-Year National Study Following the September 11th Attacks. Archives of General Psychiatry, 65(1), pp.73-80. http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=482561&resultclick=1
Nicolas Kristof, September 4, 2010, America’s History of Fear. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/opinion/05kristof.html?_r=0
David Rothkpf, March 2015: How Fear Drives American Politics, TED Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/david_rothkopf_how_fear_drives_american_politics/transcript?language=en
Global Research, March 16, 2016, The Terrorism Statistics Every American Needs to Hear, http://www.globalresearch.ca/theterrorismstatisticseveryamericanneedstohear/5382818
Economist Magazine, February 2013: Danger of Death! http://www.economist.com/node/21571981/print