We live in a culture of fear. In decades past, Americans had something genuinely to fear. For a half-century, the nuclear superpowers stood toe to toe, and we feared the blossoming of mushroom clouds more than the day-to-day uncertainties of life. We ducked and covered until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, the Russian bear shed its fangs, and the pundits told us we had arrived at the end of history. History resumed on 9/11, but in the meantime we had more than a decade to start wringing our hands about new dangers. Trans fats and tap water, cholesterol and carbon monoxide, big-box stores and bacteria — you name it and we whip ourselves into a frenzy and demand action from the authorities.
We fear crime, so we demand more gun control laws, even though the FBI reports that overall crime rates have plunged 16 percent since 1993. Violent crime has fallen even more dramatically, an astonishing 60 percent, from 51 incidents per 1,000 people in 1994 to 21 in 2004, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (though with an uptick in 2005). That includes school violence, down 50 percent from 1992, according to the Department of Justice. By the way, at least one organization maintains that school violence in the 1990s was evidence of a government conspiracy. Apparently, if you map the incidents, then connect them with lines, you get a satanic symbol. This is because — and I swear I’m not making this up — Bill Clinton is a “third-level witch,” outranked only by Hillary. Only fear explains this kind of paranoia. (Besides, he’s only a second-level witch.)
We fear, endlessly, for our children’s safety. We bubble-wrap them in helmets and kneepads and elbow pads and slather them with triple-digit sunscreen every time they threaten to venture out of the house — childproofed, of course, and wiped down floor to ceiling with antibacterial soap. But we don’t let them leave the house on their own because we’re convinced that our streets teem with child snatchers, even though the FBI reports that nationally child abductions by strangers total fewer than 100 per year — out of 59 million children — down more than 50 percent from the 1980s. So we squire them around by the carload to an endless fandango of organized activities, then fret about rising gas prices, global warming, and melting polar ice caps.
And if they do escape, we find new ways to fret. Fearing someone might get hurt, we remove playground equipment from public parks, then fret about childhood obesity. Officials in Milford, Conn., recently agreed to cut down three 60-foot-tall hickory trees because of one neighborhood kid’s nut allergy. Not long ago, a Little Leaguer’s heart stopped beating when he took a fastball in the chest. Predictably, a clamor arose to require players to wear protective vests, like little troopers on patrol in Fallujah.
We fear what we eat. We peer into our pots and see a lethal, irradiated, and genetically modified stew of chemicals. We think that if we don’t eat meat, or if we eat soy, organic pond scum, or bread made with every whole grain mankind has ever cultivated, we’ll insulate ourselves from death and disease, even though U.S. life expectancy recently hit a new high and the death rate reached a 25-year low. In fear, we accepted that DDT caused cancer, though no reputable study ever showed that it did. And just by the way, the DDT ban, a sort of executive pardon for mosquitoes, has contributed to the deaths of 30 to 50 million people worldwide from malaria, compared to fewer than 20 million from AIDS. But we don’t fear malaria, maybe because mostly brown people get it, so what the hell.
Our grandparents, of sterner stuff than we, had real enemies to fight. They faced down and overcame the deprivations of the Great Depression and the demons of Nazism. Today, the best we can come up with is the deprivation of dial-up Internet, the demons of Wal-Mart and downtown Bible colleges.
Meanwhile, we perversely ignore things we should fear, like tidal braking, which is slowing the earth’s rotation at a rate of 2.3 milliseconds per day each year. Clearly, we need legislation. How about a law mandating antilock brakes on the tides?
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
"Culture of fear breeds our brand of paranoia"
Another great column from Mike O'Neal in yesterday's Moscow-Pullman Daily News. His point is well-taken. Conservatives are often portrayed as fear-mongers, but it is the PC liberals of the modern "Nanny State" that have managed that role best.