Be Very Afraid…

What does what we fear say about us?

A couple of weeks ago, in the wake of the Congressional vote to modify the extent of government snooping authorized by the Patriot Act, Timothy Egan wrote a thought-provoking column for the New York Times in which he compared Americans fear of terrorism to the far more numerous, everyday threats we face:

Some time ago, a friend of mine was hit by a bus in New York, one of almost 5,000 pedestrians killed in traffic every year. I also lost a nephew to gun violence — one of more than 11,000 Americans slain by firearms in this country. And I fell out of a tree that I was trying to prune in my backyard. I was O.K. But the guy next to me in the trauma ward was paralyzed from his fall. He was taking down his Christmas lights.

The column went on to list the odds of other misfortunes: it turns out that being struck dead by lightning, choking on a chicken bone or drowning in the bathtub are all more likely than being killed by a terrorist. Ditto deaths from cancer, diabetes, even the flu.

People who text and drive will get you before that suicide bomber does.

Consider the various threats to life. The sun, for starters. The incidence of melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer, has doubled in the last 30 years. More than 9,000 Americans now die every year from this common cancer. I also lost a friend — 30 years old, father of two — to malignant melanoma.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death, just behind heart disease. Together, they kill more than a million people in this country, followed by respiratory diseases, accidents and strokes. Then comes Alzheimer’s, which kills 84,000 Americans a year. And yet, total federal research money on Alzheimer’s through the National Institutes of Health was $562 million last year.

To put that in perspective, we spent almost 20 times that amount — somewhere around $10 billion — on the National Security Agency, the electronic snoops who monitor everyday phone records. For the rough equivalent of funding a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s, the government has not prevented a single terrorist attack, according to a 2014 report on the telephone-gathering colossus at the N.S.A.

What is it about terrorism that so consumes our imaginations? I’d speculate that it is the random nature of terrorist attacks, but getting hit by a texting driver or coming down with a fatal disease is equally random.

Perhaps it’s tied to our persistent fear of the “other” and our tendency to fear the stranger?


  1. Sheila: Some people get re-elected by pandering to our fear of foreigners and terrorists, so creating the fear becomes a high priority especially during election years.

  2. Not long ago we were supposed to be very afraid of isis bringing ebola in from Mexico. Another part of the Obama plan I guess. Fox and their crazy friends keep doing their best to keep folks afraid. They are never called to explain when their crazy predictions evaporate.
    Oh… and the US Military is taking over Texas. Really. It MUST be true. Fox said so.

  3. The simple answer is money. The press gets better ratings and/or clicks from spectacular (if unlikely) threats such as terrorism, child abductions, and drag queens. And the security state has become such a large economic force that it’s its own constituency – we have huge private firms spending our own tax money on lobbying for more security theatre tax money.

    Make no mistake – despite pro-forma declarations of patriotism, love of liberty, etc, the only thing that matters to a majority of Americans is money; nothing else even comes close.

  4. “……our persistent fear of the other”

    It’s the fear of the other that has propelled the Tea Party.

    I wished it wasn’t so. But Sheila has now given me the answer to the problem that we have as little (d) democrats. Its been overwhelming. That’s why we’re so close to losing our democracy.

    Answer: Because of the deception used by the Extreme Right/Religious Right Movement the little (d) democrats just are not scared enough or have enough necessary FEAR to mobilize in an effective way.

    That was the problem for the Germans at the beaches of Normandy. The Allies deception ruled the day. If the deception of Operation Overload had been discovered by the Germans, they would have effectively mobilized. And I doubt if the Allies could have made it to shore.

  5. Fear and fight or flight have served to preserve the individual and humans as a group. We seem to have certain instincts that warn us of danger. The animal world provides us with warnings: The rattle of a rattlesnake, or brightly colored frogs warn everything I am dangerous.

    FDR once said “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself – — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes the needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Humans with with our intellect create fear in our minds. There are those among us who not only use fear, but thrive on it. The Republicans today seem to have “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes the needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” as their basic platform.
    Think also of the Evangelical Bible Thumper who preaches Hell Fire and Damnation or the Taliban who blew up the ancient statues of Buddha carved into a mountain. We have in our not too distant past the Jim Crow Laws based on the fears of the races mixing.

    Preying on American fears has a become an Industry – The Wall Street-Security-Military-Industrial Complex.

  6. When I review my turn on earth so far it seems that the most courageous Americans were those who fought WWII. I’ve been in some of the tools that they were given, planes, ships, and tanks, and some of the places they fought, and watched real and pretend movies of their lives and it never ceases to amaze me of how brave they were.

    However my generation largely has viewed war as entertainment. I’ll never forget hurrying home from work to be in time for the start of the bombing of Baghdad by Bush I.

    9/11 was of course closer to home but still a TV show to almost all of us.

    But, I could have been born on the mean streets, in the Middle East, or in Africa or South/Central America and actually known first hand the dice roll of death.

    We have been issued pretend lives largely free of sorrow, toil and trouble and done our best to double down on that for our children. And we and they could because we are among the folks nursed on nearly free energy and entertainment. Or, and this is important, what we thought was nearly free. And it was for us but both will be terribly expensive for every future one.

    The problem with fantasy is reality.

    So our choices are between shrugging and working apologies. Working as an aplogy requires admitting and bravery and our experience with both is very limited. It’s so comfortable here in this fantasy. Do we have to get up?

    Well no actually. We can continue here in bed and let the future shoulder the whole burden of our existence. Live without democracy and with raging weather.

    But I feel guilty. I feel empathy. I feel unfulfilled.

    Don’t you?

  7. “The only thing,” said FDR, “we have to fear is fear itself.” He would be appalled at how we fear and what we fear today. The media–especially the right wing media–peddle fear like the vendors on every New York street corner. Fear of terrorists, fear of the “other,” fear of the government, fear of the next hyped up conspiracy theory, etc, et. al., ad nauseum. Eisenhower (the last sane Republican president ) clarified what we have to fear: the military industrial complex. Yet we fund the military/NSA/ government contractors in more ways than we can count and with an endless stream of money; all the while our infrastructure crumbles and Wall Street, the ultimate winners of this game of “feed the pig,” continues to rob, cheat and steal and we continue to fund their failures. While I agree in part with what Ron Skurat wrote about our love of money, it is not all of us that love money. The rest celebrate their ignorance by not acting to stop this catastrophe while there still may be a chance. That is something to really fear–that sometime soon it will not matter.

  8. I hope you understand when I’m talking about fear it is to mobilize not to paralyze. About twenty years ago I read a book by Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband Michael Aris called: “Freedom From Fear” first published in 1991. Amazon has many used copies.

    She has won the Nobel Peace Prize as well as the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

    The book has two forwards: One by Vaclav Havel and the other by Desmond Tutu.

    It includes many of her speeches that were made directly in public to the people of Myanmar (Burma). One of which I never could forget. She talked about fear and how to overcome it. And to do that: “We must raise our strengths.”

    A few years ago, at Chamblin’s Bookmine here in Jacksonville, I had a tremendous opportunity to discuss “raising our strengths” for about two hours (one on one) with her personal sculptor who had spent many hours with her in Myanmar.

    Human beings can do remarkable things when they are scared enough and not paralyzed. That’s her gift.

  9. I suspect “our tendency to fear the stranger” has its roots in our mothers’ telling us, “Don’t talk to strangers.”

    When my younger son, now 27, was in a Virginia Beach preschool program, his teacher asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up, a typical question for 4-year-olds. She shared his answer with me, “I want to be a stranger.”

    Evidently my well-intentioned motherly warning caused him to decide that being a stranger must be a good thing, a fun thing.

  10. Although Sheila’s blog doesn’t have an announced mission like a company.

    I think socially, it’s constructed to operate in its ideal state very similar to the structure as Margaret Heffernan has put forth in her TED Lecture. It’s an exceptional blog.

  11. While there is much to fear from conservatism it has one glaring weakness also. It assumes that an individual is the center of the universe rather than society. That makes them inherently weak and disorganized. The only way that they’ve made progress lately is that they’ve been organized by oligarchs to do their bidding and their egos blind them to their lemming ism.

    So socially based world views will overcome individually based ones unless there is intervention like oligarchy.

    That intervention has created a crumbly infrastructure for conservatives but the current crop of GOP Presidential candidates is a great example of how their weaknesses float to the top in spite of the support of oligarchs.

  12. We all see trouble coming but imagine a world on the other side of trouble that believes what Margaret Heffernan has learned.

  13. There’s a difference between unintended acts and intended acts. The texting driver or drunk driver do not intend to harm us, kill us. The sun does not intend to cause melanoma nor do bodies of water intend to drown us. Frequently, not always, we can avoid the unintended acts by taking precautions such as being alert while driving, using a sun screen, wearing life jackets, etc.

    I also remain alert, not afraid, of ISIS. Never underestimate the power of a large group of a highly focused, organized group of religious zealots advancing a holy cause. They have said what they intend to do, have taken concrete steps to do it, and have a willingness to die for the cause.

    “The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.” Graeme Wood, The Atlantic, March 2015.

  14. I believe the majority of us do not really fear terrorism. At least not on a daily or hourly basis. We have to spend too much energy just to make a living. We don’t have time to worry about terrorism.

  15. I was raised by a mother who so overworked my panic button I don’t have one. She saw death and disaster everywhere. I don’t know if it was just the WWII generation of bored women without enough to occupy their minds which magnified everything into a disaster or what. But it doesn’t seem to be abating. Look at the parents who are getting in legal trouble because they don’t carry their kids around in cars and actually let the (gasp) walk places and talk to strangers. Great. The next generation of worriers. But if you are in the business of latching onto government contracts there is nothing like making people panic over nothing. Me, I’m much more concerned about the jackass who thinks he’s king of the road and speeds up to keep me from passing, then keeps slowing down and hitting his brakes to make sure I have ‘learned’ my lesson, or the idiot texting and veering into my bike lane, or the yahoos across the street who keep shooting off fireworks across the street. As far as ISIS goes, good luck making it through that gauntlet to invade my doorstep.

  16. “What is it about terrorism that so consumes our imaginations?”

    Beats me. Very few Americans ever talk about it.

    Not sure whose imagination is being “consumed” with it.

  17. Pete;

    there can be little doubt concerning the bravery of the Great Generation. What galls my doodoo is the incompetence of their leaders. From the top down, they sacrificed young lives for nothing at all. Duplex ‘tanks’ which could float. That wasn’t enough or a scheme to kill kids so they dumped these things three miles out to sea in rough waters. Only about three made it to the beaches. Imaginary guns on vertical heights which ‘military intelligence’ should easily have discovered. Young, brave troopers dropped from planes going 250 MPH and then into deep water. Gliders crashing at high speed because the general had armour plate installed under his jeep. Plans to link forces deep inland rather than upon landing, which left Omaha fighting with unprotected flanks while Monte laid ‘siege’ to Caen.

    Ike was contemplating calling off the assault to stop the slaughter. Kids against MG42’s.

    Had it not been for the company/field grades and the NCOs, D-Day would have collapsed.

    Yet, we are the same cloth today. Should the nation ever face a true enemy and not one concocted by Wall Street, the same cut of courageous countrymen would arise to meet that challenge. First off, like the sidelining of Lindberg ,they would get rid of the Cheneys.

  18. Earl,

    D-Day was a disaster and a criminal waste of life. Never put the Army in charge of a beach landing. The Germans’ kill ratio at Omaha was astounding. A few hundred guys with mortars and assorted artillery killed thousands.

    Before you land on a beach, you strafe and lay siege to the batteries weeks ahead of the landing. The Allies controlled the seas off Normandy. Battleships and heavy cruisers could have spent weeks firing from 15 miles offshore and leveled the German fortifications without fear of a single German bullet.

    On D-Day, the German fortifications faced little rear guard threat, or even Allied naval batteries. Did the battleships and pocket battleships have more pressing targets, that morning? During the landing, the batteries should have been harassed from all sides. Hours before the boys land, line up 17s and 24s, and do bomb run after bomb run on the batteries. That’ll keep em occupied, or at least throw off their aim.

    It’s almost like the objective of D-Day was to kill thousands of American boys.

  19. From what I have read the only way that D-Day had a chance of being successful was to establish a defensible beach head before the Axis could get reinforcements at the battle ground. This allowed very little time for “softening” the defenses and it was done as well as could be given that limitation.

    Lots of things went wrong but enough went right to allow one of the greatest military feats ever.

    Of course today would have allowed a much less costly strategy but today no enemy would try to take over and occupy a continent.

    Of course as energy resources deplete and food and water become scares while populations grow who knows about the future?

  20. I don’t believe this country’s fear of terrorism began in earnest till 9/11; even government officials at the highest level didn’t believe any other country had the audacity/nerve to physically attack the United States so were lax in preventing such an attack. Since then there has been more a much higher awareness of this possibility and finally recognizing the fact that we have many home-grown terrorists operating on a much lower scale but doing much harm.

    As for fearing our daily lives; we need to be aware of our surroundings at all times and of the possibility of coming to harm in the most innocent of circumstances. This does not translate to living your life in abject fear or becoming one of the “open carry” faction who believe this form of unspoken threat will keep them safe. Had I been more aware (and less trusting of a stranger) I would not have been attacked, injured and robbed on my own driveway at 11:00 in the morning. This is no longer a time of trusting neighbors or nodding a friendly hello to strangers in public; a sad situation but this is our reality. Living your life being led by fear will not keep you any safer and it will cause you to miss the instances of making a new friend or enjoying what is beautiful in your surroundings. Be aware, be alert, be cautious; but don’t imprison yourself in fear.

    The government has been spying on us for many, many years; the Patriot Act upgraded the level and wasted millions – if not billions – of our tax dollars and learned little of value to protect us or did not use what they learned. The Boston Marathon bombers is a good case in point; the government had been aware of the older brother’s suspicious actions and foreign contacts long before that terrible day. Common sense, logic, rationality and listening to your own instincts will be distorted by fear only if you allow it to happen.

  21. Gopper we did take the approach of you mention of bombing, and shelling islands in the Pacific. A major, part of the D-Day Strategy was deception. The Western Allies wanted to do their best to convince Hitler and the German High Command the invasion would be at Calais. “Prepping” Normandy weeks in advance would have given away the actual invasion site.

  22. Gopper,

    you are so correct about pre-invasion bombardment. You know just how much a gunnery officer, with glasses, can see from far out at sea. They can easily spot and hit a target from ten miles! And this with guns of less than the six in. guns of destroyers. Flat arcing .40 MMs, designed for AA, would have devastated light gun emplacements on the beach. As I remember, only a couple of destroyers, commanded by Lt Comdrs, dared to venture up and down the coast to take out installments for the poor guys on the beach. And they probably tried to court martial them for it! The LST’s, designed to run aground, discharged troops in deep water laden with gear, and let them drown, rather than risk ships which we were turning out at a rate of about one a day!

    From Ike on down, they should have all been hanged!

    The RAF & USAAF commanded the air. So what did the High Command do? Get the Big Boys in the act and bomb from 10,000 feet. Results? Dead GIs naturally! But the LeMay types liked to see the big ones go off. Strategic planes should have bee restricted to 50 miles inland while tactical fighters raked the shorelines with continual havoc, constantly directed by ground and sea spotters. All these lessons had been well learned from operations in the Pacific, where landings were being conducted under every imaginable circumstance. Mac and Ike communicate? Not on your soul. Egos and politics ran the day.

    Sound a little like today?

  23. One German Gunner claimed he personally shot 2,000 of the invaders, smoothing out the barrel of his MG42 so that he had to be guided by the tracers rather than the open sights. He related than the gun continued working. This sounds somewhat exaggerated considering the total number of casualties at Omaha.

  24. I think the simple answer is because terrorists caught the U.S. with its pants down on 9/11. In retrospect, it was learned that there were plenty of indicators that this could and would happen, which were not heeded. This will be Bush’s legacy, among other serious errors of judgment and misallocations of resources. No one wants to be the President the next time something like this happens.

  25. Pete;

    the secrecy line to accomplish surprise just doesn’t float. German intelligence was not like today’s CIA and NSA. They were intelligent and they ruled France; a nation half of whose citizens were friendly to their occupiers. A collection of such a flotilla would be impossible to conceal. Generals ‘afraid’ to disturb Hitler and order to panzer attack? Do you really buy that? If he was so feared, put yourself in that position and choose which reprisal you would rather face: the anger of rousing a drugged ruler, or the reprisal for your part in losing his realm?

    In no other wartime invasion was surprise a factor, from Tarawa to Granada. The deciding factor is, was and will be; overwhelming forces. That was available on 6/6/44. It simply was not employed properly.

  26. There have always been conspiracy theories about the military to some degree allowing Pearl Harbor in order to sway public opinion of involvement while the war was still winnable. The same for 9/11.

    I’m not big on conspiracies generally, I don’t think that we’re smart enough. The exceptions that I make though, because they don’t take much smarts is the oligarchy threat in general, and global warming specifically. Before that the tobacco threat.

    Business can be nothing other than self serving. It’s in their DNA. Business has perfected advertising and deployed the most effective means of it by giving us entertainment. Or at least what passes for entertainment among minds that are the most pliable.

    None of this is obscure conspiracy. It’s as apparent as sunrise.

    The application of those clear capabilities to the replacement of democracy with oligarchy by the recruitment of minds blinded by self centric ego is virtually a given. It’s cultural evolution just as certain as the path that brought us us.

    So I can’t imagine anyone with the capacity and curiosity and interest in figuring out here and now who could plausibly deny that the GOP has become a brand name product sold through media advertising for the sole benefit of wealth.

    What am I missing? What other explanation is there for the here and now?

  27. Earl, we may have to agree to disagree on D-day. Not that I have any sort of military training. But I have always been interested in WWII as a cultural turning point and done a lot or reading on it. I must also admit to being a huge fan of General Eisenhower, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, and the British people led by Churchill. So objective I’m not.

    America could have ended the war before it became an almost impossible task. We didn’t. The prediction of taking back Europe through Sicily and Normandy was a no brainer so making them impenetrable would occur to even maniacal Hitler and we gave him more than enough time to accomplish it. His mistake to depend on Mussolimi.

    Intelligence in those days was infantile and Hitlers ego made the Nazis particularly bad at it as he believe himself to be above failure. Above reproach. He was ultimately defeated by radar, Enigma, and his ego thinking that Russian winter was conquerable.

    So I believe that the main reason that D-day was successful and therefore Germany was defeated was that Hiltler was outsmarted by Eisenhower through some pretty basic diversions.

    Costly? Beyond measure. Necessary? Absolutely. Successful? The proof is in the pudding.

  28. Earl at 11:32 is right on.

    So right about strategic bombers inland, and tactical runs close to the shore. If a P47 is shelling your pillbox, it’s hard to focus on the GIs.

    D-Day was great work by the soldiers, but a disaster by brass.

    Pete and everyone else are selling the same lie that’s been used for 70 years to cover for the simple fact that in the geopolitical game, individuals don’t matter a hill of beans.

  29. Here’s what would have happened in the imaginary Gopper World.

    Thousands of soldiers from a handful of countries would have been given passage to England with the order to take back Europe.

    They would have self organized and with the supplies they brought from home swum the channel, walked ashore and defeated the fully entrenched highly prepared Nazi army.

    Thus demonstrating the power of individuals over civilization.

  30. Of course while that was being done over there a handful of politicians here would have developed built and delivered two fusion bombs to Japan.

  31. While you guys are rehashing D Day and WWII, I am concerned that Sheila hasn’t posted anything today. You are Monday-morning-quarterbacking six decades late; look closer to home for something to can actually accomplish to help with today’s problems. If the Kardashians can take over Disneyland to celebrate the 2nd birthday of one of their children, a girl named North West, we need to question what the Koch brothers, Tea Partiers, NRA and “The Donald” can buy with their billions to take over this country…something or someone they don’t already own. That causes real fear for me.

  32. I also wonder about Sheila. Not like her to miss but on the other hand we know that she’s a busy woman.

  33. “What is past is prologue.” Remembering the mistakes of the brass in the past would preclude us from many of the mistakes we are repeating today. This very hour, the Petreus’ and McChrystals are touting their expertise on the Middle East. Look at the shape we’re in. And will be until we remember what they have always done: Kill kids. (Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?) I remember.

  34. Earl,

    What the Right knows about people like Pete is that his kind doesn’t care about the lives of farmboys from Iowa, Indiana or Idaho. They will kill individuals and not lose a moment of sleep over it.

    All that matters to them is that somewhere in the world Ideology A emerges triumphant over Ideology B. To this bunch, some guy’s 80 years of happy life in America aren’t really important when considering the global stakes of a disfavored ideology getting traction.

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