Fear and security are headline items. In Geneva, attacks against the elderly are front page. In the United States, hordes of illegal immigrants are profiled approaching the southern border while primitive pipe bombs are sent to politicians and a killer attacks worshippers during a Sabbath synagogue service. In a suburb of Paris, a student holds a gun to the head of a teacher.
Fear is an emotion. When people are fearful, they are emotional. While we cannot eliminate our emotions, we can try to understand them.
Each of the headlines can be deconstructed. Do senior citizens feel secure in the streets of Geneva and alone in their apartments? Is the caravan marching through Latin America really a threat to the United States and worthy of the president sending in troops to protect the country? Has President Trump’s rhetoric fueled division within the U.S. to the point that his followers will take up arms against his opponents? Is anti-Semitism on the rise and a threat to Jews and synagogues throughout the United States? Is violence endemic in French schools with directors downplaying the extent of the problem?
A deconstruction of each situation leads to no general hypothesis. We now know more about what is going on around the world because of the media. Imagine the fear of those living through the invasions of Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan. Can we empathize with Jews in Germany during Kristallnacht or African-Americans sitting in southern churches that were bombed during the Civil Rights era?
What would CNN do today as Breaking News about the Spanish Influenza of the early 20th century that killed approximately 25 million people? Was it any better in the Southern Hemisphere when the Conquistadores came with priests in the name of civilization or the Middle East was pillaged by Christian Crusaders?
Fear is part of our existence, but its consequences are tied to individual experiences. I certainly feel safer in Geneva, even alone late at night, than I did during daytime walking to my job in Harlem in the late 1960s.
The story of the teacher and the student fake gun brought back memories of an experience I had teaching junior high school in the South Bronx when a student entered the classroom with a real gun and threatened my life. The narrative of the caravan of foreigners walking towards the United States reminded me of my grandparents fleeing persecution in Europe and safely arriving with no passports in the welcoming port of New York. And fights were part of my childhood in New York City when neighborhoods were ethnically homogeneous. Crossing the street into another ‘hood was an invitation to violence.
Although fear is universal, each of us has a specific something we are afraid of. Vertigo, for example, is not an innate problem. Certain Native Americans are adept at scaling heights and are used to construct skyscrapers. In the Valais in Switzerland, a wolf or rare bear sighting is front page headlines in the local newspaper while in Yellowstone National Park in the American West many park rangers hike in the backcountry of the splendid wolf and bear preserve without guns.
The narrative of fear can be impressive. Fear sells; people react to narratives of fear. When H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds was broadcast over the radio in 1938 by Orson Welles as a fake news bulletin, it led to panic by the listeners who believed the story of a Martian invasion to be real. President Trump’s description of the impact of foreigners ominously marching towards the United States bears little relation to reality, but it has an impact on a particular audience.
Are certain people more susceptible to feelings of fear and insecurity than others? Probably. What is certain is that the media and politicians know how to profit from the narrative. And not just one type of politician. While we may criticize the right-wing for using fear as a basis of polarizing the electorate, it was John F. Kennedy who used the term missile gap in the presidential election of 1960 to say how the Republicans were weak on defense and the dangers of Soviet superiority. And he knew that it was the United States that had a missile advantage.
The manipulation of our fears has become a sophisticated industry. There is no way to put that genie back in the box. Even the most rational choice economists are confronting the role of emotions in consumers’ preferences. Elegant supply and demand curves have been modified in the growing discipline of emotional economics. William Davies explains in his latest book “how feeling took over the world.”
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his 1933 first inaugural address. Perhaps today we should say that all we have to fear is not understanding our fears and having our fears manipulated. The rivalry between emotions and intellect will never end; today fear mongering seems to be dominating the course.