Chasing gnats: Why our fears are misplaced

July 27, 1999|By Jerry Large

YOU KNOW what it is the average American has most to fear in life, don't you?

Well, sure, it's that late some night a teen-age black male will break into his house, rob him and beat him, all as a result of uncontrollable anger over being cut off in traffic earlier in the day.

The poor average American then has to be flown to a hospital for surgery, but the plane crashes. Subsequently, he is given a blood transfusion, but the blood is tainted, infecting him with the AIDS virus.

In the hospital, he is infected with a flesh-eating virus carried by an illegal-alien janitor. He was able to pass the infection on because of a mistake by an incompetent woman doctor. . . . Well, you see how the average American's day goes.

Or that's what you would think if you absorb what politicians and journalists scream loudest about. Sometimes we have the common sense scared out of us.

I was just gleeful when I heard about Barry Glassner's new book, "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things" (Basic Books, $25).

We spend a lot of time, money and effort -- not to mention lives -- chasing gnats while not noticing the wild boar in the living room. It's nice to see a tidy bundle of our follies dissected. It might help us avoid being misdirected in the future.

Consequences of anxiety

Mr. Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, writes about how our current bogeymen -- crime, drugs, black men, teen-agers and so on -- came to be major anxieties, and about the social consequences of those fears.

Two points Mr. Glassner makes stand out: Facts get twisted or invented to create fears because somebody benefits; and society as a whole suffers because often we are directed away from true solutions to real problems by false or overblown scares.

He chronicles the rising concern about road rage. It happens, but it is so juicy a topic that cases that have nothing to do with road rage often are portrayed as random acts of freeway violence.

Drunken driving is a much more serious problem, but road rage was so much fun that media outlets dropped drunken driving to concentrate on a few horror stories that it labeled road rage. When the media spotlight left it, drunken driving became less of an issue for politicians.

An overblown fear of drugs and of black men saps money from effective social programs and puts significant numbers of young black men in prison.

Crime is a favorite of journalists and politicians. As any filmmaker or TV producer knows, crime sells.

While crime rates drop, politicians step all over one another proposing newer, tougher crime bills, building newer, bigger prisons and ignoring the boring business of improving education and social services, which might prevent some of the very real crime that we do have.

Recently, the FBI's annual survey reported that across the nation, crime in every category was down last year. In fact, the crime rate was the lowest it has been since the survey began in 1973.

"I think we have real problems and real dangers," Mr. Glassner said. But sometimes we pay attention to small ones and miss really big dangers.

"Ever since the shootings in Littleton, there has been all this talk about killer kids. Schools are about the safest place a child can be. We lose sight of the biggest dangers: Binge drinking, traffic crashes, unprotected sex are big dangers, not being gunned down in the school cafeteria."

Political reaction

But the media don't want to miss out on a dramatic story, and politicians overreact out of fear that a more reasonable stance will be used against them. Even Mr. Glassner is nervous.

Sometimes we even want to be fooled, he writes. We know we haven't funded education well and that in many other ways we have let young people down, so it is comforting to have our attention diverted to threats to children that come not from our inattention or lack of caring but from monsters.

The truth, of course, will set you free -- but only if you can find it.

Jerry Large is a Seattle Times columnist. His e-mail address:

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