On Nov. 12, the Dow Jones Industrials were having a good day, up over 130 points at 2:30 p.m. Then it was announced that a tape recording had been released apparently containing the voice of Osama bin Laden threatening the United States. The stock market immediately lost 100 points.
For a nation that loves to advertise itself as the home of the brave, America regularly reacts to events with all the fortitude of a patient in an anxiety disorders clinic.
Our collective response to the Sept. 11 attacks can only be described as craven. A national fear of flying forced many airlines to the edge of bankruptcy (or over), vacation trips were canceled wholesale, the stock market, that most sensitive barometer of our national confidence, plunged. Then came anthrax and Cipro and apprehension about going to the mailbox.
Then we had the summer of the abducted child, one of the rarest of crimes, that had people fingerprinting their children and teaching them to run screaming from strangers. This was closely followed by the Frankenfish, West Nile virus and, of course, the coup de grace for our fragile sense of safety, the Washington-area sniper.
The media, particularly the 24-hour news channels, bear some responsibility for stoking our fears. During the sniper coverage, I longed to see one brave citizen interviewed who would say, "I'm going about my life as usual given that my chances of getting shot are about the same as hitting the lottery." This doesn't make for exciting television; better to talk to someone who is so frightened as to be housebound.
But it is in thousands of individual decisions that we demonstrate resolve or cowardice: to fly or stay grounded, to shop or stay home, to let our kids play outside or lock down the schools.
What we buy also says a lot about our level of anxiety. A new store called Safer America has just opened in New York City a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. It sells such useful gear as biohazard suits, water purifiers, antibiotics and parachutes for jumping from a burning high-rise building. Here is one impetus for such a place: A major distributor of military surplus reported sales of 39,000 gas masks in the month after the Sept. 11 attacks, compared with 250 in the year before.
Sales of handguns are one of the most sensitive indices of public fear. There was a surge in such purchases nationwide after Sept. 11 and in the Washington area during the sniper scare.
The absurdity of using a handgun to protect oneself from either risk is beside the point. When we feel threatened, we buy guns. It's what makes us Americans. As Michael Moore points out in his movie Bowling for Columbine, Canada, a nation of 30 million, has a similar level of gun ownership as the United States. Canadians consume our culture of violent video games, music and movies. How come they don't kill each other at the same rate that we do (about 225 gun murders annually vs. about 10,000 in the United States)?
The answer, Mr. Moore suggests, is fear. Canadians, even those living in big cities, are much less preoccupied with impending violence than we are. They tend, in fact, to leave their doors unlocked -- as Mr. Moore demonstrated by opening people's front doors in Toronto, to the bemusement of several surprised homeowners.
Other countries, notably Germany and Russia, could be said to have worse records of state-sponsored violence than we. Our peculiar preference appears to be for the interpersonal form, though various U.S. administrations have displayed a penchant for the organized killing of those who disagree with us. From Vietnam to the current drumbeat for war with Iraq, our fundamental motive appears to be fear.
We could learn a lot from the citizens of Israel. They live daily with a level of terrorist violence that would (and perhaps will) paralyze us. Based on what's happened so far, try to imagine how our public life would be affected by a few shopping mall explosions or the release of an airborne biotoxin.
Somehow we need to mobilize the courage to confront the real threats to our well-being and stop scaring ourselves with phantoms.
Gordon Livingston is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.