The right fright

October 21, 2004|By Lawrence M. Hinman

FEAR IS GOOD when it is directed toward the right dangers, when it is proportionate to those actual dangers and when it leads to the right actions. But when it is directed toward the wrong threats or disproportionate to the real threats, it distorts our perceptions and leads to actions that unnecessarily harm both ourselves and others.

Those with no fear are fools, underestimating real dangers or overestimating their own abilities. Those with too much fear see threats as greater than they are, and they often underestimate their ability to respond effectively to danger. They are afraid to risk life and limb but fail to understand that these are often of less value than honor, integrity, freedom and other similar values.

Our goal in life - and in foreign policy as well - is not to be fearless but to have appropriate fears: to fear the right thing at the right time, in the right proportion and in the right way.

Terrorism seeks to create disproportionate and distorted fear, and terrorists gain power that would otherwise be far beyond their grasp through the manipulation and distortion of our fears. They seek to have us fear the wrong things, to do so in a way that is disproportionate to the actual level of threat and to act in inappropriate ways in response to those fears. In so doing, they gain a control over our lives far beyond that justified by their actual power.

Terrorists are seldom alone in the manipulation of fear, and one of the great ironies of terrorism is that its power is often increased by politicians and media who see the manipulation of fear as furthering their own agendas. These politicians may join in exaggerating and distorting our fears and then - here is where they part company from the terrorists themselves - they depict themselves as the answer to these inflated and distorted fears.

They exaggerate the seriousness of the threat in order to highlight themselves as the answer to these growing concerns. News media, concerned with increasing market share, ensure that this message reaches the widest possible audience. Critics are often depicted as out of touch with the real threats confronting a country, as leading the country to an eventual cataclysmic disaster.

In this process, instigated by terrorists but amplified by local politicians and news media, our appropriate fears are distorted. We begin to fear the wrong things, to fear them in a way disproportionate to their actual level of threat and to pursue courses of action that respond to these misperceived threats. In the process, other important fears either recede into the background or are attached to inappropriate objects and ineffective patterns of response.

For example, we stop fearing the loss of civil liberties and instead fear, in an exaggerated way, terrorist attacks. We fear that our way of life is under attack, but then we curtail quintessentially American freedoms in response to this fear.

We Americans need to recover our appropriate fears. We need to be afraid of the potential damage that can be done by terrorists, but we need to recognize that there are far greater threats to American life and limb, threats that persist day after day.

Of the 208 terrorist attacks launched in the last year, only a handful of them were directed against the United States; of the 625 people killed in terrorist attacks, 35 were Americans. At the same time, many other threats - depicted far less prominently in the news and discussed far less frequently by politicians - have put more Americans at greater risk, including threats to the environment, inadequate health care resources and a reduction of funding for education. Yet we largely have ignored those threats and have been indifferent to the development of effective responses to them.

There is no shortage of greater threats. More Americans died from traffic fatalities in September 2001 than in the attacks on the twin towers. Every three days, tobacco kills the same number of people who died in the World Trade Center attacks. About 195,000 Americans die every year from avoidable medical mistakes - the equivalent of a 9/11 attack every six days.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. But fear is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be a fitting and helpful response to genuine threats. The absence of fear can lead to miscalculations and mistakes. But fear must be directed toward the real threats and must be proportionate to the actual level of danger.

When we allow our fears to be hijacked, to be distorted by the terrorists and by politicians who manipulate those exaggerated and highly selective fears for their own purposes, we no longer have appropriate fears.

When we allow ourselves to embark on courses of action that exacerbate the threats against us and trample some of our most precious freedoms in the process, we allow a distorted and disproportionate fear to lead us down a path that is ultimately destructive to ourselves and to our most fundamental values.

We do not need to stop being afraid. We just need to be afraid of the right things and in the right way.

Lawrence M. Hinman is director of the Values Institute and professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego.

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