United States of anxiety?

July 04, 2005|By Gordon Livingston

WE ARE DEFINED by what we fear.

For the last few years, we have been preoccupied with threats to our lives from various forms of terrorism, foreign and domestic. In response to al-Qaida, the Washington-area snipers and Timothy McVeigh, we have changed some significant things about the way we live in response to perceived dangers.

The recent ordeal of Brennan Hawkins, the 11-year-old boy lost in the woods for four days in Utah, has provided an insight into some potential disadvantages of having one's behavior controlled by one's worst fear. Amid the general celebration at his homecoming, The Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune reported: "His parents said he followed two family rules by staying on the trail and not talking to strangers. Brennan said he heard rescuers before he was discovered Tuesday, but hid, going into what his family calls `midget mode' by pulling his shirt over his knees. He told his family he had feared being abducted."

In other words, a primary reason that Brennan wasn't found earlier is that he was hiding from searchers. This casts a light on the fears we transmit to our children and the advice we give them.

Because abduction of a child is the worst nightmare that most parents can imagine and because when a child is taken by a stranger there is often national news coverage of the event, most people have an exaggerated sense of how likely this is to happen. Of about 60 million school-age children in this country, about 100 a year are abducted by strangers. To put this in perspective, 3,400 children are killed each year in motor vehicle accidents; 3,000 die by firearms.

Yet parents are routinely advised to photograph and fingerprint their children. The Washington County school system last month sent home DNA-testing kits in the backpacks of 1,500 kindergarten students so their bodies could be identified if they were kidnapped and murdered. Does anyone think that this sort of anxiety is not transmitted to the children involved? Will anyone in Utah point out that Brennan Hawkins might have died in the wilderness because he was afraid of the people searching for him?

On Nov. 12, the Dow-Jones Industrials were having a good day, up over 130 points. Then it was announced that a tape recording had been released apparently containing the voice of Osama bin Laden making threats against 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 events of 9/11 was revealing. A national fear of flying forced many airlines to the edge of bankruptcy (or over). Stocks plunged. Then came the anthrax scare and apprehension about going to the mailbox.

Then we had "Frankenfish," West Nile virus and, of course, the Washington snipers.

Sales of handguns are one of the most sensitive indices of public fear. (These, of course, are the guns that kill so many children.) There was a surge in such purchases nationwide after 9/11 and locally during the sniper scare. The absurdity of using a handgun as protection from a terrorist attack is beside the point. When we feel threatened, we buy guns. It's what makes us Americans.

The media, particularly the 24-hour news shows, bear some responsibility for stoking our fears. What we pay attention to often determines how fearful we are. Sometimes it appears that a primary role of the news media is to scare us. ("Is your water safe to drink? Details at 11.")

Our frequent demonstrations of patriotism and paeans to those we have designated heroic have the quality of "bravery by proxy." It is as if our public reverence for those who exhibit courage, rather than inspiring each of us to do likewise, serves as a way of feeling good without having to do more than bow our heads or wave a flag. We honor these sacrifices while not imagining that any will be required of us.

Gordon Livingston is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.

Columnist Steve Chapman is on vacation.

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