We had better learn to doubt our inflated fears before they destroy
us. Valid fears have their place; they cue us to danger. False and overdrawn
fears only cause hardship.
Even concerns about real dangers, when blown out of proportion, do
demonstrable harm. Take the fear of cancer. Many Americans overestimate
the prevalence of the disease, underestimate the odds of surviving it,
and put themselves at greater risk as a result. Women in their forties
believe they have a 1 in 10 chance of dying from breast cancer, a Dartmouth
study found. Their real lifetime odds are more like 1 in 250. Women’s
heightened perception of risk, rather than motivating them to get checkups
or seek treatment, can have the opposite effect. A study of daughters
of women with breast cancer found an inverse correlation between fear
and prevention: the greater a daughter’s fear of the disease the
less frequent her breast self-examination. Studies of the general population-both
men and women-find that large numbers of people who believe they
have symptoms of cancer delay going to a doctor, often for several months.
When asked why, they report they are terrified about the pain and financial
ruin cancer can cause as well as poor prospects for a cure. The irony
of course is that early treatment can prevent precisely those horrors
they most fear.
Still more ironic, if harder to measure, are the adverse consequences
of public panics. Exaggerated perceptions of the risks of cancer at
least produce beneficial by-products, such as bountiful funding for
research and treatment of this leading cause of death. When it comes
to large-scale panics, however, it is difficult to see how potential
victims benefit from the frenzy. Did panics a few years ago over sexual
assaults on children by preschool teachers and priests leave children
better off? Or did they prompt teachers and clergy to maintain excessive
distance from children in their care, as social scientists and journalists
who have studied the panics suggest? How well can care givers do their
jobs when regulatory agencies, teachers’ unions, and archdioceses
explicitly prohibit them from any physical contact with children, even
Was it a good thing for children and parents that male day care providers
left the profession for fear of being falsely accused of sex crimes?
In an article in the Journal of American Culture, sociologist Mary DeYoung
has argued that day care was "refeminized" as a result of
the panics. "Once again, and in the time-honored and very familiar
tradition of the family, the primary responsibility for the care and
socialization of young children was placed on the shoulders of low-paid
women," she contends.
We all pay one of the costs of panics: huge sums of money go to waste.
Hysteria over the ritual abuse of children cost billions of dollars
in police investigations, trials, and imprisonments. Men and women went
to jail for years "on the basis of some of the most fantastic
claims ever presented to an American jury," as Dorothy Rabinowitz
of the Wall Street Journal demonstrated in a series of investigative
articles for which she became a Pulitizer Prize finalist in 1996. Across
the nation expensive surveillance programs were implemented to protect
children from fiends who reside primarily in the imaginations of adults.
The price tag for our panic about overall crime has grown so monumental
that even law-and-order zealots find it hard to defend. The criminal
justice system costs Americans close to $100 billion a year, most of
which goes to police and prisons. In California we spend more on jails
than on higher education. Yet increases in the number of police and
prison cells do not correlate consistently with reductions in the number
of serious crimes committed. Criminologists who study reductions in
homicide rates, for instance, find little difference between cities
that substantially expand their police forces and prison capacity and
others that do not.
The turnabout in domestic public spending over the past quarter century,
from child welfare and antipoverty programs to incarceration, did not
even produce reductions in fear of crime. Increasing the number of cops
and jails arguably has the opposite effect: it suggests that the crime
problem is all the more out of control.
Panic-driven public spending generates over the long term a pathology
akin to one found in drug addicts. The more money and attention we fritter
away on our compulsions, the less we have available for our real needs,
which consequently grow larger. While fortunes are being spent to protect
children from dangers that few ever encounter, approximately 11 million
children lack health insurance, 12 million are malnourished, and rates
of illiteracy are increasing.
I do not contend, as did President Roosevelt in 1933, that "the
only thing we have to fear is fear itself." My point is that we
often fear the wrong things. In the 1990s middle-income and poorer Americans
should have worried about unemployment insurance, which covered a smaller
share of workers than twenty years earlier. Many of us have had friends
or family out of work during economic downturns or as a result of corporate
restructuring. Living in a nation with one of the largest income gaps
of any industrialized country, where the bottom 40 percent of the population
is worse off financially than their counterparts two decades earlier,
we might also have worried about income inequality. Or poverty. During
the mid- and late 1990s 5 million elderly Americans had no food in their
homes, more than 20 million people used emergency food programs each
year, and one in five children lived in poverty-more than a quarter
million of them homeless. All told, a larger proportion of Americans
were poor than three decades earlier.
One of the paradoxes of a culture of fear is that serious problems
remain widely ignored even though they give rise to precisely the dangers
that the populace most abhors. Poverty, for example, correlates strongly
with child abuse, crime, and drug abuse. Income inequality is also associated
with adverse outcomes for society as a whole. The larger the gap between
rich and poor in a society, the higher its overall death rates from
heart disease, cancer, and murder. Some social scientists argue that
extreme inequality also threatens political stability in a nation such
as the United States, where we think of ourselves not as "haves
and have nots" but as "haves and will haves." "Unlike
the citizens of most other nations, Americans have always been united
less by a shared past than by the shared dreams of a better future.
If we lose that common future," the Brandeis University economist
Robert Reich has suggested, "we lose the glue that holds our nation
The combination of extreme inequality and poverty can prove explosive.
In an insightful article in U.S. News & World Report in 1997 about
militia groups reporters Mike Tharp and William Holstein noted that
people’s motivations for joining these groups are as much economic
as ideological. The journalists argued that the disappearance of military
and blue-collar jobs, along with the decline of family farming, created
the conditions under which a new breed of protest groups flourished.
"What distinguishes these antigovernment groups from, say, traditional
conservatives who mistrust government is that their anger is fueled
by direct threats to their livelihood, and they carry guns," Tharp
and Holstein wrote.
That last phrase alludes to a danger that by any rational calculation
deserves top billing on Americans’ lists of fears. So gun
crazed is this nation that Burger King had to order a Baltimore
franchise to stop giving away coupons from a local sporting goods
store for free boxes of bullets with the purchase of guns. We have
more guns stolen from their owners-about 300,000 annually-than
many countries have gun owners. In Great Britain, Australia, and
Japan, where gun ownership is severely restricted, no more than
a few dozen people are killed each year by handguns. In the United
States, where private citizens own a quarter-billion guns, around
15,000 people are killed, 18,000 commit suicide, and another 1,500
die accidentally from firearms. American children are twelve times
more liked to die from gun injuries than are youngsters in other
Yet even after tragedies that could not have occurred except for the
availability of guns, their significance is either played down or missed
altogether. Had the youngsters in the celebrated schoolyard shootings
of 1997–98 not had access to guns, some or all of the people they
killed would be alive today. Without their firepower those boys lacked
the strength, courage, and skill to commit multiple murders. Nevertheless
newspapers ran editorials with titles such as "It’s Not
Guns, It’s Killer Kids" (Fort Worth Star–Telegram)
and "Guns Aren’t the Problem" (New York Post), and
journalists, politicians, and pundits blathered on endlessly about every
imaginable cause of youthful rage, from "the psychology of violence
in the South" to satanism to fights on "Jerry Springer"
and simulated shooting in Nintendo games.