America’s culture of fear is very much alive

Kevin Griffin

For well over a decade, fear seems to have assumed the role of national pastime in America. I can hardly think of a time when fear did not have some prominent place in American public life.

Whether it be terrorism, economic ruin or the ongoing Ebola virus scare, there always seems to be something to terrify Americans.

I do not mean to suggest we should not be concerned about these things, but the way fears of these things have manifested themselves has endangered our discourse and been wholly counterproductive.

Ebola and the Islamic State probably provide the best examples of how this culture of fear has been operating lately. In each case, Americans were confronted with what they perceived to be immediate threats that required swift, drastic solutions.

As an examination of polling data and the facts about these issues shows, Americans were misguided in many of the opinions they held about these two threats. Currently, 65 percent see the Islamic State as a “very” or even “extremely important” threat to America, according to an Oct. 24 Associated Press-GFK poll.

In September, around the time America started bombing Syria, 90 percent of Americans believed ISIS was a threat to the U.S. Seventy percent believed it had the capacity to carry out attacks within America.

Yet, there is much evidence to indicate the Islamic State does not pose the type of threat Americans believe it does. The American intelligence community concluded in September, when America was broadening the fight against the Islamic State, that the Islamic State did not present an “immediate threat,” according to The New York Times. President Barack Obama even stressed that no specific terrorist threats against America had been uncovered.

In the case of Ebola, a Washington Post-ABC poll showed 67 percent of Americans support a travel ban on flights from West Africa. Meanwhile, most experts say a travel ban would be ineffective for a number of reasons, including the inhibitory effect such a ban would have on treating the problem at its source, according to The New York Times.

What is so worrying about these fears – born out of misconceptions – is the effect these conclusions have on discourse surrounding important issues. When people are afraid, they do not think rationally about the problems which confront them.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the great fear that the attack understandably provoked was manipulated to enable a series of disastrous policy decisions, namely the Iraq War.

I wish with the experience of those years, seeing how those feelings were manipulated, we could grow more skeptical as a nation about how those in power can use those feelings for their own purposes.

Perhaps we have grown skeptical. Perhaps the type of fear we see around these contemporary issues is not as bad as it was a decade ago. If the past few months has shown anything, however, it is that the culture of fear exists in America.

And it is still as problematic as it ever was.

Griffin, a junior journalism major from Madison, is an opinion writer.