Age of Fear?

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[S]ince love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.
—Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, 1513

Machiavelli The Prince

Last week’s post concerned the ‘definition’ of terrorism.  While usually politically motivated, terrorism as a phenomenon has itself become politicized.  Terrorists and their supporters are of course in favor of a violent course of action.  But those opposed to terrorism are divided in their outlook.  One political camp believes that terrorism is on the rise and advocates for strong countering actions.  The other camp complains that the opposition is fear mongering to suit its own purposes, to the ultimate detriment of peace.  It can be argued that Trump’s win in the U.S., Marine Le Pen’s popularity in France and the Brexit are but a few examples of the fear trend.

No doubt fear is a potent motivator and historically has been used successfully by politicians dating back to ancient times.  Pericles, Cleon and Cicero would look familiar if appearing today on Meet the Press; little has changed in that arena.  Politics is a battlefield, pure and simple.  There’s a reason we call our electoral operations campaigns…  From more recent history, look at presidential campaign ads from both sides of the aisle:

In 1960, John F. Kennedy accused the Eisenhower administration of being weak, and allowing a dangerous (if nonexistent) missile gap to develop.

In 1964, LBJ ran the famous ‘Daisy’ TV ad painting Goldwater as a warmonger who if elected would lead the U.S. into nuclear war.

In 2004, George W. Bush’s ‘Wolves’ campaign ad voiceover stated “… weakness attracts those who are waiting … to do America harm.”

In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s campaign team ran the “3 a.m. Call” ad whose message was that your innocent, sleeping child’s life is in danger if you don’t vote Hillary.

I’ve read that we are living in the Age of Fear.  But it’s hard to imagine that the average person was less fearful a few decades or centuries ago.  The 21st century surely offers – on the whole – less fear of hunger and disease, more resources to forecast and/or deal with natural disasters, more effective and reliable sources of safety and protection.

Nonetheless, I don’t advocate abandoning it.  Fear has a productive psychological purpose.  Indeed, our ability to survive often depends on it.  My fear of being late to a meeting gets me out of bed in the morning.  My fear of bankruptcy motivates me to work hard.  My fear of getting attacked in a dark parking garage makes me super aware of my environment as I walk to my car.  There is a difference between fear and panic.  Fear that heightens awareness can be useful.

Whether an attack is supported by a State, is perpetrated by a lone wolf, is the result of someone going postal, the world is fraught with crime, violence and craziness.  However we label these threats, the possibility of something bad happening almost anywhere, exists.  It may not happen, but the fact is, it could.  We should neither run in panicked circles, nor sit around hoping for the best.  On both an individual level and a national one, there is surely nothing wrong with having a realistic assessment of our enemies and then being as prepared as possible.

1 Comment

  1. A.B. Slatkin on April 28, 2017 at 10:24 pm

    Interesting, insightful, and thought-provoking. Thanks.

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