The Sum of Our Fears

1024px-Apocalypse_vasnetsovWe who live in the industrialized world have put up a large retaining wall to safeguard us from the horrors that have plagued humanity throughout history. We no longer worry on a daily basis about some Genghis Khan figure sweeping through our towns and leaving great piles of skulls in his wake. We don’t obsess about famines, which once appeared with the regularity of the seasons. The Black Death is behind us, as is cholera, polio, and numerous other epidemics.

In other words, we’ve knocked three of the Four Horsemen from their saddles. War, pestilence, and famine, though still a presence in the developing world, have been largely put out to pasture in the rich half of the planet. When that fourth horseman – the “pale rider” of death – finally pays a visit, it’s only after we’ve clocked seven or eight decades on average.

Yet, for all our unprecedented good fortune, we are in a near-constant state of fear.

Some portion of this fear is existential. We worry about global apocalypse delivered to us by way of climate change, a mistakenly launched volley of nuclear weapons, or an asteroid that mysteriously deviates from its path. But these threats remain rather abstract, in the sense that they do not generate panic (though with nuclear accidents and global warming, they really should, if that’s what it would take to shift policy).

What really makes us sweat, the stuff of horror movies, is the threat from within. We are terrified by the possibility that the ordinary-looking person standing next to us on the bus will turn out to be a homicidal terrorist or the carrier of a deadly communicable disease. Or a neighbor suddenly reveals himself to be a dangerous lunatic. Or, even closer to home, a family member succumbs to a clandestine cult.

The worst possibility is that we ourselves are somehow complicit in the horror.

That’s the hook that has propelled The Following through two popular, blood-soaked seasons on Fox. The TV show features Kevin Bacon as an FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer who, during his time in prison, has inspired a fan club of the similarly unhinged. Somehow – and let’s skip over the improbability of all this – the killer has managed from his prison-house perch to convince his followers to burrow into influential social positions and wait for just the right signal. Then, one by one, these “sleepers” are activated to play their parts in a ghoulish narrative ripped from the stories of Edgar Alan Poe (the second season leans more heavily on the Bible).

In the ultimate tribute to the parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the FBI agent discovers that everything is stage-managed for his benefit: he is the “dear reader” to which the murderous story is dedicated. More to the point, Bacon is connected more closely to the killer than he is willing to admit. They are not only in love with the same woman; they also share a violent disposition, a desire for revenge, and a mutual obsession with each another.

The creator of The Following is no neophyte when it comes to horror. Kevin Williamson was the force behind the Scream movies, which took the classic teenage slasher flick and turned it into an increasingly self-referential commentary on classic teenage slasher flicks. With its tight focus on the horrific events that take place around a few characters, Scream now seems like a quaint vestige of the 1990s. Sure, it was bloody. But it was also essentially provincial.

The Following is something different. It encapsulates the greatest fear of our era in the same way that Invasion of the Body Snatchers provided a horror-movie metaphor for the Cold War and the supposed infiltration of Communists into every crevice of American society – the military, politics, Hollywood. Communists, for all practical purposes, are dead and gone. The Following has seized on a different anxiety – terrorism – our fear that ISIS or al-Qaeda or Boko Haram will soon instruct their followers to throw off the mask of ordinary life and set upon their friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

It’s an improbable scenario, as improbable as many of the episodes of The Following (or Homeland for that matter), but fear can paper over even the largest holes in a plot. Fear makes us, willingly or unwillingly, suspend our disbelief. It doesn’t matter that we are far more likely to die in a car accident than a terrorist attack. Actually, you have a greater chance of being killed by lightening, a dog, or by legal execution. And yet, particularly after the ISIS beheadings, people continue to worry about a major terrorist attack on the United States as well as the more isolated “lone wolf” attacks like the one that just claimed the life of a Canadian soldier near Montreal. Frankly we should be more worried about the everyday acts of violence that take place, from police shootings in Ferguson and semi-annual Columbine copycats to the 87 homicides that have taken place so far this year in Washington, DC.

The rise in our dread level is not only a function of terrorism. An even greater panic has set in after the United States has experienced its first three cases of Ebola: a Liberian man and two nurses who took care of him at a Dallas hospital. So far, however, no one else has tested positive for the disease, though several travelers have received further testing. Yet, despite the limited number of cases and the difficulty of transmission, the number of people who are worried that they or their family members will contract the disease has risen from one in four to nearly one in two.

Of course, the missteps of the Centers for Disease Control and the hospital in Dallas where the first Ebola victim was initially turned away have not done a lot to inspire confidence. For instance, the CDC told one of the infected nurses, according to Forbes, that “it was okay to get on the plane with 99.5 degree temperature.”

As Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Kwei Quartey points out, the United States should tamp down the panic and learn a thing or two from Africa on how to treat the disease. “Both Nigeria and Senegal moved quickly to quell an Ebola outbreak through meticulous contact tracing, coordinated national action, exhaustive interviews, and activation of an Ebola Incident Management Center,” he writes. “Both countries are now reportedly free of the disease.”

The blogosphere is abuzz with speculation that the media has whipped America into a frenzy over these threats of terrorism and pestilence. I certainly don’t want to give the media a pass. But I wonder if a steady diet of TV shows and movies like 24, Homeland, Contagion, White House Down, and, of course, The Following have primed us to make the obvious mistake of worrying overmuch about improbable threats and worrying undermuch about the more probable ones (like global warming).  We have been inundated with a set of scripts that explain the world with dazzle and destruction. That’s a tough act to follow for a scientist or a sensible pundit or a responsible journalist. We panic because we’re constantly watching ourselves panic on both the big and little screen.

There are two deeper psychological reasons why these scripts are persuasive. We suffer more than a little unease because of our suspicion that modern life is just a veneer that can be easily peeled back to reveal our common barbarism. The most horrific of war crimes have take place in countries that previously appeared to be “civilized,” like Yugoslavia in the 1990s or Germany in the 1930s. We wonder what it would be take to spark a war of all against all in a place like the United States.

And we are also aware, at some level, of our complicity in the horrors that take place far from our shores. The United States shouldn’t have invaded Iraq and presided over its descent into insanity. We should have provided more assistance to build up the medical infrastructure in West Africa. We didn’t create ISIS or Ebola. But we could have done more to prevent their spread.

We can change these scripts.

Consider the 2002 movie, The Sum of All Fears.  The screenwriters made the wise move of transforming the villains from the Palestinian terrorists of the Tom Clancy novel to scheming neo-Nazis. But more interesting is the end of the movie. Even after a nuclear device has destroyed Baltimore and U.S. jets have taken out a Russian military base, the United States and Russia manage to avoid a catastrophic war and sit down to sign new disarmament treaties. Okay, the young Jack Ryan’s faith that the new Russian leader is not a hardliner doesn’t exactly resonate with the current reality of Putin’s Russia. But the movie suggests that we must put aside our kneejerk fears in order to see clearly, act sensibly, and avoid apocalypse.

Clancy used a Winston Churchill quote for his epigraph to the novel: “Why, you may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together – what do you get? The sum of their fears.” The Internet and social media now puts all of us, the intrepid and the faint-hearted, at the same table together and aggregates our fears. Our collective challenge is to reverse the equation, roll up our sleeves, and use the sum of our talents to address the real threats to society.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • richard feinberg

    Certainly there is something existential about American fears and paranoia, dating back at least to the Salem Witch Trials. And today the commercial mass media – the owners, editors, advertisers, writers – are amplifiers of our anxieties. But why substitute one set of fears for another, as Feffer advocates? So many of us are so very lucky today to be safe, prosperous and live in a globalized world, full of opportunities for self realization!

    • John Feffer

      I admit that there’s something strange about showing up on the virtual street corner with my sandwich board and trying to outshout the Ebola and terrorism fearmongers with my own anxieties about climate change and accidental nuclear holocaust. And yet, especially when it comes to climate change, I would argue that I have science on my side in making the claim that it is the more probable challenge to our security and the one that requires considerably more resources and innovation.

      • richard feinberg

        Agreed on climate change, huge challenge AND opportunity, for example for international cooperation and for leadership by smart developing countries.

  • Jay

    America has turned into nation of ignorant pants shitters

  • ignatzthecat

    Depends on if you watch any of those crappy programs………..
    Would be interesting to have actual viewer stats…….