The Sum of Our Fears

If you were to draw a single conclusion from the past six years, it might very well be this: Fear does not bring out the best in the United States of America.

A paranoid empire is not a pretty sight. When there's always an imaginary ticking bomb somewhere the perverse ethics of urgency kick in: pre-emptive war, occupation, torture. And having witnessed these depravities, it's not surprising that "fear" has gotten something of a bad rap, particularly in the progressive circles in which I tend to run. We long for the time when FDR asked us to reject the emotion: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." But that's not really true. The problem isn't so much fear per se, though it can be debilitating to the health of a democracy. It's fear of the wrong things.

There are threats out there, to the nation and its citizens; and if those threats are real, relatively likely and preventable, then it seems prudent to do something about it. The problem is that so much of our fear has been misdirected over the last six years, to disastrous effect.

We launched a massively expensive and deadly war to counter weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist, while simultaneously underfunding the existing programs to decommission the stockpiles of nuclear fuel that have now spread through the former Soviet republics in largely unguarded facilities. All kinds of paranoid delusions have proliferated in the age of terror--like the day Boston ground to a halt because of a few infantile light-boxes--while deadly but mundane threats like the flu go about their grim work of killing thousands of Americans with almost no notice.

It may seem absurd to try to counter fear with facts, our dark imagination with actuarial computations of risk, but it's what we do on an individual level all the time. There's a part of me that feels a plummeting terror every time I sit in a plane taking off, but I can conquer it by clinging to objective knowledge of the remarkable safety record of air travel in the United States. Over the past ten years there have been just over 1,000 fatalities on United States airplanes, out of more than 100 million departures. That's one fatality for every 100,000 flights, and that includes the deaths on 9/11.

Psychologists have long known that human beings do a fairly poor job of judging risk: We systematically overestimate the likelihood of rare events (plane crashes) and severely underestimate fairly routine hazards (getting nailed by luggage falling from overhead bins--last year, an estimated 4,000 people were injured this way). But whatever our inclinations and evolutionary disposition to misjudge the likelihood of bad things happening, all is not lost. We are able, with a certain degree of effort, to correct and recalibrate our risk assessments so that our broad societal judgments and media coverage more or less correspond to reality and not our dark imaginations.

Take cigarettes. When the medical profession first started raising alarm about cigarettes, there was a concerted effort by the tobacco industry to blow smoke. For a while it worked. But with a huge amount of effort and government involvement (taxes, health warnings, restrictions on advertising), people began to more accurately assess the risk of smoking and adjusted their behavior accordingly. A recent study found that the decline in smoking over the last three decades saved the lives of 146,000 men in the United States between 1991 and 2003. One hundred forty-six thousand.

It's the job of the media to aid that process. But the entire ethos of journalism is about finding "man bites dog" stories; the bizarre, the catastrophic and the strange will always attract our notice. Nobody will pick up a newspaper with the headline "Area Man Dead From Lung Cancer." But reporters have a duty to balance their "man bites dog" coverage with some new and compelling ways of telling the stories of dogs biting men. Too often, they fail. Badly.

Take the nation's current child-sex-abuse panic, facilitated by shameful bits of sensationalism like NBC's To Catch a Predator series. Last November, on election eve, I was driving around Virginia Beach, where I was reporting on the election for The Nation. Fiddling with the radio dial, I happened upon a long, involved radio promotion for an upcoming special episode of one of the local news shows. They were convening a live town hall meeting to discuss "How to protect your children from predators." There would be "experts" and parents and kids, all brought together to fight the scourge of the evil perverts who lurked around every mouse click and IM chat channel. This was immediately followed by a campaign spot for Republican Senator George Allen, in which Allen's wife testified to her husband's character and touted his legislative record, including the bills he'd passed to "stop child predators."

It occurred to me that this was a perfect feedback loop of hysteria. The media hypes an almost nonexistent threat and politicians boldly respond with policy measures to address the nonexistent threat. But since none of this is rooted in the actual frequency of victimhood or risk of victimization, the entire cycle can continue building on itself regardless of whether the policies are effective or needed.

So let's take a step back from the precipice of predator-madness for a second and look at the data. Because children are reticent to report abuse, establishing rates of sexual abuse of minors is difficult, though in the United States some estimate that as many as one in five children are sexually abused at some point in their childhood. That's a startlingly high number, but the fact is that a minuscule portion of that abuse is perpetrated by strangers. One Department of Justice study of three states found that just 4 percent of rape victims under the age of 12 were victimized by strangers. Almost every other study of child sexual abuse confirms the same trend: The overwhelming majority of sexual abuse of minors is committed by perpetrators who already know the victim.

Additionally, there's some evidence that the rate of sexual abuse of children has dropped precipitously. Between 1992 and 2000, the number of cases of confirmed sexual abuse reported to local state agencies declined 40 percent, from 150,000 cases to 89,500 cases. It's possible that this represents some systemic failure of the reporting mechanism, but it's also possible that sexual abuse rates have, in fact, gone down.

A far, far more grave threat to your child than some online sex predator lingers menacingly just outside your house nearly every waking and sleeping moment and has contact with your child multiple times a day. I speak, of course, of the family automobile, by far the most dangerous item a family owns. (Unless, of course, you also possess a swimming pool or a gun.) While cars have grown far safer over the last several decades (thank you, Ralph Nader), more than 40,000 people die every year in auto accidents, which are still the single leading cause of death for children over 1 year old.

Because train and plane crashes are far more spectacular and memorable, we demand a much higher level of safety in those modes of transportation and tolerate a far higher level of risk on our roads, which leads to some perverse unintended consequences. In his new book, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them, John Mueller points out that the huge drop in air travel and concomitant increase in car travel in the wake of 9/11 likely resulted in more deaths than the passengers on the four hijacked planes.

It's hard to get our heads around this: We can picture the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers falling, the sobbing widows, but we can't call to mind those random traffic accidents along America's highways that wouldn't have happened had their drivers been safely buckled inside a Boeing 757. Meuller's point, and one that we too often ignore, is that inaccurate assessments of risk and misplaced fear have profound, even deadly, costs.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our so-called "war on terror." In his book The One Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind describes a rubric that Vice President Dick Cheney devised in the first uncertain days after the 9/11 attacks to evaluate threats. If there were even a 1 percent chance of some massive attack, the government was to act as if it were a certainty--hence the title of the book. From an actuarial perspective, this is deranged. In computing potential risk you multiply the likelihood of an uncertain event by its potential damage to arrive at an expected cost. If you simply assume that something is certain because it is potentially very damaging or costly, you end up with--well, you end up with a $1 trillion to $2 trillion war waged over weapons of mass destruction that don't exist.

"A threat that is real but likely to prove to be of limited scope has been massively, perhaps even fancifully, inflated to produce widespread and unjustified anxiety," Mueller writes. "This process has then led to wasteful, even self-parodic expenditures and policy overreactions." Consider for a moment what risks and threats that money could have been spent on: It could have offset the economic disruptions that might ensue from a move toward Kyoto-style reductions in carbon emissions. It could have paid to decommission every single bit of unused nuclear fuel in the world, provided health insurance for the uninsured or simply given every American access to a flu shot in order to prevent some of the 20,000 deaths every year due to the virus. But then, it's hard to win an election (or sweeps week) waging a war on phlegm.

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