Tag Archives: terrorism

The Appeal to Fear

                                commons wikimedia

For our times we can update Samuel Johnson’s famous remark about patriotism: fear is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

If historians were looking for a label to characterize the dominant theme in our public discourse these days they could do no better than call it “The Age of Fear.”  It may be true that crime rates in most parts of the country have generally fallen, and that the chances of being the victim of terrorist attack are less likely than getting struck by lightning.  Nonetheless, we live in an age where too many voices in our political and news-gathering systems depend on fear as their most reliable theme. Acts of terrorism like the recent attack in Manchester England are sufficient for cable news networks, among others, to go into narrow and repetitive coverage.  Jerky cell phone videos add all of the video they need to endlessly mull  the imagined ghosts in the room, with the added effect of overstated  conclusions that we are not safe and terrorism is rampant.

The same thread is endlessly recycled by the President, who uses much of his public rhetoric to focus on threats allegedly coming from undocumented immigrants, Syrian refugees, Muslim extremists, Mexican drug smugglers,  Chinese banks, Australia, Germany, to mention just a few from his long list. We learned that we were in for a three-alarm Presidency when Donald Trump broke tradition in his inaugural address to rehash warnings that were endlessly recycled to his followers on the campaign trail.  He talked of the “American carnage” of too few jobs, insecure borders, abuse at the hands of our allies and more.  The speech was significantly out of the norm: less a ritual celebration of the transfer of presidential power than a victim’s list of grievances against others. And it surely resonated then as it does now with too many Americans with who have little patience to deal with the complexities of modern life. They do not know that the world is generally more understandable and actually less threatening if understood in 2000-word clarifications rather than 20-word rants.

Because we are hardwired first for survival, we look for threats before opportunities; self-preservation before self-actualization.

We can update Samuel Johnson’s famous remark about patriotism and reset it in our times: fear is the last refuge of a scoundrel.  It’s easy if not responsible for a demagogue to conjure malevolent ghosts in our midst.  This is the rhetorical thread that connects figures from the margins of our civil life as diverse as “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace and any number of public figures who built a political base by motivating concerns about “Them.”  Using this thread usually provides an unearned advantage. Those nameless others inside and beyond our borders are almost always portrayed as  immoral, unclean or dangerously powerful.  The irony is that most Americans have no right to claim a nativist ideology.  Our ancestors came from somewhere else.  Even so, it thrives.

Fear appeals gain a natural advantage from the human impulse to fantasize about what we do not fully know or understand.  Fear always builds from the predicate of potential harm we can imagine. Because we are creatures hardwired first for survival, we look for threats before opportunities; self-preservation before self-actualization.  As any lover of film-noir knows, another person’s shadow is all we need to envision the worst.  It follows that verbalizing threats against survival is easily rewarded.  The beneficiaries may be political scoundrels, cable news companies, and various agents who have seemingly simple solutions to sell: everything from home security alarms to firearms to grotesque projects like a massive border wall.

News Inversions: Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

crime sceneThe more media coverage a crime story gets, the less likely that its crime category represents a serious threat to other citizens. 

A few years ago political communication scholar Doris Graber published a study of crime news in the city of Chicago. At the time her focus was on the reporting of the Chicago Tribune (Mass Media and American Politics, 1993).  But almost any major news outlet in any region would have probably yielded the same eye-opening results. She found what most of us sense but too easily forget:  The more media coverage a crime story gets, the less likely it is a crime category that represents a serious threat to other citizens. There is an inverse correlation between space and time given to a crime story and the frequency of that kind of crime in a city.  In her study the most reported category was murder, which in 1991 was 0.3 percent (925) of all the crimes documented in the city’s Uniform Crime Report.  But in the Tribune murders got 64% of the coverage. That added up to a lot of column inches. The same was true for assaults.  By comparison, more common crimes like theft got comparatively little coverage.

I doubt the passage of time and the presence of online media have changed this equation. By definition, news is the unusual. Think of CNN’s current preoccupation with global terrorism.  It is both a serious problem and seriously over-covered, at least in relation of other pressing world concerns. According to the Global Research Center we are about four times more likely to be struck by lightning than a terrorist attack.

There can be exceptions to this pattern, but it’s common because it is so easy to convert a single example into a rule. Our brains are hardwired to want to generalize to the whole from a few specific cases.  Rhetorically, this is the function of a synecdoche, a fancy word for the straightforward idea that we like to use a single case to stand for the whole. It’s one of the most efficient rhetorical tropes a news organization can employ. Using it one might conclude that the 1999 actions of mass murderers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School in Colorado point to what is ostensibly “wrong” with kids raised these days in the United States.  But perhaps there is no emerging pattern at all.

The truth is that seriously deviant actors engage in acts of unknowable causality, following tenuous strings of suppositions usually known only to them.

As with Columbine, there are always an abundance of experts ready to take the bait of television notoriety to speculate on what an event like this “means” to the nation. Most commentators cannot resist the synecdoche. It makes the world simpler. It makes for good television. And it saves the expert from the potentially embarrassing but intellectually honest assessment that a given case, even a mass murder, is perhaps significant of nothing. The truth is that seriously deviant individuals engage in acts of unknowable causality, following tenuous strings of suppositions known only to them. But to actually say that is to leave the third act of a traumatic episode unwritten.  And so we write social significance scripts based on mostly unrepresentative cases.

This explains the perpetual panic mode of the 24/7 “Breaking News” cycle. Everything covered is urgent. Everything represents an early warning of a bigger and ominous trend.

How do we counteract this compulsion to find meaning and and at the same time maintain our own sense of equilibrium?

Step back. Tune out. The world is not ending. The awful events documented and reported on a given day frequently make sense only as single aberrations.

More specifically, limit you time and your children spend in the presence of television news reporting. This is especially important for the nation’s population of seniors, who typically gorge themselves on video news.  We have solid evidence that, like most of us, older Americans generally over-estimate how dangerous their community and the world really is.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu