Fear in America


“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  This is the famous quote from Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address in 1933


What prompted me to write about this was what Noam Chomsky wrote in his latest book, Hopes and Prospects.  Writing about the United States Latin American policy he noted that much of the policy is based upon the fear that socialist revolutions in that part of the world would during the past 50 years or so (e.g., Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador) would threaten the “national interests” (read, corporate interests) of America.  He then comments that fear “is deeply rooted in American culture.”  He notes that President Lyndon Johnson expressed such fear while speaking to troops during the Vietnam War, saying that we only have 200 million people in a world of 3 billion and thus we are outnumbered by 15 to 1.  “If might did make right they would sweep over the United States and take what we have.  We have what they want” (pp. 55-56).  Another example provided by Chomsky was the actions of Ronald Reagan in response to the insurgency in Nicaragua in 1985 who warned that the Nicaraguan arm was only “two days driving time” to Harlingen, Texas and thus they constitute a terrorist threat if we don’t stop them in Managua (which we did by helping the Contras). 


Chomsky then refers to literary critic Bruce Franklin who has demonstrated that a constant theme in popular literature since colonial days “is that we are about to be destroyed  by monsters, but are saved at the last moment by a superweapon or a superhero.”  The interesting part of this is that these “monsters” are mostly “those we are crushing.”  It is a fear of them that results in the mobilization of armies for those abroad and police forces for those at home.  In the latter case it is the fear of immigrants and a fear that they “are taking our country away from us.”


The irony is that the United States is presently the most well armed nation in all of human history.  We spend at least $250 billion on the criminal justice system (including about $70 billion on prisons and jails) each year, plus a defense budget that outranks just about every other country combined - $708.2 billion proposed for fiscal 2011. This represents a 124% increase over fiscal 2001. Standing in a distant second place is China at $98.9 billion.  These expenditures do not include money spent on private security, which is expected to rise to about $65.9 billion in 2012.  This does not include money spent on private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.  A recent report noted that since 9/11 more than “$100 billion in contracts have been handed,” with “KBR, the former subsidiary of Halliburton, receiving over $35billion alone to build bases, cook food and haul fuel.”  Also, spending by private security contractors like Blackwater (now called Xe) is estimated to be around $10 billion.


Additionally, Americans love guns and about 40% have at least one gun in the household, according to a 2005 Gallup Poll. Yet another poll shows that about 46% of gun owners believe that owning a gun does not make them feel any safer!  And with their guns they barricade themselves inside so-called “gated communities.”  An estimated 7 million families live in gated communities, according to a USA Today poll back in 2002.


Yet Americans still live in fear, as revealed in several recent polls.  For instance, in January of this year, a McClatchy-Ipsos poll found “that Americans lean more toward giving up some of their liberty in exchange for more safety.”  A slight majority of Americans polled – 51% - agreed that "it is necessary to give up some civil liberties in order to make the country safe from terrorism."  A Gallop Poll in 2009 found that two-thirds of Americans worry about identity theft, while another poll (October, 2009) found “74% of Americans saying there is more crime in the United States than there was a year ago, the highest measured since the early 1990s,” even though the FBI reports that crime has been dropping for the past ten years.


Several reports and commentaries have noted the extent to which we have become a “surveillance society.”  These reports include one by Shane Harris in his book The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State and Stephan Salisbury’s piece appropriately called Surveillance, America’s Pastime.  Harris’s book “highlights a dangerous paradox: Our government's strategy has made it harder to catch terrorists and easier to spy on the rest of us.”  Salisbury reports that in its 2008 budget the FBI “sought more than $13 million simply to vet and track more than 15,000 working informants, and noted that new informants are signing up every day. Information provided by those informants and by other increasingly ubiquitous and sophisticated surveillance techniques is now funneled to fusion centers -- making it all just a mouse-click away from public and private agencies nationwide.”


Several years ago sociologist William Staples, in his book The Culture of Surveillance, examined the many different ways that citizens are monitored and controlled through a variety of electronic devices.  Beginning with various “soft” approaches such as the video cameras found just about everywhere you go, to more obtrusive and “hard” approaches such as random drug testing, the use of lie detectors, sobriety “checkpoints” and the like.  And this book was published five years before 9/11.  


Also before 9/11 Barry Glassner wrote about the Culture of Fear and Mike Davis talked about the Ecology of Fear.  In the latter book, Davis noted that in Los Angeles urban planners admitted the futility of investing “in the remediation of underlying social conditions” that plagued the city (and most other cities too) and instead “make increasing public and private investments in physical security” (p. 364).  More recently sociologist Daniel Gardner wrote that “We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid” (p. 10).


It is beyond the scope of this short commentary to explore the many causes of such fear, but one variable seems certain: the news media.  This is revealed in the popular phrase “If it bleeds, it leads,” which is a title of a recent book on the subject.  I will write more about this at a later date.


© 2010, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.