Are Americans unreasonably governed by fear?

In Bricker’s thread about Bush (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=275466), RickJay said he considered Americans extrordinarily governed by fear. I remember in Bowling for Columbine Micheal Moore made much the same point. I can say that recently I have seen two examples of what I considered somewhat unreasonable fears:

  1. I was in Iowa to see two friends of mine, and they said that if Chicago had a terrost attack that they would have his parents move in with them (near Des Moines). His parents live out in the middle of nowhere, probably 10 minutes from the nearest town and a good 45 miles outside of Chicago. It seems crazy to me to have even thought about it enough to have a moving plan; their parent’s home is HIGHLY inlikely to be deliberately targeted, and it is also unlikely that any attack on Chicago would affect a town so far away. (Incidentally, they are ardent Bush supporters and the bookcase next to my bed had both Coulter books, Bill O’Reilley’s book, Hannity’s book, and a giant bible :eek: ) I live in Chicago, work right by the Sears Tower, and I doubt I’d consider moving if it was hit with a successful terrorist attack, unless the area was made uninhabitable.

  2. My friends keep insisting on walking me to the el stop 8 blocks away; it is 9pm at night, along a well-lit, very busy street. Sure, there might be a wackjob out there (and the area used to have hookers til the cops cleaned them out a few years back), but I’m in full view of about 10 people at all times. I jog several miles along similar streets at night. I think I’ll likely be OK, and it takes them 40 minutes to walk me there and then walk back.

So my question is: Are Americans unreasonably fearful? Are Europeans unreasonably blase? If there is a difference, what causes it? Somehow I doubt the media in Europe ignore all the exciting child abduction/terrorism/murder/rape stories to show montages of frolicking puppies, so why would we be more scared than them?

Just assuming the observation is true, and I’m inclined to agree: The US is notable among the major industrial democracies in not having a war fought in it in many generations. Europeans and many others either personally witnessed and participated in battles in their own neighborhoods, or are intently aware that such things happened. Some, as in the case of IRA attacks in Britain or PLO bombings in Israel, are in the present or near-present, and as an ongoing situation rather than a crisis. Coping mechanisms, psychological as well as government practices, developed by which the reality of the existence of domestic terror could be accepted without it dissolving into madness, starving hysterical naked.

Not so in the US. The 9/11 attacks, even if not strictly warfare, were such a shock in part because they stripped away a layer of smugness but without any underlying mechanisms to cope with the “new” reality other than fear. A complicating factor is the essentially nonrational clinging to a leadership that we so needed to be able to handle the problem that many of us have succumbed to the belief that they *were * handling it. That “leadership” has itself succumbed to the temptation of keeping fear stirred up for its own political advantage - Cheney’s recent comments about “the wrong choice” and his and Bush’s continuing linkage of 9/11 to their Iraq invasion are examples.

I believe in general that many Americans today, having grown up with the idea that happiness, health, and wealth are their lot by dint of being Americans, are afraid of losing what they perceive to be a birthright. We aways won the wars, we had the bigget and best of everything, and our pride in America became overbearing. Now we realize that our military might can be thwarted, that financial security comes mainly to those who work hard for it, and that there is no guarantee of a long and healthy life.

I cannot speak for Europeans, but I suspect the devastation of two world wars, political systems that are somewhat less stable than ours, and a more realistic attitude toward the contigencies of life have led to an outlook more fatalistic than ours, if not necessarily blase.

Well before this becomes a Bush bashing thread… I would like to point out that walking you to the stop probably is more to avoid criminals, robbery. I doubt they would protect you from terrorists. :slight_smile:

Do notice that the US has more guns, crime and violence than Europe. Being South American myself I do notice that europeans and canadians aren't too wary and attentive, especially of pickpockets. Street smart would be more correct a description.

As for post 9/11 the problem it seems with most americans is worse than fear. Its a mix of some fear, lack of information and pride. Like the previous post said... americans have been protected until then. They have this view of America the blessed and chosen. The shattering of so many myths was hard on them?  :dubious:    The pride and arrogance though is what ticks me off. Invading Iraq was as much muscle flexing and showing off power as it was about knee jerk reaction to being attacked. Lashing out to feel safer. 

I hope calmer heads prevail...

I believe Americans are unreasonably governed by fear, but I see it as far more pervasive than the OP. It’s not just crime, or terrorism, it’s an inability to see risk as a sliding scale in all facets of life. People seem to believe that just because something bad can happen, that it will happen. It’s not enough to take reasonable safeguards against danger, now one must take every possible precaution against every eventuality no matter how remote. I find this sad, and believe that it seriously detracts from the quality of life. I guess I’m just out of step.

By definition, that is the very goal of terrorism: to cause terror vastly out of proportion to the actual threat. Three years ago, the US suffered the worst terrorist atrocity the world had ever seen. Of course it would dominate US politics for years to come.

Europe is not significantly less criminal or violent than the US, it simply has a lower murder rate (arguably because guns are used in assaults instead of, say, fists).

Well, I think Americans are terribly selective in their fears.

Some Americans harbor a lot of fear of terror, or of meeting a killer from the internet, or of being robbed. But some of those same people probably don’t have enough insurance coverage, drive after having too much to drink, and don’t watch their cholesterol. Some people will spend money on guns and ammo, and on stockpiling dried food and bottled water, but don’t have anything in their retirement account. Some people will avoid flying at all costs, but don’t wear their seatbelts in the car. Some people refuse to use a credit card on the internet, but don’t worry about shredding their account statements. The list goes on.

People seem to glom on to particular kinds of risks while ignoring others. I’m not sure, exactly, why that is. I’m not advocating that people should be afraid of everything. I’m just saying that for many people, intense fears seem to walk hand in hand with a blase attitude about other potential disasters. And I don’t think there is a strong or rational correlation between the actual risk associated with a threat and whether or not people react to it.

The worst terrorist atrocity ever perpertrated by people other than the agents of a national government, anyway.

While this discussion is off to a good start, allow me to clarify my comments before anyone misinterprets what I said:

  1. I am certainly not saying all Americans are scaredy-cats or that Americans are cowards or anything like that. Americans are as brave a people as there are in the world.

  2. Nor am I claiming other people aren’t also motivated by fear. I am merely saying Americans are MORE so. And,

  3. I freely admit this is a personal impression, not something based on objective study.

It’s easy to talk about terrorism but I perceive this as being common and pervasive in the U.S. I have the opportunity in my job to spend a lot of time there and I’m stricken by how much this sort of thing comes up. When I’m watching the local news, it’s astounding how many stories blatantly appeal to fear:

  • This product may kill your children!
  • The municipal government’s new policy on (fire protection, building codes, etc.) will kill you and your children!
  • Criminals will kill your children!

I keep using “kill your children” quite deliberately; I notice that they’re using the words “kill” and “die” quite often, and news stories tend to be amazingly consistent in threatening the viewer’s CHILDREN. It’s remarkable; I would almost start to think the producers of these programs were just trying to frighten parents for the sheer hell of it.

Another characteristic I have noticed… okay, I’m treading into sensitive territory here… is an unreasonable fear of crime, especially if it is perceived as being perpetrated by black people. The Willie Horton ad is the classic example, but I’ve experienced this, too. On one memorable occasion I flew into the U.S. and had to drive a good 25, 30 miles to my hotel. I got directions, but looking at a map, I could see an obviously shorter route, which I took.

On the way to my destination I drove though one neighbourhood that was apparently populated mostly by black people. It was a decent looking working class neighbourhood, not a ghetto or a slum in any way.

When I completed my work the next day the folks I was visiting asked me if I needed directions back to the airport and I said I did not, that I’d just drive up such and such a road. My hosts immediately told me I could not possibly do such a thing, because that was a BAD neighborhood, and they essentially implied I’d never make it out alive. What they were saying was, I honestly believe, utter nonsense, but they really believed it. I drove back the way I had come, thinking maybe I’d missed something, but it appeared to be a perfectly nice neighborhood. People were walking their dogs and kids were playing baseball. Were my hosts racists? I do not believe so (they weren’t all white themselves) but I do believe they may have been conditioned to be afraid of crime and thus, subconsciously, afraid of black neighborhoods.

Interestingly, after this incident I mentioned it to a number of my co-workers, all of whom travel like I do, and several had eerily similar tales to tell.

I think you should also add a level of naivety to the mix as well. As much as we all joke about fighting ignorance here at the SD, it does have strong roots among Americans. No, I’m not talking about those who believe Elvis is still alive and other tinfoil hat thinking, but basically naive about the world around them, and with little inclination to change that attitude.

I’d have to disagree that the US is “ruled” by fear. It’s more of a heightened awareness in a faster, more mobile time in history. Sure some things are markedly different from before 9.11 and that’s good. It’ll boot security up the ladder a bit and make them give better service maybe.

Anyone involved in runnning a synagogue can tell you that we have been on ‘high alert’ since Day 1 for obvious reasons. This is just our security or warning system finally doing its job.

I don’t see “fear” on the faces of kids as they walk, hop and skip past my house daily on their way to and from school. I don’t hear “fear” in my uni age daughter’s voice when she calls to update us. I don’t “fear” unnaturally when I go out late at night or early morning. I don’t draw back apprehensively when oddly dressed people brush past me. I don’t live with the “fear” that my mailbox will contain anthrax laced letters. My grandchildren don’t run to me in “fear” because of people who speak with accents. I don’t see my ethnic group friends packing their bags expecting to be removed to internment camps. My congressional reps who are up for reelection have more panic on their faces than fear because of my voting preferences this term.

Nope, I don’t think the US is “ruled” by fear. Not for a day, not for a minute, not for a nanosecond. Life is to enjoy, right down to the last ray of sunshine and that’s the attitude I see most often in the part of the US of A where I live.

Good OP Gaudere:

Fearful. I don’t know if that’s the word for it. I had a friend who worked as an auto mechanic. Before he took a trip he went over his car pretty carefully. Was he afraid of a breakdown, or being prudent?

I notice that professionals in most areas tend to be pretty careful and anal about things that nonprofessionals handle in a blase and carefree manner. Are they fearful, or prudent.

Modern portfolio theory has an important codicile: One must be rewarded commensurately for every risk that one takes. It doesn’t mean don’t take risks. It means don’t take foolish risks. Don’t take risks you don’t get paid for.

I have noticed that professionalism in just about any area is geared the way I’ve described, not out of fear, but out of respect for this rule.

You maintain your car not out fear that it will break down, but so that it won’t. You have a spare tire so you don’t have to fear being stranded. You carry mace and take a self-defense course and don’t walk alone in the city if you don’t have to so you don’t have to fear being mugged, or raped.
This kind of paranoia is healthy.

A professional knows that most catastrophic events occur because of a chain of mistakes most often prompted by overconfidence. I’ll give you an example. I used to work in the Revlon building in NY. I would walk to the Port Authority. When I got paid, I typically cashed my check at the bank it was drawn on and took the cash home. Sometimes when I got off work, instead of walking down 5th avenue and turning on 42nd St (both well lit with a strong police presence) I would cut through various streets in zig-zag fashion. Sometimes on Fridays I would go out for a drink after work. One night when I got paid, I went for several drinks. Around 11 O’clock I walked back to the Port Authority. Not thinking that it was no longer daylight and rush hour, I took the zig zag route through less well-lighted and patrolled areas. A little drunk, I wondered how much money I had spent and how much I had been paid. So, as I walked, I took out my money and started counting 100 dollar bills. Suddenly, I noticed that there was a half dozen large and dangerous people regarding me with interest as I passed them. I stopped suddenly terrified. A long chain of incompetance, overconfidence and unpreparedness had brought me to this point. Here I stood, late at night, drunk, with a thick wad of bills in my hand, in a dark and dangerous neighborhood, having acquired the avid interest of several thugs. Petrified, I looked at one quickly glanced away and kept walking. What they shouted out behind me was “Nice try, cop!” They didn’t beleive anyone could be as stupid as I was.

If you look at people like Policemen, and pilots, and Professional soldiers it seems often they are preoccupied and fearful. They are always checking this and cleaning that and preventing the other and training for this unlikely eventuality or that one. They are always following a plan or a procedure that accounts for disaster. That expects it. It’s easy to look at this as fear.

The fact of the matter is that we are hurtling through space on a rock, and we can only survive in the narrowest of environments, and the entirety of creation and life is out to get us and snuff us, be it natural forces, bad guys, happenstance, a virus, terrorists, or what have you. The illusion of security is nothing more than that… an illusion. It is good Budha nature to be aware of the fact that the forces of darkness are always closing in on you so that you can give them the slip as often as possible. They’ll get you in the end though. As Mojo Rising says “No one here gets out alive.”

Disaster usually strikes as a surprise. How you live your life in terms of preparedness and prudence is going to term whether you survive it. It’s not fear to live in respect of the forces of darkness. It’s a sign of intelligence. Living with it, and dealing with it is not fear. Ignoring it because things seem safe, taking chances that don’t reward you (like walking alone in the city at night with your wallet out, counting your money) courts disaster.

Living accordingly is not fear it is professionalism. It is wisdom. Your life is not governed by fear unless it stops you from doing those things you need to do to make it fulfilling.

So, in that respect, I don’t beleive we are governed by fear. We still go out, and we do the things we need to, the things we like. The day that changes we are governed by fear. I think that day’s still a long way off.

We live in a country with a big variety of cultures. They don’t mix very well. What we don’t understand we fear. This isn’t all of it by any means but it is a part.

Do the American institutions of contingency litigation and large damages contribute to this?

To add to what I wrote in the other thread:

If you look at the culture of the US compared to Europe, and Canada for that matter, Americans are very individualistic. Comparatively, they look to themselves more than they do to government for their own well being. I could then make the leap and say if you are faced with issues that are beyond your normal control and may affect your safety, then it can cause stress and fear of a level that someone not living in such a society wouldn’t experience. How do you deal with terrorists on your own? It isn’t possible, so you have to trust your government to do it for you. I would suggest that Americans are the least trusting people when it comes to their government than any other. If you have to put your trust in something that you inherently distrust then it can cause anxiety of a nature not experienced elsewhere.

In cultures of a more collective nature, they rely on their government to a larger extent. They tend to look to the government before looking to themselves for solutions. It is expected that you will call the police to defend you before you defend yourself. In order for this to happen you have to trust that the police will arrive in short order and will be on your side when they finally arrive. You have to trust the government to do this. That trust carries over to situations beyond your control. Why get upset and worry about a situation that the government will take care of for you? The general fear level would probably be less in such a society, but in order for that to happen you have to give up some of the responsibility for your own welfare to others. And along with the responsibility flows the authority to make decisions for yourself and the freedom that goes along with it.

Purely anecdotal, but long before we had a ‘special news program of the day’ devoted to all the bad things in the world that could get us (escalators, baby seats, window blinds, walking to school and on and on), my mother was the most over protective person on the planet. I never spent the night away from home until I was 17, I think. In grade school, I wasn’t allowed to walk back and forth, although we lived in a nice enough, albeit poorer, neighbor that was pretty safe. As a matter of fact, even when we moved to a more rural area, she was still taking me and picking me up daily in high school.

Why? Some of it was the “her and me against the world” syndrome and she didn’t want to lose the only thing that mattered to her. But more so, it was about control and the fact that she had been so wild, this was her way to ensure I avoided all the potential evils that harm me. And, my ex, is raising his children this very same way. He still lives in the same place I grew up, which is ostensibly not so preferable. However, he doesn’t even allow his 11 year old daughter to watch his 6 year old son for five minutes alone until he gets home. They aren’t allowed to walk across the street to his sister’s unless they are watched and then they must hold hands. When shopping, you’ll never find them even one isle apart. It’s scary in it’s over-the-topness.

For my mother, I kinda of understand. (Plus, she’s nuts in general, so that gives a bit more leeway.) He on the other hand, prescribes to many a conspiracy theory and believes everything that lurks with questionable intent, can be taken care of with one of numerous guns. The government is really out to oppress and dominate our thoughts. He grew up even wilder than good ol’ mom, but most of his ideas stem from how terrified everyone else is, what he constantly chooses to selectively read or watch (no good reporting, always the heinous atrocities) and his close-mindedness that there are upstanding folks still around, not everyone has wicked intent and we’d all be better off in the past without interference of how we take care of our families. (BTW, glad I escaped that mindset!)

So, to answer the OP: from my own personal experience, I do see it as extremely prevalent here (as even more so witnessed with me wanting to move back into The City, oh my! – danger lurks around every corner, dontcha know?) and the usual cites aren’t from their own examples, but the Reader’s Digest or “60 Minutes” or some long debunked snopes panic-inspiring email. No amount of reason convinces them otherwise. And I have no idea if it’s better or worse elsewhere, but I do feel the climate encourages knee-jerk reactions (like The Patriot Act) that soothes some of their trepidation with a false sense of security while not truly addressing the problems. Think after Columbine and how many wanted to ban trench coats. Yep, that was why all that went down. :wally

I think that certain people are unreasonably governed by fear. They are by far the minority, and they are damnably difficult to isolate. Some live in fear of terrorist attack, despite the fact that they live far away from any likely terrorist target. This group seems to cross all racial and ethnic lines, as well as strata of education.

Too, there are those who fear certain “bad” parts of town. I dunno what it’s like where anyone else is, but around here, there are too many people who would sooner emasculate themselves with a rusty spoon than venture too far east.

And inre Scylla’s examples of police, pilots and soldiers, I don’t really consider them overly careful, even though they probably seem so to a lot of people. It is, after all, their job to be careful to the point of paranoia.

In answer to the OP’s question: I think that Europeans have had much longer to deal with and adapt to terrorism, specifically. I don’t think that they’re too blase, just that they’ve seen terrorism ebb and flow.

Of course Americans are governed by fear. Forget terrorists - it’s fear of everything - crime, poverty, drugs, school shootings, whatever. The vast majority of Americans (or at least the Americans we are talking about) live in sheltered suburban enclaves which by design insulate them from the horrors of the outside world. Their only window to that world is the TV and Internet which is basically the worst of what’s going on, magnified. It doesn’t reflect reality.

Well, as a matter of fact the US has been governed through fear for at least two or three generations already; those generations where rised to live under fear of a nuclear holocaust, communists and other bad people that would love anything more than come and get them. And politicians where not shy about presenting themselves as the line between them and they. Now we see that the US populations is being governed (as in its goverment acts) by the threat of terrorists: meet the new boogieman, same as the old boogieman; so drink your soup and shut up already. :smack:

I’ve noticed more “fear” in this country since the 1980s. The gun control debate really picked up steam then. IMO Miami Vice is to blame for the paranoia over “assalt weapons” (which statistics have shown – and I’m sorry, but I don’t have a cite available since I got it from things I read before the Internet – are not the “weapons of choice for criminals”). People ignored the root causes of crime and just wanted politicians to “do something”. Politicians, being, it seems, more concerned about their jobs than in actually governing the country effectively, obliged. I used the contentious issue of gun control as an example, but I think that politicians tend to pass “feel good” legislation on other issues as well.

As msmith said, many Americans grew up in sheltered Suburbia. They didn’t have the responsibility to get up and do chores, work on the farm, etc. (I certainly didn’t.) It seems that there was more emphasis on “personal growth” through psycho analysis and New Age religion. I don’t want to belittle the psychological sciences, but I think a lot of people made big problems out of little ones. They would go to a head shrinker and say, “I have a problem.” The doctor would say, “If there is a problem, then it must have a cause.” People would not accept that whatever problem they had was of their own making, and their psychologists would “find” an external cause. (“What did your mother do to make you hate her?” “Aha! You don’t remember it, but you were molested as an infant!”) There seemed to be a slow erosion of personal responsibility.

In the early-1980s it seemed that lawsuits really took off. When I was a kid in the 1970s, if I got hurt I should have been more careful. In the 1980s it seemed that if someone got hurt it was someone else’s fault more often than not. Take, for example, airplane crashes. In one case a couple – both qualified pilots – flew their aircraft into conditions that all pilots know to avoid. They screwed up. Even though the NTSB found that there was nothing wrong with the airplane’s engine, a civil court found that Lycoming was partly to blame for the crash. Cessna was hit with a $40 million judgement that cause it to stop making single-engine light aircraft for a decade. People just couldn’t screw up. There had to be negligence on the part of corporations. (Not that there isn’t; but this seemd to have become the default.)

Maybe it was the lack of responsibility on the Public’s part. Maybe it was just greed. Either way, people seemed to no longer be personally responsible for anything.

When I was a kid I rode my bicycle without a helmet. Now (in California) there are laws that require non-adults to wear them. When I was a kid we played with Jarts (lawn darts). When three children were injured or killed, lanw darts were banned – never mind the thousands who were never even scratched. Out of fear of injury, people insisted “there must be a law!” Out of fear of lawsuits, companies tried to make things idiot-proof. (How is an idiot to learn, if he doesn’t make the occasional mistake?)

The 1970s were a bad economic time. When the economy is bad, crime increases. Rather than attack the problem (fixing the poor economy) people focused on “curing the symptoms”. It’s far easier to build more prisons than it is to fix the economy. And when the prisons didn’t work people insisted that the politicians be more attentive to fighting the symptoms. It’s much easier to punish than to rehabilitate. (Which is not to say that some people don’t deserve to be locked up forever.)

IMO Americans have an unreasonable expectation of personal safety. This expectation results in a “fear”, if you will, of things that in decades past would have seemed trivial.

But I don’t think it’s a linear thing. I think there is a web of cause and effect. Parents who grew up with a lot of freedom (e.g., not expected to perform certain tasks when they were children) became spoiled. They love their kids, but they sure get in the way of having a good time! Many parents seem to be more concerned about having fun and making money, than they are of teaching their kids proper behaviour. The kids grow up and, not having learned about personal responsibility, become as hedonistic as their parents. Then they have kids, and… And so it goes.

So now we have a society where no one is supposed to get hurt. If someone does get hurt, it’s not his fault. Someone else is to blame. If there happens to be a few million simoleons to be made from “the other person’s negligence”, so much the better. And since no one is supposed to get hurt, everyone seems to live in fear of getting hurt. Better pass some more laws. Then we get hit with a harsh dose of reality. Timothy McVeigh blows up a Federal building, and people realise that even daycare centres aren’t safe. Inner city inhabitants riot over the police beating of Rodney King, and Whites start thinking that it could happen anywhere. Terrorists blow up the WTCs, and people who never leave their farms are afraid they’ll be next.

I would say that yes, Americans are too fearful.

hhmmm… not the first time I have heard claims that americans are not trusting of their government more than others. I started NEW THREAD about it…