Disconnect the panic button

MICK FARREN is a Los Angeles writer, musician and playwright. His latest novel is "Kindling" (Tor Books, 2004).

FEAR IS the great tool of mass manipulation. It sells everything from insurance to deodorant and builds audience ratings for cable news. Historically it was used to promote a catalog of wars and ideologies, and it has been responsible for witch burnings and a spectrum of racism.

In 20th century America, orchestrated fear fueled McCarthyism, underpinned the Cold War and created the apocalyptic balancing act of Mutually Assured Destruction. In the 21st century, it has come close to defining us. The millennium was ushered in by the panic of Y2K. With 9/11, it advanced to color-coded terror, and it is now bedeviled by seemingly escalating climatic disasters, maybe because of a damaged global weather system.

In the last month or so we have seen a terror alert on the New York City subway and the president delivering a call to arms (or at least to federal spending) to save us from avian flu. Soothsaying security specialists on cable news decided that the hotel bombings in Jordan could be part of a pattern that would culminate in an attack on LAX. The Army Corps of Engineers may not have the Louisiana levees ready for next year’s hurricane season. And Pat Robertson, in a much-replayed TV sermon, warned Dover, Pa., that it may be smitten by God for voting out an anti-evolution school board.


Does this overview demonstrate that maybe the panic button has been pushed a tad too frequently of late? As the debate comes to a boil over whether the White House cried nuclear-wolf over WMD in Iraq, it must at least invite consideration that recklessly generated alarms not only come back to bite the alarmist, but they help to create a population that, for its own protection, ignores all warnings until too late.

We all remember the first of the famous lines from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address -- “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” -- but the qualifier, in which he defined mass fear as -- “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” -- is rarely recalled.

ALITTLE FEAR can help. In California, where trepidation about the Big One is a constant, it translates into bolted foundations, reinforced chimneys and the awareness that it’s at least a good idea to keep batteries for the radio on hand, as well as food and water. A never-ending civic discussion about earthquake safety regulation also provides a constant reminder of the potential danger. We’re not perfectly prepared, but we’re not paralyzed either.

If a model was needed of how fostered fears do paralyze our best defenses, we need look no further than the highly publicized threat of bird flu. Long-nurtured fears of big government -- traditionally equated with godless socialism -- have already blocked the creation of a national healthcare system capable of combating a pandemic. Fears about reduced profits in the pharmaceutical industry could inhibit the development and manufacture of a specific H5N1 vaccine. And scare tactics may be pushing us toward superficial strategies that are fundamentally unsound. To rely on -- and even budget for -- quarantine plans in a globalized world edges toward absurdity.

September in New Orleans confirmed how a culture of fear can be manipulated, especially by media with a showbiz need to play up the lurid and sensational. As Katrina’s storm surge devastated the city, the usual Fox News pundits promoted their pet law-and-order agendas, lurid rumors were reported as news and the wrath of God was inevitably invoked.

Because what’s good for a hurricane is probably good for a pandemic, we can imagine what could occur should avian flu hit hard and alarm exceed reality. Even just a short-lived unnecessary scare in the trucking industry, with drivers balking at running supplies into a supposedly infected city, could bring entire regions of the country to a disastrous standstill.

But now I’m doing exactly what I’m just denouncing; going for the visceral reaction and adding my own worst-case projections to a chorus yelling “fire” in the crowded theater. The temptation is to stir the pot and throw in fear as the motivating ingredient, even when we know the trick has been sorely overused.

The panic button simply needs disconnecting. Time to forgo the scare tactics and replace anxiety with clarity, while we all, without exception, take a deep breath and move to the metaphoric exits, managing not to trample each other in the process.