Turn on the TV news: hate crimes, hurricanes, and homicides. Open the paper and you're buried in an avalanche of despair: disaster, terrorist plottings, political playpen squabbles, famine and far-off genocide. Leaf through Time and Newsweek and you're subjected to the same message: The world is a place of extreme danger and you're helpless to make a difference. The mass media, serving the needs of rulers (political and corporate) send this message around the clock: The news is bad and even worse, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.
Consider the hysteria surrounding child abductions. According to the Statistical Abstract of the U.S., seventy American children per million die in car accidents each year. Thirty die from cancer. And one and one half are killed by abductors. Yet the news media would have us believe that drooling rapacious child-snatchers lurk around every corner. The odds of your kid being killed by falling down the steps or being bitten by a dog are much higher than from the dreaded child abductor. Yet we have not spent millions of dollars on “the peril lurking in your stairway” or “the growing threat of schnauzers.” Parents are made weak by fear and what is their response? Children are videotaped, fingerprinted like felons, marked (and soon implanted with microchip locators) so that in the one in a million chance they're abducted and found, they can be identified.
Child safety locks, knee and elbow pads, shin guards, bike helmets, home security systems, cell phones for emergencies, back-up beepers on ice cream trucks, warning buzzers and safety catches, self-locking car doors and self-activated backyard lights: Millions are spent each year on consumer junk aimed not at making people safer, but increasing their feeling of safety.
What is the real message behind this? Be afraid – you are helpless. Only Big Daddy or Big Mommy can keep you from harm's way. But you must submit yourself to infantalization order to be safe. Even coffee cups now carry dire warnings, as though McDonalds' customers were not told “hot, hot!” by their mothers when they touched the stove at age two. Another requirement for “personal safety” is ever increasing depersonalization. It's hard to believe now, when bureaucracies don't even ask for your name, just your Social Security number, but the only way the federal government could get America to originally accept the numbers was to promise that they'd never, absolutely never, be used for identification. In order to be safe you must also submit to humiliation such as surveillance cameras in public bathrooms. The message is constant: You must submit and you must obey. You are a little child, dependent on the goodness of the Big People for your very survival.
It wasn't always that way.
What most of humanity feared, for most of history, were hunger, infectious diseases such as plagues, elements, and war. These threats were real, and these would kill you with ease. But for the American middle class, these are little more than TV entertainment spectacles. What kills Americans now are the products of our affluence. Heart attacks account for 725,000 deaths per year in the U.S., compared to 17,000 murders. And heart attacks are, of course, the direct result of our prosperity: sedentary lives spent before the cathode ray screen, fatty foods, and hypertension. Car accidents take 42,400 lives annually. Cancer kills 549,800 Americans each year and the rates are increasing because of polluted air, carcinogens sprayed on foods, poisons in our water, and toxic waste. These very real threats are the direct result of high-tech industries and the culture of too much. But dismal stories of slow death by cancer don't make good ratings. Tumors are not entertaining. As an instrument of social control, the so-called terrorist is far more useful than a graph of malignancies. If you're afraid of a shadowy murderer down the street, you're not so likely to question a leukemia cluster associated with a big chemical sludge factory.
Americans are terrified that we'll be killed by strangers. In the popular mind, these are usually dark-skinned and their thought processes are alien, barely human (so-called drug addicts and terrorists). Yet of the 17,000 murders per year in the U.S., fully three quarters are committed by people known personally by the victim. Suicide kills far more Americans each year than murder (29,000). And suicide, like cancer, is a result of our helpless lives, our abject worldview, the pervasive sense that our existence is meaningless and our efforts ineffectual.
The attack on the World Trader Center has, of course, stepped up our fear and helplessness to a pitch previously unknown in America. The Homeland Security wizards send out vague, yet menacing warnings, color-coded like something aimed at preschoolers. What exactly am I supposed to do during Code Orange? Should I hate and fear my neighbor more? The combination of vagueness and threat makes the situation even more dire. Not: “There is a man right now pointing a gun at your head,” but “There are ghostly forces conspiring now to perhaps cause an unspecified calamity.”
Yes, the attacks on 9/11 did take over 2,000 lives. Yes, it's genuinely frightening to know that there are groups of people devoting their lives to causing America more pain and suffering. But the mass media's treatment of the attacks has been so hysterical and compulsive that it might have been scripted by some master of mind control.
I received a booklet recently with my electric bill that proclaims “You Can Help Prevent Terrorism, Too.” What does it suggest? “Know the routines. Be alert as you go about your daily business. This will help you to learn the normal routines of your neighborhood, community, and workplace.” And why is this useful? “Understanding these routines will help you spot anything out of place.” In other words, anything unusual is associated in the popular imagination with terrorism.
Other helpful hints include: “Be Aware of What is Going On,” and “Take What You Hear Seriously.” These are about as vague as can be. But in fact, the warnings are so out of focus that anything and everything becomes a threat. And there's not a damned thing you can do to protect yourself besides diving headfirst into paranoid fantasies.
“Be on the lookout for suspicious activities,” the pamphlet instructs us, but in no way defines the term “suspicious.” I suspect that the guy next door is an alcoholic; the woman across the street is having an affair and local cops of having IQs under 100. And I can even marshal some evidence to prove my point. But I suspect also that no one really cares.
I called my state's Terrorism Tips Hotline to find out what exactly they do. The woman there told me they collect information on “suspicious activities.” When I asked her what exactly did that mean, she told me that “For instance, if you saw a group of people videotaping a bridge or reservoir or other piece of critical infrastructure,” I should report it. If I see people “who don't belong there,” hanging around a reservoir, I certainly should turn them in. Apparently there's a corporate monopoly on dumping toxins in the water supply. If you're an individual (especially with dark skin) caught pouring a small vial of poison in the water, you're a terrorist. If you're a large corporate entity dumping poison by the ton, then you're merely keeping the economy humming.
I asked how I could tell the difference between a family on vacation taking home videos of their lakeside campsite and terrorists. She said I should only report it, “If they're obviously terrorist” and left it at that.
There I had it, my tax dollars at work keeping me safe. After all, if you say the words “tourist” and “terrorist” quickly, they sound suspiciously the same.
In the two years since the World Trade Center disaster, almost as many Americans have been killed by “accidental gun discharge” as from the attacks. Do we have a massive national campaign to snuff out the threat posed to national security by Colt and Remington? Will there be a federal “War on Guns?” Not anytime soon. Guns are too securely enshrined in the American pantheon. And even if there were, when you recall who won the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs, the future doesn't look so bright.
There have been a number of times in U.S. history when the popular mind was mired in brain-dead hysteria, but without TV and the Internet to utterly swamp the average American's thoughts, these earlier episodes seem rather tame in comparison.
If you know any real American history, you'll, of course, hear the echoes of earlier paranoid periods. The Puritans had their satanic Indians and heretical Quakers to put the fear in ordinary hearts. The great Eugenic manias of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sent thousands into prisons and mental institutions for bearing “viscous protoplasm” (what we'd call now “bad genes”). In America's Victorian heyday, over 150,000 ovaries where cut out in hopes of cleansing American womankind of its biological taint. Alcohol, narcotics, birth control literature, and even Unitarianism were seen at various times as insidious defiling forces that must be rooted out to preserve America's purity and safety.
But the Red Scare of 1919-120 perhaps comes closest to the current mindless hysteria. Noting the adoring press that other red-baiters had received, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer instituted a series of raids against so-called Reds. Hunting down undesirables whom he believed to be a threat to national security, Palmer had thousands rounded up without arrest warrants, and held (without representation, hearing, or even charges) incommunicado. In filthy, ill-lit mass detention chambers with little food, miserable sanitation and at times no heat, the prisoners waited upon the Attorney General's pleasure. When all was finally over, only a handful of radicals were convicted and deported.
A number of new patriotic groups sprang up, or blossomed again: The American Defense Society, National Security League, Better America Federation, Allied Patriotic Societies, and the United States Patriotic Society. The American Legion was only surpassed by the KKK (reborn in 1915) in promoting patriotism. Klan membership exploded to 4,500,000 by 1924. Along with the American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Hearst papers, the Klan howled for “100% Americanism.”
H.L. Mencken, a voice of reason who lived through the insanity, saw “the feeble and scattered” radicals who put such overwhelming dread into the heart of America “hunted out of their sweatshops and coffee houses, dragged to jail to the tooting of horns, arraigned before quaking judges on unintelligible charges, condemned to deportation without the slightest chance to defend themselves, herded into prison ships, then finally dumped in snow waste to be rescued and fed by the Bolsheviki.” And what was the theory at the bottom of these extraordinary national security measures? “So far as it can be reduced to comprehensible terms, it was much less a theory than a fear – a shivering, idiotic, discreditable fear of the mere banshee – an overpowering, paralyzing dread.”
And like today, the mass media led the crusade, parroting government warnings and whipping the population into even more hysterical states of fear. Where were all the newspapermen, Mencken asks, while the agents of the President were “clubbing and jailing all citizens presumed to question his divinity – when men by the hundreds were railroaded into prison for venturing to exercise their constitutional right to free speech?” Mencken points an accusing finger straight at the mass media of the day. “They were not only consenting to the business, but actively promoting it.” It was the newspapers which “raised the idiotic alarm about Bolshevism and brought on the wholesale jailing and deportation of innocent men.”
Newspapers then and TV now: The mass media have a heavy stake in keeping Americans helpless with fear. Partly this is because the mass media are now entirely owned by behemoth corporations. And the same men who own the airwaves own the politicians who make the laws and execute them. Partly TV sends out an endless stream of “be helpless” messages because fear sells. And without sales, there's no TV.
If consumers are afraid, if they feel inadequate and helpless, then they will passively do what they're told. And no matter what the product on TV, the message is always the same: You must buy; without the right commercial product, you are an unacceptable human being. Beautiful, sexy, thin, healthy people having endless fun. Is there any way your life can be that ecstatically happy? NO? Then you need to buy more objects to shore up your constantly eroded sense of self. Or think of all the personal beauty and hygiene products whose ads give the subtle message that you are ugly, fat, and smell bad. Children are deemed losers, outcasts, freaks, if they wear generic sneakers instead of high-priced Nikes and Reeboks. Even carpets need to be fresh smelling or your house is unacceptable.
This might seem at first glance unrelated to mass media's endless iterations of the “be afraid, be very afraid” theme. But fear lies at the bottom of both manipulative strategies, fear-induced compliance. They reinforce each other: global doom, and small-scale domestic doom as the right and left fists constantly pound the skulls of Americans.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in Gift From the Sea, mentions that her grandmother and mother “lived in a circle small enough to let them implement into action most of the impulses of their hearts and minds.” If her family heard about a problem it was by word of mouth and there was usually something they could do about it. Sickness? They could help with food or childcare. A fire? Help with rebuilding. Crop failure? They could share what they had, or loan for the next year. In other words, their actions had a positive effect. They were not helpless in the face of adversity.
If a neighbor's house burned down, they had an option besides rushing out in a panic to buy more smoke alarms. If a child died of cancer, they could do more for the family than taking up a collection for some huge bureaucracy such as the American Cancer Society.
What's different here is, of course, the notion of community. Ads and news tell us that we are isolated, totally alone, we can't depend on anyone besides large governmental entities for help. Consider the shift in attitudes towards cops and firefighters since the 9/11 attacks. People buy T-shirts that say “FDNY” or “NYPD” as though they are magic amulets. Somehow, they will have access to heroic magic if they just wear the right slogans, logos, and emblems. Memorials have sprung up all over the country, desperate attempts to celebrate some long-gone, mythic golden age. People think now of larger governmental agencies as the only thing that will save us from certain doom. No matter how many lists of “Ways You Can Prevent Terrorism,” the bogeyman is just too big for lowly citizens to fight.
But the real odds tell a much different story. For every individual killed on 9/11/01, 275 died of cancer that year. And 362 died of heart disease. Since the attack, 38,000 Americans have died of the effects of alcohol. That's 20 times the number of those killed on 9/11. Hell, three times as many people died in 2001 of injuries at work as died from the greatest act of so-called terrorism ever perpetrated on the U.S. But we certainly are not going to see a War on Industrial Accidents any time soon.
Not only can't we protect ourselves without the Big People taking charge, we can't stand up and say, “Wait a second, I don't want a toxic waste dump in my backyard or microwave towers looming over my streets or Frankenfoods on the dinner table.” Americans are alone before the tube, passive and docile as lobotomized mental patients. They don't say, “How can I affect my immediate world? How can I change my living environment for the better?” They say, “Can I put that on Visa?” They don't ask, “How can I help?” They ask “Does Wal-Mart have it cheaper?” They don't say, “No,” they say, “How much is it?”
As long as Americans keep sucking at the great pacifier nipple of TV, there's little hope for change. As long as Americans are happy with their simple diversions (bread and circuses have become Big Macs and the Internet), then the steady erosion of their rights will continue. As long as our national motto remains “Convenience Uber Alles,” then there's little reason to be optimistic.
It's certainly unrealistic to expect many Americans to give up their technological toys. I don't think we'll see a heavy influx of outsiders joining the Amish any time soon. Still, I'd wager that the plain people spend a lot less time worrying about terrorists and child molesters than the average American does. No, they're busy raising their own food, taking care of their families and maintaining community. The absence of most mass media in their culture certainly keeps the poisonous dread at a minimum.
If there's a steady stream of sewage backflushing from your bathroom faucet, the logical response is to shut off the taps. Yet it's a very rare person who'll forego the pleasure of American Idol and The Simpsons to get the flood of sewage under control.
So, kick back and relax. Enjoy the latest episode of American Paranoia. Buy some magic T-shirts with police emblems on them to keep away all The Bad Things. Red, white, and blue cloth also seems to have a very powerful ability to drive away evil spirits. Keep an eye on that neighbor who has a suspicious habit of videotaping large buildings. But most important, stayed glued to the tube for more developments on this late-breaking story.
Th. Metzger is the author of Birth of Heroin and The Demonization of the Drug Fiend, and other books.