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This op-ed, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on January 17, 2010, is reprinted with permission of the author.

Still Fearful After All These Years


We are still a fretful nation.

Despite such landmark events as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the economic downturn that began in 2007, the American society I portrayed 10 years ago in The Culture of Fear largely continues. Pregnant teenagers, monster moms, Internet predators, and suburban thugs still stalk the airwaves. We shake our heads over the latest mass shooting while failing to limit access to guns among people who shouldn’t have them. We fret over the kidnapping of a single toddler while hundreds of thousands suffer abuse or neglect. Atypical tragedies grab our attention.

Politicians, journalists, advocacy groups, and marketers continue to blow dangers out of proportion for votes, ratings, donations, and profits. Fear mongering for personal, political, and corporate gain continues unabated.

Throughout the opening of this century, Americans have remained inordinately fearful of unlikely dangers. But the culture of fear hasn’t just stoked Americans’ anxieties. It has helped to foster in our public discourse an approach to social problems that looks for answers in individuals’ biology and psychology rather than in underlying societal conditions. Call it the neurologizing of social problems.

An example is the story of how road rage became a medical malady. In writing The Culture of Fear, I selected road rage as a textbook example of an uncommon danger that was grossly overblown and that misdirected attention from core societal problems. A seemingly innocuous beep of the car horn can lead, Tom Jarriel of ABC’s newsmagazine 20/20 breathlessly reported in 1996, to “anger so explosive it pushes people over the edge: fistfights, even shootings, between perfect strangers.” Two years later, a Page 1 article in the Los Angeles Times declared that “road rage has become an exploding phenomenon across the country.”

The appeal of road rage to fear-mongering journalists lay in its presumed randomness: Anytime, anywhere, anyone could be a victim. Never mind that the statistical evidence didn’t support the supposed danger lurking in the car next to us. The more talk there was about road rage, the more incentive reporters, police officers, and insurance agents had to classify incidents as examples of it.

Fast-forward to the new century: Throughout the decade that began in 2000, magazines, newspapers, and TV programs ran thousands of articles that featured the scare. In those news stories, the definition of road rage expanded to include everything from honking to running someone over.

As in just about every contemporary American scare, rather than confront disturbing shortcomings in society, the public discussion of road rage centered on disturbed individuals. Demented drivers rather than unsound public policies occupied center stage in the coverage. Where reference was made at all to serious problems that drivers face, those problems were promptly shoved behind a curtain of talk about violent motorists.

Road rage soon became a medical malady. “They’re the victims of a newly defined psychiatric disorder,” announced Richard Schlesinger on CBS  News  in June 2006. “Intermittent Explosive Disorder is caused by improper functioning of a brain chemical,” he went on, warning that 16 million Americans may be affected. They “each have an average of 43 attacks in their lifetime. Something to think about when you’re in heavy traffic.”

At the time of the CBS story, nearly 10 million Americans had a round-trip commute of more than two hours, and soaring housing prices had driven people far from city centers to achieve the American dream of owning a home. Slower, more crowded roads, deficient investments in roads and public transportation, high gas prices, and, later in the decade, collapsing home values and record numbers of foreclosures in outlying areas predictably produced overheated drivers.

But the news media tended to focus on the besieged individual’s brain rather than on the larger society. Rather than talking to experts on, say, telecommuting or transportation infrastructure, journalists quoted advice to drivers to treat their road rage with Prozac or talk therapy, or by learning karate so they could be prepared when raging drivers leapt from their vehicles and attacked.

The news media’s tendency to neurologize social problems was also evident in the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Shortly after the bloodbath at Columbine in 1999, Jeffrey A. Fagan, then director of the Center for Violence Research and Prevention at Columbia University, pointed out that three common themes apply to school shootings: The perpetrator has a longstanding grievance, a mental illness, and access to firearms. None of those alone produces a massacre, he noted; their convergence does.

Eight years later, that point was driven home again for those who cared to notice. On the Virginia Tech campus, the student Seung-Hui Cho systematically killed 32 people. He had been diagnosed with mental illness while still in middle school and had been treated while at college. The creepy videotapes he left behind demonstrated a longstanding grievance. And he had firearms: a 9mm. Glock and a .22-caliber Walther.

American society, unlike many others around the globe, has no effective means for removing the one factor in that deadly triad that outside forces can control—a fact that barely got mentioned in the extensive news coverage following the shootings. In a cover story, Newsweek magazine puzzled instead over Cho’s background. “A Cho who grew up in, say, Japan, would almost certainly not have acted on his hatred and fury: Biology and psychology set the stage for homicidal violence, but the larger culture would likely have prevented its execution.” That in the “larger culture” of Japan it is difficult to buy a handgun somehow eluded the writer and her editors.

True to form after gun disasters, Newsweek, along with other media outlets, politicians, and pundits, engaged in protracted head scratching over criminal minds, negligent parents, powerless teachers, and ineffective mental-health workers. Access to guns was treated as just one of many factors contributing to violence on campuses, when in truth, as Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University succinctly put it, “Guns transform what is widespread teenage behavior into disasters.”

The misdirection created by the culture of fear can cause greater harm than distracting us from individual social problems. It can lock in larger social and economic inequalities. By contributing to the widening of the gap between rich and poor through portrayals of the poor as threatening and unsympathetic, the culture of fear harms not only low-income Americans but all Americans. “Living in a society with wide disparities—in health, in wealth, in education—is worse for all the society’s members, even the well-off,” Elizabeth Gudrais, an editor of Harvard Magazine, succinctly noted in an article in that alumni publication. “Research indicates that high inequality reverberates through societies on multiple levels, correlating with, if not causing, more crime, less happiness, poorer mental and physical health, less racial harmony, and less civic and political participation.”

Nor does the list end there. Arguably the most disturbing effects of the schism between rich and poor are experienced by the nation’s children. Yet in a decade when the United States had the highest rates of childhood poverty in the developed world and the lowest rates of spending on social services, American journalists and politicians repeatedly portrayed cyberspace as the scariest place a child can be, more menacing than anything young people face in a nonvirtual world. Parents worried that legions of adults would drool over their children’s photos on MySpace, the social-networking Web site dating to 2003, and gawk at the videos teens post on YouTube, which was inaugurated in 2005.

The reality is that patterns of abuse have not changed over the past decade. The vast majority of crimes against children and adolescents—sexual and otherwise—continue to be perpetrated by parents, relatives, and other adults the child or teen knows. More than four of five victims are abused by a parent, and another 10 percent by a caregiver, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The incidence of actual abuse as a result of an online connection is “vanishingly small,” as Mike A. Males, a sociologist who has studied the data, noted.

A group of researchers at the University of New Hampshire put it bluntly: “The publicity about online ”˜predators’ who prey on naïve children using trickery and violence is largely inaccurate. Internet sex crimes involving adults and juveniles more often fit a model of statutory rape—adult offenders who meet, develop relationships with, and openly seduce underage teenagers—than a model of forcible sexual assault or pedophilic child molesting.”

When adults do solicit minors online, the researchers found, the young person almost invariably knows that the person at the other computer is an adult. Trickery about the perpetrator’s age or intentions is rare. Moreover, as a study in 2009 from Harvard pointed out, youths who are approached and respond are typically teens already at risk because of their own drug abuse or troubled home environments. Many engage willingly with the adult who solicits them.

While adults were being told their kids were endangering their lives online—or at least, wasting them away—studies were finding that the online activities of youths are not only nontoxic, they’re productive. For example, a report in 2008 from the John D. and Catherine T. Mac­Arthur Foundation got little attention, but the extensive three-year study showed that youths use online media primarily for self-directed learning and to gain and extend friendships. “The digital world is creating new opportunities for youth to grapple with social norms, explore interests, develop technical skills, and experiment with new forms of self-expression,” the researchers wrote.

Scares about children being abducted offline continued as well. Unfortunately, heart-wrenching stories often became the driving force for expensive public policy. Take Jessica’s Law. Passed in California in 2006, the legislation was drafted in response to the murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was raped and killed by a sex offender who had completed his parole. Jessica’s Law stipulates that all sex offenders convicted of a crime in any of 35 categories be evaluated by a psychologist before being paroled, even if they committed only one offense and were juveniles when they committed it. Before the legislation, parolees were evaluated if they had committed at least two offenses in any of nine categories.

The goal of the parolee evaluations pre- and post-Jessica’s Law was to identify people who were most likely to commit a sex crime again, and in some cases, to confine them indefinitely to a state mental-health facility instead of paroling them.

Two years after Jessica’s Law was enacted, as California was reeling from a $42-billion budget deficit, investigative reporters at the Los Angeles Times looked into its cost. They discovered that more than $24-million had been paid to private psychologists in 2007 to evaluate the sex offenders. The state didn’t have enough staff psychologists or psychiatrists to meet the demand, so it had to hire outside evaluators. A few of them made more than a million dollars a year in their part-time gigs for the state. The result? Essentially no change in the number of sex offenders sent to mental hospitals. There were 41 such cases in the 18 months before Jessica’s Law, and 42 in the 18 months after it was put in place.

Throughout the decade, even in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when one might plausibly have expected pressing concerns to eclipse pseudoterrors, the media remained preoccupied with missing kids. I’ll make a fearless prediction: This pattern will not change in the second decade of the 21st century. At regular intervals, the airwaves will be filled with missing kids.

How do editors and journalists defend spending so much airtime on child abductions? They use words like “trend” or “epidemic” even as child abductions remain extremely rare, and they throw out bogus numbers. On his Fox News Channel show in 2002, Bill O’Reilly talked of “100,000 abductions of children by strangers every year in the United States,” though an exhaustive study from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention that year found only 115 cases a year of “stereotypical kidnappings” (children abducted by non-family members and kept for long periods of time or murdered). “The majority of victims of stereotypical and other non-family abductions were teens—not younger children—and most were kidnapped by someone they knew somewhat—not by strangers or slight acquaintances,” a subsequent report from the same agency stated in 2006.

In lectures and interviews, when I mention the actual statistics about kidnapped kids, I am often asked: Other than appealing to our baser appetites, what harm is there in the news media’s obsessing over missing children? My answer is, a lot of harm, ranging from expensive and ill-conceived legislation to needless restrictions on children’s ability to play and get exercise.

The nationwide Amber Alert system, named for a child murdered in Texas in 1996, costs the federal government $5-million annually and the states many times that amount, and produces frequent notices in the media about kidnapped children. But “the system does not typically work as designed (i.e., to save children who are in life-threatening danger) and might be generally incidental to the safe return of most of the hundreds of children for whom the alert system is said to have been ”˜successful,’” a team of criminologists at the University of Nevada concluded from their study of Amber Alerts over a three-year period beginning in 2003.

For children, fear and hysteria about stranger danger are harmful. While they should certainly be taught common-sense rules about interacting with strangers, too many warnings can lead to what the late George Gerbner of University of Pennsylvania called the “mean-world syndrome.” Children raised to view every adult with distrust might have little desire to become engaged in civic life when they are adults.

Missing-children coverage is also bad for citizens who would like to get some actual news with their news. The broadcast hours and column inches wasted on these stories could be put to better use. Focusing on bizarre and uncommon cases distracts us from the common dangers millions of children face every day, like malnourishment, poverty, lack of health insurance, and crowded and crumbling public schools. In a Unicef study in 2007 that looked at factors like poverty, health, safety, and education, children in the United States were found to be at much greater danger than anywhere else in the developed world.

Now there’s something worth worrying about.

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