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Fear factor in US society
The day we left Dallas, I got up at 5.30 to check out the weather forecast on TV. The first channel I looked at was announcing “man murdered” at so and so corner. The second, “suicide” at number whatever street. The third, “man badly beaten with a baseball bat in gang warfare” and the fourth was describing in detail the “deadly bombing” of somebody’s shrine somewhere in the Middle East—“bodies scattered everywhere!”
It was not until 15 minutes later that I got the weather report and even that emphasised the storm building in the northeast, 1,500 miles away, and the ten per cent chance it had of affecting flights out of Dallas in 48 hours. In the meantime, the weather here was lovely, even if the traffic was not moving as fast as it should on highway 30 because of a terrible accident that had occurred just before 4 am, causing the death of a 50-year-old man and his girlfriend’s sister.
Reading the newspapers that same morning showed more of the same: emphasis on things that cause fear and anxiety—murder, suicide, gang warfare, terrorist threats, storms, and deaths from motor vehicle accidents. Everywhere one goes in the US these days, the story is the same: gloom and doom. Everyone seems to be living with fear—fear of terrorists, fear of bankruptcy, fear of crime, fear of being shot, fear of driving, fear of going outside. It is a society that highlights fear.
One in three Americans suffers from some kind of anxiety disorder in their lifetime, the highest in the world. A recent study on American children showed that levels of fear and anxiety among them were as high as those of adults who lived in the 50’s and three times higher than similar children from that same decade. Elevated anxiety levels are known to seriously affect the health of adults, leading to heart disease and stroke and to affect blood glucose control in diabetics. The long-term effect on children is unknown.
The day before, I had been told by a very sweet and soft-spoken 60-year-old primary-school teacher that she hoped to retire before the state of Texas passed a law requiring her to wear a gun in her class. The idea is that in case of an attack, she would be able to defend her students by shooting it out with the attacker. The rationale behind this astounding piece of Americanism is that the only way to prevent a “bad” guy from killing children is to arm a “good” guy. Will “carrying” be limited to teachers? Will hospital workers, librarians, babysitters, mall managers, coaches etc, end up similarily armed? Will attack weapons become standard equipment for paediatricians? How about body armour? Where will this thing end?
Last Friday, despite there being no evidence that firearm owners have ever used their weapons to deter violent crime in any significant way, the state of South Dakota passed just such a law and there are 20 other states thinking of doing the same. I remember in the 50s landing at Maiquetia in Venezuela and being alarmed at the sight of so many soldierly types walking around armed with machine guns. We used to badtalk the Venezuelans for this. But it was only on this last visit that I realised that all Immigration Officers at American airports are also armed. So are all of those nervous Transportation Security Administration guys and ladies who constantly shout out instructions to remove jackets, shoes, belts, computers etc and place them in the appropriate basins and, “Keep moving, keep moving.”
Really, are they expecting an invasion? All they do is make you more anxious. It’s not only the media and the gun lobby and the airport security apparatus that created unnecessary fear. The medical profession, with the help of the media, certainly does its bit to ramp up anxiety. Every year during the flu season comes news about a “major flu epidemic!” “I think we’re right on the cusp of a major flu season, and there’s going to be some panic, unfortunately,” warned one infectious disease specialist late last year. Emergency rooms are then mobbed with sick patients. New York State and the City of Boston declare public health emergencies. “The entire country is already in somewhat of a panic about its fevers and runny noses,” asserted New York magazine. “People are starting to panic because of all the news reports,” said the Public Health Director of Natick, Mass.
Everyone appears to fear just about everything. American life seems dominated by competing groups of fear merchants who sell their products through fear tactics. Politicians, the media, businesses, public health officials and so on, are continually issuing warnings about something or the other. Most Americans do not seem to be aware of this aspect of their life. As we boarded, the last thing we heard was one of those horrible airport security announcements where the word “arrest” features prominently. It was nice to get back to Piarco to be greeted by a smiling Immigration Officer.
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