Addictions come in numerous varieties: drugs, alcohol, food, sex. How about fear?
Many Americans seem almost addicted to the feeling of being afraid, whether of the apocalypse or the common cold. You see evidence of this in the way the news media serve up terrors to their customers.
In comments trumpeted around the world, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking recently warned, “Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of.”
Last month, distinguished Israeli historian Benny Morris caused a stir when he confidently predicted in a New York Sun article the coming of a “Second Holocaust” in which Iranian nuclear-tipped missiles will strike Israel: “A million or more Israelis, in the greater Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem areas, will die immediately. Millions will be seriously irradiated.”
On the domestic front, in disreputable but popular Internet “news” venues, you can expect to find headlines such as this: “Al Qaeda nukes already in U.S.: Terrorists, bombs smuggled across Mexico border by MS-13 gangsters,” as WorldNetDaily promised its readers in 2005.
In health news, Reuters announces a scientific risk-management analysis, finding a one in five chance that a bird flu epidemic will kill significantly more than 2 million Americans.
Regarding the factual basis of an extreme threat like global warming, pandemic flu or an Iranian nuclear strike, there is room for argument. But how plausible is it that all these perceptions of peril are securely based on reality?
Compulsively, Americans pass around these news stories by e-mail, or they listen, enthralled, as the stories are heralded on television or on radio talk shows. Yet the lively interest in being scared to death also has a more homely, less dramatic side. Here the focus is on mundane risks, mainly to your health.
In Arkansas, the state legislature is about to pass a law “to increase awareness of Arkansas shoppers, infants and young children about potential contamination from contact with a shopping cart handle.” The law, the first of its kind in the country, would empower the state to develop guidelines according to which supermarkets would provide “sanitation wipes” for customers terrified of other people’s germs.
Our local Albertson’s supermarket here in Washington already does this, offering a box of disinfectant wipes in a display next to the line of carts. In a similar spirit, the synagogue I belong to provides dispensers of sanitizing gel in case the person whose hand you just shook has an infectious disease. A bottle of Purell is a contemporary totem, a ubiquitous item today in offices, cars and purses.
Even President Bush douses his hands with the goop. As Barack Obama recounts in his new book, when he and Bush met at the White House, Bush afterward “turned to an aide nearby, who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitizer in the president’s hand.” Bush recommended it to the Illinois junior senator: “Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds.”
If you do get a cold, according to the new etiquette being urged on us by a TV ad campaign, it’s now considered correct to sneeze onto your arm rather than into your hand. That way, you are less likely to give someone else your cold, though you are more likely to walk around with snot on your sleeve. The latter is an emblem of enlightenment in this hypochondriacal age.
While any individual fear or precaution could possibly be defended as rational, the whole pattern together suggests otherwise.
Like hobbyists, Americans collect fears, taking a competitive pride in being more informed than our friends and neighbors about obscure dangers. If collecting stamps is fine, what’s wrong with collecting phobias?
Annoyingly, many enthusiasts of fear assume they have the right to impose their neuroses on everyone else — public-smoking bans, car-seat laws and peanut-free schools, to name just a few. Even reasonable people get caught up in the craze. For others, there appears to be a thrill in feeling your own power to cause worry and bend others to your will.
In truth, risks are probably even more pervasive than we realize. Every surface crawls with microbes, many of them disease carrying. And no doubt Muslim would-be terrorists dream of carrying out another September 11. Yet somehow we usually escape harm.
That isn’t to say that our times are uniquely perilous. The world has always been dangerous, as earlier generations understood.
But our ancestors also perceived — as we, alas, mostly do not — that a cosmic force called God keeps us overwhelmingly safe. The Talmud encapsulates this idea in a striking image.
It is said that if you could see the countless demons that surround us on every side, you would not be able to stand it. You would collapse in terror. In Hebrew, demons, or “mazikin” literally means “damagers.”
The everyday miracle is that God shields us from the “damagers” and the damage they would do. Yet instead of thanking Him, by cultivating our fears we implicitly deny His protecting providence.
David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).