Saturday the Washington Post reported, “Americans more fearful of a terrorist attack, poll finds”. The article claimed that fear has “risen sharply” since the Paris attacks on November 13.
The actual survey question asked on November 19 was, “How likely do you think it is that in the near future there will be a terrorist attack in the United States causing a large number of lives to be lost?” The identical question has been asked periodically since December, 2001. Last week eighty-one percent of respondents considered the prospect “very” or “somewhat” likely. This is the second highest result since the question has been asked, surpassed only by the 85 percent net likelihood found after the July 2005 London bomb attacks.
The survey did not ask respondents anything about fear.
Last week I had three friends check in on canceling their holiday trips to New York. I received one of their calls while walking across Times Square. A related email arrived while I was getting off the subway at Herald Square. That morning many newscasts were leading with the ISIS video-threat against New York.
Clearly my friends were apprehensive. I don’t perceive they were afraid. Rather, each of them was probably contacting me precisely to strengthen their predisposition to persist with their plans. My work has very little to do with counter-terrorism, but one of my friends wrote, “You make me feel safer, because I know you know more than most…”
My responses were variations on the theme: risk is persistent, death is inevitable, New York is a very big place, I’m having a great time. This does not assert any special knowledge.
The Old English word (fær) from which fear is derived means “sudden attack” or “ambush”. If I had been at or near the Bataclan I would have been fearful. I am not confident I have the courage or grace to perceive the profound love reported, even there, by one of those trapped in harms way (thank you Vicki).
But fear is not an accurate description for what I currently feel or what prompted my friends to contact me. Fear may be what Mr. Trump is trying to sell. But it is not, necessarily, what the survey respondents were channeling. Perception of an increased likelihood of terrorist attacks may not translate directly into increased fear of the same.
Yet… I have difficulty explaining inflexible and craven notions regarding “outsiders” unless many are afraid or feel themselves on the sharpest edge of fear and are desperately trying to avoid falling further into what they see as a imminent maelstrom.
How do we constructively deal with such wide-spread anxiety?
It is difficult to think aloud about these issues. Objective analysis helps, but in another way misses the point entirely. This is mostly about subjective projection.
A few lines cherry-picked from Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety:
All war’s woes I can well imagine.
Gun-barrels glint, gathered in ambush
Mayhem among mountains…
Ruins by roads, irrational in woods,
Insensitive upon snow-bound plains,
Or littered lifeless along low coasts…
Numbers and nightmares have news value.
A crime has occurred, accusing all.
The world needs a wash and a week’s rest.
Better this than barbarian misrule.
History tells more often than not
Of wickedness with will, wisdom but
An interjection without a verb,
And the godless growing like green cedars
On righteous ruins…
But the new barbarian is no uncouth
Desert-dweller; he does not emerge
From fir forests; factories bred him;
Corporate companies, college towns
Mothered his mind, and many journals
Backed his beliefs. He was born here. The
Bravura of revolvers in vogue now
And the cult of death are quite at home
Inside the City…
Do we learn from the past? The police,
The dress-designers, etc.,
Who manage the mirrors, say–No.
A hundred centuries hence
The gross and aggressive will still
Be putting their trust in patron
Saint or a family fortress,
The seedy be taking the same
Old treatments for tedium vitae,
Religion, Politics, Love…
Both professor and prophet depress,
For vision and longer view
Agree in predicting a day
Of convulsion and vast evil,
When the Cold Societies clash
Or the mosses are set in motion
To overrun the earth,
And the great brain which began
With lucid dialectics
Ends in a horrid madness…
We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
Auden wrote this between July, 1944 and November, 1946. I have lived my entire life in the shadow he so powerfully projects. There is also evidence of such dread being fully confirmed: Between April and November 1944 585,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. On August 6, 1945 an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima incinerating at least 100,000. Listing one dreadful example for each year since would not be difficult. Choosing only one would be the challenge.
Yet this is not the whole story. Auschwitz was liberated, Japanese and Americans reconciled, in the last seventy years many ancient sources of oppression have withered. In the midst of these dreadful years, have you loved someone? Known the love of another? Experienced joy?
Reality taken as whole helps. Reality is both brutal and beautiful (and more). It is important not to deny its multiplicity.
Yesterday, Monday, the Washington Post had another story: Voters’ fear of terrorism changes the campaign. This time individuals are quoted expressing specific fears. In these explanations I hear something other than visceral reaction. I hear self-interested choices.