fear leaves us paralysed
Apocalyptic visions keep us in a permanent state of anxiety.
But we are not as powerless as we think
Since the turn of the century, we have been waiting for the big
one. In the final years of the 20th century, the millennium bug
was predicted to be the harbinger of a major catastrophe. However,
it was not until 11 September 2001 that a new century of fear really
began. Last year, the tsunami reminded us that natural disasters
also pose a challenge to human existence. And now Katrina forces
us again to ask how we can make sense of such senseless events.
Since biblical times, disasters have been experienced as defining
moments. From Noah's flood to last week's catastrophe in New Orleans,
the phrase 'nothing will ever be the same again' has been repeated
time and again.
After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, it became
commonplace to hear politicians and commentators say that 'the world
changed forever on 9/11'. Later, one American journalist commented:
'When historians write the final story of the tsunami that hit the
early 21st century, they will write about how the world changed."
Disasters are often invested with hidden meaning. In religious
societies, disasters have been interpreted as a means of communication
between gods and humans. In modern times, disasters reinforce the
belief in the transient quality of human ends. They have been represented
as an outcome of human arrogance or as proof that science does not
have all the answers.
Today, we no longer have a common system of meaning through which
to make sense of tragedies such as that afflicting New Orleans.
Some blame greedy property developers, others human impact on the
environment, or they indict irresponsible politicians.
Even traditional arguments about catastrophe being God's punishment
for sin have been brought into the frame. However, the dominant
meaning that disasters communicate to us is that we are right to
live in a state of constant fear. Obsessed as we are by terrorist
violence, global warming, flu pandemics and technological catastrophes,
a tragic event like Katrina reinforces fear about our existence.
Fear today has a free-floating dynamic that can attach itself to
a variety of phenomena. Fear of terrorism illustrates this trend.
Since 11 September, our anxiety extends into ever-expanding territory.
Alarmist messages about terrorists poisoning water compete with
claims that BSE-type viruses will be unleashed to destroy agriculture.
Straightforward hazards can be turned into exceptional threats
by associating them with the action of terrorists. As a result,
we do not simply worry about the risk posed by a nuclear power station;
we also fear it may turn into a terrorist target. In the same way,
concerns about global warming, irresponsible development or an unpopular
war can be amplified through associating it with the destruction
of New Orleans. In this way, our fears become inflated and normalised
and we come to expect many more such tragedies.
The tendency to engage with uncertainty through the prism of fear
and therefore anticipate destructive outcomes is a crisis in our
understanding of cause and effect. How we see causation is bound
up with the way communities attempt to make sense of misfortune.
Questions like 'Was it God?' (or nature or human error) have implications
for how we understand misfortune. Today, such questions are complicated
by the fact that Western societies have a weak sense of shared meaning
and so lack consensus about how to attribute blame and responsibility.
Increasingly, the questions of what to fear and whom to blame become
subjects of acrimonious debate. In such an atmosphere, conspiracy
theories flourish and litigation thrives. 'Fear entrepreneurs' -
opportunist politicians, businesses preying on the public's sense
of vulnerability, crusaders using scare stories to promote their
cause, media outlets gaining attention through alarmist headlines
- transform our anxieties about causation into tangible fears.
Promiscuous use of terms such as 'plague', 'epidemic' or 'syndrome'
inflate anxieties. The adoption of a high-tech, apocalyptic vocabulary
helps turn acts of misfortune into a crisis of human existence.
It fuels a mood of powerlessness where different fears compete with
one another to capture the public imagination.
And our confusion gives our fears a private, even arbitrary character.
Instead of being able to forge a consensus around society's fears,
the way we respond to threat tends to isolate us.
We need to remind ourselves that communities often possess remarkable
capacities to rebuild their lives. The experience of history indicates
that humanity can survive disasters. The good news is that life
After 9/11, New Yorkers showed tremendous resilience and community
spirit. That much of this positive legacy was frittered away by
short-sighted policies does not detract from the inspiring way in
which New Yorkers succeeded in getting on with life. In Asia, after
the tsunami, we saw many examples of communities overcoming and
recovering from the devastation they had suffered.
The meaning that we derive from last week's disaster need not be
that it justifies a culture of fear. Instead, this tragedy can stimulate
us to clarify who we are and what we believe is the purpose of life.
The absence of consensus on the meaning of a disaster represents
an opportunity for a debate about the kind of society we want to
build. The way to minimise the influence of the fear merchants is
to focus on working out a shared way of interpreting future misfortunes.
published in the Observer, 4 September 2005