time of fear and loathing
One afternoon, about a week after the 2005 London Bombings, I took
the Pakenham Line from Flinders Street Station. It was peak hour
and commuters were crammed into the carriages like neo-cons at a
cockfight. I was making no particular haste to get home. I was as
tranquil as it was possible for a commuter to be.
As any city loop habitue will know, a train's interior light has
the tendency to flicker. The brief fade-to-black is only as maddening
as one's reading material is good. These lapses rarely, if ever,
are cause for alarm, but as the carriage lights darkened between
Flagstaff and Central, I felt the stuff of my limbs just sort of
dilute. I knew the hectic ripple of anxiety attacks, but this monstrous
wave diminished them all. In this tidal flourish of despair, no
buoyancy seemed possible. In an instant, I was sweaty and breathless
and as sure as I have ever been that my life was in immediate danger.
My first instinct was to claw my way out of the train. The second
was to call my partner and bid an emotional farewell a la the passengers
on Flight 77. Fortunately, I did neither. Instead, I looked in the
fleeting darkness for the aggressor. My myopic mind's eye found
her. I'd registered the presence of a woman who looked to be about
19. She wore a hijab and a backpack.
"You racist shallow bastard," I told myself. Reason told
me that the backpack contained text books and the headscarf contained
an ordinary student at the end of her ordinary day. I couldn't help
myself. I alighted at Melbourne Central, took four buses home and
watched CNN for three solid hours.
When the fear had stopped resonating somewhere in Elsternwick,
I was struck by its pervasive and elaborate quality. In an age of
cool reason, it seemed rather odd to be overcome by something very
much like scorching religious passion. Perhaps this was a secular
version of fear of the wrath of God.
Almost as soon as it has subsided, my fear seemed cartoonish and
unreasonable. Generally, I prefer reason over impulse. Trembling
like a devout Christian at the onset of a solar eclipse seems odd.
I had joined the coalition of the nervous and I wasn't at all certain
True, each era has its own dreadful preoccupations — from
natural disasters to Godless communists to terrorism. And certainly,
what we fear changes over time. These days, though, it's not simply
that we've exchanged old fears for new ones. Fear in the 21st century
has acquired the skill of fastening itself to the culture and to
our psyches with a new viral speed.
Within hours of the British bombings, news media had attached a
snappy tag to an event that left 52 people dead. "7/7"
entered the marketplace of fear like a miniature foreign franchisee
of the original 9/11 terror brand. Television gave us a Euro Disney
staffed by brave London Bobbies, stoic Eastenders and Churchill's
ghost with a plucky Brit Pop soundtrack. In no time flat, catastrophe
had been pressed into the service of selling newspapers, engaging
eyeballs and justifying foreign policy.
"Fear and dread has attached itself to our psyche and many
people living and working in Melbourne have changed their personal
and professional behaviour to reflect this," Luke Howie says.
Howie, a PhD candidate in the School of Political and Social Inquiry
at Monash University, recently conducted qualitative research into
behavioural responses to terrorism. He found that people in Melbourne,
"were fearful and cautious of sitting with, or near, others
on public transport who they deemed to be of foreign or Middle-Eastern
Intrigued by the way in which the "low probability, high consequence
threat" of terrorism engages Australians, Howie interviewed
105 respondents. The subjects, many of whom work in prominent Melbourne
buildings conceivably susceptible to terrorist attack, described
a "sense of fear and panic disproportionate to the gravity
of the threat", Howie says.
Many interviewees, he says, conceded that their dread was irrational,
or even superstitious. The overwhelming majority of respondents
mentioned the World Trade Centre attack as a key moment in the construction
of their dread. One subject reported having no concern for terrorism
while at his desk. However, viewing his office tower from afar evoked
the likeness of the September 2001 strike. Looking up at his office,
he felt all the dread the televised moment has come to signify.
"The role of the image is very different to what it was in
the early 20th century," Howie says.
Part of the problem, says Howie, is that while the images assailing
our senses have multiplied unimaginably in recent decades, our poor
old bodies have not kept up. As brain physiology understands it,
it is the brain that sees and perceives; eyes and ears are simply
neutral observers. Our visual and auditory association areas, Howie
says, apprehend external stimuli in the same way, whether we are
watching television or perceiving an actual event. The primal jerk
of fear is identical.
Such imagery now mingles intimately with our every day. Our psyches
are simply ill-prepared or unable to distinguish between an event
and its electronic depiction.
Late communications theorist George Gerbner theorised that contact
with real trauma was not a prerequisite for fear. In describing
the consequences of a world increasingly navigated by visual media,
he coined the phrase Mean World Syndrome. Its distinguishing features
are an increased indifference to the consequences of violence and
an amplified sense of our own vulnerability and dependence.
So, while we find ourselves unable to rationalise or even respond
to the newest reported tragedy, we feel more fearful for our own
safety. Years of terror served in real time may have drained us
of compassion for everyone but ourselves.
Fear for our individual safety is now as readily manufactured as
the image of the World Trade Centre.
The city worker interviewed by Howie is not alone in his psychological
discomfort. Swayed more by images and fridge magnets than reason,
many of us are preoccupied with terrorism. Last year, The Lowy Institute
asked 1000 respondents to rank potential threats from the world
outside Australia. In the institute's 2005 Poll Data Book, international
terrorism scored third place. Nudging in at fifth, just behind disease
epidemics, Islamic fundamentalism romped away with a robust 57 per
cent of public anxiety.
And fear inheres in the trivial just as much as it does in our
more public anxieties. Our careening public obsession with everything
from border control to pedophilia to real estate to fine lines and
wrinkles is fed and assuaged by entrepreneurs and policy makers.
In her new work Fear and Politics, Carmen Lawrence asserts that
"we are living, not for the first time, in an era of heightened
collective fear, a fear which is being exploited and encouraged
by our governments through the media".
In this view, fear is meticulously crafted and controlled. Along
with public figures like Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, Lawrence
posits a mechanism of control that recalls the moral panic of Reds
under the Bed or McCarthyism. I have long thought of Michael Moore
as the left's most agreeably concise ambassador. Up until "7/7"
opened for business, I enjoyed his documentaries immensely. He is
a soothing polemicist who made it easy for me to understand the
Western world and all the fearful white middle-class people in it.
But a genuine encounter with a public anxiety has problematised
my seduction by Moore and other straightforward accounts of fear.
True, policy makers bluff, exaggerate and obscure truth to intensify
fear for political gain. National security and vulnerability is
a great platform for an election. This year, it was also a winning
formula for a television program in the form of Border Control.
But this doesn't begin to illuminate the dark chaos of my fear
on the city loop.
"We have to think in a complex way about this," says
Dr Vicki Crowley, senior lecturer in communications at the University
of South Australia.
The temptation to think about fear in a simple way, she says, is
overwhelming. There is a drive to be reductive. As our fear becomes
more diffuse and less connected to anything real, our mode of understanding
it seems to become firmer and more concise, observes Crowley. "Things
are laid out as a series of singularities. Because of those five
second bites, our thinking strives to parallel these things,"
However it is happening, fear seems to have acquired an existence
independent of any connection to real threats. Or even to the possibility
of threat. It is its own evolving currency that emerges from every
corner of the culture.
"Political debate is often reduced to competing claims about
what to fear," says British-based sociologist Frank Furedi
in his 2005 essay The Market of Fear.
The Lowy Institute Poll indicates that we are becoming more bipartisan
in the way we fear. At number one is the fear of nuclear proliferation.
At number two, we see John Howard's bugbear, global warming. By
one measure, says the report, both Islamic fundamentalism and US
foreign policy are worrying to 57 per cent of Australians. The authors
describe this as "a startling equivalence".
Furedi contends that environmentalists are no less implicated in
the use of scare tactics to promote their principles than conservatives
who court attention through amplifying fears about border protection.
In the new open marketplace of dread, Furedi says, fears compete
with one another to capture our attention. The intensification of
fear, he says, amounts to a rejection of politics altogether. It
also indicates, in his reading, a rejection of logic.
Meanwhile, fear is pressed into the service of selling newspapers,
engaging eyeballs and justifying foreign policy. It flourishes and
advances by its own momentum.
As Carmen Lawrence points out, there is nothing particularly new
about making powerful claims based on fear. The economy of fear,
however, has changed. Once, fear was a more tightly controlled market.
Fearing God, communists, monsters and foreigners was a simple business.
The newer free market has liberalised fear to a point where it attaches
its "value" to just about anything.
Our vulnerability to fear might be ancient, but its vast and chaotic
reproduction is something new. Fear has become a stand-alone occurrence
and has a dwindling relationship to experience.
Days before my experience on the train, the London bombings had
With a bad case of what I can now diagnose as Mean World Syndrome,
I remember watching it quite indifferently. The catastrophe itself
seemed unreal and airbrushed to me. I was unconcerned until the
event reproduced itself in peak hour. The back pack, the Muslim
and the underground train ignited my fear.
It's an awful thing to admit, but I believe that my only emotional
reaction to the London bombings was a delayed and extreme sense
of my own vulnerability. The marketplace of fear, writes Furedi,
has no clear or single objective.
"The distinct feature of our time is not the cultivation of
fear but the cultivation of our sense of vulnerability."
There are, of course, real things in the real world that are genuinely
As I discovered, there are imagined things in the real world that
are equally terrifying.
published in The Age, 2 December 2006