Fear itself

How to survive in a frightening world

Tijn Touber | June 2005 issue

The British are known for starting every other sentence with the words “I’m afraid…” Is it typical British politeness? Or are the British indeed afraid? One could conclude the latter based on the sheer number of surveillance cameras now installed across the nation. More than one million cameras are currently keeping watch in public places throughout the U.K.—and they’re not all in banks, police stations and government buildings. Many are recording activity in shopping malls, train stations, sports stadiums, gas stations, night clubs and restaurants.

Why are the British so afraid? Because they are told every day they should be—that their land is full of terrorists, thieves, violent offenders, rapists, dangerous foreigners, pedophiles, hooligans. English tabloids have long been notorious for fearmongering. What’s new is that the British government has now joined them in fanning the flames of fear. And many other governments are doing the same.

Since 9/11, reports the British global affairs magazine New Internationalist (March 2005), governments around the world have been curtailing people’s privacy in the name of security. Along with the proliferation of surveillance cameras, identity cards, iris scans, blood vessel scans and voice scans are becoming commonplace. In the UK, Germany, Spain, and Malaysia, identity “smartcards” are being developed, which in the future you will need to show in order to apply for a job, get a hotel room, book a plane ticket or even surf the internet.

This is just part of a whole toolkit of high-tech techniques to keep tabs on people. Every e-mail you send and website you visit can be traced via your provider’s server; governments can request access to this information “in case of emergency.” Echelon, a new communications technology, can automatically scan telephone conversations for specific words. Satellite technology is also being used more frequently to locate people. This technique was used in 2003 to track down Al Qaeda members in remote parts of Yemen. China is planning on launching 100 such satellites by 2020 “to monitor various types of activities of society.” At Boston’s Logan airport, the face of every passenger is compared with that of known terrorists with a new technology. Experts estimate that we’ll see 9,999 false alarms for every terrorist that is caught. More than five million are now on the United so-called Master Terror Watchlist.

In his recently published book Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford University Press, 2004), American political scientist Corey Robin notes, “Our fear of terrorism, orchestrated and manipulated by the powerful, is being used to reorganize the structure and power of American society, giving more to those who already have much and taking away from those who have little.”

Robin puts our modern-day experience of fear in an historical context and concludes that fear is deeply embedded in our genes. He says it’s the first emotion Adam and Eve experienced after their fall from paradise. Eating the apple put an end to blissful and innocent ignorance. They had to choose between good and evil and experience the consequences of those choices for the first time. That was the symbolic beginning of fear.

The real question, however, is not whether we should or should not be afraid, but how we handle fear. Frances Moore Lappé and Jeffrey Perkins wrote an insightful book on the subject: You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear (Penguin, 2004). They see fear not as a negative emotion that paralyzes you, but as a positive force that provokes you into action: “It is not fear itself that can shut us down; it is our ideas about fear.”

Handling fear differently can save our lives, as is clear from the story Lappé and Perkins tell about Timothy Njoya, a minister in Kenya. He paid a high price for resisting the country’s authoritarian regime. One evening, seven armed men attacked him at home, cutting off his fingers and tearing open his stomach. As he lay dying on the floor, his voice trembling, he bequeathed his possessions to his attackers. One got his favourite bible, another his clothes and so forth. Caught off guard by such generosity, the men rushed their victim to the hospital, where he was saved.

Njoya declares, “Fear is an energy that comes from inside us, not outside. So we can channel it into fear, paranoia, or euphoria, whatever we choose.”

In other words, we may not be able to live without fear, but we can learn to live with it.

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