Photo of the Sunday, August 22, 2010 Cordoba House protest. (Credit: David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons)

Inspector Malcolm Fox—the protagonist of Ian Rankin’s Scottish crime novel, The Impossible Dead (NY: Little, Brown and Co., 2011)—reflects upon the ever-presence of fear, whether in news reports from 1985 or today:

When you’d stopped needing to fear a US-Soviet conflagration or an impending ice age, something else came along in its place. Fear of crime always seemed to outpace the actual statistics. Right now, people were fearing for their jobs and pensions, fearing global warming and dwindling resources. If these problems were ever resolved, new worries would fill the vacuum. (pp. 329-30)

Fear fills the vacuum of resolved problems. Fear engenders problems. Problems are a figment of fear, the chimera of exaggeration—or at least can be. Exaggeration, whether of crime levels or threats to national security, perpetuates the perception of crisis. The status quo remains on the verge of CRITICAL.

Phobos is the personification of fear in Greek mythology. He is the son of Ares, Greek god of war, and the brother of Deimos, Greek god of terror. Father and sons visit together the battlegrounds of mortals. They are worshipped, often with bloody sacrifices, in Sparta, the city-state renowned for its militarism. Alexander the Great prays to Phobos, in part to scare his enemy. Today, we call exaggerated fear a phobia. War propaganda plays on our phobias. If it isn’t one fear to fight, it’s another.


Gigantomachy: Hermes (or Phobos?) and Ares in a chariot, Athena next to them, trampled giant. Side A from an Attic black-figure amphora, 530 (or 510?) BC. From Vulci. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Fear readily transforms into hate and discord. At the start of Chapter 11 of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, the goddess of strife utters a shrill cry that emboldens Greek warriors to fight on in an unceasing war. Her scream makes the call to arms more compelling even than the sweet thought of returning to the homeland.

French President François Hollande, declaring a state of emergency on the day Islamic State terrorists strike Paris, invokes the sign of fear to call the nation to arms:

What the terrorists want is to scare us and fill us with dread. There is indeed reason to be afraid. There is dread, but in the face of this dread, there is a nation that knows how to defend itself, that knows how to mobilize its forces and, once again, will defeat the terrorists.

The thing about fear is once it gets a grip on us—as it did on 9/11—it holds on. Fear is a self-perpetuating political motive. It persists to our detriment, as political scientist Corey Robin explains in Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). Political fear focuses us on the negative and blinds us to positive alternatives. It constitutes a culture of fear and serves as an instrument of repression. It fixates on evil to justify warfare instead of the pursuit of justice, equality, and freedom.

Fixation and exaggeration, not the absence of danger, are the marks of political fear. It “preys upon some real threat.” Our leaders decide “which threats are worthy of political attention and which are not.” They manipulate the fear of terrorism. Fear unites us in feeling and thought by paralyzing our critical faculties and silencing dissent. We are blinded to underlying grievances and controversies and denied “the tools that might mitigate [real-world] conflicts.” (Robin, pp. 3, 6, 16, 25)


(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A permanent war against terror is a diversion from our own domestic anxieties. It perpetuates elite rule in collusion with victims and bystanders alike as it pursues negative peace over a positive peace in which justice would prevail over fear. (Robin, pp. 155, 160, 162-65)

The grip of fear risks our political soul. As historian Joanna Bourke observes in Fear: A Cultural History (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2006), “The spectre of ‘the Terrorist’ has taken on a god-like power, equivalent to the plague of earlier times or the Satan of religion . . . Fear has become the emotion through which public life is administered.” It deflects attention from Western and American imperialism as it projects internal anxieties onto an external enemy imagined as a virulent, irrational, monolithic Muslim beast. (Bourke, pp. x, 372-73)

Fear works the way of the scapegoat in what Kenneth Burke calls the victimage ritual (The Rhetoric of Religion, pp. 4-5). The enemy is a desperate caricature, a product of identifying outsiders with negative traits we wish to dissociate from ourselves. The way of the scapegoat constitutes a cultural pathology of guilt-infused fear. It stunts our capacity to see the way toward a better life.


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