America is addicted to terror: Why our obsession with irrational fear is tearing this country apart

The politics of fear have become so powerful in this country that rationality feels like a relic from the past

Published December 22, 2015 9:45PM (EST)

  (<a href=''>CURAphotography</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(CURAphotography via Shutterstock/Salon)

I’m a constantly anxious person. I worry that I said something stupid in a meeting or that I left my car window down. I worry about the safety of my children walking to school. I’m even afraid about saying something wrong on Facebook.

However, despite my innate anxiety, I have no fear of terrorism. I know that I have a better chance of getting hit by lightning or slipping in the tub than of even meeting a member of Daesh (an alternative name for ISIS, which the group detests -- so we should all use it). People have been talked into existential, paralyzing fright by exploitive politicians and ratings-hungry, fake news outlets, like CNN and Fox News, among others. We have let ourselves become fearful over almost nothing.

But my own irrational fear is far outweighed by my anger. I’m angry that we are so easily manipulated as a species and as a country. Every election cycle, we see newly minted, terrifying boogeymen out to destroy America, so we give up a little more of our power and dignity to those who promise to make it all better. If you think I’m overstating it, I would remind you of the Great Ebola Panic of 2014. Just before the last midterm election (convenient timing), our nation was both obsessed over and terrified about the “threat of Ebola” (picture the word dripping with green slime for effect). "Close the Borders, Now!screamed irrational, cowardly headlines, written (one presumes) by toddlers hiding underneath a pink "My Little Pony" blanket. It’s the essence of irrational.

I’m still waiting for my apology from the many news outlets that lobbed article after article, featuring innumerable talking heads, liars and cheats. Where is the Ebola that I was promised? Television news was particularly irresponsible. The fiction of Ebola must have impacted the midterm elections but in ways we will never be able to guess or quantify. Some television stations probably made more money and someone got a book deal, but in the end, all the fear and handwringing was over nothing. I want my 2014 back.

Terrorism is real, just as Ebola is a real and dangerous illness. America had a few cases of Ebola, just as we’ve had a few cases of terrorism since 9/11. In incidents like San Bernardino, every death is a tragedy, but your chances of being personally affected by similar incidents are effectively zero. Neil deGrasse Tyson summed it up with a pretty good tweet : “3,400: Americans who died by Terrorism since 2001. 3,400: Americans who died by household Firearms since five weeks ago.” Our abject, irrational hysteria is a much bigger problem than terrorism.

We lost 15 people in California. Paris lost 130 to religiously motivated violence or, if you prefer, Islamic terrorism (sure, I’ll say it). Yet in an average year, hundreds of people die from falling off a ladder in America. You are safer going to Paris than changing a light bulb in your own home, even after the attack.

America does not have a terrorism problem, but we do have an overall gun violence problem. To address it, you’d have to face both the mundane daily gun violence and the acts of terrorism by white people, like Dylann Roof. Daily shootings are boring and no one wants to do what it takes to fix the problem, as in enacting meaningful gun law reform, and we don’t treat terrorist acts by white people the same as those perpetrated by scary, brown people. Terrorism committed by white guys just doesn’t move units. It’s a bizarre personality tick that exposes shallow nature of our nonstop hyperventilation about terrorism.

I don’t want to hold my own side blameless, because irrational fear can transcend party. Many Democrats also cite terrorism as a serious threat to America. Liberals have some different and favored irrationalities too, like genetically modified foods. These foods have been deemed safe by scientific consensus, but we can’t let it go for many of the same knee-jerk reasons. Yet, the most irrational fears at this moment are coming from the right. They are most afraid of a host of demons both real and imagined. Their fear of a thing is far more destructive than the thing itself.

I understand the feelings of conservatives, because I spent most of my life on that side. I feel just as afraid as any Midwestern soccer mom, blue-collar conservative or die-hard GOP voter. Fear is a natural reaction to a chaotic world, but we do not have to wallow in it. We can overcome it. When I decided to try to let more facts and reason inform my politics, I did not stop feeling fear and even hidden feelings of loathing for “other” people and ideas. I cope with my own fear now by distrusting it. Our reptilian brains are programmed for fear and survival, but we cannot allow this nonstop carnival of terror to make us lesser people.

Americans like to be scared. We watch scary movies, and chant into mirrors to summon imaginary monsters. In childhood we dress up, trick and terrify ourselves. We have created the perfect villain in Daesh, a manufactured army, more heat than light, more thug than nationality. The worst part is that our enemy is small and nearly powerless. They hold minimal territory, have fewer fighters than any country facing them and are using the latest in 12th century technology. The small amount of modernity they employ is stolen. They are a small band of primitive and superstitious villains and bozos. America defeated the Nazis. We flew to the moon, and we invented the “snuggie.” How the hell are we afraid of 20,000 homeless guys?

There is only one sensible response to terrorism, and it is not fear. It is mockery. Terrorists are more afraid of satire and mockery than any other weapon we possess. I mock this latest scare. For example, you know they all have small dicks, because they’re terrified of sexually empowered women.

I also dismiss the enablers of terrorism. I don’t mean the Saudis, but rather, I’m talking about the blowhard presidential candidates and infotainment peddlers who exploit our fears for votes and ratings. Their behavior emboldens our enemies and gives them power where they formerly had none. That sounds downright treasonous to me. And speaking of treason, one of the side effects of this irrationality is that we are considering elevating an orange buffoon to the highest office in our nation. Fear makes us actually consider the farfetched nonsense of Donald Trump and even worse, the inflated hate monger, Ted Cruz. We may never recover from this moment if we cannot get a little goddamn perspective back into our lives.

We have witnessed terrorist acts and violence, but those isolated incidents are nothing compared to the damage we are doing to ourselves. We are shredding our national self-esteem and violating our own deepest values over almost nothing. I know fear, and I too have let it drive me to irrational behavior. But this latest bout of national fretting has reached beyond what is decent. We are acting like cowards, and I am ashamed. We need not be conquered by a handful of dehydrated, religious fanatics to lose our country if we’re willing to destroy it ourselves.

By Edwin Lyngar

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America Fear Foreign Policy Terrorism