ONE afternoon, sales
As any city loop habitue will know, link 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 why.
True, each era has its own dreadful preoccupations ó 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 appearance”.
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,” she says.
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 taken place.
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 scary.
As I discovered, there are imagined things in the real world that are equally terrifying.