Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Essays

One Nation Under Fear

Mark Edmundson

Illustration (detail) by Robert Pizzo.

We have become a nation and a people that simply cannot abide risks.

Among the puzzling questions of world history and national identity, a few stand out. How, one might ask, did the Vikings, once the roving terrors of the world, manage to become equable Nordic socialists with lessons to teach us in the arts of decency and fairness? And how did the tough, soldierly Romans, conquerors of the world, manage to evolve into the charming, pleasure-loving Italians, with their gifts for good food, good wine, and civic instability?

Soon, a similarly unexpected question may be asked about Americans. How did a people who settled a continent, created enormous wealth, and fought and (mostly) won war after war devolve into a nation of such tremulous souls? And how did it happen so quickly? Where once there was the generation of the Second World War, ready to leave home and fight fascists on the far sides of the world, we now have a nation that at times seems composed largely of field mice, prone to quiver when they detect an unfriendly shadow. As a people, we seem to value security and prosperity above all. When someone threatens either, or seems about to, we become (in this order) confused, then terrified, and then very angry.

Those who dislike us around the world (and of course there are more than a few) tend to see us as a powerful, imperial beast, brutally pursuing our own ends across the globe. We are strong and violent, and when we want something, we assert ourselves with overwhelming force. But is that really the case?

Our Shrinking Tolerance for Risk

What appear to the outside world as instances of bullying, and what appear to us as expressions of strength, may reveal themselves, on closer examination, to be actions driven by fear. We are a people obsessed with security. Our imagination of what counts as a threat to our security is hyperactive and becoming more so all the time. Two years into World War II, it took the fierce attack on Pearl Harbor to persuade Americans that it was finally time to fight. Once persuaded, they did. Now it takes only the least incitement to make us feel threatened. When even the most shadowy forces and conditions imperil what we call “our security,” we assault them with the furor of the easily scared.

The most salient instance: We went to war with another nation, Iraq, because we believed that it had weapons that threatened us. How could these weapons have threatened the peace and prosperity of the United States of America? Even had the weapons existed, there is no way that they could have done us harm. Saddam Hussein had no viable delivery system, and he wasn’t going to create one anytime soon. But we went at him, and at Iraq. A display of imperial will? That’s how it looked to the rest of the world, no doubt. But the deeper reason, I suspect, was fear. We have become a nation and a people that simply cannot abide risks.

On September 11, 2001, we were attacked in a cowardly and devastating way. We needed to do something about it. But rather than seek out and punish the perpetrators of this heinous crime, we invaded an entire country, Afghanistan. A small radical group, Al Qaeda, was able to push the most powerful nation in the world into war because its members perceived, rightly, that we were too insecure to live with any level of risk. Fear creates overreaction; fear leads to overkill.

Why do we call our enemies terrorists as often as we do? At first glance, calling someone a terrorist seems to be a way to denigrate and diminish him. Terrorists are sneaky and invisible. They fight dirty. A terrorist lacks the nerve to put on a uniform and face his enemy directly. He plants bombs and attacks civilian targets. OK, one gets the point.

But it’s possible that the word terrorist and its promiscuous use tell us more about ourselves than about our antagonists. A terrorist is—it’s so obvious that one can readily miss it—someone who is capable of terrifying us, of inspiring fear. And it seems that all of our antagonists are now called terrorists. Saddam Hussein, the head of a large country, was a terrorist, and so was Gaddafi and so is Assad. So were the members of the Taliban. And so, it sometimes seems, is every angry male with a computer, a peculiar ideology, and a random thought or two about disrupting our tranquility.

We call them terrorists because they terrify us. We call them terrorists because, large and small (mostly they are small), these figures make us afraid. And why do we feel fear so readily?

It is not an easy question to answer. But manifestations of that fear are all around us, as much in our domestic lives as in what we call our foreign policy—America is now devoted to the protocols and the apparatus of security. We strip down at the airport; we worry about identity theft; we fret about having our passwords stolen. (Like kids in a dozen insignificant clubs, we have a dozen passwords each.) Every door we approach is a locked door; every entry requires that we be checked and vetted. The metal detectors are everywhere; the man always wants to see your identification. Are your papers in order? Are you who you say you are?

The Age of Anxiety

This security obsession cuts two ways. It can make us feel better: The cameras are on at the public event and on the subway. My bank checks my online password every time and asks a few personal questions to boot. The officials from the Transportation Security Administration tear into my luggage when I go to the airport. But there’s a subtext to it all, isn’t there? If we expend so many resources, material and temporal, on security, then there must be something we need to be secured against. If the monster isn’t out there, why are we be putting all these resources into keeping it at bay?

But then comes the realization: They’re doing all that for a reason, aren’t they? There really is something to be afraid of out there. It’s only logical: Be afraid.

Why, we repeatedly ask, are there so many guns in America? Because the law says we can possess them—at least that’s part of the reason. But there’s more to it than that. There’s a part of gun ownership that gun control advocates never understand. They simply don’t listen to the gun owners who tell them time and again why they believe they need all those guns. People who would add limits to firearms possession tend to think of gun owners as dangerous brutes, inclined to violence and bullying, who live in blood-red states, hunt their meat, beat their women, and scream Scripture at their kids.

But listen to what gun owners actually say when they talk about the need to defend themselves. They put it simply: My gun is here for protection. I use it to prevent harm from coming to myself and to my family. They know that having a gun is dangerous. They know that accidents happen and that family members shoot each other and themselves by horrible chance. But they honestly believe they are in so much danger day to day that only by having a gun can they breathe easily. I believe they mean what they say.

Forget the fact that it is probably safer not to have a gun than to have one, at least if what you’re afraid of is dying violently. More people shoot themselves or their family members by accident (or in a moment of rage) than shoot dangerous assailants. But this reality doesn’t sway gun owners. It’s hard to think straight when you’re scared. And gun owners—at least the majority of them—are scared. They tell us so all the time, but we don’t listen.

Perhaps we are too anxious to pay attention. We are told, and told again, that anxiety is the default emotional setting of our day—that we live in the Age of Anxiety. In 2013, The New York Times recently ran a series on anxiety, written mostly by anxious people. The assumption was that these people were talking about a condition that afflicts us all, at least to some degree. It turns out there are a million kinds of anxiety, a million signs and symptoms. People fall apart in subway cars because they believe that the train is going to crash; pulse rates and blood pressure go through the roof when people go for a job interview, see a boss, bump into a former lover. A competitor sends nervous volts through our systems. Everyone, it seems, is in a state of anxiety.

Anxiety isn’t easy to define, but it might generally be described as trepidation about what will come our way in life. We are anxious about our prospects, our future dignity, our prosperity, our security, the humiliating specter of poverty and neglect.

What is the remedy? Everyone knows the answer. Take Paxil. Take Zoloft. Take what you need to steady your nerves. And when that stops working, take something else. Buy confidence, buy serenity, buy assurance, buy calm, and buy it from the doctors and the drug companies. If you have a stronger disposition, you can exercise, you can meditate, you can change your diet, and conquer anxiety, as it were, organically.

Courage Is Hard Work

But isn’t it possible that anxiety is often—not always, often—simply another word for fear? People who are anxious are afraid. There’s nothing particularly wrong with being scared. Fear is a biological response, but we have amplified its effect by indulging in it. For centuries, human beings understood that fear is something you fight against. It’s hard to fight against fear, but it can be done. “You’re shaking, my body,” a French general said before a dangerous engagement. “You’re shaking now! Wait until you see where I’m going to be taking you soon.” That is the will asserting itself against the impulse for self-preservation. But at least the general’s fear was proportionate to the risk. He really might die on the battlefield. In fact, his death was quite likely.

The feelings of the person who believes her subway train is bound to crash are not in sync with the odds, yet her trembling is as intense as that of the general who decided to be brave. I have no doubt that there are forms of anxiety associated with horrific mental illness, with bipolar disease, and schizophrenia. Those forms require compassion, respect, and treatment. But most forms of anxiety—if the Times signifies accurately—are much more mundane, and based on an overactive imagination and the willingness to give in to fear and then to medicate it. And the more you medicate everyday fear, the less likely it is that you’ll be able to manage it. Courage takes work.

If there is a monument to our abiding culture of fear, it is the American prison. Prisons rise up like enormous tombs all over the country. They and the 2.5 million people who live in them chart the geography of twenty-first-century American fear. America sends a larger percentage of its people to prison than any other country—a greater percentage than Russia, China, even North Korea. America’s inmate population is proportionately bigger by far than that of India, the United Kingdom, Canada, or Australia. And these prisons are not there primarily to rehabilitate. Inmates in US prisons, 37 percent of whom are black (although African Americans make up only 13 percent of our population), are there primarily to be punished and kept apart from us, the ever-fearful ones.

America, some say, is a brutal nation. America functions under the principle of an eye for an eye. We are a stern, severe country that tolerates no wrongdoing. I disagree. I think we are a scared country. Young black males frighten people. So, in disproportionate numbers, they swell our prisons, often serving out mandatory sentences after being arrested in legally questionable searches and convicted for transgressions so slight as the possession of a joint or a hit of cocaine. Are we feeling any safer yet?

It would seem not. Sometimes, the more you do to quell your fear, the more frightened you become. Not long ago in my town, the authorities took it upon themselves to arrest two young men who allegedly were making false identification cards and selling them online. One is not in favor of false IDs. They can be put to all sorts of nefarious uses, although I’d wager their most common use is to persuade doormen that a young man or woman of twenty or so years is actually twenty-one. When it came time to arrest the malefactors, one might have expected the authorities to send two officers to the front door and one around the back, just to be sure.

The authorities sent an armored car. Yes, a fully rigged-out combat vehicle that might have rolled down the streets of Fallujah a few years ago. They sent it into a residential neighborhood in an out-of-the-way southern town along with a squad of paramilitary troopers armed and equipped, you might think, to storm a bunker filled with, yes, terrorists!

This production is part of twenty-first-century America’s security theater. And maybe it makes some people feel calmer. But if you need this kind of firepower, one might think, if you need this amazing, expensive security, then maybe it is horribly dangerous out there. Maybe the prisons and the passwords and the Starship Troopers and the ninety-two forms of protection against identity theft are there because the world is a truly terrifying place, and maybe even those shields are not enough.

In addition to terrorism and anxiety, a third specter haunts an increasingly fearful nation: Its name is bullying. Of course, it’s a good idea to keep people from treating each other in brutal ways—and to start doing so in elementary school, where we used to condone a Lord of the Flies mentality. But now bullying is everywhere: teacher to student, boss to subordinate, neighbor to neighbor. To say a sour word to someone (and what is life without a few sour words?) is to engage in bullying. Bullying has moved beyond its range of literal application—the schoolyard where a big kid taunts and tosses a little one—to become a trope for every instance of perceived pressure applied by one person against another. It makes sense: We’re scared. We can’t stand up for ourselves. We can’t stand up for each other. There are bullies everywhere, and we need mom, need mom, need mom, to show us some love and protection.

The media do their part, too, although now, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, we contribute to the media din, constantly signaling our concerns, dislikes, and fears by tweeting or “liking” or posting. News of disasters! News of terrorists! News of bullies! News of disease!

So where did all this come from? What gave rise to our culture of fear? Why are Americans so anxious? The easy answer is that 9/11 did it. The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon made us feel as though any time, any day, any instant, it all might all go pop. No doubt there’s some truth to this explanation. But I don’t think it’s adequate. We’ve been laying the groundwork for a culture of fear for some time. The events of 9/11 aggravated an already developing condition, an emerging deficit of character. Put simply, we no longer aspire to be courageous people. Courage is not a virtue we cultivate. We believe that we have passed beyond strife, agony, struggle. So we do not teach our children, or ourselves, to be brave.

Bravery or Security?

The fundamental terms of self-understanding have been shifting in our culture for some time. More and more, we see ourselves in strictly psychological and even therapeutic terms. We say we are anxious rather than scared. We build our lives around our desires—on getting what we want in the world—rather than on the cultivation of virtues. Or we assume we are machine-like beings in need of the right drugs or exercise or food or other fine-tuning to attain maximum efficiency and happiness. Not virtue, mind you, not prowess or self-mastery, but happiness. It is embedded in our national creed, of course, this devotion to the pursuit of happiness. But only recently have we come to pursue it with such single-minded focus that we disregard the virtues that are at least as important to a good life as happiness, and perhaps even less dispensable. The critical term for what the social critic Philip Rieff famously called “psychological man” is desire—he tries to get what he wants in the world. And the outside world is almost always an impediment: It resists his hopes for fulfillment. Unable to get what he wants all the time, he strives to get what he thinks he most needs.

The individual who sees himself psychologically sees himself as defined by his desires and by his success at realizing them. What he does not care much about are virtues—as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and others have observed. Homo psychologicus americanus is disinclined to live by the standards set by tradition. He is generally uninterested in abstract qualities such as compassion, little drawn to the pursuit of truth, and largely indifferent to true artistic creation. He is interested in himself.

We have ceased to educate our children in the ways of courage. Instead of being brave, or commending bravery to our children, we scurry anxiously to overprotect ourselves. In the place of bravery, we cultivate security.

Classical culture did not talk about terrorists and bullies and anxiety. It talked about enemies (real enemies), competitors, and courage. The Greeks and the citizens of the Roman republic educated their children in courage. The Spartan males all trained to be soldiers, learning to overcome their fears and step up to the foe. Plato said that courage is knowing what to be afraid of and what not to be. He thereby modified the Homeric (and Spartan) view that the truly brave individual fears nothing. But when Plato mapped the human soul, he identified a center of courage within. He called it the spirited part, explaining that to become educated means cultivating spiritedness. You need to strengthen your capacity for courage, though courage must always be ruled by reason.

American education does not have much time for courage. When Julius Caesar was growing up, his mother—a tough Roman matron—taught him to bear pain without crying out. She taught him to be brave, and he became so, standing at the head of his troops, taking himself into battle, and risking his life. We are not all destined to be Caesars, but perhaps we need to reconsider our approach to education. Perhaps we need to be willing to help our children become brave. We need to say: Yes, life is full of pain and full of danger, but the best way to deal with it is to admit the facts and forge ahead.

Few of us are spared the horrible surprises life can dole out. Most of us face old age and illness. All of us come to death. Can we possibly school ourselves to face such eventualities, or is it now too late?         

Ask the tough Athenians who taught us what democracy is. What they told us is that it is not for the faint of heart. In his great funeral oration, a eulogy for Athens’s war dead, Pericles said that the Athenians had many praiseworthy qualities, but he suggested that the most important was probably their resilience. They were defeated often, though they won more than they lost. And when they were beaten, they buried their dead, composed themselves, and came back. They knew that life was hard, but they were proud of this great experiment, democracy, and it gave them joy to be part of it. They did not want the rest of the world to see them cringe. The Spartans were trained to fight, and only to fight. They lived for war. But the Athenians lived for art and trade and making money and making friends, and for literature and philosophy and art—and they could fight, too. They could stand up for themselves and tap their reservoirs of courage. The Spartans created lives so hard and so disciplined that leaving those lives was perhaps not so difficult. The Athenians were proud to create beautiful lives and then, if necessary, to have the courage to lose them. They understood that they lived not only for themselves but also for their children, for Athens, and for the idea and ideal of democracy. Their remedy for fear was simple: They did their best to be brave.