As anybody who has ever been exposed to a dangerous or life-threatening situation knows, fear is not a particularly useful emotion. At an individual level, it can paralyse the resolve and confidence that you need to survive or go forward, undermine the mental clarity required to take essential decisions, and reduce you to a cowering, panic-stricken wreck. Soldiers going into battle know this well, and have evolved ways to suppress or ignore it. Mountaineers and climbers know not to look down, or compartmentalize the logical fear of falling and concentrate on overcoming the technical obstacles in front of them.
Even the mundane business of living can be a frightening activity, if you think about it too much or give into your more paranoid imaginings. After all, many routine decisions that we take, whether driving a car, going to another country, flying in an aeroplane, coming home late at night, walking alone in the countryside, our choice of sexual partner, or camping out in the woods contains potential risks that could quickly reduce you to gibbering foolishness if you didn’t put the brakes on and refuse to act on your worst fears.
As Dennis Hopper observes in Wim Wenders’ classic version of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels The American Friend (1977), there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. My late aunt Lol didn’t act on this philosophy. In her last years she became terrified of crime and had so many locks on her front door that visitors would stand for an inordinately long time as she fumbled with the bolts. Aunt Lol had never been burgled or attacked, as far as anyone knew, and didn’t live in a crime-ridden neighborhood, but she lived in a state of perpetual psychological terror that was entirely constructed by herself.
Today, in the early 21st century, we have become accustomed to living in a state of terror constructed for us by others. I was reminded of this yesterday when I went out for a walk in the Peak District. En route we pulled into a service station, and I cast a look at the newspaper rack to find a selection of headlines that would have given Aunt Lol a heart attack long before her time. They included ‘FBI to Guard UK airports’, (Sunday Express), ‘UK Ebola Alert as Infected Medic to Fly home,’ (Mail on Sunday), ‘Border Controls in Chaos,’ (The Sunday Telegraph), ‘ Beheader Jihadi John Identified,’ ( The Sunday Times), and ‘I’m ready to behead the next enemy,’ (The Sunday Mirror).
Slotted away in that catalogue of horrors was a warning about the possibility of a new Icelandic dust cloud, which seemed almost reassuring amongst the dangers of an Ebola epidemic, ISIS, Jihadi John and his headchopping hordes, and the dreaded prospect that our border controls – the last bulwark against this world of evil, threat and danger – might be ‘in chaos’ yet again.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the UK’s editors had got together and decided that the Bank Holiday weekend was going to be a weekend of fear. It was enough to make you want to emulate Jodie Foster and Maggie Gylenhall in and get a panic room installed, as so many millionaires and plutocrats have done in London in recent years, except that most of us can’t afford to pay the £60,000 or £1 million required.
Even though the Yorkshire firm BurtonSafes is offering a ‘ Kronos/Kratos’ strongroom or panic room (‘Available in different security levels to match your budget and risk’), their prices are likely to be available to humble folk like us. So we will have to do without the emergency contact lines and early warning devices, the CCTV and breathing apparatus, the smoke alarms, heat sensors, hidden spy cameras and nuclear-proof walls that Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern tycoons are buying from London companies that specialist in these products.
Instead we will have to live out in the open and trust in the likes of John Reid (former Home Secretary now a director of G4S), Theresa May, David Cameron or Boris Johnson to protect us. That isn’t a comforting prospect. Because you can attribute yesterday’s wilful media sensationalism and fearmongering to a desire to sell as many newspapers as possible, but commercial interests are only one component of the fear factory that we now inhabit.
For some time now, the population of the UK has been encouraged by their governments to feel afraid, very afraid, of an array of interrelated and mutually-reinforcing threats and dangers emanating largely from the outside world.
These include pandemics, immigrants, people traffickers and gangsters; terrorists and jihadists armed with bombs and dirty bombs, WMD and botulism pathogens; infiltrators and alien communities in our midst who don’t share our values and want to destroy our ‘way of life’; ‘foreign criminals’ who may have lived in the UK since they were children but become instantly deportable if they commit crimes as adults. Now the ISIS ‘caliphate’ has been added to the list.
Not all these threats are invented. The prospect of a pandemic is worth worrying about and preparing for. The terrorist threat to life, property, and community relations is real – even if it is routinely exaggerated and distorted.
But what is striking about this new world of fear is the way that it has now become an instrument of governance that is used to discipline the population and mobilize popular support for, or acquiescence in, a range of actions that would once have been unacceptable, from ‘preemptive wars’, emergency antiterror legislation, control orders, deportations, extraditions, torture and extraordinary renditions, or cheekie chappie Boris Johnson’s suggestion that British citizens who go to Syria should be presumed guilty rather than innocent regardless of the evidence against them.
That way madness lies. But in this world of permanent war, a constantly expanding array of threats and dangers oils the wheels of the national security state, and creates a kind of fearful urgency so that the worst possible scenario is always 45 minutes away.
So if fear isn’t useful to soldiers and mountain climbers, it is very useful indeed to the British state, and the security companies like Serco and G4S that have profited so handsomely from the ongoing state of emergency. All this has transformed the public into terrified spectators, naively trusting in our political elites, our generals and security services to ‘keep us safe’ and protect our national security when they actually mean state security.
A look back over the last thirteen years; at the terror plots involving M15 infiltrators and provocateurs; at the chaotic legacy of the ‘9/11 wars’ and other military interventions; at the collusion of the political class in the financial crisis; at the failure of successive governments to prepare the country for the impact of climate change, suggests that this trust is badly misplaced, and that those who claim to protect us from risk and danger do not deserve the responsibility we have allowed them to acquire.
There are risks and threats in the world, but too often we have allowed people and institutions to deal with them who have made them worse, and have only paid attention to the dangers that suited their political or financial interests. To say that this an unhealthy state of affairs would be understating it. Because in the end societies that become permanently fearful also become stupid and hateful, and their citizens make the wrong decisions or allow others to make the wrong decisions on their behalf. As Benjamin Franklin once warned, ‘ People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.’
So maybe we ought to think a little bit more like Dennis Hopper, and pay a little less attention to the fearmongers amongst us, and take responsibility for educating ourselves about the state we’re in, and find ways to construct a country – and a world – that is not always braced for the worst possibility, and that, like any mountain climber, can move upwards without constantly expecting to fall.