EYE ON EUROPE
A TREMBLING NATION
Fear as the unifying factor
for a panicky America
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
Driving down a main street in suburban Boston the other day I was brought up short by a sign I kept seeing every few hundred feet: EVACUATION ROUTE.
I thought I was in a disaster movie. I already had an uneasy feeling about this first trip to the United States in 18 months. I had read about the growing fear of another terrorist strike but didnt take it seriously. Until I saw the Boston road signs I thought the fear-mongering was probably just a Washington phenomenon.
But no, Boston is actually organized to move its population somewhere else if necessary. Now I wondered whether prudence had slopped over into alarmism.
There was more. As the fear story developed, a deal was agreed to let a company called Dubai Ports World, owned by the government of Dubai, buy control of the container business in six major U.S. ports. Added to the alarmist ambience already in place, this news seemed about to set the television on fire. I finally turned it off and opened a book. I have high blood pressure.
The context is important to consider. To the clear eye of a foreigner, much of the anxiety in the United States can be attributed to the ever-present media. CNN and other networks are fixated on fear as the lead story (except when Anna Nicole Smith goes to the Supreme Court). CNN flashes a garish Security Watch banner ahead of its frequent reports from the front. The front, of course, is all around us in this Bush-declared war. Fox television people try to outdo them with even more hype, and the viewer ends up with a nervous breakdown.
To be fair to our media friends, one working definition of news has always been whatever might make a reader blurt out, Oh my God! But this is different. This is something that does not go away when you put your newspaper down or switch off the radio or television.
This is not the United States I grew up in or liked to visit regularly while posted abroad as a journalist. To a resident of sleepy Bordeaux arriving in this high-tension atmosphere, it feels like being thrust into a maelstrom. The first instinct is to get back on that plane and fly somewhere safe.
I felt the impact of the evacuation signs, but I was further alarmed by casual talks with American friends and relatives. Almost every conversation turns to fears of another 9/11 attack and whether Homeland Security people know what they are doing.
For once I decided not to depend on the opinions of taxi drivers, who in Boston are all Haitian anyway and only speak intelligibly in French or Creole. I called the heartland to chat with a former mayor of a Minneapolis suburb.
What I discovered is that the constant talk of a coming attack has grabbed the attention of people coast to coast. Says the ex-mayor, We all talk about where the world is going, and I mean all--including the janitor. Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Dubai, are very much on our minds.
Said a transplanted Midwesterner in Boston, If youre looking for people who dont care, youre talking to the wrong person. I care, and everyone I know cares very much.
Bob Herbert of the New York Times links the scare talk to Americans tendency to let corporate priorities lead them by the nose, and no priority pays off like a war. The endless billions to be reaped from the horrors of war, he wrote, are a perennial incentive to invest in the war machine and keep those wars a-coming The way you keep wars coming is to keep the populace in a state of perpetual fear.
This is an art form that President Bush mastered after the September 11 attacks. I recall feeling uncomfortable with his use of the term war to describe what actually is a campaign to identify and quell roving terrorist groups. Wars have ends. This one can continue as long as it seems to be serving political purposes.
Onion recently carried a report that was on that fine line between funny and true, quoting some of the 15,000 certified alarmists across the country. Referring to that other apocalyptic scare, avian flu, Onion quoted one scareperson as saying: Mark my words: People who arent scared now will look pretty stupid if it turns out that they should have been.
According to leading alarmists, said Onion, the Center for Disease Controls lack of immediate concern is cause for alarm.
Washington and the media seem to be asking us to look in the mirror and determine whether we are sufficiently hysterical.
I am back in Bordeaux now, where concerns are more local. There was a disturbance at a supermarket a few weeks ago when wine growers protested that a drinkable Bordeaux can now be had for under a dollar a bottle. I was really alarmed, and jumped in my car to get some before it was too late.
©2006 by Michael Johnson. This column was first posted March 6, 2006.
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