THE CULTURE OF FEAR

Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things

By Barry Glassner

Basic Books. 276 pp. $25

Barry Glassner, who professes sociology at the University of Southern California, presents here a sobering examination of just what his title and subtitle describe. It is perhaps excessive to say that Americans inhabit a "culture of fear," but certainly it is true that waves of hysteria frequently if irregularly sweep through the public consciousness and that they are far more often grounded in the irrational than in reality. Whipped up by media (both broadcast and print) blissed out on sensation, as well as politicians looking for votes and lawyers looking for clients, these waves do no one any good save those who profit from them.

We're at the tail end of one right now. The high-school shootings in Colorado last April, and the rather less dramatic incident in Georgia not long afterward, set off not one but a succession of waves: fear of sociopathic teenage males, fear of violence in the schools, fear of inattentive teachers and lax law-enforcement systems, fear of guns. That we actually turned our attention to guns is remarkable, for guns are a real problem -- as Glassner correctly says, "It is the unregulated possession of guns, more than any other factor, that accounts for the disparity in fatality rates from violent crime in the United States compared to most of the world" -- and most waves of fear are rooted in ignorance, misunderstanding and fantasy.

This latest wave began after Glassner's book had been set in type and thus is not discussed therein, but his discussion of teenagers and violence is to the point. The fiction, whipped up by the media, is that teenage violence is endemic; the truth is that it is a rare aberration. "The news media seldom pays [sic] heed to the fact that in 8 out of 10 counties in the United States entire years go by without a single juvenile homicide," Glassner writes, preferring instead to concentrate on "an extraordinary volume of coverage about kids and crime" that contains "two elements that together guarantee the audience will sit up and shudder: vivid depictions of the young criminals and their crimes, and numbers showing dramatic increases on some dimension or other." Thus:

"The misbelief that every child is in imminent risk of becoming a victim has as its corollary a still darker delusion: Any kid might become a victimizer. Beneath such headlines as `Life Means Nothing,' `Kids Who Kill' and ` "Superpredators" Arrive,' the nation's news media have relayed tale upon blood-soaked tale of 12- and 14-year-olds pumping bullets into toddlers, retirees, parents and one another. Armed with quotes from experts who assert, often in so many words, `everyone's kids are at risk,' journalists stress that violent kids live not just in the South Bronx or South Central L.A. but in safe-seeming suburbs and small towns."

Glassner argues that our fear of violent children is directly connected to "our unacknowledged guilt" over reduced spending "on educational, medical and antipoverty programs for youths." This is a highly questionable proposition. That this rich and powerful society neglects its children, especially the neediest among them, is a given, but it does not necessarily follow either that we feel guilty about this or that guilt translates into fear of children. If anything, what is truly amazing is that we seem to feel no responsibility for the young (as opposed, say, to the pampered elderly and their puissant lobby) and are entirely unburdened with guilt about it.

Glassner is on much firmer ground when he argues that "our fear of children" grows out of a couple of misapprehensions: "the world is worse than it ever was" and "some kids are just born defective," especially "poor and minority children." One of the many oddities of contemporary American society is that we at once indulge and fear our children, giving them material wealth unimaginable to any previous generation yet viewing them with suspicion. White fears of young black males are especially deep and poisonous, even though, as Glassner rightly points out, black males are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime, and "for black men between the ages of 15 and 30, violence is the single leading cause of death."

A single incident -- the shootings at Littleton, the drowning by Susan Smith of her two children, the exposure of a pedophilic priest, an airplane crash, a violent outburst by a Postal Service worker against his office colleagues -- can be inflated overnight into a vast and dire threat. The "fearmongers" (for which read hysterical journalists, special-interest advocacy groups, talk-show hosts and self-promoting lawyers) are expert at "the use of poignant anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, the christening of isolated incidents as trends, depictions of entire categories of people as innately dangerous." As Glassner says, "when a problem is said to have multiplied it is a good idea to ask, From what size to what size?" because "the reported change . . . is often from small to slightly less small." He cites, by way of example, an alleged wave of anti-Semitism on college campuses that "comes out to a rate of less than 1 reported anti-Semitic act per 100,000 college students."

Ditto for the various drug "crises," which Glassner quite convincingly depicts as far less critical than we have been led to believe. He cites a study by another professor that showed public fears of widespread drug abuse going up and down as coverage of the "crisis" by the media went up and down, and writes:

"Psychologists call this the availability heuristic. We judge how common or important a phenomenon is by how readily it comes to mind. Presented with a survey that asks about the relative importance of issues, we are likely to give top billing to whatever the media emphasizes at the moment, because that issue instantly comes to mind. Were there a reasonable correspondence between emphases in the media and the true severity of social problems, the availability heuristic would not be problematic."

It is important to emphasize that little of this is quite so new as Glassner would have us believe. "Men, it has been well said," Charles Mackay wrote a century and a half ago, "think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." That was in Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, in which Mackay considered the "witch mania," haunted houses and other phobias of the 19th century. It is useful to keep history rather more firmly in mind than Glassner does and to remember that all this has happened before, albeit in different ways and forms.

But never before has there been anything remotely like today's mass media, with their power to spread information -- not to mention misinformation -- faster than the eye or mind can comprehend. Glassner is not quite as hard on the media as this review may suggest -- "Reporters not only spread fears," he writes, "they also debunk them and criticize one another for spooking the public" -- but nonetheless the media drive the train of fear. Now that the print and broadcast media have been joined by the Internet, their horsepower -- and potential for harm -- is all the greater.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.