On Thursday, Matt K. Lewis wrote a column for The Week examining why Americans are freaking out about the Ebola outbreak. His closing paragraph:
Things have changed so much in the last 20 years that the recent movie World War Z, about the zombie apocalypse (originally misidentified in the book and movie as rabies), felt scarier — seemed more like real life — than the 1995 film Outbreak did at the time. It might seem extraordinary that a movie about zombies is easier to identify with than a film about a real-life virus. But am I wrong? The country has changed — and not in a good way. We are more prone to fear today than we were then. And our political and media leaders aren’t exactly easing our worries — they’re stoking them.
Fear? Zombies? This is my turf, buddy! And I actually wrote something about this issue last year (see Alyssa Rosenberg on this point as well). But let’s explore the question a bit further: who, exactly is stoking America’s fears?
Is it the media? Sure, they act as an amplifier, but this isn’t new, not really. The “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos of news that Lewis references is hardly unique to the present day, it’s been a staple of local and cable news since I was just a wee little commentator.
Is it our political leaders? Lewis seems to think so, but you have to be careful here. Barack Obama is guilty of many sins as a president, but displaying fear or panic ain’t really among them. Indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, “Obama and his top aides believe they are putting in place a new global security structure that will frame international relations for decades.” Furthermore, the polling suggests that people like Obama’s foreign policy preferences, even if they don’t like the outcomes. The point, however, is that Obama is selling Zen Mastery, not stoking people’s fears.
As the party not in control of the executive branch, Republicans have a greater incentive to goad Americans into believing that the world is falling apart. Even here, however, most GOP incumbents are not campaigning on these issues during this electoral season. So I’m dubious that one could blame either Democratic or Republican political leaders for stoking fears.
There has been one interest group, however, that has repeatedly doubled down on the notion that everything is falling apart and the time to panic is now: the National Rifle Association. In its modern incarnation, the NRA has toggled between two forms of political rhetoric to advance the idea of gun rights. The libertarian track warns that gun control measures restrict individual freedoms at the expense of more government power. The apocalyptic track warns that in a world of dangerous actors, the state will be unable to defend Americans. There’s been a lot more of the latter than the former in recent years.
Think I’m exaggerating? Consider Wayne LaPierre’s Daily Caller essay from last year in response to the Newtown shootings:
Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face—not just maybe. It’s not paranoia to buy a gun. It’s survival. It’s responsible behavior, and it’s time we encourage law-abiding Americans to do just that.…
Responsible Americans realize that the world as we know it has changed. We, the American people, clearly see the daunting forces we will undoubtedly face: terrorists, crime, drug gangs, the possibility of Euro-style debt riots, civil unrest or natural disaster.
Gun owners are not buying firearms because they anticipate a confrontation with the government. Rather, we anticipate confrontations where the government isn’t there—or simply doesn’t show up in time.
LaPierre doubled down on this kind of rhetoric in his speech to the 2014 NRA convention:
We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and car-jackers and knock-out gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all.
I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you?
The astute reader might notice that LaPierre never referenced zombies. But as communications professor/gun rights enthusiast Brian Anse Patrick notes in Zombology: Zombies and the Decline of the West (and Guns), it doesn’t take much of a cognitive leap for the gun rights rhetoric to go there:
Guns protect against lone predators, burglars, rapists, gangs and hordes of various sorts, zombies or otherwise. As a practical matter there is little difference between a zombie who wants to eat your brain and a criminal who would bash it in with a brick. Guns either repel them or dispatch them to an appropriate destination.
One could argue that the gun rights lobby is simply reflecting a real breakdown in social order – except that it isn’t. The data show a sustained decline in property crime, hate crime, and violent crime. No, these are fears that are actually being stoked.
To be clear, I suspect that Lewis is right about the obsession about Ebola, and today’s news will not allay any fears. I suspect that an eroding lack of faith in the Obama administration’s foreign policy is driving part of this. But it’s groups like the NRA that have gone the furthest down the road of warning of societal collapse. And in spreading this meme, gun rights advocates and their political allies are helping to sensationalize and exacerbate the very threat that ostensibly frightens them.
Have a nice weekend!