Culture of Fear

The Culture of Fear

A Book Review with Commentary

If you are alarmed by road rage, violence in the workplace, poisoned Halloween candy, cyber-predators, television violence, child-abductors, public school atrocities, teen motherhood, homicide, drugs, Gulf War Syndrome, breast implants, vaccinations, or air flight safety, then fret no more. Your fears have been provoked by irresponsible reporting, phony statistics, power-hungry politicians, and money-hungry companies. This is the message of Barry Glassner in his new book, The Culture of Fear.

Glassner suggests that many of our fears have been magnified through slick reporting to maintain audience interest through whatever means necessary. Often this interest is sustained through shocking stories of abnormal events. However, in order to sustain public interest these events are not presented as the anomalies that they are, but as real possibilities for all those reading or watching. Deviations are presented as the norm and packaged as personal interest stories. Accordingly the exception becomes commonplace. In reality, the chances of similar events occurring to the average person are minimal.

When many of our fears and the myths behind them are carefully researched, we find that our fears are unwarranted. Consider some of the following examples from Glassner's book.

Road Rage

A number of unusual deaths in the mid-1990's took place on American roadways as enraged motorists gunned down aggravating drivers. This resulted in a large amount of reporting on what Hugh Downs called "a growing American danger--road rage" (3). With this new fear impressed in the public's conscious, many were afraid of driving, perhaps imagining some disturbed driver shooting them through their car window because of an innocent mistake they had made. Psychologist Arnold Nerenberg heightened the fear by claiming that road rage is a "mental disorder that is contagious," a disorder that affects more than half of the U.S. population. He has "called on the American Psychiatric Association to add road rage to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (7). Many other news sources added fuel to this fear: "A page-one story in the Los Angeles Times in 1998 declared that 'road rage has become an exploding phenomenon across the country,' and depicted the Pacific Northwest as a region particularly 'plagued by a rise in road rage'" (4). All this inflates fear and suspicion toward others. This also heightens public concern in respect to this new disorder and a desire for a remedy to the problem.

When statistics are thoughtfully considered, road rage averages out to about one death per year. That is anything but a plague. Even worse, Glassner suggests that this myth not only creates unwarranted fear, but actually causes us to neglect the real problems behind the anomaly. These problems include the increase in traffic jams due to the need for more road capacity and the millions of loaded weapons illegally carried in vehicles. Add the fact that in the real world, many more people are killed by drunk driving than road rage. These real problems are overlooked through an inordinate focus on the myth of road rage. Such misplaced fears cause us to focus on the wrong issue.

Violence in the Workplace

Many Americans feel unsafe at their job. Paranoid, some fear a fellow employee might crack under pressure and slaughter those around him. Yet violence in the workplace is extremely rare. "Of about 121 million working people, about 1,000 are murdered on the job each year, a rate of just 1 in 114,000. Police, security guards, taxi drivers, and other particularly vulnerable workers account for a large portion of these deaths" (27). The real danger does not arise from fellow employees but from thieves and robbers. "About 90 percent of murders at workplaces are committed by outsiders who come to rob" (27).

Television Violence

When it comes to shocking violence, the television is always an easy target for blame. Often forgotten is the fact that violence has always been a reality among teens (75). History reveals that there has been no golden age for youth. Glassner suggests that those who want to blame television for the increase in violence need to be consistent and commend it for the increase in kindness as well. "If young Americans have seen tens of thousands of murders on TV, surely they have seen even more acts of kindness. On sitcoms, romantic comedies, movies of the week, soaps, medical dramas, and even on police shows, people are constantly falling in love in helping each other out... Why not conclude, he asks, that TV encourages niceness at least as much as it encourages violence?" (42-43).

Again, the real issue is ignored. "TV shows do not kill or maim people. Guns do" (44). This is not to say that TV is blameless. It does seem to promote what George Berner describes as "the mean-world syndrome." "Watch enough brutality on TV and you come to believe you're living in a cruel and gloomy world in which you feel vulnerable and insecure. In his research over three decades Gerbner found that people who watch a lot of TV are more likely than others to believe their neighborhoods are unsafe, to assume the crime rates are rising, and overestimate their own odds of becoming a victim. They also buy more locks, alarms, and--you guessed it--guns, in hopes of protecting themselves" (44). Who among us has not felt the weight of this syndrome? But how much of our fear is rooted in reality?

Missing Children and Child Abductors

You see their faces everywhere. Manufactured faces pointing to real lives. They draw reactions from even the hardest of hearts. Yet the appearance is deceiving. The focus on missing kids heightens fear among parents, but these fears are not grounded in truth. "In national surveys conducted in recent years three out of four parents say they fear that their child will be kidnapped by a stranger. They harbor this anxiety, no doubt, because they keep hearing frightening statistics and stories about perverts snatching children off the street. What the public doesn't hear often or clearly enough is that the majority of missing children are runaways fleeing from physically or emotionally abusive parents. Most of the remaining number of missing children are 'throw aways' rejected by their parents, or kids abducted by estranged parents. According to criminal justice experts, a total of 200 to 300 children a year are abducted by non-family members and kept for long periods of time or murdered. Another 4,600 of America's 64 million children (.001 percent) are seized by non-family members and later returned" (61). Sadly, some companies have profited greatly from the missing children, using their faces to sell products. What person could possibly throw away an advertisement that appears to have such a noble humanitarian cause behind it?

Public School Atrocities

We have been led to believe that the Public School system is in shambles. Our schools are compared to war zones. For years a list was circulated comparing "top problems in the public schools as identified by teachers in 1940 and 1990" (75). "The contrast was shocking. The main problems in 1940 were talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, getting out of turn in line, wearing improper clothing, and not putting paper and waste baskets. By 1990 the leading problems had become pregnancy, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, rape, robbery, and assault" (75). Barry O'Neill, a professor at Yale, researched the source for these lists and discovered that the source for the later list was a survey conducted in 1975 by the National Center for Education Statistics. The survey was of principals, not teachers, and asked about crimes, not general problems. "When teachers have been asked about the biggest problems in their schools, they responded with items such as parent apathy, lack of financial support, absenteeism, fighting, and too few textbooks--not rape and robbery. In a nationwide survey in 1996 almost half of teachers said that textbook shortages prevented them from assigning homework; one in five reported the classroom disruptions had resulted from students being forced to share textbooks" (76).


Many Americans are afraid to walk outside their houses. They have been told again and again that no neighborhood is safe and that all strangers are a possible threat. A real sense of community and shared interest is hard to maintain in such an environment of fear. Again we have been subjected to false, misleading, and fear-provoking information. "To suggest that all Americans have a realistic chance of being a victim of homicide is to heighten already elevated anxieties among people who face little risk... Tens of millions of Americans live in places where there hasn't been a murder for years, and most of the rest of us live in towns and neighborhoods where murder is a rare occurrence. Who does stand a realistic chance of being murdered? You guessed it: minority males. A black man is about 18 times more likely to be murdered than is a white woman. All told the murder rate for black men is double that of American soldiers in World War II. And for black men between the ages of fifteen and thirty, violence is the single leading cause of death." (112) News reporters often pay little attention to murders among blacks because they are seen as routine and normal. Much more attention is paid to white victims than black victims (112).


Promoting a war against drugs is politically expedient. This is an easy target and a good place for politicians and media organizations to provoke fear. "Unlike almost every other hazard, illicit drugs have no interest group to defend them" (131). While granting there is cause for concern due to the dehumanizing effects of illegal drugs, it virtually escapes our notice that the bigger problem in America is legal drugs. "More Americans use illegal drugs for nonmedical reasons than use cocaine or heroin; hundreds of millions of prescription pills are used illicitly each year. More than half of those who die of drug-related medical problems or seek treatment for those problems are abusing prescription drugs" (131). It is not politically expedient to raise alarm concerning the abuse of legal drugs. Powerful and wealthy drug companies can and do exert pressure. It is much easier to boldly roar at illegal drugs and turn a blind eye to the legal drug abuse that pervades American culture. 50 million Americans take Prozac and similar antidepressants. Are that many people clinically in need of and benefit from such pills?

The Real Problems

Many of our fears are unfounded. They rest upon anomalies and myths. We fear the exception while maintaining the status quo. Even though many of our fears are unfounded, they are not any less real. Indeed, they usually represent deeper fears. "The success of a scare depends not only on how well it is expressed but also� on how well it expresses deeper cultural anxieties" (208).

The big problem is not that many of our fears are without warrant. The big problem is that many of our fears detract from the real problems. They divert our attention from the real issues by causing us to focus on the myths and anomalies.

Two real problems that are factors in many of our fears are rarely mentioned because of political power and public apathy--guns and poverty. Guns are a dominant factor in road rage, violence in the workplace, public school atrocities, homicide, and drugs, to name just a few. This fact is often brushed aside even though the statistics clearly evidence that this is a major part of the problem. "We have more guns stolen from their owners--about 300,000 annually--than many countries have gun owners. In Great Britain, Australia, and Japan, where gun ownership is severely restricted, no more than a few dozen people are killed each year by handguns. In the United States, where private citizens own a quarter-billion guns, around 15,000 people are killed, 18,000 commit suicide, and another 1,500 die accidentally from firearms" (xix).

The young people who slaughtered their fellow students would not have been able to do what they did if it were not for the firearms they possessed. Glassner writes, "Had the youngsters in the celebrated schoolyard shootings of 1997-98 not had access to guns, some or all of the people they killed would be alive today. Without their firepower those boys lacked the strength, courage, and skill to commit multiple murders" (xix). Of course, we all know the rhetoric that such statements will provoke. But it is too simplistic to mindlessly quote the slogan, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." This is reductionism at its worse for the sake of political power. Of course guns themselves don't kill people, but it is undeniable that people with guns kill people. And the more firepower they have, the more they are able to commit such atrocities.

The professional, slick media presentations convince an unsuspecting public that is all too ready to believe the worst. Credible-sounding people profess to report information firsthand. But in reality, usually their credentials do not match their claims and their analysis does not fit the facts (if indeed they had the facts right in the first place).

A Warning to Evangelicals

Many of the myths mentioned in Glassner's book are propagated widely in the Evangelical church--especially among Fundamentalists. Christians tend to quickly latch onto the latest scare story and use it as proof of a spiraling culture continually plunging into further depths of depravity and wickedness. Yet the stories we embrace are only anomalies. In light of Glassner's research, they usually are not even true!

As Evangelicals, we are often the most gullible. We want to believe the worst. We are far less likely to be suspicious of facts that emphasize mankind's sinfulness. We suspect the media of foulplay in just about every other area. But when they communicate to us another story of fear and degeneracy, we are quick to devour their reporting as gospel truth.

But worst of all, we ourselves are fear-mongers. Our sermons prove it. Our messages are littered with false statistics and scare tactics. We have used the misleading lists, quoted the inaccurate statistics, and sounded the bogus alarms. Our sermons are riddled with false facts, phony fears, and erroneous statistics. We often are no better than the irresponsible, sensationalistic journalists. Our only difference is that we do what we do, not for money, but for souls. Yet if souls are won to Christ through false fears, we are no longer proclaiming the gospel, for we are no longer proclaiming truth.

Finally, in light of two of the consistent factors underlying all of our fears--guns and poverty--we evangelicals need to reconsider our allegiance to the Conservative agenda when it comes to their stance on these items. We are citizens of the Kingdom first, and citizens of this nation second. This order must never be reversed. We must be careful not to align God's agenda with any political agenda--conservative or liberal. Jesus' teachings on passive resistance (Matt. 5:38-48; John 18:36-37) and Paul's concern for the poor (Gal. 2:10) must not be eclipsed by any man-made agenda which claims to stand for our so-called rights. Sin, despair, and dehumanization are not fought by "rights" but by truth. And in God's Kingdom, truth is far more valuable and powerful than any one person's rights.

In short, it is only God's truth that assuages all fears, whether they be real or only an illusion.

"These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world." (Jesus, John 16:33)

For more:
  • Culture of Fear

  • © Richard J. Vincent, June 25, 1999


    I John 4:18 - "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." While amusing, this book troubles me in that I wonder why Christian evangelical fundamentalists seem so quick to use fear as a motivation. It colors our view of evangelism, discipleship, social outreach and theology (think eschatology as one profound world-view a "Culture of Fear" negatively impacts). I am also troubled that today's church finds more in common with these fearmongers than with the grounding that comes from knowing that we have the only real source of peace and stability - Jesus Christ - not some vapid political agenda. I would write more on this but I am afraid to miss this evening's NBC Dateline on "Deep Vein Thrombosis and Painful Bowel Movements" - never know when you'll need something new to fear!
    Striking thoughts here. Are you assured this is the best way to look at it though? My own experience is that we should pretty much live and let live because what one person examines as just -- another person simply doesn't. Human beings are going to do what they want to do. In the end, they always do. The best we can pray for is to identify a few things here and there that hopefully, allows them to make just a little better informed decision. Otherwise, great post. You're definitely making me think! --Javier

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