Horror-film politics

Scattering flour to mark a trail is now “terrorist activity”? When did the fear industry take over?

WARNING: LitCrit, MediaCrit, and CultCrit ahead.

I’m not generally fan of literary and cultural criticism as a mode of political discourse. It’s too easy, for example, to elide from the identification of a phenomenon such as “moral panic” to dismissing any recently revealed form of wrongdoing as a mere “moral panic” without reference to the facts. (No doubt someone could have done a careful analysis of the “moral panic” around the sexual abuse of minors some Roman Catholic priests, and its concealment by their hierarchical superiors, but that wouldn’t have proven that the problem wasn’t real.) By the same token, media criticism is too often a cover for ideologically partisan sniping.

But reading the “flour terrorist” story, as analyzed by John Cole of Balloon Juice, it’s hard to escape John’s conclusion: that somehow a nation of bold pioneers has morphed into a nation of bedwetters. Mistaking some trail-markings for evidence of a terrorist plot might be simply over-reaction; but when the town whose officials were panicked into hysteria by perfectly innocent activity demand restitution from the trail-markers, and prosecutors threaten them with trial as felons, something has gone seriously wrong.

(As it turns out, the two people involved aren’t Muslim, or in any way Middle Eastern; otherwise, Right Blogistan would still be insisting five years from now that their arrest foiled a terrorist plot.)

And while the terrorist threat, as jointly hyped by government and the mass media, is clearly a particular focus of over-reaction, it’s not alone. “Be afraid. Be very afraid” is a central slogan of our current media culture.

In some measure this is just an extension of “If it bleeds, it leads.” A threat is a news story, and the bigger the threat the bigger the story. “No threat” is not a news story. There is a debunking industry, but in mass-media terms it’s pretty much limited to the denial of environmental and heath/safety threats, genuine or not, whose regulation might annoy corporate interests. (Think John Stossel.) There’s no comparable enterprise, as far as I know (outside the academy and the blogosphere) debunking other sorts of threat.

One of the conventions of “objective” journalism (the scare quotes refer to the current convention, rather than to objectivity as a goal) is that every opinion quoted is to be matched with a contrary opinion. But that convention does not apply to most claims of threat. If one source says “This is a big deal” the canons of objectivity don’t require that someone else say “No, it’s not.”

How far back does this go? I was first struck by it in 1979, when ABC News headlined its coverage of the Iran hostage situation “America Held Hostage.” Well, if America was being held hostage, that was obviously A Very Big Deal, a perception that served the Ayatollah and the Reaganauts well and the United States badly. If America was being held hostage, then giving the problem a good leaving-alone, which was arguably exactly what it needed, simply wasn’t a option.

But I think that Cole is right: the problem goes deeper than politics or journalism. Can the rising fashion for being scared by the morning newspaper and the evening news on TV be completely unrelated to the rising prominence of the horror-film genre? At some point, the fashion shifted from clear-eyed, laconic courage to gibbering fear. even Jodie Foster has been reduced to playing “woman in jeopardy” roles (compare “Panic Room” to “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane”).

I don’t know how to shift it back, but at least we could notice the change and ask why it happened. And electing a President with a campaign based on hope rather than fear might be a good start.

Update A reader points me to Barry Glassner’s book The Culture of Fear. I haven’t read it.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com