Culture of Fear

The news of Osama Bin Laden’s killing, and the subsequent State Department traveler’s advisory, have prompted me to write about something I’ve been thinking about for many years now. In my earliest years of being a tour guide, I started to notice something about my American tour members. Generally speaking, and relative to Europeans (and other cultures I‘ve visited), Americans are fearful. We come from a culture of fear. I first started noticing in subtle ways, mostly in the frequent questions about safety that seemed a bit paranoid to me. Once aware of the distinction, I observed more analytically and over the years have been increasingly confirmed in my opinion. I had been nursing the idea over a couple of tour seasons when I had an experience that removed all doubt. Nine years ago I was running a tour of Italy. My group had the tremendous good fortune of having our stay in Siena fall on July 2, the day of the famous Palio horse race. For me, this sort of serendipitous experience was, and is, precisely why we travel. It was an extraordinary opportunity to participate in some of the most illustrious pageantry of Europe. I couldn’t believe our good luck. I enthusiastically announced our good fortune on the first night of the tour. When July 2 rolled around and we headed for Siena, I prepared my group for what they could expect. I gave them strategies for getting into the square to see the race, encouraged them to get out and absorb the festive atmosphere, etc. At some point I explained I had made a group dinner reservation because I was not certain restaurants would be operating normally. I told them how, after the race, the town is extremely chaotic as the winning Contrada (neighborhood) would collectively act like they had won the lottery. After checking in to our hotel, I headed out into the festivities and had one of the best travel days ever. At dinner that night, when inquiring about peoples’ Palio experiences, I had a startling revelation. A handful of tour members had elected not to leave the hotel at all. I was dumbfounded. When I asked why, they told me from my description they thought it would be unsafe to go out. It was the use of the word ‘chaos‘. To these American travelers, chaos meant violence. I meant to suggest a lot of confusion; they heard rioting. It was a seminal moment for me as a guide and as a citizen of the world. I felt terrible that I had given a false impression (in fact, the wild celebrations felt extremely safe and very inclusive). In the decade since I have continued to observe that many Americans travel in a relatively constant state of fear. I wonder how many more never leave home because of it.

During the time my ideas were evolving, Michael Mann made his documentary, Bowling for Columbine. I eventually saw the movie and while I don’t necessarily subscribe to Mann’s extreme interpretations, he did ask some provocative questions. Also, he prominently featured the book, Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner. Later I had occasion to read it, and it truly opened my eyes. If you have not read it, you should. Glassner, a sociology professor, explores several fear-inducing elements of American society and then examines the actual threat they represent. He reviews road rage, child predators, cyber predators, airplane fatalities, teen mother tragedies, crime rates, drug usage, and dangerous diseases. In his analysis, government and media have manipulated or exaggerated the threats. Media fans the flame of fear to boost ratings, politicians to sway the electorate, and lobbyists to boost fundraising.

Glassner takes his biggest punch at the media. For example, in the entire history of commercial aviation there have been only 13,000 deaths. The probability of dying in a plane crash is one in 4 million. But the media deliberately confuses incidents for rates. The incidents of crashes has risen in recent years (widely reported in dramatic fashion) but as aviation has increased dramatically, the rate of crashes per flight has been going steadily down. The language used in media reporting is down right inflammatory. A decade ago the phenomena of road rage was a popular news story. Road rage was an “exploding phenomena”, a “plague” or an “epidemic“. In fact, in traffic-related deaths, less than one in 1000 was road-rage related. Despite the fact that crime rates steadily declined throughout the 1990s, 62% of Americans surveyed said they were “truly desperate” about crime. A rare strain of “flesh-eating bacteria” was “medicine’s worst nightmare’ and the public was “terribly vulnerable” when incidence rates were extremely low. Glassner sites similar disparities between statistical reality and presentation on a dozen other subjects. After reading it, I had both the confirmation and the understanding of the reasons behind the fearfulness I’d been observing. The book should be the handbook of thoughtful Americans wishing to take a balanced view of security both at home and abroad.

So three weeks ago when I came down to breakfast on the second day of a tour I should hardly have been surprised when, in quick succession, I was approached by 7-8 tour members inquiring whether I’d heard the Bin Laden news. Without exception, the next thing out of their mouths was concern about the attendant State Department advisory. Some were not overly concerned, just mentioning the advisory, but others clearly needed to be assured . One woman mentioned the advisory first and the Bin Laden news after. Another mentioned only the advisory. The travel advisory created a bigger buzz than the big news. I felt compelled to address the issue, sighting statistical probability and encouraging my people to take a dispassionate view of our potential risks. To their credit, after that first morning I saw no other evidence of continued anxiety and I’m certain the perceived threat was completely forgotten. But the first, visceral reaction was an assumption of danger and a perspective of fear.

There are things in the world to fear and things that require a prudent approach. But the relentless messages of our culture are telling us to be unnecessarily afraid. I am grateful that travel has exposed me to a world not driven by fear. I did not realize my perspective was different until I started to observe the typical traveler on my tours. I’m grateful I was able to read Glassner’s book and feel comfortable with my daughter walking home from school (statistically, children are no more likely to be snatched today than when I was a child). I for one am choosing not to live in fear. Like my mentor Rick Steves, I’ve long been an advocate of travel for breaking down stereotypes, opening up our minds to new ways of thinking, and giving us new ways to evaluate our culture. Now to that list I’d like to add the importance of travel for the diminution of fear. I challenge my readers to continue to travel, to travel with purpose, and make part of that purpose to see that others are not fearful - and we need not be either.