Basking in Fear and Paranoia

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So they think they’ve got him, or them. My question is: What will many people in the D.C. area and throughout the U.S. do now for — not entertainment, since that would trivialize the needs served, but a sense of meaning. Not everyone; there are those who did not bathe in the experience.

But I’m thinking of a witness to an earlier takedown, of two illegal immigrants in a van. He described it as not just exciting — “when they went in, the adrenaline got going” — but edifying:“ It was, um, impressive.” What is it he found so, um, significant?

Consider Michael Moore’s new, Canadian-produced film, Bowling for Columbine, on guns and death in the U.S.

He is a lifelong marksman and National Rifle Association member, from gun-crazy Michigan, so he’s qualified and looks comfy around guns. In a nice twist, he doesn’t claim their mere presence is the source of all the death. Canada, he says, for which he has always shown an ardour that may go beyond the rational, is a society with lots of guns, too, but a vastly lower murder rate. Instead, he stresses the culture of fear that pervades the U.S.

Their news often seems to consist of murders (and some fires). In a period when murders declined by twenty per cent, murder coverage rose six-hundred per cent. But almost any fear will do, like the killer bees who never came. Once the film points this out, you start seeing it everywhere.

On ABC News on Wednesday, virtually the only story besides the sniper was that contact lenses can mangle your corneas, if you buy them at a gas station. That day, George W. Bush made two TV appearances, neither of which concerned the sniper, but both of which were good and scary, as if the country needed more. In the morning, he signed a bill to spend huge sums on weapons against America’s enemies. In the afternoon, he spoke about Internet pornography and perverts targeting kids (contact CyberTips), and really got into it. You felt he wasn’t just scaring parents; he was scared himself.

That day, CBC’s The National led with the resignation of our former boob Solicitor-General, Lawrence MacAulay. Plus Statscan released a new set of data on Canadian families. Oh, and the D.C. sniper. Given the inundation from U.S. sources, it tends to make Canada look naive. But, really, who lives in a fantasy realm? Bowling for Columbine’s sweetest moment comes when Michael Moore asks some Canadian teenagers if they’d shoot a kid they don’t like, they say no, and he says, What would you do? “Maybe tease him,” giggles a gangly boy. As I say, Michael Moore can seem a bit naive on Canada himself but, in comparative terms, the point holds.

Someone in the film says the point about America seems to be: Get scared and buy something to deal with it — a missile system, a private arsenal, a burger with fries. The fear is out there. For a macho culture, it’s a bit embarrassing. Rambo having an anxiety attack. Every minute. If there’s widespread paranoia, then genuine threats, like the odd sniper or bioterror, seem even scarier. Yet what lies behind it, what is it that makes Americans so prone to fear, well beyond what is justified?

Michael Moore pulls his punches a little here. He seems to want to argue it’s based on the absence of any sense of collective security; if you get sick, lose your job or are born poor — America will lend less help than any comparable country. They’ll throw you off welfare and out of the emergency room.

People rightly feel isolated and fearful. But the source goes unrecognized; and the fear winds up being projected onto (falling) crime and killer bees.

So one can see why Americans feel fear, and why some might want them to (like Martin Marietta, the world’s biggest armsmaker, headquarted near Columbine High). But why do many also seem to actually embrace the fear (“It was, um, impressive”), find some satisfaction, or even delight in it? There are people, I’d say, who will miss the story if the sniper really has been caught, and look elsewhere for more.

Well, there has always been a problem of unity in the United States, as its name testifies. It’s a society that is racially, economically and politically divided. There’s not much in common beyond myth and rhetoric (“the greatest country in the history of the world”) or vapid fellow-feeling (“my fellow Americans”). It provides less that’s concrete and which people share, like social programs, than it did in the past.

At least their fear unites them and, if it has an empirical basis like a sniper, all the better. Fear as the national hearth. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in one of his “fireside chats,” united his country, in the depths of a depression, saying: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” then backed it up with social security and other programs. Under George W. Bush, it may come down to a terser,“We have nothing but fear itself.”

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