Introduction: Why Americans Fear the Wrong
Why are so many fears in the air, and so many of them unfounded? Why,
as crime rates plunged throughout the 1990s, did two-thirds of Americans
believe they were soaring? How did it come about that by mid-decade
62 percent of us described ourselves as "truly desperate"
about crime-almost twice as many as in the late 1980s, when crime
rates were higher? Why, on a survey in 1997, when the crime rate had
already fallen for a half dozen consecutive years, did more than half
of us disagree with the statement "This country is finally beginning
to make some progress in solving the crime problem"?
In the late 1990s the number of drug users had decreased by half compared
to a decade earlier; almost two-thirds of high school seniors had never
used any illegal drugs, even marijuana. So why did a majority of adults
rank drug abuse as the greatest danger to America’s youth? Why
did nine out of ten believe the drug problem is out of control, and
only one in six believe the country was making progress?
Give us a happy ending and we write a new disaster story. In the late
1990s the unemployment rate was below 5 percent for the first time in
a quarter century. People who had been pounding the pavement for years
could finally get work. Yet pundits warned of imminent economic disaster.
They predicted inflation would take off, just as they had a few years
earlier-also erroneously-when the unemployment rate dipped
below 6 percent.
We compound our worries beyond all reason. Life expectancy in the United
States has doubled during the twentieth century. We are better able
to cure and control diseases than any other civilization in history.
Yet we hear that phenomenal numbers of us are dreadfully ill. In 1996
Bob Garfield, a magazine writer, reviewed articles about serious diseases
published over the course of a year in the Washington Post, the New
York Times, and USA Today. He learned that, in addition to 59 million
Americans with heart disease, 53 million with migraines, 25 million
with osteoporosis, 16 million with obesity, and 3 million with cancer,
many Americans suffer from more obscure ailments such as temporomandibular
joint disorders (10 million) and brain injuries (2 million). Adding
up the estimates, Garfield determined that 543 million Americans are
seriously sick-a shocking number in a nation of 266 million inhabitants.
"Either as a society we are doomed, or someone is seriously double-dipping,"
Garfield appears to have underestimated one category of patients: for
psychiatric ailments his figure was 53 million. Yet when Jim Windolf,
an editor of the New York Observer, collated estimates for maladies
ranging from borderline personality disorder (10 million) and sex addiction
(11 million) to less well-known conditions such as restless leg syndrome
(12 million) he came up with a figure of 152 million. "But give
the experts a little time," he advised. "With another new
quantifiable disorder or two, everybody in the country will be officially
Indeed, Windolf omitted from his estimates new-fashioned afflictions
that have yet to make it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association: ailments
such as road rage, which afflicts more than half of Americans, according
to a psychologist’s testimony before a congressional hearing in
The scope of our health fears seems limitless. Besides worrying disproportionately
about legitimate ailments and prematurely about would-be diseases, we
continue to fret over already refuted dangers. Some still worry, for
instance, about "flesh-eating bacteria," a bug first rammed
into our consciousness in 1994 when the U.S. news media picked up on
a screamer headline in a British tabloid, "Killer Bug Ate My Face."
The bacteria, depicted as more brutal than anything seen in modern times,
was said to be spreading faster than the pack of photographers outside
the home of its latest victim. In point of fact, however, we were not
"terribly vulnerable" to these "superbugs,"
nor were they "medicine’s worst nightmares," as voices
in the media warned.
Group A strep, a cyclical strain that has been around for ages, had
been dormant for half a century or more before making a comeback. The
British pseudoepidemic had resulted in a total of about a dozen deaths
in the previous year. Medical experts roundly rebutted the scares by
noting that of 20 to 30 million strep infections each year in the United
States fewer than 1 in 1,000 involve serious strep A complications,
and only 500 to 1,500 people suffer the flesh-eating syndrome, whose
proper name is necrotizing fasciitis. Still the fear persisted. Years
after the initial scare, horrifying news stories continued to appear,
complete with grotesque pictures of victims. A United Press International
story in 1998 typical of the genre told of a child in Texas who died
of the "deadly strain" of bacteria that the reporter warned
"can spread at a rate of up to one inch per hour."
When we are not worrying about deadly diseases we worry about homicidal
strangers. Every few months for the past several years it seems we discover
a new category of people to fear: government thugs in Waco, sadistic
cops on Los Angeles freeways and in Brooklyn police stations, mass-murdering
youths in small towns all over the country. A single anomalous event
can provide us with multiple groups of people to fear. After the 1995
explosion at the federal building in Oklahoma City first we panicked
about Arabs. "Knowing that the car bomb indicates Middle Eastern
terrorists at work, it’s safe to assume that their goal is to
promote free-floating fear and a measure of anarchy, thereby disrupting
American life," a New York Post editorial asserted. "Whatever
we are doing to destroy Mideast terrorism, the chief terrorist threat
against Americans, has not been working," wrote A. M. Rosenthal
in the New York Times.
When it turned out that the bombers were young white guys from middle
America, two more groups instantly became spooky: right-wing radio talk
show hosts who criticize the government-depicted by President
Bill Clinton as "purveyors of hatred and division"-and
members of militias. No group of disgruntled men was too ragtag not
to warrant big, prophetic news stories.
We have managed to convince ourselves that just about every young American
male is a potential mass murderer-a remarkable achievement, considering
the steep downward trend in youth crime throughout the 1990s. Faced
year after year with comforting statistics, we either ignore them-adult
Americans estimate that people under eighteen commit about half of all
violent crimes when the actual number is 13 percent-or recast
them as "The Lull Before the Storm" (Newsweek headline).
"We know we’ve got about six years to turn this juvenile
crime thing around or our country is going to be living with chaos,"
Bill Clinton asserted in 1997, even while acknowledging that the youth
violent crime rate had fallen 9.2 percent the previous year.
The more things improve the more pessimistic we become. Violence-related
deaths at the nation’s schools dropped to a record low during
the 1996–97 academic year (19 deaths out of 54 million children),
and only one in ten public schools reported any serious crime. Yet Time
and U.S. News & World Report both ran headlines in 1996 referring
to "Teenage Time Bombs." In a nation of "Children
Without Souls" (another Time headline that year), "America’s
beleaguered cities are about to be victimized by a paradigm shattering
wave of ultraviolent, morally vacuous young people some call ‘the
superpredators,’" William Bennett, the former Secretary
of Education, and John DiIulio, a criminologist, forecast in a book
published in 1996.
Instead of the arrival of superpredators, violence by urban youths
continued to decline. So we went looking elsewhere for proof that heinous
behavior by young people was "becoming increasingly more commonplace
in America" (CNN). After a sixteen-year-old in Pearl, Mississippi,
and a fourteen-year-old in West Paducah, Kentucky, went on shooting
sprees in late 1997, killing five of their classmates and wounding twelve
others, these isolated incidents were taken as evidence of "an
epidemic of seemingly depraved adolescent murderers" (Geraldo
Rivera). Three months later in March 1998 all sense of proportion vanished
after two boys ages eleven and thirteen killed four students and a teacher
in Jonesboro, Arkansas. No longer, we learned in Time, was it "unusual
for kids to get back at the world with live ammunition." When
a child psychologist on NBC’s "Today" show advised
parents to reassure their children that shootings at schools are rare,
reporter Ann Curry corrected him. "But this is the fourth case
since October," she said.
Over the next couple of months young people failed to accommodate the
trend hawkers. None committed mass murder. Fear of killer kids remained
very much in the air nonetheless. In stories on topics such as school
safety and childhood trauma, reporters recapitulated the gory details
of the killings. And the news media made a point of reporting every
incident in which a child was caught at school with a gun or making
a death threat. In May, when a fifteen-year-old in Springfield, Oregon,
did open fire in a cafeteria filled with students, killing two and wounding
twenty-three others, the event felt like a continuation of a "disturbing
trend" (New York Times). The day after the shooting, on National
Public Radio’s "All Things Considered," the criminologist
Vincent Schiraldi tried to explain that the recent string of incidents
did not constitute a trend, that youth homicide rates had declined by
30 percent in recent years, and more than three times as many people
were killed by lightning than by violence at schools. But the show’s
host, Robert Siegel, interrupted him. "You’re saying these
are just anomalous events?" he asked, audibly peeved. The criminologist
reiterated that anomalous is precisely the right word to describe the
events, and he called it "a grave mistake" to imagine otherwise.
Yet given what had happened in Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, and
Oregon, could anyone doubt that today’s youths are "more
likely to pull a gun than make a fist," as Katie Couric declared
on the "Today" show?