A Week on the Brink

From oil spills and car bombs to epic floods and market nosedives, the world suddenly feels full of peril. Louise Roug Bokkenheuser on America’s struggle to cope—and keep up—with multiple crises.

This week, there were two almost-disasters in New York: an explosion in Times Square and an implosion on Wall Street—serious what-ifs that unfurled against a backdrop of calamity somewhere else.

Certainly, one could have been forgiven for glancing nervously at the sky, looking for that swarm of locusts, especially considering that, elsewhere in the country, fire burned on water and dead animals had begun to wash ashore. Add to that a deadly flood and the darkness that recently fell over Europe in the form of a cloud of ash, and it felt a little like the world was on the brink of something foretold by the ancients.

One psychoanalyst said that people haven’t panicked, but noted that he has lately detected an undercurrent of dread among his clients.

Amid all these terrifying scenarious, how to handle our fears? Which are truly scary? Bomb threats? Oil spills? Volatile markets?

The threats are so great and so varied—the slow-motion horror of the oil spill in the Gulf versus the quick, stomach-churning drop of the Dow—that we seem to get overwhelmed. As Andrew Romano noted in a Newsweek blog, the media almost failed to take notice of the flooding in Nashville that killed at least 30 people and may become one of the most expensive disasters in the nation’s history.

But how can we learn to live with so many threats in our lives? How do we weigh the relative menace of menaces?

Be Very Afraid, a book published last month by Robert Wuthnow, a sociology professor at Princeton University, examines the “cultural response to terror, pandemics, environmental devastation, nuclear annihilation, and other threats,” as the menacing subtitle puts it.

“Although the world has experienced major crises in the past, our time is unique in combining high levels of technical expertise with a continuing sense of extreme vulnerability. The more we learn about our world, the more we realize that our existence is precarious. The threat of a nuclear holocaust continues. Scientists warn of catastrophic effects on the human environment from global warming. Pandemic influenza poses recurrent danger to people everywhere. Terrorist plots have become more deadly and harder to predict,” Wuthnow writes. “The fact that we have lived now for more than half a century with these potentially catastrophic threats suggests the need to step back and take stock, not of whether we have enough weapons in place or sufficient vaccines, but of what can be learned from our collective responses to these crisis.”

In the field of sociology, the “culture of fear” has lately become a popular area of study. In the field of politics, fear has been the handmaiden of power since the beginning of time.

Corey Robin, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College, who wrote a book about the political uses of fear, distinguishes between private and public fear. “Private fears like my fear of flying or your fear of spiders are artifacts of our own psychologies and experiences, and have little impact beyond ourselves. Political fear, by contrast, arises from conflicts within and between societies,” he writes. “Political fear can also have widespread repercussions. It may dictate public policy, bring new groups to power and keep others out, create laws and overturn them.”

Or, as Wuthnow points out: “Helpful as it is, [our] penchant for action sometimes gets us into trouble. Hoping that action will find solutions and make us feel better, we sometimes too easily follow the agendas set by government officials, listening to their warnings of potential threats, hoping to feel more powerful in the face of danger. The path from 9/11 to the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been a case in point.”

In New York, people are notoriously blasé, especially when viewed from afar. And it is true that this week New Yorkers didn’t panic at the sight of almost-explosions and thrill-ride stock plunges. There was no rush on stores; no fewer people on the subways; no one staying out of the sunshine. Once the initial alarm had died down, the stock market sort of rallied and people flooded back into Midtown for theater shows and dinner.

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Charles B. Strozier, who heads the Center on Terrorism at Manhattan's John Jay College of Criminal Justice and is also a psychoanalyst, said that people haven’t panicked or changed their behavior in the face of all these threats—what, in any event, can a single individual do about the threat of terrorism or the volatility of the stock market?—but noted that he has lately detected an undercurrent of dread among his clients, a sense that the world is unintelligible, full of signs and portends.

Unlike his predecessor, President Obama peddles not fear but something else. He is a hope-monger who belongs to the school of Michel Montaigne, the French thinker long before F.D.R. declared that “the thing I fear most is fear.” Despite the trials and tribulations that come with his challenging job, Obama has kept his composure and his famous cool. There is no talk of invisible weapons and “evil-doers” among us.

And when Republican legislators this spring compared the health care bill to “the black plague” and “Armageddon,” Obama shot back, “I heard one of the Republican leaders say this was going to be Armageddon. Well, two months from now, six months from now, you can check it out. We'll look around. And we'll see. You don't have to take my word for it.”

Obama is right. We’ll see if health care really makes the list of things to be afraid of.

Meanwhile, this week, as we stepped back from the brink of two near-disasters, one thing was pretty clear: when it comes to fear, Wall Street was the place with the greatest propensity to panic. And that’s pretty scary.