If It Bleeds, It Leads; To Irrational Fear

Did you know that while only one Briton in 25 will actually be the victim of any sort of crime, a quarter of us think that we will be? In fact, in terms of violent crime we are living in the safest period in human history. Yet we act more frightened than ever.

And judging by the media, both traditional and social, the crime we most get anxious about at the moment is terrorism.

However, in 2005, the year of the London Subway bombing, the peak year for Islamic terrorist activity in the UK this century, you were 2400 times more likely to die of heart disease than be killed by an Islamic extremist.

That’s not to say the world is perfect, there are real threats out there for those who want something to worry about, but when experts are asked to list the 10 biggest risks to humanity in terms of their likely occurrence and the impact they would have if they did occur global terror is not in the top ten of those lists. The main danger in terms of its potential impact, water scarcity, doesn’t even register in most people’s daily thought processes.

When was the last time you went a day without thinking about terrorism?

We seem to be living in an age where real risks are ignored and replaced by bogeymen. At this point in time the big bogeyman is Isis, and by extension, for a worryingly large amount of people, all Muslims. Out fears are reflected in opinion polls. Nearly one third of American adults agree with Trump that Muslims should be banned from entering the country. More British people associate the word Muslim with terror than any other quality.

But terrorist attacks are so infrequent here because there are so many factors that need to be in place for them to happen. Our own security services think that less than 1% of UK Muslims are in danger of becoming radicalised. Of those, only a small proportion will be radicalised. Of that small proportion only a handful would ever go on to try to commit a terrorist attack. They would then need to meet the correct people, train, obtain the correct materials, construct a good enough plan and carry this plan out with a reasonable degree of efficiency. All the time evading the security services. It is very unlikely that all those things can come together, hence the infrequency of these events.

But that doesn’t stop us worrying. And the distrust that this worry sows is causing divisions which increase the risk. More and more Muslims feel disenfranchised and end up in a position where they could become radicalised.

These interviews with young Muslims by Channel Four News show the effect of the current climate in action.

There is a saying in the media, If It Bleeds, It Leads. And this philosophy is the main stoker of our irrationality as this quote from the Psychologist magazine shows.

Put simply, the more often we hear about something, and the more emotive that event is, the greater its impact on us. We’re susceptible, suggestible, suspicious creatures, easily moved by the appearance of things, and much less influenced by the way things actually are.

The way we think about the world is hugely influenced by the number of times we hear about an event and by the magnitude of its emotional impact on us. Objective facts cut much less ice. This means we’re vulnerable to all kinds of irrational, unjustified fears – to paranoia, in other words. And if you’re inclined to doubt it, think back to how you felt about swimming in the sea after having seen Jaws for the first time!

But media driven fear is just an extension of a repressed fear that emanates from how we live our lives. Packed in stressful urban environments, bombarded by photo-shopped images of perfect bodies and wholesome families. We do jobs that are no longer secure. Working harder for less, constantly monitored and constantly judged. CCTV and speeding cameras are ubiquitous. Our phones report where we are and our cards report where and what we spend. The government reads our emails. Our colleague are our competitors, racing each other to rise one notch up the slippery status pole. Many lead sedentary lives, are overweight, sick or even mentally ill. Trapped by constant fear in a cycle we hate, only one pay cheque away from not even having that cycle.

It is common to hear that there is some form of Machiavellian force manipulating us in order to distract us from the real problems of the world. For solutions to many of the real problems like climate change, interstate conflict and weapon proliferation would have major financial repercussions for very powerful people. Contrary to this, solutions to the Terrorist Bogeyman, such as clamping down on civil liberties and bombing raids in the Middle East, can benefit those in charge and their cronies.

That said, you don’t need the involvement of a Propaganda State to see the true force driving our fear. We are being fed what we desire. And only we have the collective power to control our appetites.

As security expert Bruce Schneier explained in aftermath of the Boston Bombing, we need to:

refuse to be terrorized. Terrorism is a crime against the mind. What happened in Boston, horrific as it is, is theatre to make you scared. That’s the point. The message of terrorist attacks is you’re not safe, and the government can’t protect you — that the existing power structure can’t protect you.

I tell people if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. By definition, news is something that almost never happens. The brain fools you into thinking the news is what’s important. Our brains overreact to this stuff. Terrorism just pegs the fear button.

The government can’t thwart every terror attack. However, the government can play an active roll in helping to relieve some of the overblown anxiety that affects how we react to perceived threats. They won’t do so on their own volition as the anxiety we feel makes us more malleable and easier to govern. A divided society, obsessed with the enemy within is easier to control.

It is up to us to stop feeding the sensationalism in politics and the media. It is up to us to demand a better balance between work and our physical and mental well being. It is up to us wrest back authoritarian control. Only by taking the power back over our lives can we face our irrational fears. And then we can begin to heal the wounds those fears are causing in our society and the wider world.

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