Jewish World Review Jan. 6, 2004 / 12 Teves, 5764

Deborah Mathis

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Nation is experiencing 'fear fatigue' | In a lunch line the other day, I overheard two young women discussing movie plans.

"Nah," said one. "I know it looks good, but I don't want to see that. I don't like being scared."

Although I have been known to indulge the occasional horror flick, I can relate. Being scared has lost its thrill. It doesn't just make my hair stand on end anymore; it makes my chest hurt.

That must be because the scary stuff has leaped off the big screen and into the big picture called life, which, these days, is more about death than it used to be. Terrible things, unimaginable things, are no longer the product of some screenwriter's hyperactive imagination; they now happen for real, courtesy of some thoroughly demented mind or some soul corrupted by fanaticism or some sick fascination with taking over the world.

No wonder a young woman isn't up to spending $7 for a couple of hours in a darkened theater with her blood pressure spiked by fear and trepidation. She can get that for free under open skies. Besides, Hollywood can hardly top real life anymore.

It's been 27 months since the world changed. Much about everyday life is different, movement particularly. Getting from Point A to Point B takes a plan now. And patience. In some instances, it takes humility too.

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Yet, despite the persistent threat of terrorism and all that color-coded danger, all that chatter about chatter, Americans increasingly seem to dislike being scared. You can see it at the airport. A week after 9/11, I flew into the Newark airport and practically had the place to myself. Now you have to park all the way at the top in long-term and you have to weave your way around all the bags and fellow passengers in the terminal.

Shock and fear emptied the place. Fear fatigue has filled it back up.

Some may worry that we are letting our guard down. Either that, or we're fooling ourselves about how safe we are.

But I don't think so. Just this week, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that 53 percent of respondents expect a commercial airline in the U.S. to be hit by a shoulder-fired missile sometime in the next five years. I'll bet those who don't are not counting on terrorists to have second thoughts, but rather, on the defense industry to come up with some gizmo to thwart such an attack. In other words, there's probably not much pie-in-the-sky thinking going on.

This is encouraging. For the longest time after 9/11, the nation lived on edge, as if it might, at any moment, quake and quiver itself to pieces. Nothing like that had ever happened before and we were scared out of our minds.

Then came anthrax, Afghanistan, sniper attacks, SARS, North Korea and Iraq. It's a wonder the whole country didn't crack up.

But "fear itself," as Franklin Roosevelt put it, is a destructive and dangerous thing, capable of driving level-headed men and women to snap judgments, forced change and new prejudices. Fear can take a toll on the pocketbook, the spirit, justice, happiness and freedom. It can take the sweetness out of the past, the satisfaction out of the present, and the hope out of the future. Fear, indeed, is a big bad wolf.

No wonder some of us are so tired of it dominating our lives that we've learned to put it back in its place - like a flashlight - accessible, but not "on" all the time.

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08/30/03: Merchandising a daughter: Life imitates 'reality TV'
01/07/03: A mom has to let go, but she can do so in style
12/26/02: We've given overwork a makeover and called it "multitasking"
12/23/02: The bad guys have underestimated our adaptability


© 2003, TMS