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Consumer Reports

Americans manage a shrug, smile in face of menaces great and small | (KRT) Got hype fatigue?

SARS. Orange alerts. Mad cow in Canada. West Nile mosquitoes hatching in your gutters.

Now this, according to Britain's royal astronomer:

"I think the odds are no better than 50-50 that our present civilization on Earth will survive to the end of the present century," writes Martin Rees in a new book merrily titled "Our Final Hour."

"Whatever," you say.

Hype fatigue.

"They serve up the scare of the week, take your pick, and people wonder, `What are they going to throw at us next?'" said Benjamin Radford, author of a forthcoming book about myth-making in the media.

It's the 21st century, and Chicken Little is big. War in Iraq and tornadoes in Kansas City are not terrifying enough; beware the multitude of invisible menaces.

Maybe here's the real news: Despite all the recent headlines about threats foreign and domestic - killer plagues, global warming, invasive species, sagging economy, rogue asteroids, the fight against fat - Americans seem surprisingly chipper.

Only 8 percent are "very worried" that they or their families will become victims of terrorism, according to a recent Gallup Poll. Go figure that in 1996, a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, worry rates on terrorism were much higher.

The Harris Poll not long ago asked: "Are your satisfied with the life you lead?" Fifty-seven percent of Americans answered "very," which qualifies as positively giddy when compared with, say, Greece - where only 11 percent said "very" - or France (14 percent) or Finland (26 percent).

Still, we must be scared, right? Or have we been bombarded with so many threats that none seems that serious or that real?

"Have we somehow become immune?" asked Carroll Doherty of the Pew Center for the People and the Press, a polling organization. "Even with these terrorist attacks on Westerners overseas, there's only so many times the public can raise its own concerns.

"I think there may be a fatigue factor."

Think duct tape.

In a culture of hype, horror stories and self-help, it was bound to happen. The federal government in February suddenly raised the terror-alert level from yellow to orange. The news media clanged the alarm.

The public asked, "Now what should we do?"

Pause. Duct tape and sheets of plastic.

And in an instant, Americans realized there really was not much they could do.

"It's all well and good to raise alarms, but what do you want us to do about it?" said Radford, who edits Skeptical Inquirer magazine, a periodical that questions the less than likely. "With the vast majority of these crises, there is no good answer.

"Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes not everything can be controlled."

Now that's scary, for we are a people who covet control. We list objectives and set goals. We read books on how to parent. We take pills to fix our moods.

And things just happen?

Some people feel helpless when dark clouds approach, and others just shrug. Both reactions trouble professor and author Nancy Snow.

"Our culture is a lot more fragmented today; we're not as closely aligned with our neighbors," said Snow, who teaches communications at California State University. "My disappointment is that there's no social compact in place for citizens to respond to crises.

"There's no Civil Defense network in which regular people can channel their anxieties, as they did in World War II," she said. "We just stay in our homes, watch TV and cross our fingers."

Those watching David Letterman a few days ago heard him joke that "the terrorist level here in New York City is at level orange - so have a great holiday, everybody!

"So, you have SARS, mad cow diseases, the orange alert ," he said. "I'm telling you, the news is so bad the New York Times doesn't have to make it up."

Have times changed that much?

On Memorial Day weekend 50 years ago, the front pages of The Kansas City Star featured stories about awful bus wrecks, widespread flooding, the Korean War, atomic testing and - what do you know? - this Associated Press report:

"Today the U.S.-Mexico border was closed to importation of Mexican cattle because of a fresh outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease."

Granted, the article was only three paragraphs long.

Even in the late 19th century, technological change stirred wild fears among many Americans, said communications historian Carolyn Marvin.

Some scientists at the time warned that electricity could accumulate in railroad tracks and, as more and more trains pounded the rails, "there was the possibility that all these electric particles could discharge into the atmosphere and trigger a doomsday explosion," she said.

And they call us the "panic culture."

Robert Thompson says the label fits.

"People didn't have to worry so much about a SARS outbreak a century ago, because there was a good chance something else would kill you before you turned 30," said Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of popular culture.

"Many of us grew up in a period of relative safety and security, especially Americans. Even during the Cold War, when our fears were about mushroom clouds, over time we sort of got used to the fact nuclear war was probably not going to happen," he said.

Then came the 1990s - "a kind of wonderful little daydream," Thompson said. "We probably were feeling more safe for a longer period of time than any people in history."

But check the news back then. Saturation coverage of the AIDS epidemic, school shootings, devastating floods, Monica and O.J. surely prepared our bed for hype fatigue.

So what's next?

Two University of Washington researchers published a book this year that frames the future like this:

Our planet's biological clock presently reads 4:30 a.m. All plant and animal life will end by 5 a.m., about a half-billion years away. Oceans vaporize at 8 a.m. and, at high noon, the sun will swallow the Earth.

As doomsday accounts go, that's the rosy view, said Donald Brownlee, co-author of "The Life and Death of Planet Earth."

"By understanding that all things have a natural life cycle - even planets and stars - we can better appreciate what we have now," said Brownlee, an astrophysicist. "And we should do everything we can to not make things worse."

In his book, British astronomer Rees' contends that the choices we make in the coming decades could spell the fate of man. In fact, Rees told The New York Times that he had a $1,000 bet that an instance of bioterror or "bio-error" - some deadly bug escaping a lab somewhere - will claim a million lives before 2020.

Just his opinion.

As for the rest of us, "the more confusing and contradictory reality becomes, the more we cling to our fantasies of how things should be," writes George Packer in the latest Mother Jones magazine. "Facts, it turns out, can be far less stubborn things than opinions."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services