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Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2001 / 21 Tishrei, 5762

Paul Campos

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Fear is still all we have to fear -- IN the spring of 1933, President Roosevelt assured Americans that the nation had "nothing to fear but fear itself." America was then in the fourth year of a severe economic crisis that would last the rest of the decade.

That same year, the Nazis came to power in Germany, while in Ukraine millions were beginning to starve under the Soviets' regime of forced collectivization. In Japan, ultranationalists were already planning to conquer East Asia, while in much of Europe fascist and communist movements flourished, and threatened to snuff out the democratic systems of several countries.

It was a dark time, and over the next 12 years it would get much darker. Under the circumstances, Roosevelt's assurance to the nation that had just elected him could well have seemed naive or disingenuous. Nevertheless his pronouncement proved to be, in the most profound sense, absolutely correct.

America today is, in terms of both military and economic might, many times stronger than it was during Roosevelt's time. Yet in another sense our nation is more vulnerable than it was even in the depths of the Great Depression, or when America's armies fought the Axis powers across three continents.

Today's terrorists have power not because they command armies or wield weapons of mass destruction (as horrible as the Sept. 11 attack was, it still killed fewer Americans than had died in automobile accidents over the previous two months), but because we are afraid of them. Fear gives them power over us -- and over the past few decades America has become a fear-ridden nation.

We have become obsessed with controlling every aspect of life that can be controlled, as well as many that cannot. The products we buy are plastered with warnings: signs on ladders inform us that falling off them can be harmful; our beer bottle labels remind us not to operate heavy machinery while drunk; and our cars flash irate warnings if we fail to buckle our seatbelts or lock our doors.

We have constructed the world's most expensive medical system, in which the majority of its nearly $2 trillion annual cost is incurred over the last six months of patients' lives in futile efforts to ward off the inevitable. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if our political, medical and legal systems have dedicated themselves to the proposition that risk in general, and death in particular, can be regulated out of existence, if we simply print enough warning labels, set up enough metal detectors, and never smoke another cigarette.

Last week, I spent more than two hours standing in line at Denver's airport, waiting to go through a security system that in the end seemed indistinguishable from the system that failed to deter last month's attack. From a narrowly rational perspective, standing in line for two hours to undergo procedures that will not stop a truly determined terrorist (in the extraordinarily unlikely event such a person will attempt to board your particular flight) makes no sense. Statistically speaking, I took a much bigger risk by driving to the airport than by boarding my flight.

Yet a subtler understanding of human psychology can account for such procedures, without simply dismissing them as irrational. Security checkpoints, warning labels, etc., are all part of the ritual of rationalism, by which we comfort ourselves with the belief that we are in control of the risks that surround us.

While that belief is mostly an illusion, the comfort it brings us is not. Unfortunately, our addiction to this form of comfort has become a powerful weapon in the hands of fanatics who, far from fearing death, eagerly embrace it. In America today, we have nothing to fear but the fearless themselves.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.


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08/15/01: Media blithely foster 'big' lie
08/09/01: Saying thanks while it matters
07/18/01: When 'Love Child' meant something completely different
06/27/01: The corruption of the critics
06/20/01: McVeigh fired our dark joy of vengeance
06/13/01: Outrageous verdicts are genteel theft
06/07/01: Martin ruling only further handicaps us
05/16/01: The thin line between hero and hated
05/11/01: Nature defies advent of true meritocracy
04/23/01: Being fat is OK
04/04/01: The screams that go unheard
03/28/01: When a day care provider dumps her baby should her liscence be revoked?
03/21/01: While markets are rational, most people are not
03/14/01: Jesse's racialist bluster
02/27/01: Can 673 law professors be hypocrites?
02/21/01: There is a certain irony in all the foaming at the mouth Bubba's latest Excellent Adventure
02/14/01: The Napster thrill
02/08/01: War on drugs worse than drugs
01/31/01: Racial imbalance not always racist

© 2001, Paul Campos