November 5, 2014

DAVIS | The Irrational Politics of Fear

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Fear is one of the most effective motivators of human behavior. Perhaps the National Republican Congressional Committee realized this when they decided to make an appeal to the fears of average Americans a central part of their strategy for the 2014 midterm elections. Just how effective that strategy was will likely be apparent by the time this blog is posted, but whether they prove to be effective or not, the present-day tactics of American fear-mongering warrant closer consideration. Why do we fear the things we fear, and why do we fear them so much?

Two of the greatest issues that have occupied the American psyche recently are the spread of the Ebola virus and the actions of the Islamic extremist group ISIS. At first glance, it is easy to see why these two things would inspire fear: The former is a highly dangerous disease which has spread widely in Africa and has now infected several Americans, and the latter is a group with a nihilistic attitude, a propensity for extreme violence and a burning hatred for everything the West stands for. Indeed, there is some degree of rationality behind the American fear and paranoia surrounding these two threats.

Yet this rationality doesn’t hold up when one examines the prominent position that Ebola and ISIS hold on the hierarchy of things that frighten the average American. Only nine Americans have been treated for the Ebola virus thus far, and seven of those have recovered (one is still in treatment and one has died). American deaths due to terrorism, meanwhile, are rare enough to be less common than deaths due to things like workplace accidents, starvation or even falling out of bed. So why should we fear these statistically minor threats? How can the National Republican Congressional Committee feel so confident that invoking these threats will be enough to draw voters out of their houses and to the polls?

The answer lies in two characteristics that are common to the Ebola and ISIS threats: Otherness and a seemingly simple solution.

In the case of Ebola, the otherness lies in its Africanness. While the common flu poses more of a clear and present danger than Ebola, Ebola is not a threat which we have grown accustomed to in the United States. It is non-Western in origin, and thus carries a sinister connotation with it which defies rational thought. The otherness of ISIS, meanwhile, is even more apparent. It is a geographic other, a religious other, an ethnic other and an ideological other. It is a group that plays directly into all of America’s paranoid, xenophobic fantasies about the Middle East.

Ebola and ISIS also share the appearance of a simple solution. One should take note, of course, that this is only an appearance — someone with a serious background in public health would probably not tell you that solving the spread of Ebola is a simple thing to do, nor would someone with a serious background in national security tell you the same thing about ISIS. But to those who scream the loudest about the threats posed by the disease and the terrorist group, the solutions are all too clear. Ebola demands the immediate mandatory quarantine of anyone who might be infected, and ISIS demands the immediate use of brute military force to establish U.S. dominance and ensure American safety. Both threats require the borders to be sealed to keep these menacing forms of otherness out.

So if the foreign, non-Western origins of Ebola and ISIS provide the irrational reasoning behind the prominence of the threats in our national discussion, the apparently simple solutions to them make them more comfortable things to discuss. It is easy, after all, to scream for bombs, quarantines and sealed borders. But we cannot bomb our way out of poverty, nor can we seal off our borders from climate change.

Adam Davis is a freshman in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at

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