We all have heard about how bedbugs are spreading, thanks to air travel. And last year, we were still worried that the H1N1 virus would veer our way. But if you want to know the most virulent virus infecting the world, I'll tell you what it is.
There's an epidemic of fear raging across the globe, and I'm afraid that the United States is its primary breeding ground.
When I was in Australia a few months ago, I got to my hotel room and turned on the TV, and there was Jaycee Dugard. Yes, the young California woman who was kidnapped from her bus stop at age 11 about 20 years ago and escaped her captor-rapist 18 years later. The film clip was familiar to me because I'd seen it on American TV. You probably did, too. But why was this relevant news for folks half a world away?
Because fear sells. And the story of any child being kidnapped — especially a story like Dugard's — is pure TV gold.
That's the same reason we here in the states have heard the story of Maddie McCann, the 4-year-old Briton who was kidnapped from a hotel room in Portugal a few years back. These stories are so precious to the media that they will import them from thousands of miles away, the same way early sailors risked everything for a shipment of saffron. The result? Night after night, we see kidnapped, raped, missing and murdered children on TV, and we quake in rage and fear — fear that is as crippling as it is unwarranted.
"As soon as we hear about a danger, however remote, we tend to see it as a personal threat," says Marc Siegel, a doctor and professor at New York University School of Medicine, as well as the author of the book False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.
He's so right. When I ask parents whether they let their children wait at the bus stop alone, I usually hear "no," and then they say why: "Look at what happened to Jaycee Dugard." Or Etan Patz. Or another tragic child who didn't come home. No matter how long ago it happened. No matter how far away.
The danger gets personalized because that's how our brains work. They are hard-wired to protect us. But in almost any generation up to the present one, if we witnessed a sudden death, it's because we were there. The story imprinted itself on our brains to warn us of what to avoid the next time: Saber-toothed tigers. Poisonous plants. Guys with spears.
But now, thanks to the media, we see danger on a daily basis that has almost nothing to do with us. Fake danger, on Law & Order, and rare danger, distilled on the news. "A zebra is wise to be afraid of a roaring lion," Siegel writes, but not a lion that is thousands of miles away.
Today we are surrounded by "lions." This has real-world consequences. Convinced that our kids are in constant danger, families demand more security services. Perhaps they vote against a local playground because they figure they never would let their kids go there. They may cut money for crossing guards to pay for a parking lot instead because they won't let their kids walk to school.
As this fear spreads from our TVs to us to the rest of the world, we lock the door, convinced there are lions on our lawns. The only antidote is to turn off the TV and bravely venture outside, where, guess what? There's just the neighbor's cat.
© 2011 Creators Syndicate