I wonder whether the politicians who are using fear to get themselves elected would stop if they knew the harm they may be doing to people's health. Real physical harm. Making people sick. Perhaps even killing them. Not intentionally, of course, or knowingly. But this kind of "be afraid" message does more than encourage people to think that you are the candidate who will make them safe. It creates stress and may be at least as much of a threat to public health as terrorism itself.
The University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute found that, in the period of October through December 2001, about 1,000 more Americans died in motor vehicle crashes than during the same period the year before. Why? Fear of flying certainly played a big role. Although that fear wasn't something created by the government, it demonstrates that when people are afraid, they make choices, such as driving instead of flying, that make them feel safer, even though such choices may raise their risk.
Here's another example: Around the time of the 2002 July Fourth holiday _ the first post-9/11 national birthday celebration _ government warnings suggested an increased likelihood of terrorism. FBI records indicate that requests for handgun purchases in the latter part of June were one-third higher than average. Own a gun if you choose, but let's be honest. The likelihood that a gun will protect you from a terrorist attack is pretty low. But having a gun around does increase the chance of an accident.
Remember when anthrax was in the mail? Tens of thousands of us took antibiotics prophylactically. That made us feel safer, but taking such drugs in advance doesn't do much good _ it just helps drug-resistant strains of bacteria proliferate.
And then there are the insidious effects of persistently elevated stress. Chronically elevated stress weakens our immune system. It is associated with long-term damage to our cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems. It impairs formation of new bone cells, reduces fertility and contributes to clinical depression.
Making people afraid threatens their health. Are we stressed more than normal? A poll by the National Mental Health Association about the psychological effects of 9/11 (released in January of 2004) found that 49 percent of Americans described themselves as worried, 41 percent described themselves as afraid, 8 percent said they were more often emotionally upset for no apparent reason, and 7 percent said they were having trouble sleeping.
It is hard to estimate how much harm has been caused by all this anxiety. The increased death toll on the roads in late 2001 alone is about a third of the total number of victims on 9/11. It is entirely plausible to suggest that, because of our fears, as many people have been harmed, and maybe even died prematurely, as died on that awful day.
It's simplistic and overly cynical to say that every government communication about terrorism, such as raising the alert level or announcing an arrest, is political. There are thousands of government workers earnestly trying to protect us. But politicians of both parties who use fear to manipulate our votes contribute to the very harm from which they say they are trying to protect us.
About 75 percent of Americans say the aim of terrorism is "to create distress and fear." Isn't that just what Vice President Dick Cheney's outrageous recent statements tried to do? Isn't that the potential effect of Attorney General John Ashcroft's often excessively alarmist language? Isn't that what happened when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge credited President Bush for success in the war on terror while raising the alert level last month?
Public health is at stake. And not just mental health. Our physical well-being is on the line here. People are being harmed as politicians frighten us to curry our votes. It is fair to demand that they stop, and we should hold them accountable at the polls if they don't.
David Ropeik is director of risk communication at Harvard University's Center for Risk Analysis.
Special to the Los Angeles Times