Printer Friendly

Why the terrorism scare is a moral panic.

THERE IS LEGITIMATE CONCERN in the United States about foreign terrorists attacking Americans on U.S. soil. However, the concern has been hyped beyond reason. One only need compare the terrorist threat with the Cold War danger posed by intercontinental missiles carrying hundreds of nuclear bombs, deliverable in minutes by the former Soviet Union. More importantly, the terrorism scare has resulted in the worst abuses of power since Richard Nixon's years in the White House.

In his 1999 best-selling book, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, sociologist Barry Glassner shows how people in the United States are constantly bombarded with appeals to fear. One threat or another grabs attention on the evening news. There are child kidnappers and molesters, drug dealers who peddle to school children, teenage gang killers, teenage mass murderers in schools, and crack addicts. Moreover, an epidemic of single mothers and gay couples is said to threaten the fabric of society. Glassner suggests that politicians make speeches and pass dramatic laws, but the new laws only appear to accomplish something. As a result, certain groups live in constant fear of danger, and this is creating some odd twists. For example, elderly people living in rural areas (perhaps because they tend to spend more time alone watching crime reports on television news) are more fearful of violent criminals and potential terrorists than are people who live in big cities.

How extensive is fear of terrorism among Americans? Most of them didn't worry much about it before the attacks of 9/11, even though homegrown terrorists were blowing up fellow citizens in federal buildings and abortion clinics. There was no nationwide fear of terrorism. After 9/11, however, this changed. A majority of Americans came to believe that foreign terrorists could be lurking everywhere and might attack anywhere in the United States, even in small towns. Just before the crucial 2004 presidential election, a Gallup poll conducted from August 23 to 25 asked those surveyed if they believed that "terrorists would target an attack against New York City and other big cities, or any place in the U.S." The poll found that 61 percent of the respondents--a significant majority--answered "any place in the U.S." versus 31 percent who said "only New York City or big cities." In contrast, fear of danger to one's self and family is more concrete. A national Gallup poll conducted from December 13 to 17, 2004, a month after the election, found that only 41 percent of Americans said they were very worried or somewhat worried that they or someone in their family would become a victim of terrorism.

How can we interpret these poll findings? They seem to suggest that Americans hold contradictory beliefs about the terrorism threat. On the one hand, a substantial majority seem to believe that terrorists are a danger to the country and that they might strike anywhere. On the other hand, terrorists aren't seen as a particular threat to them personally. As a sociologist, I interpret the contradiction to be a product of people's life experience versus the propaganda they are exposed to.

There is ample evidence from opinion polls that fear of terrorism played the key role in the reelection of George W. Bush. According to a Greenberg Qinlan Rosner poll conducted from November 9 to 11, 2004, immediately after the election, the most important issue on voters' minds on election day was "terrorism and security," with 33 percent ranking it as their greatest concern. This compares with the 28 percent who ranked "the economy and jobs" as their greatest concern. Among those voters who mentioned terrorism and national security, 79 percent gave their votes to Bush. Interpreting these poll findings, Stan Greenberg and James Carville suggest that Bush got his narrow margin of victory due to a late development among white, rural, blue-collar, and senior voters who shifted their votes to him because of his appeal to their worries about terrorism and safety, as much as by concerns about moral value issues. These are the same people who worry most about fictitious waves of violent crime and secret satanic cults.

British reporter Paul Harris interviewed people in rural Clay County, Missouri, in September 2004, two months before the election, and reported in the Guardian that Americans far removed from any big cities had considerable fear of a terrorist attack. Demonstrating the concern that led many elderly, rural people to vote for Bush, Harris wrote:
 America's heartland is afraid. As Maggie Boyd, 66,
 sat in the picturesque town square she spoke of the
 recent school massacre in Russia as having a direct
 relevance to life in Clay County. "You just don't
 know if someone is going to go into my grandson's
 high school and do that here," she said.

 Boyd is voting for Bush. She sees the war in Iraq
 as an integral part of the "war on terror." For her,
 the pictures aired daily on the television news of
 bombs in Baghdad are part of the same fight that
 brought down the World Trade Centre.


The terrorism of 9/11 was particularly shocking because it was a turning point in U.S. history. It was the first foreign attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812. And it killed so many people using a surprise weapon: hijacked airplanes as suicide bombs. When a new kind of threat is recognized, political leaders commonly use certain rhetorical claims to increase their influence and power to deal with the situation. Such claims are conveyed by the mass media as "news," and if there is little critical analysis in the mass media, the impact can be extremely persuasive in influencing public opinion.

One of the most ancient claims made about an enemy is that the enemy is an abominable "evil" in contrast with one's own people's essential goodness. The enemy's qualities are always the mirror opposite of those in one's own culture. So, for example, Bush administration officials have constantly painted the terrorist enemy as motivated by their "hatred of freedom." U.S. efforts to counter terrorist threats are framed as "fighting for freedom," even if that fight involves invasions of privacy under the Patriot Act or spying on antiwar Americans by the FBI and the National Security Agency.

Similarly, terrorists are depicted as suicidal fanatics and a threat to civilization itself. In a November 6, 2001, speech Bush claimed:
 Al Quaeda operates in more than sixty nations,
 including some in Central and Eastern Europe.
 These terrorist groups seek to destabilize entire
 nations and regions. They are seeking chemical,
 biological, and nuclear weapons. Given the means,
 our enemies would be a threat to every nation and,
 eventually, to civilization itself.

Another common rhetorical device employed to keep people vigilant about a newly recognized threat is to exaggerate the numbers of the evildoers and the extent of the threat. There may be no way to accurately estimate the numbers of well-trained members of al Qaida and its allied networks. There may be only hundreds or many thousands or perhaps an endless, multiplying network of terrorists. Whatever the actual count, it is in the interest of U.S. political leaders to exaggerate the extent of the threat. So Americans frequently hear that there are tens of thousands of highly trained terrorist operatives, many of whom exist secretly, hidden in American communities as "sleeper cells." In a speech on January 29, 2002, Bush claimed:
 Thousands of dangerous killers, schooled in the
 methods of murder, often supported by outlaw regimes,
 are now spread throughout the world like
 ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning.
 ... Hundreds of thousands have been arrested.
 Yet, tens of thousands of trained terrorists are still
 at large.

These assertions are reminiscent of exaggerated Cold War estimates of communist spies and subversives loose in the United States. Likewise, the contemporary claims are similar to the fantastic assertions about thousands of criminal satanists organized in secret cults across the country.

A newly perceived threat from different kinds of evildoers usually gives rise to claims about new and unique dangers. In the case of the satanic cult scare, for example, claims were made about the ritual murder of thousands of kidnapped children and homeless people, cannibalism of fetuses and infants, and the use of mobile crematoriums to keep it all secret. In a similar vein, the terrorism scare has resulted in speculation about potential danger from "dirty" nuclear bombs, portable nukes in suitcases, poison gas attacks from small airplanes, germ warfare in cities, car bombs in tunnels, poisoned water in reservoirs, and more. We don't have to wait for would-be terrorists to come up with new strategies on their own; they merely need to watch the evening news or the latest television crime show for plot ideas.

Guilt by association is a common tool used to gain power. The linguistic device flows from moralistic thinking in dichotomies of good and evil. There are no neutrals in a war against ultimate evil. Public skepticism toward the warnings of our political leaders supposedly give aid and comfort to terrorists. Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft warned in a speech to Congress on December 6, 2001:
 To those who scare peace-loving people with
 phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your
 tactics only aid terrorists--for they erode our national
 unity and diminish our resolve. They give
 ammunition to America's enemies and pause to
 America's friends. They encourage people of good
 will to remain silent in the face of evil.

In order for claims about a new kind of danger to be widely regarded as credible, affirmation from sources of legitimate authority is required. When the claims are made by the president of the United States they carry special weight. Yet it is still a public relations necessity for the highest officials in a democracy to justify dramatic assertions by reference to special, expert knowledge. For the terrorism scare, that "expert knowledge" is secret information gained by the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and other intelligence agencies. Unfortunately, these agencies of government seem to have provided information to the public that was, for political purposes, distorted by the Bush administration.


The terrorism scare is a moral panic, similar to many throughout recent history. Social scientists call these society-wide scares moral panics because they are founded upon fear of threats to society from moral deviants of the worst kind. In general, moral panics begin when events occur that cause a great many people to feel threatened by an internal enemy, hidden deep within their society. Secret groups of foreign terrorists, believed to be fanatics who kill without guilt, fit the bill perfectly.

Moral panics easily lead to government abuses of power. This principle is illustrated vividly by the infamous political persecutions of the late 1940s and early 1950s during the nationwide search, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, to root out hidden communist sympathizers. According to scholarly estimates reported by Ellen Schrecker in her 1998 book Many Are the Crimes, ten thousand to twelve thousand people--teachers, actors, writers, journalists, and others-lost their jobs and had their careers ruined due to McCarthyism. In the process, the nation's intellectual life was damaged. Even in small town U.S.A., amateur communist hunters spread fear that any unconventional ideas might conceal beliefs that threatened national security. Today, academicians and lay citizens who challenge Bush policies are decried as unpatriotic.

In some moral panics, the threat can even be entirely imaginary. During the witch hunts in Massachusetts Bay Colony, many people were hanged as accused witches. In a contemporary example, between the early 1980s and early 1990s, the satanic panic led to hundreds of innocent people being arrested and imprisoned on charges of sexually molesting children in supposed satanic cult rituals--despite the fact that the fear-filled rumors about secret satanic cults had no basis whatsoever. Even when the threat is imaginary, people outside the "norm" will be found and used as a scapegoat to prove a threat real. Thus, during moral panics when a threat is legitimate--as is, to a degree, the terrorism scare--suspicion inevitably will fall on people who are entirely innocent.

Moral panics are spread due to acceptance of beliefs about a widespread risk to society. Therefore, we need to ask: who gains by such fear mongering? Some groups can gain ideological benefits by promoting fear. People who express the "wrong" opinions may be fired from their jobs and replaced by those with the "right" point of view. Ideological struggles inevitably reflect power struggles within a society, whether they are among political parties, special interest lobby groups, or religious and ethnic groups. And the political promotion of moral panics is nothing new. During the anti-Catholicism scare of the 1840s and 1850s, anti-Catholic Protestant groups and the anti-immigration forces within the United States gained political power by spreading fear of Irish Catholic immigrants as dangerous deviants. In the Red Scare of the 1950s, political conservatives, including anti-union Republicans and racist Southern Democrats, increased their power by promoting fear of communist spies and subversives--"a Red under every bed."

Fear mongering can also be financially rewarding. Sensational stories about a particular nationwide threat can help sell newspapers, magazines, and books--as well as foment television drama which in turn raises commercial dollars. Government investigative agencies can get increases in their budgets. Specialists can sell their expertise on how to deal with a particular threat. New products designed to detect dangerous deviants may be invented and sold. All of this has occurred during the present terrorism scare.

In a nutshell, moral panics are spread because special interest groups gain benefits from ideological support, power, and money. Fear of terrorism has spread beyond reason because the Bush administration and its right-wing pundits in the mainstream media have exploited it.


Repeatedly during moral panics, government abuses of power occur and civil liberties are endangered and diminished. A 2004 national survey of public opinion concerning attitudes toward civil liberties in response to the threat of terrorism found substantial support for abuses of power by the government. Conducted by the Survey Research Institute of Cornell University and published shortly after the 2004 presidential election, the survey found:

* More than one-third of Americans are willing to deprive other people of their basic civil liberties "in a time of crisis and war."

* 40 percent believed "individuals should not be allowed to protest against the government."

* 4 percent said, "individuals should not be allowed to criticize the government, or its policies."

* 33 percent said, "the media should not report comments of individuals who criticize the government."

* 33 percent believed, "the media should not cover anti-war protests."

* Almost two-thirds agreed that "law enforcement officials should be able to detain indefinitely suspected terrorists."

The research also found that, contrary to the notion that religious people are more tolerant, the most influential attribute of those willing to restrict civil liberties, particularly those of Muslim citizens, is that of being a highly religious Christian.

Government abuse of power in response to the threat of terrorism has been used by law enforcement against Muslims and antiwar protestors thanks to provisions in the Patriot Act, enacted hastily in 2001 in reaction to 9/11. The American Civil Liberties Union reported in August 2004 that the Joint Terrorism Task Force, combining local and federal law enforcement agents, has harassed antiwar and other political activists by unnecessary interrogations, with subpoenas, and by infiltrating legitimate political protest groups. Local police under FBI tutelage have spied on college student groups and college professors in acts reminiscent of the Nixon years' COINTELPRO (the collection of counterintelligence programs designed to neutralize political dissidence). The ACLU also reported in February 2005 that, since 9/11, over 700 Muslim, South Asian, and Arab men, mainly alien residents and illegal immigrants, have been rounded up and imprisoned by local and federal law enforcement agencies, without access to legal representation.

The Transportation Security Administration maintains secret "no-fly" lists that have been used to prevent people from boarding airplanes. The TSA has prevented antiwar activists from traveling. In a typical bureaucratic foul-up, on five occasions it temporarily prevented Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy from boarding flights because a similar name appears on a no-fly list. If this had happened to an average citizen instead of an influential politician like Senator Kennedy, the rejected traveler would have had no recourse to challenge the secret lists. In the same vein, people have been prevented by border agents from returning to the United States because of having attended religious or controversial conventions and events. And powers gained by law enforcement through the Patriot Act have even been used to force homeless people out of subway and train stations and back onto the street.

There are many other, more familiar abuses of power, only a few of which can be noted here. Bush ordered the NSA to eavesdrop on the internal electronic communications of U.S. citizens without authorization by the courts. The technique for doing so can easily result in the mistaken surveillance of people who have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism. The Bush administration deliberately ignored the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war and in fact condoned the use of torture. And agents of the Bush regime, in an act of political revenge, deliberately revealed the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, endangering her safety.

Over and over again during moral panics, law enforcement officials see themselves as fighting detestable evil at all costs. If they operate in secrecy and have no accountability to the public, some will misuse the law through ideological fervor, racial and ethnic prejudice, or simply because of their desire for career advancement. In addition, you can be sure that the inevitable bureaucratic mishaps will produce mistaken prosecutions. One way or another, innocent people get swept up in the dragnet.


Is there anything the average citizen can do to address the irrationality of the terrorism scare? Yes.

They can seek realistic information and opinion from alternatives to the mass media. Though the mainstream media will eventually turn around when the political climate feels safe enough, the Internet meanwhile provides links to a number of credible and reliable sources from around the world that gather news and views. (A few examples include,, www.tom,, and www.truthout. org.)

They can use reason and skepticism. The lessons from past moral panics offer an awareness that fear is being engendered, exaggerated, and manipulated by special interest groups. This should be applied particularly to politicians-Republican or Democrat--who take the easy road to benefit their political careers. People should especially watch with a skeptical eye the fear mongers who come out during the 2006 congressional elections.

And they can demand through letters and other communications that politicians, the media, and supposed experts provide specific, concrete evidence for their claims rather than being allowed to cover them in smokescreens of generalities, emotion, and secrecy.

As in the past, so it is today: eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Jeffrey S. Victor is a professor of sociology at Jamestown Community College and the author of numerous essays and articles in the Humanist and elsewhere. His 1993 book, Satanic Panic: the Creation of a Contemporary Legend, won the Free Press Association's 1994 H. L. Mencken Award.
COPYRIGHT 2006 American Humanist Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner
Author:Victor, Jeffrey S.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
Previous Article:The five minute decision that saved the world.
Next Article:Getting what we deserve.

Related Articles
Panic attacks: Drawing the thin line between caution and hysteria after September 11.
Terror, evil, and the new Cold War.
The issue at hand.
Overly secure.
Fear and contemporary history: a review essay.
True his tongue: a sociologist who loves to eat debunks culinary correctness.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters