The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, October 23, 2002  

The Rational Emotional Response We Call Fear

This is the first post at the Review since Sunday, an unexplained absence of almost 72 hours that I’m certain was causing considerable anxiety among regular readers. Or not. I wish I could point to an interesting explanation for this -- a last-minute speaking engagement at a small Nebraska college or a panel discussion on John Dos Passos at the New School -- but I’m afraid that’s not it, nor would I be likely to tell you about that if it were (Why would you care?). Frankly, I’ve just been “off my game” for the past few days. Few of the topics in the news this week have gripped me with an impulse to write and those of even passing interest haven’t sparked much original thought. It happens to everyone at least occasionally, I suspect, and I elected during this time to spare you what otherwise might have been tedious pabulum.

Beyond that, however, I have watched, or read, with considerable interest and dismay the ongoing controversy, for lack of a better word, surrounding the decision by Weblog Central to feature Little Green Footballs as one of the best weblogs currently published. As I wish not to be drawn into the matter, in large part because my visits to LGF have been limited in both number and duration, that by virtue of my disgust at the vulgarity, hysteria, immaturity, and racism so brazenly displayed by too many participants there, I will only draw your attention, as several others have, to the stirring, passionate, and commendable essay published today by Anil Dash, the blogger who had the misfortune of becoming the subject of an orchestrated, or semi-orchestrated, campaign of harassment, intimidation, and debasement by some of the lesser minds that populate the discussion areas of LGF. Dash’s essay was superb, even sublime, and he assuredly handled and expressed himself with greater composure and equanimity than I could ever dream of mustering were I to find myself in the same circumstances. Despite his achievement, I have been fighting a lingering sense of demoralization at the petty vindictiveness of the entire episode, this despite my considerable distance from the battle. But we must forge on, as Dash clearly has done, and so I now move to the business at hand.

The Daily Howler and the Logic of Fear

It’s rare that I find myself in disagreement with what Bob Somerby writes for his excellent site, the Daily Howler. However, today’s piece, at least that part dealing with the Fox News Channel’s coverage of the media’s treatment of the Washington sniper, was disappointing and, I believe, fell quite wide of the mark.

Somerby today noted with appreciation the discussion of the sniper and the risks presented to area residents on last night’s edition of Special Report, a Fox News program hosted by Brit Hume. “The ‘news’ networks love to play ominous music. And they love to flash their BREAKING NEWS logos,” Somerby wrote. “They love to keep their viewers worked up about stories that bring them big numbers. The [Washington,] D[.]C[.,] area is in a frenzy about the wave of sniper killings. But Special Report did a service last night, actually trying to put the matter in some sort of larger perspective.”

How so? By bringing on John Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute specializing in the study of guns and crime. Lott’s contribution to putting the sniper’s attacks “in some sort of larger perspective” was to emphasize that the “normal murder rate” in the counties where the shooting have taken place (it would appear he has excluded the District of Columbia, the site of one attack, from his calculations), averages 34 killing each month. With 10 dead at the hands of the sniper in a period of three weeks, according to Lott, the toll remains far below the “normal murder rate,” and below the average of 24 deaths each month from traffic accidents. Thus, Lott said, in a conclusion supported by Hume, a resident of one of the affected counties has a greater chance of being killed in the normal run of area murders and traffic accidents than being taken out by one of the sniper’s well-aimed bullets.

Granted, there is a level on which those statistics are reassuring, at the very least from the uncommonly encountered standpoint of an ordinary citizen seeking to dodge seemingly random sniper fire, though I might add those figures also are alarming given how little attention is devoted to such tragic issues as gun violence and traffic fatalities. But to hammer the point home, it’s no surprise that Hume, with the apparent concurrence of Lott, turned to the analogy of lottery drawings, noting that one’s chances of being blown away by the sniper are roughly equivalent to those of winning the lottery, though neither Hume nor Lott provided statistics to substantiate this comparison. Hume then asks, “[I]t doesn’t seem the chances [of being hit by the sniper] are very high and yet we have this reaction. To what do you attribute the strength of this reaction? Is it the randomness? Is it the fact that it can seem to happen anywhere, what?”

At this point Somerby leaves Hume and Lott talking amongst themselves in order to make a larger point, which I will discuss presently. This was unfortunate, because Lott immediately thereafter made a valid point regarding the fear this particular serial killer has engendered in the Washington suburbs, namely, that the neighborhoods in which the sniper has taken victims are safe and quiet, the kind of places where little happens that makes the evening news. “[T]he people who die in murders are a [smaller] set of the population than you’re going to have who are going to be shot here,” Lott observed. “You may have people more likely being involved in gang activity or drugs or something like that, not as much people who are buying gasoline at a gasoline station.” Granted, this is not the height of eloquence, but TV interviews rarely are. Lott’s point is that the odds of a law-abiding resident of one of Washington’s better suburbs being slain by a stranger’s gunfire as he or she goes about his or his daily routine, that is, without the concomitant factor of a simultaneous crime such as robbery, burglary, or rape, is next to nil. The fear, then, if not the threat, is new, unfamiliar, unsettling, terrifying. And it is real.

Somerby’s grand point, one I find wholly unconvincing, is that the general public’s “irrational” reaction stems from the purported fact that TV news operations “love ominous music -- and the ratings that come with the creepy-crawly songs they love to play[.]” That’s certainly one hypothesis, one left unexplored as Somerby proceeds to say, “[T]he human mind is poorly equipped to understand the numbers involved. . . . TV news orgs [sic] could help put the facts in perspective, as Hume and Lott tried to do last night. But that might hurt those wonderful ratings. And, if people were less hysterical about the killings, maybe news types would be forced to return to those boring old topics, like should we wage war in Iraq.” Quite a leap, that.

Yes, the randomness of the sniper’s attacks, the wide swath of his field of operation, and the population density of the Washington suburbs dramatically reduce one’s odds of being a victim of his fire. In the most coolly rational of worlds, Washington-area residents would go about their daily business and send their children out on their merry ways in the morning without fear of being felled by a bullet fired from long distance without warning. Ours is not, however, a coolly rational world; instead, ours is a world governed by a combination of the rational and the emotional. This is in fact the very nature of our being: our propensity, indeed our ability, to look at the world around us armed with keen logic while also filtering our experiences with the power of our emotions.

The very same randomness that excites those who buy lottery tickets -- “Someone has to win. It could be me!” -- sparks fear among those whose daily existence puts them in at least the theoretical range of the sniper’s gun sites -- “Someone may be shot today. It could be me!” To act without fear in such circumstances would itself be illogical, defying, as it would, our instinct to protect ourselves, our families, and our community. The progress of the human race, after all, has relied, pace Ayn Rand, on our ability to approach problems and challenges with reason as well as our ability to react to those same problems and challenges with emotion, out of instinct, if you will. Both faculties are worthy of our respect.

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