Mon, Sep 12, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Fight the modern-day `fear entrepreneurs' with community spirit

By Frank Furedi  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Since the turn of the century, we have been waiting for the big one. In the final years of the 20th century, the millennium bug was predicted to be the harbinger of a major catastrophe. However, it was not until Sept. 11, 2001 that a new century of fear really began.

Last year, the tsunami reminded us that natural disasters also pose a challenge to human existence. And now Katrina forces us again to ask how we can make sense of such senseless events.

Since biblical times, disasters have been experienced as defining moments. From Noah's flood to last week's catastrophe in New Orleans, the phrase "nothing will ever be the same again" has been repeated time and again.

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, it became commonplace to hear politicians and commentators say that "the world changed forever on Sept. 11." Later, one American journalist commented: "When historians write the final story of the tsunami that hit the early 21st century, they will write about how the world changed."

Disasters are often invested with hidden meaning. In religious societies, disasters have been interpreted as a means of communication between gods and humans. In modern times, disasters reinforce the belief in the transient quality of human ends. They have been represented as an outcome of human arrogance or as proof that science does not have all the answers.

Today, we no longer have a common system of meaning through which to make sense of tragedies such as that afflicting New Orleans. Some blame greedy property developers, others human impact on the environment, or they indict irresponsible politicians.

Even traditional arguments about catastrophe being God's punishment for sin have been brought into the frame. However, the dominant meaning that disasters communicate to us is that we are right to live in a state of constant fear. Obsessed as we are by terrorist violence, global warming, flu pandemics and technological catastrophes, a tragic event like Katrina reinforces fear about our existence.

Fear today has a free-floating dynamic that can attach itself to a variety of phenomena. Fear of terrorism illustrates this trend.

Since Sept. 11, our anxiety extends into ever-expanding territory. Alarmist messages about terrorists poisoning water compete with claims that BSE-type viruses will be unleashed to destroy agriculture.

Straightforward hazards can be turned into exceptional threats by associating them with the action of terrorists. As a result, we do not simply worry about the risk posed by a nuclear power station, we also fear it may turn into a terrorist target. In the same way, concerns about global warming, irresponsible development or an unpopular war can be amplified through associating it with the destruction of New Orleans. In this way, our fears become inflated and normalized and we come to expect many more such tragedies.

The tendency to engage with uncertainty through the prism of fear, and therefore anticipate destructive outcomes is a crisis in our understanding of cause and effect. How we see causation is bound up with the way communities attempt to make sense of misfortune.

Questions like "Was it God?" -- or nature or human error -- have implications for how we understand misfortune. Today, such questions are complicated by the fact that Western societies have a weak sense of shared meaning and so lack consensus about how to attribute blame and responsibility.

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