The Lucrative and Growing Business of Fear

Sitting on a dock recently observing loons diving below the surface of a serene pond in Maine, I couldn’t help but think that these birds were misnamed and that it is humans who have become the loony birds. You literally cannot listen to a newscast anymore that isn’t at some point about terrorism, a foiled or successful bombing attack or the another fatal attack on U.S. troops. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt once famously declared in his inaugural speech in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Of course, that was uttered in the darkest hours of the Great Depression and was followed during his fourth and final term by World War II – two events that were more than enough to fear.

Future generations would come to know a sustained period of prosperity and peace until the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis reminded us that fear is always just a dark hour away. And now our children are living in what is arguably the most fearful time ever, a post 9/11 generation that has grown accustomed to seeing police carrying machine guns in airports with now routine predictions that we will again know the shattering fear of another terrorist attack on American soil.

As we attempt to pull ourselves through the worst economic downtown since FDR’s optimistic pronouncement against fear, we are fully engaged in the business of fear. The running cost of two foreign wars that were ostensibly intended to protect us against terrorist attacks here in the U.S. is over one trillion dollars and running (see  That doesn’t even calculate the human cost of these wars.

As parents, we want to assure our children that they are safe and far away from our own memories as children preparing for an “Atomic Bomb” attack from the Soviet Union by quickly scurrying underneath our desks in a classroom drill. We would rather they not notice the signs on some buildings from 1960’s for “fallout shelters” that irrationally promised us a reasonable chance of survival in the event of attack from what we now call weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps FDR had it right that living in fear only makes us vulnerable to the fear itself.  An enormous amount of our GNP is tied up in the business of fear, but it is taking an emotional toll on us all. For my part I am rooting for my children’s dreams to become architects and teachers so that they can raise their children in a world where we are not consumed by fear but rather by the noble goal of leaving this world better than the way we found it.

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