Be afraid, America, be very afraid. It’s a dangerous world out there, with a never-ending series of threats laying siege to the republic from every possible angle, each of them exposing the quivering globule of disquietude that is modern society. If Americans have wanted nothing else over the span of their history, they’ve wanted freedom from fear, but they never seem to get it. With each passing era, new fears arise in the form of internal and external threats that shake American society to its foundations. Sometimes these fears have been real and justified; other times they’ve been born of prejudice and paranoia, but the results have always struck terror into the American collective psyche. Indeed, it’s no stretch to say that U.S. history has been one long age of anxiety.
Let’s do a run down of the numerous threats currently invoking fear in American society, shall we? There’s Ebola, of course. Recently, news outlets confirmed the first documented U.S. case of the deadly virus via an unnamed patient now being quarantined in Dallas, Texas. Americans (nearly 40 percent, according to one poll) are pretty terrified of the virus that’s been ravaging West Africa, and their fear isn’t entirely unwarranted. Ebola is awful: it spreads through contact with bodily fluids and causes uncontrollable bleeding from multiple orifices, as well as bloody discharges (yeah, those kind of discharges), rashes, and all kinds of corporeal pains. But Ebola isn’t the only thing Americans fear. There’s also the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest nutball incarnation of radical Islamic terrorism. ISIS fighters have been waging guerilla war in the middle-eastern crescent that’s already fertile with chaos, and they’ve taken barbarism to scarily casual new levels by beheading American journalists and making threats via their savvy PR machine.
But, of course, Ebola and ISIS aren’t the only things that Americans fear these days. Depending on their political inclinations and individual composure, Americans are afraid of economic recession; inflation; deflation; domestic mass shootings; gun control; terrorists; voter fraud; voter suppression; illegal immigration; drug gangs; black people; white people; the government; money in politics; Democrats; Republicans; environmental destruction; environmentalists; Obama the dictator; Obama the weakling; the Koch Brothers; George Soros; the End Times; war with Iran; war with Russia; war with North Korea; war with China; the Federal Reserve; Wall Street; FEMA internment camps; the New World Order, and, perhaps the most terrifying thing of all: Obamacare.
The fact that Americans are fearful of, well, A LOT of things makes sense given that most of U.S. history is littered with events and happenings that scared the hell out of people at any given historical moment. American identity is, in part, defined by the fear of losing American freedoms.
During the colonial era for example, white settlers on British America’s frontier regions lived in a constant, paralyzing fear of ambush-style Indian attacks. As historian Peter Silver notes in his excellent book Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America, “the violence that provincial Americans found themselves first dreading and then experiencing was, in the most literal sense, terroristic. It had been carefully planned and carried out by the Indians with whom they were at war to induce the greatest fright possible.”* For white frontier settlers, the fear of violent Indians who killed men, women, and children alike; who struck without warning, and who refused to recognize the rules of “civilized warfare” was the greatest possible threat to (white) American freedom. On the British American frontier, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness could literally be taken away by the swipe of a tomahawk.
Indian attacks provided the quintessential example of how a determined, violent “other” seemingly threatened American freedom, and so powerful was this example that Americans applied a variation of it to most major events in their history. Fear of British tyranny fueled the Revolutionary War and its sequel, the War of 1812. The buildup to the Civil War pitted southerners who feared slave-stealing abolitionists against northern factions who feared the excessive influence of the “Slave Power” in the national government. The terrors of Reconstruction came from fears that former slaves would achieve theretofore unheard-of levels of political and social power. The late nineteenth and early twentieth-century reforms of the Populists and the Progressives were inspired by fears of the excessive power of Big Business. The fear of the social and moral detriments of alcohol inspired Prohibition. And conflicts in Europe, Japan, Latin America, Russia, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq were all variously fueled by fears that fascists, Nazis, communists, “Japs,” socialists, rogue dictators, and Islamic terrorists all threatened American freedoms.
Fear, and the freedom to be free from fear, have always been a part of the American D.N.A. In his book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, political scientist Corey Robin argues that “American Style” political fear is a truly omnipresent beast. He defines “political fear” as “a people’s felt apprehension of some harm to their collective well-being — the fear of terrorism, panic over crime, anxiety about moral decay — or the intimidation wielded over men and women by governments or groups.”* Robin observes that fear has consistently been a major source of unity in a pluralistic, decentralized democratic society where unanimity on anything rarely exists. “We [Americans] savor the experience of being afraid,” Robin writes, and, citing the experience of unity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he argues that, “only fear, we believe, can turn us from isolated men and women into a united people.”* As Robin notes, however, fear divides as much as it unites, and it inspires actions both heroic and stupid.
The historical influence of fear in American society helps explain why FDR’s famous first inauguration quip that, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” seems so clear and yet so mysterious. In 1933, Roosevelt urged Americans not to fear the Great Depression, but to instead fear the fear of the Great Depression. It was “fear itself” that would cripple America’s ability to deal with the economic crisis, because whatever the consequences of the Depression, to tackle it based on fear — “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” — would only make the problem worse. But if fear was a detriment to combating the Depression, it was also a source of unity: only “fear itself” could rally a nation behind a new leader tasked with alleviating an economic catastrophe the likes of which the U.S. — and the world — had never seen before.
So integral was fear to addressing the events of mid-twentieth century American history that FDR made “Freedom from Fear” a part of his “Four Freedoms” that every American deserved. In his January 6, 1941 Annual Message to Congress, Roosevelt declared Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear to be integral to the American experience. He invoked these freedoms to combat both foreign and domestic threats. As historian David Kennedy writes in his epic study Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, “at this level of basic principle, there was unmistakable continuity between Roosevelt’s domestic policies during the Great Depression and his foreign policies in the world war.”*
Roosevelt explicitly invoked his “Four Freedoms” to contrast the U.S. with the growing dictatorships of Europe and Asia, where governments threatened to take away freedoms, not preserve them. Yet even as FDR championed “Freedom from Fear,” he paradoxically invoked fear — the fear that the four freedoms could be taken away from Americans by an increasingly unfree world — as a source of motivation for Americans to fight for, and preserve, those freedoms. A world characterized by Freedom from Fear, FDR stated, “is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.” Thus, the determination to be free from fear — and the things that inspired that fear — nonetheless relied on making Americans afraid of what would happen if they failed to defeat the forces of dictatorship. To stop a world from falling to fear, Americans needed to be very afraid of that world. Americans intuitively understood this because fear had been a motivating force in U.S. society since the colonial era. The Indians and dictators of the past have become the terrorists and diseases of today. The more things change…
Given the long-standing and important role that fear has played in U.S. society, it’s no surprise that Americans are still afraid of an endless barrage of potential foreign and domestic threats. Some of these threats are very real; others are overblown, and still others are the products of unhinged hysteria. And while we might lament the at-times overwhelming presence of fear in U.S. society, it’s at least worth remembering that fear, for better or for worse, is utterly central to the American experience. The age of anxiety has always been with us, and it probably always will be. Hopefully, that fact won’t scare you — too much.
* See Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian Warfare Transformed America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 41.
* See Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2-3.
* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 470.