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Analysis Last Updated: Sep 5th, 2006 - 00:47:39

Fear of terrorism is a moral panic
By Jeffrey S. Victor, Ph.D.
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Sep 5, 2006, 00:45

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The terrorism scare is another moral panic, similar to many that have occurred in the past. Social scientists call these society-wide scares, �moral panics,� because they are founded upon fear of threats to society from immoral evildoers of the worst kind.

Moral panics begin when events occur that cause a great many people to feel threatened by an internal enemy, hidden deeply in their society. Secret groups of foreign terrorists believed to be fanatics who kill without guilt, fit the bill perfectly.

The terrorist attack of 9/11 was so deeply shocking, because it was the first alleged foreign attack on the continental United States. And, it killed so many people using a surprise weapon; hijacked airplanes as suicide bombs. When people perceive that a new and dangerous threat exists, political leaders commonly rely upon certain rhetorical claims to increase their influence and power to deal with the situation. If these claims are conveyed by the mass media as �news,� with no critical analysis, most people will take the claims as unquestioned truth.

The Bush administration and their right-wing sycophants have employed a time-honored battery of claims to hype fear of terrorism. An ancient one is that our enemy is an abominable evil, compared with �our own essential goodness.� For example, we supposedly fight for �freedom,� while they kill to dominate the world. Another claim is to exaggerate the numbers of evildoers and the extent of the threat. A related claim is that the evildoers have ingenious new ways to kill people. These claims are typically accompanied by attributing guilt by association to anyone who might disagree; meaning that all dissenters give aid and comfort to the evil enemy.

Moral panics usually lead to government abuses of power. The fact is illustrated by the political persecutions in search of hidden Communist sympathizers during the anti-Communist �Red Scare� of the late 1940s to the mid-1950s. According to scholarly estimates, 10 to 12 thousand people lost jobs and had their careers ruined; teachers, actors, writers, journalists and others. In addition, the nation�s intellectual life was damaged. Even in small town USA, amateur Communist hunters spread fear that unconventional ideas might conceal beliefs that threaten national security.

In some moral panics, the threat can even be purely imaginary. During the witchcraft scare in the Massachusetts Colony, many people were hanged as accused witches. In a contemporary example, between the early 1980s and early 1990s, the satanic cult scare caused many hundreds of innocent people to be arrested and imprisoned on charges of sexually molesting children in supposed satanic cult rituals. Yet, the fear-filled rumors about secret satanic cults had no basis whatsoever in fact. Even when the threat is imaginary, people will be found to prove that the threat exists. The implication is that even when the threat is real, during moral panics, suspicion will fall upon people who are entirely innocent of any crime.

Moral panics are spread by the acceptance of beliefs about a widespread threat to society. Therefore, we need to ask: Who gains by spreading beliefs that promote fear?

Some groups gain ideological benefits by promoting fear. The political promotion of moral panics is nothing new. People having the �wrong� opinions can be fired from their jobs and replaced by people who have the �right� opinions. Ideological struggles inevitably reflect power struggles in a society, whether it is between political parties, special interest lobby groups, or religious and ethnic groups. For example, during the anti-Catholic scare of the 1840s and 50s, anti-Catholic Protestant groups and the anti-immigration forces gained power by spreading fear of Irish Catholic immigrants as dangerous deviants. In the Red Scare of 1950s, political conservatives, including anti-union Republicans and racist Southern Democrats, increased their power by promoting fear of Communist spies and subversives under every bed.

Money can be made by appealing to people�s fear. Sensational stories about a countrywide threat can help to sell newspapers, magazines and books. Government investigative agencies can increase their budgets. Experts can sell their expertise in how to deal with the threat. New products designed to detect dangerous deviants may be invented and sold. All of this has occurred during the terrorism scare.

The concern about foreign terrorists attacking Americans on American soil has been hyped beyond reason. One need only compare the terrorist threat with the danger posed by intercontinental missiles carrying hundreds of nuclear bombs, delivered in minutes from the former Soviet Union. More importantly, the terrorism scare has resulted in the worst abuses of power since the Nixon years.

The terrorism scare distorted American politics because right-wing interest groups gained ideological support, power or money. The Bush administration and their right-wing supporters in the mass media deliberately intensified fear of terrorism to influence voters. They threw fuel on the fire and presented themselves as firemen. The predictable result has been government abuse of power in the name of preserving �freedom.� Will they call wolf one too many times in the 2006 congressional elections?

Jeffrey Victor has a Ph.D. in Sociology from the State University of New York at Buffalo, in 1974. He has published two books, nine chapters in edited books and 24 articles in popular and scholarly magazines. His book, "Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend," received the H. L. Mencken Award from the Free Press Association for the best book of 1993 that deals with the protection of individual rights against abuses of power. His book has been used in many criminal cases involving false accusations of crime, supposedly committed by people in satanic cults. He has appeared on national television on such programs as �Larry King Live,� the �Maury Povich Show� and �The View.�

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