A country programmatically gripped by fear—yes, that's us for more than eight years now. Fear of terrorism to be exact, even as truly terrible things happened in this land and elsewhere, from hurricane Katrina in 2005 to last week's devastating Haitian earthquake, which should have put our fears into perspective. But no such luck.
Since 9/11, the thought of "terrorism" has seized the US by the throat. People who are terrified of flying for fear of a terrorist attack are perfectly willing to drive a car to the nearest mall without a passing worry, even though traffic fatalities indicate that this is a relatively dangerous act. There were a staggering 34,000 fatal crashes in the US in 2008, 12.25 fatalities for every 100,000 Americans, and carmakers are now intent on featuring ever more immersive Internet-linked "infotainment systems" on dashboards. These are sure to up the distraction level and lead to more deaths on the highway, and yet the country is barely focused on this fact. And mind you, despite all the attention, not one American died in a terrorist attack on an airplane last year. In fact, Nate Silver of the website FiveThirtyEight.com recently crunched a few numbers and came up with the following: "the odds of being on [a] given [airplane] departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade."
But keep in mind that fear, wherever directed, is a remarkably profitable emotion to exploit. Just think of those controversial full-body-scan machines now being installed in airports at a cost of up to $170,000 each. One promoter of them is former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff, "who now heads the Chertoff Group, which represents one of the leading manufacturers of whole-body-imaging machines, Rapiscan Systems." He's part of a growing "full-body-scanner lobby" of ex-Washington politicos just made for our moment.
Every jolt of terror, in other words, is a jolt of profit for some company or set of companies. After a while, those jolts of fear become repetitive adrenaline rushes for a whole set of interests which, in the American system, soon hire lobbyists, corner senators and congressional representatives, retain law and publicity firms, and live well as long as people remain terrified.
If these last years tell us anything, it's that money follows fear. By 2006, for instance, the Department of Homeland Security, that second Defense Department, a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy created from the terror of terror, already had a mini-homeland-security-industrial complex growing up around it; and that, in turn, was part of a global security business aimed at "thwarting terrorists" then worth an estimated $59 billion. (If we had news media worth their salt and DHS was a real beat, we would undoubtedly have more recent, far more striking figures for this.)
At the comical (but also profitable) end of this spectrum of fear were all those places like Old MacDonald's Petting Zoo, the Amish Country Popcorn factory, and the Mule Day Parade that were put into the DHS's National Asset Database as "potential terror targets," opening up the possibility that they might receive DHS money to protect them. "The database," reported The New York Times, "is used by the Homeland Security Department to help divvy up the hundreds of millions of dollars in antiterrorism grants each year." Consider just the Weeki Wachee mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando, Florida. In 2005, the St. Petersburg Times reported that the Weeki Wachee staff was "teaming up with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office to 'harden the target'"—as they attempted to access DHS anti-terrorism funds "allocated to the Tampa Bay region." ("'I can't imagine (Osama) bin Laden trying to blow up the mermaids,' [marketing and promotion manager John] Athanason said. 'But with terrorists, who knows what they're thinking. I don't want to think like a terrorist, but what if the terrorists try to poison the water at Weeki Wachee Springs?'")
All of this might be dismissed as a joke, if American life weren't filled with phantasmagoric terrors that are also money machines. Everywhere that fear rules, people exploit it, making money off it; and it's in the nature of the beast for them to want the gift-that-never-stops-giving to go on forever.