For God hath not given us a spirit of fear;
but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
This statement, scribbled on a slip of orange paper, clings to the edge of my computer screen, where I see it every day. It has outlasted all the other bits of ephemera I’ve stuck to my monitor over the years: password hints, fortune cookie mottos, maxims of dead field marshals. It’s the only Bible verse I’ve ever memorized, the seventh verse of the first chapter of Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy.
The words may or may not be Paul’s own; scholars disagree about the authorship of the so-called pastoral letters. I don’t care one way or the other if Paul wrote the Second Epistle; this piece of advice resonates with me simply because, like St. Timothy, I’m prone to self-doubt and anxiety. Paul’s exhortation is a comforting reminder that my fear is not a normal state, nor an inevitable one. Paul (or his ghostwriter) offers reassurance that fear is foreign to our nature—that we’re entitled instead to an awareness of our own power and autonomy; that we have the capacity to engage joyfully with those who are different from us; that we can understand the world by using our inimitable human minds.
Lately I’ve felt that I’m not alone in needing that reassurance. America, at this moment in our history, is afraid. We’re afraid of terrorists. Afraid of immigrants. Of home invaders, Zika, old age, cybercriminals, Muslims, black children, poor people, pit bulls, and snakes. We worry about government overreach on one hand, and societal collapse on the other. We can’t be bothered to choose one fear over another. We embrace them all.
Our fear is unique among today’s first-world nations. There is no obvious reason for it. Unlike European states, the U.S. is protected from invasion by two oceans. We spend more on our national defense than the next seven countries in the world combined, making us, as our President recently pointed out, the most powerful nation on Earth. Domestically, our crime rates have been dropping steadily for the past 25 years. Yet America is an increasingly paranoid society. More and more of our decision-making—from border walls to Stand Your Ground laws—seems to be driven by nebulous fears rather than available facts.
America used to pride itself on its citizens’ cheerful resolve in the face of danger. We had a spirit of power, and compassion, and sound thinking. Now we sweat fear from every pore. What happened to us?
Our political system has undoubtedly played a role in this change. Politicians and those who fund them have been active agents in the promulgation of fear, and they’ve worked industriously to codify our fears into laws and policies that benefit select groups. Also complicit are the media, who use fear to drive ratings—sometimes in active collaboration with political interests. But there’s another player in the Frightening of America, one that has propagated fear by tapping into a powerful, basic behavior that defines all of our daily lives. Not sex or sports or cat memes; I’m talking about the single activity that best encapsulates American identity: Shopping.
Fear sells. It sells so well that multi-billion-dollar industries have been built on one simple question: “How much would you pay to feel safe?” The cliché that you can’t put a price on safety is both trite and wrong; we put a price on our safety every day. And most Americans will pay that price, no matter how high. In fact, when it comes to goods and services that promise to protect us, we’re a nation of shopaholics. We spend over $30 billion annually home security products, and a few billion more on car alarms that we almost universally ignore. We spend about $16 billion each year on firearms and ammunition, though we already own more guns per capita than Serbia or Yemen. Lifelock, a company offering what it calls “identity theft protection,” generated $476 million in revenue last year (and agreed to pay the Federal Trade Commission $100 million deceptive advertising and other misbehavior). At the grocery store, we’re coaxed to purchase canisters of pepper spray from the same checkout stand display that offers us candy bars and gum. Americans grab security products off the shelves as if our lives depended on them—even though we’re remarkably safe from violence and crime, and we’re growing safer each year. This spending fuels the growth of Fear, Inc., an entire market sector that profits from our sense of helplessness and vulnerability.
It’s no surprise that Americans are increasingly obsessed with buying safety. Our nation’s faith in the power of purchasing is deeply rooted. If we feel unhealthy, we buy a gym membership or exercise equipment, though the odds of us using them are low. If our child does poorly in school, we invest in a phonics tutoring system—not because it works, but because it was advertised during our favorite television show. The value of all the cosmetics women have bought to fix some perceived flaw in their appearance, and then abandoned in bathroom drawers, must amount to millions of dollars. American citizens have been conditioned to believe that the very act of purchasing is virtuous; that we can buy dispensation from any sin, protection from any misfortune, if we sacrifice our hard-earned money to the gods of commerce.
Take, for example, America’s love affair with gated communities. Real estate agents know that gated access to a neighborhood can boost a home’s value—estimates of the increase range from 6% to 30%. The perception of safety and exclusivity that gates provide is a powerful incentive to homebuyers. I say “perception” because, as police statistics show, gated communities are in truth no safer than other neighborhoods. Gates and walls around a community don’t yield any significant reduction in violent or property crimes. Yet according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of households living in gated communities rose from 7 to 11 million between 2001 and 2009. That’s 4 million homeowners who paid (let’s be conservative) 6% more for their homes because they felt safer behind gates. Given the median 2005 home price of $240,000, that would mean an average $14,400 premium on each gated house. Multiplied across four million households, we’re talking about $57 billion spent by Americans, for the same net security gain they could have achieved by sticking a DO NOT DISTURB sign on their front door.
And gated communities are only one subsidiary of Fear, Inc. There are dozens of others, all simultaneously creating and catering to America’s growing siege mentality: Security cameras. “Anti-rape” clothing. Stun guns. Multi-part DVD collections that teach you how to protect yourself in a streetfight or survive a grenade attack. Potassium iodide tablets to shield your thyroid from nuclear fallout. Bulletproof blankets for schoolchildren. Panic buttons. Emergency alert systems for office workers. These are just a few of the items filling the shelves of Fear, Inc. And we’re buying them all.
Who profits from this relentless barrage of fear-mongering, and what side effects does their enrichment inflict on the rest of us? We pay a steeper price than we realize for security goods and services. The constant chorus of fear-based marketing surrounding these products has helped create the fearful, isolated, and dangerous communities we now live in. In America today, a police officer can kill an unarmed 12-year-old because he perceived the boy to be a “threat,” and have his fear validated by a grand jury. Audiences will applaud politicians for calling the families we’ve alongside for years “rapists and criminals” who must be deported. These things have come to seem normal, because they mirror the nonstop advertising about danger we’re subjected to. We live in the marketplace of Fear, Inc., where tragedy and hatred are simply the cost of doing business.
And there is something else we lose to Big Fear’s constant hucksterism—something of our spirit. There are times when fear is a sensible, useful reaction to environmental conditions. But when another person makes us feel afraid, on purpose, that person gains something: They can control our behavior, or take pleasure in their own power. They deprive us of some of our options and choices. They take away our confidence. They make us less trustful of others. They take the very things 2 Timothy 1:7 assures us we have a right to: Power, love, a sound mind.
And that, in a word, is theft.
What the Lord giveth, the marketplace taketh away—or tries to. But as the little slip of paper on my computer attests, fear is not our natural state. We have the right, and the ability, to instead confront the world with our gifts. We can ask questions and seek answers. We can draw conclusions and make informed choices. We can become more discerning consumers of what Fear, Inc. is trying to sell us.
Over the next few months, the columns in this series will explore the marketplace of fear. I’ll assess some of the most popular products that promise us safety, including home security systems, online protection services, and personal safety gear. I’ll look at how they’re marketed. I’ll talk to the people who sell them, and to those who buy and use them. I’ll consider their cost, efficacy, and the larger impact a product has on individuals and communities. And I’ll be looking too at the stakeholders who profit from our fear, and have a vested interest in keeping us afraid, compliant, and spending. Most importantly, I hope this investigation will suggest more practical and empowering alternatives to the wares of Fear, Inc.
I’ll do my best to approach each product with an open mind, because I am serious about safety. And I’m perfectly willing to spend money on things that reduce risk without taking too much away from me. I’m a big believer in fire extinguishers, for example, and seat belts, airbags, and smoke alarms. I love my insurance agent. I take vitamins.
What I won’t do is sacrifice my family’s money to businesses that care more about their bottom line than they do about the trust and transparency that create safe communities. I refuse to outsource my security to unproven products or the soulless corporations that hawk them. The problem of safety won’t be solved with our wallets, but with confidence, compassion, and reason.
We have all those things. Let’s use them.