When did America become so afraid of everything?
One of the things that I don't understand is why the fears of Americans have increased so radically over the years, even as the actual causes of fear have declined so rapidly? I've noticed it in several areas, most apparently in the fear of crime. Actual crime is at multi-decade lows, but the fear of crime seems to continually increase. I saw this incredible example the other day, I'm sure this poor guy is now going to be on some sexual predator registry for the rest of his life. You'll notice in this example that it's no longer a matter of whether any actual damage was done to the teens in question, just the fact that they and their parents were made uncomfortable enough for him to get arrested. We see another example in the widely reported death of Trayvon Martin, where the ridiculous "stand your ground" laws now put the burden on the prosecution to prove that a killer wasn't feeling threatened when he shoots someone. It even extends to the ridiculous, as where 14 employees got fired because they all wore matching orange shirts to work. They were planning to go out to happy hour together, apparently the law firm thought it was some sort of dangerous subversive, uh, something.
Remember that crime rates are way down and at just about half their peak in 1980, but the fear of crime has only seemed to grow. I've seen it myself, most parents don't let their kids walk more than a couple hundred yards to a friend's house, even in high school. When the school bus shows up every afternoon, all the parents are there to walk the kids home. I don't remember anything like that growing up.
But it's not just at the personal level, we've seen the effects on our foreign policy and personal freedom as well. The Cheney 1% doctrine is nothing but an expression of pants-shittingly terrified foreign policy. Fear has motivated foreign policy in the past, but the aftermath of 9/11 saw Americans more willing than ever to voluntarily give up their freedoms in exchange for the security theater we've seen since then. Of course past events like Pearl Harbor led to the despicable act of moving Americans of Asian descent to concentration camps, but that was more a reflection of the racism of the times (Americans of German descent were not similarly treated, even those who had joined the German American Bund) rather than widespread willingness to voluntarily surrender constitutional rights. Even the Alien and Sedition Acts were more motivated more by political revenge than a wholesale desire for abandonment of rights. The closest parallel I can think of was the despicable McCarthyism of the 50s (and the cowardice of Eisenhower to allow it to continue), but once again that was motivated by fear of a specific group - communists - and not seen as Americans as a whole surrendering their constitutional rights. It's also important to note that the fears of the time - global nuclear Armageddon - were slightly more frightening than a few terrorists hijacking a passenger jet.
We seem to be turning from a country that dreams and believes in a can-do attitude to a cramped, stingy view where everything is too difficult and costs too much. This seems tied to the belief that the only things worth doing are things that are profitable. I think this is a very limited view of humanity and what it can achieve, and confuses the limitations of a for profit corporation with the limitations of government. In the simplest terms, it's an internalization of the conservative belief that all government is evil, and it's a huge mistake. I could point out the internal contradictions of the belief in evil government coupled with the belief that government is the only thing that can save us from evil terrorists, but I think it's pretty obvious and doesn't need to be analyzed.
Is it the sensationalism of news? I'm sure that's a big contributing factor, but it's hard for me to believe that's the only reason. Is it the fact that people are more insecure economically? Could be a contributing factor, but I don't think that explains it all. Is it the fact that humans are really bad at evaluating actual probabilities of danger? Sure, but that hasn't changed from 30 or 40 years ago. Was it 9/11? I'm sure that made it worse, but the trend I'm talking about didn't start with 9/11 (although many politicians have taken advantage of it to pass legislation that would never have seen the light of day before that date). So what is it? Why is our country becoming more fearful and risk averse as we've become more prosperous and safer?