The Real Plague of the 21st Century Is Fear

By Harlan Garbell

Do you remember where you were on December 31, 1999? I do. Glenna and I were invited to a New Year’s Eve party hosted by friends. Our host, a middle-aged physician who was born in Japan, made a sumptuous feast for his invited guests. The Japanese delicacies he made were outstanding. Life was indeed good. Looking back, the 90s were relatively free of anxiety and fear. After all, the Cold War was history.

Yet there was an uncomfortable mood (or, perhaps dread) overhanging the party. Notwithstanding the enjoyable food, drink, and company, a type of gallows humor dominated the conversation. There was a shared premonition that something could go very wrong in the world very soon. Perhaps, in fact, within a few hours. It was called the “Y2K scare.”

Y2K referred to potential computer errors resulting from the storage of  data starting in the year 2000. Most computer programs, we had all learned to our dismay, used only the last two digits to represent four digit years. This would, in effect, make the year 2000 indistinguishable from the year 1900. Many computer scientists predicted that, unless fixed, computer systems across the world would be unable to distinguish dates when processing information after the new year. The fear was that digital chaos would ensue, culminating in a cascade of systemic crashes.

Fortunately for my 401(k) retirement account, many governments and private companies took preemptive action in the months prior to 1/1/00 to avoid what could have been a catastrophic event. Billions of dollars were spent worldwide to make the technical programming fixes that assured the continued reliable functioning of the digital world we had come to rely upon. Planes, thankfully, would not fall out of the sky. Fear dissipated, a bullet was dodged. (However, you had a sense that there was a keen disappointment among the multitude of survivalists who had stocked up on food, water, and ammunition in anticipation of the coming apocalypse.)

The survivalists didn’t have long to wait. Less than two years later, a failure of intelligence sharing among our numerous well-funded intelligence agencies led to the carnage of 9/11. This was truly a calamity of major proportions. I recall the fear distinctly. It was almost palpable. If terrorists had the audacity to fly airliners into buildings what else wouldn’t they try? Anything seemed possible. One frequently mentioned possibility was terrorists setting off a radioactive “dirty” bomb in a large city, essentially making it uninhabitable for a century, or longer. (Not good for real estate values, I would think.)

And the fear wouldn’t abate. Shortly after 9/11 someone sent letters containing anthrax to public officials. Were these the same terrorists sending these? Or just crackpots stoking fear? Did it matter? It just seemed that the comfortable and prosperous world we had known in the 1990s had started slipping away rapidly with a frightening new reality replacing it – unmitigated fear.

In reaction to 9/11, and with revenge in the air, the U. S. sent its armed forces off to Afghanistan in October 2001. This is where Al-Qaeda’s purported masterminds were being sheltered by the local Islamic fundamentalists, the Afghan Taliban. As the “War on Terror” ramped up, the U.S. also sent its military and the CIA to other potential terrorist hot spots in Africa and the Middle East. As George W. Bush warned the world,  “you are either with us or against us.” Lines were drawn.

If Islamic terrorism didn’t move the fear needle for you during the early years of the century, there were other scary options to choose from. How about strange infectious diseases from the other side of the planet? In 2002, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) spread to 29 different countries. Originating in Guangdong, China, 774 deaths were attributed to this disease worldwide. Scientists who studied viral respiratory illnesses caused by something called a “coronavirus” thought that this outbreak was just a foretaste of much worse to come. Oh, please! They weren’t serious, were they?

Even after the U.S. seemingly routed the Taliban from Afghanistan, the Bush Administration weaponized fear of Islamic terrorism emanating from other foreign lands. In a coordinated and sustained effort to manipulate the abundant anxiety already permeating our society, we learned from our intelligence agencies that the perennial Middle Eastern bad boy, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, was supposedly developing “weapons of mass destruction.”

By 2002, several nations around the world had already developed nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Existential fear had been ratcheted up. By accusing a known tyrant, coincidentally a Muslim, of developing these weapons the neoconservatives infesting the Bush Administration believed it was a good bet that the requisite fear was already in place among Americans to support further military adventurism. They were right. Although the evidence was sketchy at best (later proven to be bogus), National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice warned us starkly that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

If fears of terrorism and strange, invisible diseases did not keep you up at night, the new century also brought tremors that your life savings, your job, or both could disappear due to a financial meltdown emanating from Wall Street. The so-called “dot-com bubble” burst in March of 2000 after a spectacular multi-year rise in technology stocks. Many people saw their retirement savings cut in half by 2002.

Yet this was only a precursor to a real financial meltdown in 2008. Risky mortgage loans in the banking industry caused some large financial institutions to collapse. Panic was in the air. Remember? Only a huge bailout by the United States government restored some confidence in the nation’s banking system. Although many of the large banks were saved, this event caused a major economic downturn in the nation and the world. Millions of jobs were lost that would never return. Historians now refer to this event as the “Great Recession,” and the term “Black Swan Event” entered the lexicon of the anxious and fearful.

There was another “man-made” existential threat, besides nuclear proliferation, that dialed up fear around the world. As temperatures rose dramatically during this century, scientists had to rapidly recalculate the toll climate change was having on the planet. And now, as 2021 is entering its final months, evidence is clear that extreme temperatures, wildfires, floods, drought, and hurricanes have become almost commonplace worldwide. Here in Minnesota, each of the top 10 combined warmest and wettest years on record occurred just between 1998 and 2020. And unfortunately, scientists predict that the coming decades will bring even warmer weather and larger rainfalls to this state.

These climate events have led many people, including children, fearing for the future of the planet. Dire predictions of global climate catastrophe are coming almost faster than we can process them. What makes this even more depressing is that even though the science is clear and convincing, most industrialized nations are not taking the steps necessary to deal with this crisis. For example, here in the United States one of our major political parties is in the grip of people who deny that there even is a climate crisis.

Unfortunately, these same people are also denying the efficacy of vaccines and face masks for the greatest public health crisis in our nation’s history. Covid-19 has now killed more Americans than the “Great Influenza” pandemic of 1918-19. Perhaps the lesson here is that stupidity may be even a more powerful legacy than fear when we look back on this era.

To be sure, fear has always played a major role in human history. People have always been victims of mysterious diseases and plagues. Violence and war, and the fear it engendered, have also been ubiquitous in most parts of the world throughout human history. However, the fear experienced by people today is different in that we are much more interconnected globally. This has dramatically shrunk both time and space for bad things to happen and fear to spread.

The Covid-19 pandemic was spread rapidly worldwide when infected people from Wuhan traveled all over the world. The financial collapse of 2008 spread rapidly worldwide due to the global interconnection of banking, commerce, and trade. New weapons of mass destruction are now even more frightening than ever due to the development of hypersonic missiles which can reach populated targets within minutes.

However, if there is a bright side to this ominous situation, it is an ever-growing global realization of the interconnection of these problems and threats. In short, more people now realize that we are all in this together. International conferences on climate change, terrorism, epidemics, and finance draw top international experts and are now covered more widely by the press. A more aware international public is now demanding greater international cooperation that lead to tangible results. For example, recently an agreement was reached among 136 countries that now require a minimum corporate tax rate in the country corporations do business. Hopefully, this will prevent international corporations from gaming local tax laws to avoid fair taxation of their corporate wealth.

So although fear, unfortunately, will continue to be a major theme of the 21st century, humans are seeking ways to tackle the problems that are the root causes of this fear. Whether their efforts will be enough to avoid catastrophe will be the most important question facing our species going forward.

Harlan Garbell is president of HumanistsMN.




    • Paul and Margaret Heffron on November 8, 2021 at 5:15 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you very much, Harlan, for this excellent summary and perspective. This helps us to gather our thoughts and gain focus on the larger context of our lives and how we as humanists can carry on.
    Paul Heffron

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