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Barry Glassner: Putting fears in perspective

Barry Glassner is a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. He is the author of the 1999 bestseller "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things," as well as seven other books. He joined the chat room from Los Angeles.

CNN: Welcome to Newsroom, Dr. Barry Glassner. Thank you for joining us today.

BARRY GLASSNER: I very much appreciate being invited.

CNN: Dr. Glassner, why do you say that ours is a "culture of fear" and has September 11 changed your theories or views at all?

Barry Glassner
Barry Glassner  

GLASSNER: For quite a long time now, well over a decade, Americans had many fears and scares that were blown out of proportion. If we recall back to the summer, and all the way through September 10, we were worrying about shark attacks and a famous missing intern. Prior to that, there were many scares and fears about a variety of matters that were blown out of proportion, as I document in my book, "The Culture of Fear." Fortunately, since September 11, we have been focused more on real dangers and serious threats to our country. It is obviously unfortunate that we have had to focus so much of our attention and resources on these horrific dangers. At the same time, I think we need to keep these new dangers in proportion, so that we can go on with our lives.

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    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Barry, would consider that the media is more in fear of the unknown than the general American public?

    GLASSNER: I think it's hard to talk about "the media" in general, because we're talking about a great many people, all the way from reporters to editors to people who run the cameras. In general, I think that the media have been very responsible in their reporting since September 11. I do think, however, that all of us, including those in the media, need to take a couple of steps back from the level of attention and fear that is being directed at the danger from anthrax. I don't minimize that danger or the fact that it is quite threatening, but I do think that we need to keep some sense of proportion here, otherwise we are susceptible to exactly what the terrorists are after, namely terrorizing us with each of their actions.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Glassner, can't American's take a cue from the British in World War III and learn to live with these fears?

    GLASSNER: We certainly are going to need to learn to put the current dangers into some sort of reasonable perspective, and get on with our lives. I think that we should not criticize ourselves too much at this point in time, because after all, we have been confronted with this danger only for a couple of months, whereas in some countries, there have been years, even decades, of experience in coping with these sorts of dangers.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Barry, do you think that political parties have had a role in blowing fears out of proportion for political gain? Do you think those fears are manifested in people like Tim McVeigh?

    Barry Glassner: Dealing with fear and rumor in the wake of terrorism 

    GLASSNER: In my book, I look at how fears and scares were blown out of proportion throughout the 1990s, and during that period, both political parties, liberals and conservatives alike, made use of a variety of scares for their own political ends. In particular, candidates used fear mongering as a campaign tactic, and as a way to push forward their legislative agendas. Whether that kind of fear mongering was a key factor for any particular individual's behavior, whether Timothy McVeigh or anyone else, is speculation, but certainly, we can see the results of political fear-mongering in some of the legislation that was passed, and the results of some elections.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why is it that, while people can be individually intelligent, en mass, they can be very idiotic? This phenomenon is responsible for irrational widespread panic, fear, and hatred. What can be done to combat this?

    GLASSNER: That's a very good point. The good news in the United States is that we believe in individualism, and we take seriously our responsibilities and rights as individuals. As a people, we tend to be less prone to mass manipulation, compared to some other people and some nations in earlier times. At the same time, there is a heightened risk of public hysteria or panic in times of trauma and emergency, and so it is during those times that we have to be particularly conscious of any drift in our public opinion in that sort of direction.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr Glassner, what about those of us who do not fear shark attacks, the bogeyman or a war on terrorism?

    GLASSNER: First off, I certainly applaud you for not fearing those sorts of minor dangers that are treated at times in the media and in public conversations as much greater than they really are. Personally, I don't think that the risk from terrorist attacks is in the same category as from shark attacks, but I do agree with the premise of your question in one important regard. The average American on November 2, 2001, has very little to fear from a terrorist attack. Unless we work in particular sorts of buildings or occupations, there is no reason for us to be living with a high level of fear or anxiety on behalf of ourselves or our children, in terms of a terrorist attack. That situation could change, but as of right now, any of us who go out and buy gas masks and guns or keep our children home from school out of fear of a terrorist attack, is behaving in a way that is potentially harmful to ourselves and our family, and plays right into the hands of those who want to terrorize us.

    CNN: Americans are getting such mixed messages. On one hand we're being asked to get back to normal, then federal officials are telling us to be on alert. Are we capable of doing both?

    GLASSNER: I think that government officials are in a very difficult position that we need to appreciate, at this point. On the one hand, they want to provide information. On the other hand, they want to avoid unnecessary panic or changes in our ways of life. As individuals, I think we need to think carefully about what we're being told, and recognize when the information calls for any change in our lives, and when it does not. Thus far, for the vast majority of us, none of the warnings indicate that we should change our behavior in any way other than very minor changes like paying attention to whether there is a return address on an envelope. If we make changes in our lives out of an exaggerated sense of danger, in some cases, we will put ourselves and our families at greater risk. For example, if I cancel my plane reservations and decide to drive my family a long distance for Thanksgiving, I put them and myself at greater risk of injury or death during that trip. At the same time, I contribute to the difficulties that the airline industry is facing, which will probably have ramifications for me and my family later on, when there are fewer flights available, or airline ticket prices increase.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: Barry Glassner, do you think that freedom of speech may suffer irreversible damage because of September 11.?

    GLASSNER: So far, I'm not seeing evidence that freedom of speech will be a victim of either the terrorist attack, or our response to those attacks. But I think we need to be concerned about that possibility, not only over the coming months, but over the coming years.

    CHAT PARTICIPANT: How much of the public's problems dealing with the current events to you attribute to 'information overload' as opposed to 'emotional overload'?

    GLASSNER: I think that quite a few people are suffering under both of those. We are fortunate to have access to a great deal of information, and information in itself is beneficial, but with that access comes the possibility of greater misinformation as well. I've been struck for example by how many times an early report of a new danger or possible bomb attack or bioterrorist attack turns out within a few hours or a day to have been either incorrect, or exaggerated. It seems to me that a good rule of thumb during the current period is to take some time between initial warnings or reports of dangers and see if they actually pan out, rather than repeating them to friends, coworkers and family, and increasing their anxiety and our own anxiety as a result. It seems to me that we are quite capable of putting these warnings and reports in perspective, and as one of the previous questions suggested, in all likelihood, most Americans are doing exactly that.

    CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?

    GLASSNER: I very much appreciate these excellent questions, and the opportunity to participate in the discussion.

    CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Barry Glassner.

    GLASSNER: You're very welcome.

    Dr. Barry Glassner joined the chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the chat which took place on Friday, November 2, 2001.


    • 'The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things'

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