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Are You Scared Yet?

Our politicians serve up endless entrees of panique du jour. Of course, what we are supposed to be terrorized about differs, depending on whether you're looking at the left-hand page of the menu, or the right.
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Terrorists use fear to intimidate people in order to achieve political ends. Sadly, so do politicians. Fear is one constant used in political rhetoric. To quote Roseanne Roseannadanna, "It just goes to show you. It's always something; if it's not one thing, it's another." (Here at about 3:10)

Our politicians serve up endless entrees of panique du jour. Of course, what we are supposed to be terrorized about differs, depending on whether you're looking at the left-hand page of the menu, or the right. Politicians from across the spectrum believe fear is a potent tool in their arsenal; a means to stampede voters in their direction.

Fear has been used to justify our being "inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured [and] commanded," as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon put it.

The American public is trapped by an unholy trinity of politicians, special-interest groups, and the media. A special-interest group comes along with an agenda they want. They look for something scary to market the agenda. The media loves scary stories, and rarely bothers investigating whether they are true or not. Politicians then propose solutions -- often already sitting in the hopper, waiting for an excuse -- that increase their power and reward groups that financed their campaigns. The three form a Greek chorus, wailing about impeding doom.

This isn't to say things never go badly. The economy hasn't exactly been humming, but there are long-term trends, people ignore, which are good news. In October, the National Vital Statistics System released preliminary data for 2011. Once again, the death rate is down. You would think that rather significant, but it didn't get much media play. It was far too cheery to be on the front page of the newspaper, or warrant an NPR report.

The report found: "The age-adjusted death rate decreased from 747.0 deaths per 100,000 population in 2010 to 740.6 deaths per 100,000 population in 2011." Some diseases are up, some are down. Remember, we all die of something; prevent one cause and you are bound to increase other causes, just hopefully at a later age. From 2010 to 2011, death rates for males declined 1.4 percent and for females 0.5 percent. For black males, it declined 3.3 percent; for black females, 1.6 percent. Death rates from those under one year of age declined 4 percent and for those over 85, 1.2 percent.

In 1979, females tended to live 7.8 years longer than men. Today the gap is 4.8 years with both having increased their life expectancy.

As for infant mortality, they write: "With the exception of 2002, the infant mortality rate has statistically remained the same or decreased significantly each successive year from 1958 through 2011."

Some readers may remember how the media dubbed the Kennedy administration "Camelot," as if it were some sort of ideal era to live in. In 1960, the murder rate was 5.1 per 100,000 population and it rose until 1980, reaching a high of 10.2. Then it stated a downward trajectory so that in 2011 it was 4.7. If you are 40-years-old or younger, murder rates are at the lowest in your lifetime.

This is true in large cities, as well as small. In 2008, a Department of Justice report stated:

In large cities of all sizes, the homicide victimization rate has declined steadily since the early 1990s.

The homicide victimization rate -- in cities with a population of 1 million or more dropped dramatically from 35.5 homicides per 100,000 U.S. residents in 1991 to an all-time low of 11.9 homicides per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2008 -- in cities with a population of 100,000 to 249,999 was the lowest 100,000 among large cities, ranging from a high of 15.0 homicides per 100,000 in 1994 to a low of 8.8 homicides per 100,000 in 2008.

Even for crimes as horrific as mass shootings, there has been no discernible increase in occurrences. Criminologist James Allen Fox of Northeastern University has been studying mass shootings and their perpetrators for decades. He wrote that "there has not been an upward trajectory" in such incidents, either "in number or in overall body count, at least not over the past several decades."

Rape rates are at their lowest since 1976; the same is true for violent assault rates. All violent-crimes put together were 3,295 per 100,000. You would have to go back to 1967 to find a year when it was lower.

Not everything is wonderful, but generally life improves, albeit at a pace far slower than our preferences. And, there are reasons to worry, but fear leads to hasty decisions and inappropriate solutions -- just look at the Iraq war for an example.

We should recognize that the media, politicians and special-interest groups have incentives to exaggerate, or even concoct imaginary monsters. As H.L. Mencken noted almost a century ago:

Politics under democracy consists almost wholly of the discovery, chase and scotching of bugaboos. The statesman becomes, in the last analysis, a mere witch-hunter, a glorified smeller and snooper, eternally chanting "Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum!" It has been so in the United States since the earliest days. The whole history of the country has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary: the red-coats, the Hessians, the monocrats, again the red-coats, the Bank, the Catholics, Simon Legree, the Slave Power, Jeff Davis, Mormonism, Wall Street, the rum demon, John Bull, the hell hounds of plutocracy, the trusts, General Weyler, Pancho Villa, German spies, hyphenates, the Kaiser, Bolshevism. The list might be lengthened indefinitely; a complete chronicle of the Republic could be written in terms of it, and without omitting a single important episode.

Or, if you prefer, remember what F.D.R said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."