Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rhetoric of Fear in the US: Debilitating?

I wrote this essay for one of my classes.

The rhetoric of fear is a dominating factor in American society. Rhetoric is the art of using language (OED) in order to inform, persuade and even motivate. In this case, it is fear that is channeled in different kinds of discourse. In the US, inducing this emotion is a widely spread tool that is detected in the media as well as in politics. For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address in 1933, is famously renowned for stating “the only thing we need to fear is fear itself” ( More recently, the rhetoric of fear was undoubtedly a prominent instrument in Bush’s speeches to get the public to support the ‘War on Terror’ after the 9/11 attacks (Marquit On another note, the daily media coverage of different issues such as public order offenders, heath problems and the economy has also the power to trigger fear amongst Americans. In The Culture of Fear: Why America is Afraid of the Wrong Things?, author Barry Glassner affirms that three out of four people in the US feel more afraid today than they did twenty years ago. In this regard, this kind of rhetoric appears to be a ubiquitous phenomenon in America. Though many will argue that the rhetoric of fear is exaggerated and can lead people to adopt a paranoid behavior, it still remains a powerful and effective tool that has positive outcomes. In the light of the following arguments, it will be argued why the rhetoric of fear does not have a debilitating effect on America.

The rhetoric of fear is widely used in numerous media coverage. However, this type of discourse does not have a debilitating effect on America because many scares are unquestionably serious issues that deserve public attention. A case of robbery or a drug problem in a neighborhood is not a latent matter. Hence, it explains why the media turn to this rhetoric in order to inform and influence the behavior and actions of their audience. These are pressing problems that require careful consideration. American people must know what happens in their surroundings and in the rest of the country – which, of course, includes very serious fear-mongering stories such as assaults, rape, war, heath concerns, and so on and so forth. Accordingly, “it has a potential impact on their lives or the well-being of friends and family” ( As an example, the media coverage of crime is conspicuous in the US. PhD Matthew Robinson notes that “from the very founding of the press in America, crime and criminal justice have held a prominent place in the media. […] Thus, crime and punishment are often on the forefront of Americans’ minds”. But this rhetoric of fear surely does not have debilitating impact on American citizens because it will force people to take charge, especially if one lives in a city where the crime rate is quite high like in Detroit, Michigan or St. Louis, Missouri (Flippin AARP). Consequently, Americans will rather choose to be on the safer side and therefore, take precaution: they become more sensitive about their environment and will secure their homes better. Thus, the rhetoric of fear in the media does not have a debilitating effect on America. 
A second example that reveals why the rhetoric of fear does not have a pernicious impact in media was the case of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003. Even though the number of victims in the US was not striking (Sternberg USA Today), the media coverage on SARS was abundant and made people avoid Chinatowns all over North America (Watts). But, in an article written by Duncan Watts, it is explained that fear is a good thing in the case of epidemics: “it is almost certain that without […] the resulting avalanche of news stories about the disease, the situation could have been far worse than it is” ( In this regard, the rhetoric of fear does not have a harmful effect in America media because many scares are serious issues and also helps for prevention. 

Another reason why the rhetoric of fear does not have a harmful effect on American society is that it can bring people or a community together to cooperate towards finding immediate and long-term solutions in response to a threat. For instance, pedophilia and gang feuds are important problems in the US. Instead of evading the troublesome situation, it is likely that people have created or joined communities that attempt to solve these menacing matters. On this note, a healthy dose of fear has brought people together to address and contribute into resolving serious affairs. In Nashville, Tennessee, “parents, teachers and neighbors have begun efforts that range from programs in schools to neighborhood watch groups” (Schrade and Echegaray The Tennessean) in order to help children and young adults to stay out of gangs. Concerning anti-pedophilia movements, online communities and organizations were founded to fight this abominable crime. One of the missions of the “Crimes Against Children” program is to decrease “the vulnerability of children to sexual exploitation.” ( In this respect, they offer “The National Sex Offender Public Website” (NSOPW), coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice, which enables any citizen to track sex offenders in fifty states. A second example in the US that has volunteers moved to fight pedophilia is the Perverted-Justice Foundation; which has helped convict 550 sexual predators since 2004. Thus, the rhetoric of fear does not have a debilitating effect on American society. On the contrary, it is perhaps because of fear mongering that citizens also take matters in their own hand and help solving a significant problem by joining a community or organization.        

As argued in the previous arguments, the rhetoric of fear does not cripple American society because it is an effective tool to apprise people of serious issues that require their awareness and even cooperation. Another reason that shows why the rhetoric of fear does not have a debilitating effect on America is that it is a potent tool in preparation of a crisis situation.  Frank Furedi claims in his article “Epidemic of Fear” that safety has become “one of Western society’s fundamental values” ( After 9/11, the safety of American people has become a core issue and mission. Government officials have taken different measures and have for instance incited people to report unusual behavior. This was the case in the Times Square bombing attempt in May 2010. Two street vendors noticed a suspicious vehicle and immediately alerted the NYPD. As journalist Mark Thomson claims, “one of the most unheralded victories in 9/11’s wake my be that the US […] succeeded in atomizing the terrorism threat.” Furthermore, concerning the full body X-Rays at the airports, a 2012 poll illustrates that Americans are prone to give up their liberty in exchange for better safety (Thommy, Once again, these measures are effective because safety is one of the nation’s major concerns. The threats of terrorist attacks is not an issue that should be taken lightly and it is better to be prepared in case of an emergency or crisis situation. Because of this, the rhetoric of fear does not have a harmful impact on America.

To conclude, one can assess in the light of these arguments that the rhetoric of fear does not necessarily have a debilitating effect on America. Its ubiquitous use has forced the American citizen to be very cautious and prepares him/her against serious threats.


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