With the explosive growth in information technology and instantaneous communication, one would think there'd be fewer irrational fears based on superstition and misinformation. Alas, this hasn't happened. We live in the age of anxiety.
It doesn't help when the press, following the pronouncements of Iran's leaders, warn that August 22, 2006, anniversary of one of Islam's holiest events, could turn out to be a day of reckoning, an apocalyptic battle signalling the end of time. This may be my last column.
The age of anxiety embraces both the fear of terrorist attack and the unsettling belief that domestic crime is spiralling out of control.
This past month, an internal RCMP report acknowledged that the Canadian public has developed an irrational fear of crime. Statistics clearly show that many Canadians still believe that violent offences are radically on the rise desite gradually decreasing rates over the past decade.
This misperception is a problem. Crime is a problem not only when many people are being victimized, but also when lower levels of it cause sufficient fear to compel people to adopt a fortress mentality.
The RCMP attributes our phobia to crime stories dominating headlines and newscasts. The report suggests that RCMP media relations officers become more strategic and selective in responding to reporters' requests for information about crime. It appears that the RCMP thinks that ignorance is bliss, and the less the public knows about the carnage on our streets and in our homes, the better off we will be.
The cops are right in thinking that anxiety and mass media representations walk hand in hand, but selective silence is never a good solution. Public agencies should never keep their data hidden from the public eye.
Unfortunately, the public's misguided dread cannot be corrected by law enforcement agencies. Crime data and crime stories may be disturbing, but in and of themselves they do not give rise to irrational fears for most people. It's all in the media packaging.
Media distortion is the price we pay for a profit-driven communications network that caters to the lowest common denominator.
American media may be the worst offender, but our coverage also plays into collective insecurities and neurotic fears. Look at last month's fiasco with incorrigible pedophile Peter Whitmore. Clearly, the system failed in allowing this predator to slip through the cracks, leading to the victimization of more youngsters.
I don't question the "newsworthiness' of the incident. But the large front-page photographs, the endless editorials, the op-ed pieces and the horrific recounting of every detail of Whitmore's criminal past all combined to create the impression that our children can never be safe even though there is a far greater chance that kids will be injured or killed in car accidents than at the hands of sick devils like Whitmore.
The raw and sensationalistic treatment of issues by the press eventually overwhelms our perspective and ability to exercise sound judgment.
This media distortion is often linked to what sociologists call moral panics. These occur when a kernel of truth is magnified by the media, which are often pawns of interest groups with a vested interest in the crime problem. Sometimes these panics are orchestrated by police associations, religious groups or educational institutions. Sometimes they are just a natural by-product of competitive investigative reporting.
Whenever a sordid story breaks, journalists hunt high and low for similar happenings. So when one report of a dog being brutally dragged behind a car hits the papers, you will always notice similar stories published throughout the week, even if they come from some obscure hamlet in Bavaria.
Because of my aversion to any official regulation of expressive activities, I cannot think of a solution to curb the worst excesses of a news industry aspiring to compete with the entertainment biz. I am often reduced to muttering, "Shame on you' when watching news on CNN, CBC or CTV, but with the help of THC, I still watch.
I also do not believe that the RCMP is really that concerned that its release of information is causing undue alarm. All public officials know that fear makes us more compliant. A frightened public wants to be rescued and looks to the agents of social control for protection.
For all the official providers of security looking for more money and more power, the age of anxiety is good for business.