Fear as a Money Machine

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


A country programmatically gripped by fear—yes, that’s us for more than eight years now.  Fear of terrorism to be exact, even as truly terrible things happened in this land and elsewhere, from hurricane Katrina in 2005 to last week’s devastating Haitian earthquake, which should have put our fears into perspective.  But no such luck.

Since 9/11, the thought of “terrorism” has seized the US by the throat.  People who are terrified of flying for fear of a terrorist attack are perfectly willing to drive a car to the nearest mall without a passing worry, even though traffic fatalities indicate that this is a relatively dangerous act.  There were a staggering 34,000 fatal crashes in the US in 2008, 12.25 fatalities for every 100,000 Americans, and carmakers are now intent on featuring ever more immersive Internet-linked “infotainment systems” on dashboards.  These are sure to up the distraction level and lead to more deaths on the highway, and yet the country is barely focused on this fact. And mind you, despite all the attention, not one American died in a terrorist attack on an airplane last year.  In fact, Nate Silver of the website FiveThirtyEight.com recently crunched a few numbers and came up with the following:  “the odds of being on [a] given [airplane] departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade.”   

But keep in mind that fear, wherever directed, is a remarkably profitable emotion to exploit.  Just think of those controversial full-body-scan machines now being installed in airports at a cost of up to $170,000 each.  One promoter of them is former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff, “who now heads the Chertoff Group, which represents one of the leading manufacturers of whole-body-imaging machines, Rapiscan Systems.” He’s part of a growing “full-body-scanner lobby” of ex-Washington politicos just made for our moment.

Every jolt of terror, in other words, is a jolt of profit for some company or set of companies.  After a while, those jolts of fear become repetitive adrenaline rushes for a whole set of interests which, in the American system, soon hire lobbyists, corner senators and congressional representatives, retain law and publicity firms, and live well as long as people remain terrified.

If these last years tell us anything, it’s that money follows fear.  By 2006, for instance, the Department of Homeland Security, that second Defense Department, a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy created from the terror of terror, already had a mini-homeland-security-industrial complex growing up around it; and that, in turn, was part of a global security business aimed at “thwarting terrorists” then worth an estimated $59 billion.  (If we had news media worth their salt and DHS was a real beat, we would undoubtedly have more recent, far more striking figures for this.)

At the comical (but also profitable) end of this spectrum of fear were all those places like Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo, the Amish Country Popcorn factory, and the Mule Day Parade that were put into the DHS’s National Asset Database as “potential terror targets,” opening up the possibility that they might receive DHS money to protect them. “The database,” reported The New York Times, “is used by the Homeland Security Department to help divvy up the hundreds of millions of dollars in antiterrorism grants each year.”  Consider just the Weeki Wachee mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando, Florida.  In 2005, the St. Petersburg Times reported that the Weeki Wachee staff was “teaming up with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office to ‘harden the target'”—as they attempted to access DHS anti-terrorism funds “allocated to the Tampa Bay region.”  (“‘I can’t imagine (Osama) bin Laden trying to blow up the mermaids,’ [marketing and promotion manager John] Athanason said. ‘But with terrorists, who knows what they’re thinking. I don’t want to think like a terrorist, but what if the terrorists try to poison the water at Weeki Wachee Springs?'”)

All of this might be dismissed as a joke, if American life weren’t filled with phantasmagoric terrors that are also money machines.  Everywhere that fear rules, people exploit it, making money off it; and it’s in the nature of the beast for them to want the gift-that-never-stops-giving to go on forever.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate