“All we have to fear is fear itself.”
— Franklin Roosevelt
Turns out, fear is enough.
Researchers at Chapman University conduct an annual survey of what Americans are afraid of.
The methodology is simple: researchers show randomly selected adults a list of 94 items and ask them to indicate the degree to which they were afraid of each item, from not afraid at all to very afraid. The list includes everything from biological warfare to being hit by a drunk driver, from fear of heights to earthquakes, wildfires and floods, from dying to public speaking.
What struck me about the 2018 survey was not the things we are afraid of but how much we fear them and how widespread fear has become.
In 2016, the fear of government corruption, which ranked No. 1 on our most-feared list, was the only item that was feared by more than 50% of the respondents. The second-place item (terrorist attack) was feared by 41%.
The following year the top five items were feared by more than half of the respondents.
In 2018, the top 12 items were feared by at least 50% of the people who responded to the survey.
Remember that in 2016, the second-place item was feared by 41% of the respondents? In 2018, there were 28 items that generated more fear than that.
Which says to me that we are a fearful people right now. Fear is deep, and it is spreading. More people are more afraid of more things.
Whether there is a reasonable basis for our fears is another matter.
Consider a couple of facts, courtesy of the Uniform Crime Report that is published annually by the FBI. Violent crime in the United States in 2018 was roughly half what it was in 1993. More narrowly, the rate of homicide was just under half what it was in the 1990s.
Yet year after year Gallup asks respondents if they think crime has gone up or down in the past year, and every year a majority says it has gone up. In a 2018 survey, 60% of respondents said crime was up.
Given the damage pervasive fear can do to society, there is an ongoing need to fact check our fears.
For example. On Jan. 5, the Journal published a front-page story titled “Homicides at 25-year high: Police target gun violence as city hits 31 homicides in 2019.” It was a thorough examination of the homicides that occurred in the city last year, complete with a map that indicated the locations of each killing.
The story provided the following information: “The city’s 2019 homicide total was the fifth year in a row the city’s homicide total has increased over the previous year. ... (It) was the city’s fifth highest since 1912 ... and was 10 behind the city’s worst year on record, 1994, when 41 people were killed.”
The article also noted that “1993 had 36 homicides, and there were 33 homicides in 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1992. There were 32 homicides in 1969.”
Taken as bare numbers, those figures could lead to the conclusion that things are as bad as they ever were, and that things are not getting any better.
But according to census data, the population of Winston-Salem in 1970 — there were 33 homicides in each of the first three years of that decade — was 133,000. In 2019, when there were 32 homicides, the estimated population of the city was 250,000, almost twice what it was in 1970. Which means that though the number of homicides in 2019 was almost identical with the number of homicides in the early 1970s, the rate of homicides was roughly half what it was then.
And remember the statement that the total homicides in 2019 was “the city’s fifth highest since 1912”? In the 1910 census, the population of Winston-Salem was only 22,700, less than one-tenth of what it is today.
None of this is intended to diminish the pain and loss that has been experienced by our fellow citizens whose lives have been shattered by violence or the legitimate fear of people who live in areas where violence has increased dramatically.
Regardless of historical comparisons, homicides are trending upward, and that should concern us all.
We live in an era of fear. If we do not want to live in an encroaching, all-consuming state of fear, we should regularly ask ourselves: Is there reason to be afraid? Check it out. It isn’t as hard as you might think. That’s what the internet is for.