Austin Bay

The devastating epidemic is spread by dread, of course -- dread powered by distortion, gossip and sensationalist greed.

The swine flu of 2009 is a threat, but another plague immediately associated with this genuine viral killer deserves to be slammed and canned for the manipulative and exploitative corn it is.

I refer to the Epidemic of Fear, a plague insistently poised to infect the entire planet.

This completely human-transmitted pox twists or ignores facts and seeds individual, institutional and international distrust. It stunts rational decision-making and promotes panic. When it strikes and persists, entire populations become vulnerable to the absurd but deadly toxins of conspiracy theorists.

Fear is truly "pandemic," with "all people" in the sense of the Greek roots (pan plus demos) at risk. Being human, at times, definitely means being scared.

Scary stories are exciting, a great way to pass the time around the campfire. I'm a fan of spy and crime thrillers, and at some point in the plot the imitation of fear is essential in those entertaining tales.

A physical anthropologist might argue that real physical fear can play an extraordinary role in immediate survival, triggering a "flight" reaction in our species, very useful when ambushed by cave bears or an automobile that isn't going to stop for the crosswalk. It could trigger a "fight" response, as well, perhaps providing an adrenaline edge when confronting a raiding party from an enemy tribe or a kidnapper who has grabbed your child. In these circumstances, fear may have an upside.


Fear's downside is huge. Fear also freezes -- stupid deer get trapped by headlights, and stupid politicians get trapped by headlines. The shakes can also produce a self-destructive frenzy that wastes time, costs money and confuses decision-makers, and in so doing, ends up turning a manageable threat into a monster.

The swine flu of 2009 requires thoughtful, disciplined, informed and coordinated responses -- but, wow, that first five- or six-day wave of sensational speculation fed by sketchy reports, iffy statistics and emotionally arresting pictures of Mexican children wearing surgical masks.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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