Categorized | Europe

Social fear as an obstacle to freedom in the West


By Ziad El-Hady

Ziad El-Hady argues that freedom in Western societies is seriously compromised by people’s fear of crime, and that the post-9/11 fear of terror, which has been grossly exaggerated by the media, appears to suit some governments as it pushes the public to consent to more surveillance and social control.

In a previous article, I discussed the concept of freedom with regards to the banking system and argued that its principles of lending lead to an unjust dynamic between citizens and banks, mirroring a master-slave relationship. Here, I intend to show how crime and the national conditioning of fear are also largely inhibiting our sense of freedom.

National crime and security

The lack of freedom that citizens feel due to the expectation of crime is often neglected when discussing the Western concept of freedom. Take the UK, for example. The UK (Home Office’s (interior ministry) British Crime Survey estimated that 745,000 domestic burglaries and 1,189,000 incidents of vehicle-related theft took place in England and Wales in 2010-11. That amounts to about 2,000 homes and 3,000 cars broken into every day. In response, citizens are spending more and more on security. Mintel, a leading market research company, estimated that the current burglary prevention market is peaking at around GBP 100 million in the UK as people continue to fortify themselves within their homes.

But what is most alarming is not only the sheer statistical magnitude of property crime in the UK but the psychological states and attitudes that this creates within us. The Office of National Statistics says that 2.5million British citizens pretend to own a dog to guard their homes from burglars, many of whom place misleading dog bowls at their front doors. In addition, half the population leave their lights on to trick potential intruders, and one in 10 Britons ask a neighbour or friend to move their car around when they are away. The list of deception tactics researched by one insurance company is actually quite exhaustive.

Even at the most basic level of human experience, a stranger knocking on your front door in the evening or approaching you in the street is often met with hostility or caution. We instinctively assume that you cannot leave a bicycle unchained in public for the briefest amount of time; and drivers had better hope that no passer-by saw them slip their satellite navigator into the glove box of the car, lest someone breaks in for it thereafter. You almost have to assume that everyone is a crook just to function in society.

Such a lack of feeling safe and constant precaution does not represent the type of “free” society that we would collectively favour. The correct balance between the right kinds of freedom is far from being achieved. Too often it seems that our justice system unwittingly views the freedom to commit crimes and to reoffend as of little consequence, while the freedom to feel safe is largely denied as a result.

World crime statistics typically show crime to be predominantly a Western problem, with the US, UK, Germany, France and Russia occupying the top five places. But even if we cannot take these statistics entirely at face value due to international crime recording differences, it is hard to deny the national fear of crime – exacerbated by the media – that is especially common in Western societies.

Professor of Criminal Justice Geoffrey R. Skoll argues that there is a prevalent “discourse of crime”, which is said to have been emphasized by governments and the media in the last 30 years. These discourses, which “trickle down from the top levels of ivory towers to popular culture outlets”, play on our deepest fears “wherein women are victims of stalking, children are sexually exploited, serial killers lurk in shadows everywhere, and so on”. Our trust in other people, especially strangers, seems to have been shattered by this caution towards criminal activity, which has settled in our public atmosphere.

The fear of terror

The construction of national fear in association with the “war on terror” is especially significant here. Panic and fear resulting from the high volume of terror “threats” broadcast in the media since 9/11 has probably caused more psychological harm to Western nations than any act of terror ever could.

For Professor Henry A. Giroux, author of The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear (2003) the rhetoric of terrorism is not only important because it addresses human misery, but because it inflicts it as well. Some sociologists have argued that “waiting for terror” is the most typical part of the fear discourse, characterized by a “perpetual omnipresent horror”. David Altheide, Professor of Justice and Social Inquiry, uses empirical evidence from news reports to show that the media have repeatedly used the term “fear” in headlines and reports on crime. The association is so strong that the mere mention of crime immediately implies and engenders fear.

Since 9/11, research shows that the same repetitive mentioning of “fear” has been associated with the words “terror” and “victim”, producing wider sentiments of insecurity. For Professor Altheide, such fear-conditioning in the media exists because “government officials dominate the sources relied on by journalists”. The wider argument is that our governments are not keen on remedying a scared nation, since national fear pushes the public to consent to more government surveillance and social control (Altheide 2006, Kellner 2003Parenti 2000Glassner 1999). (For an excellent and highly informative documentary on some of these issues, please see Adam Curtis’s, The Power of Nightmares.

American sociologist and investigative journalist Christian Parenti claims that not only does the discourse of crime leave people “scared, divided, cynical and politically confused”, but the prevalence of crime also “short-circuits the social cohesion necessary for radical mobilization”. I will leave it to the discretion of the reader to determine whether or not this is a contributing factor as to why there has never been an effective collective resistance to the economic problems outlined in myprevious article.

In sum, we have become a culture that accepts fear and caution as an integral part of life. Growing security measures and high crime rates, which are then further exaggerated largely through the media, only heighten this condition of fear, inhibiting both our social and psychological freedoms. If the theories of social control are true, it is all too ironic that some secular societies, which rightly criticized the Church for ruling society through fear of divine punishment, now themselves rule through fear of crime and terror. This once again calls into question whether we in the West are well placed to call for the freedom of others.

In a subsequent article I will be investigating the limitations of Western freedom and democracy, specifically in light of the influence of the media.

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