10/21/2010 06:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Viral Fear and the State of National Insecurity

Lately, when I watch the news from Capitol Hill, I am more and more often reminded of a Star Trek episode entitled "Spock's Brain." In it, the prerequisite nubile alien female humanoids steal Spock's gray matter in order to save their fully automated planet.

We are led to deduce that they need his brain because they don't have brains of their own. Of course, Captain Kirk can't let his first officer wander about witless, and he leans on the aliens to release the captive, throbbing brain. After 40 minutes of back and forth, one of the alien women stamps her foot and whines, "BRAIN, BRAIN, WHAT IS BRAIN?!"

There is so little thoughtfulness on television now that when I see an interview conducted with genuine respect, time and interest in the subject matter, I am moved to tears and renewed with hope. But these Maxwell House moments are few and far between.

For the most part, fear is both the medium and the message. Everything is sold by it and through it: politics, strategies, cars, insurance, medicine, homes, magazines, food, toilet tissue. It has seeped into our cells the way pollutants drip slowly and invisibly into our aquifers. You can't always see it, you can't always taste it, and you can't clearly point to it. But its presence and its subtle effects are there nevertheless.

I have been working with fear and fearful people for twenty years. I was (and can still occasionally be) a fearful person. I have watched it, felt it, wrote about it, and helped heal people from it. As a result, I've learned a few things about fear, particularly that modern societal contagion I call viral fear.

Fact One: Fear in the right dose is necessary.

It is a primary emotion, meaning it derives from the limbic system and is designed with the express purpose of promoting our survival, individually and as a species. It is an instantaneous response to a perceived threat.

It is an interesting fact that the experience of pleasure takes upwards of three seconds for the brain to recognize, but fear takes literally no time at all. (Some estimates put an adrenal response at less than 1/12,000th of a second.) The reason would seem fairly clear: Pleasure is nice, but we don't require it to live. Fear is essential. It tells us a train is barreling towards us on the tracks and that we need to jump out of the way -- NOW!

The point here is that not all fear is bad or useless and not all threats are empty. The wise amongst us will be able to discern what is true and what is necessary. The threats being made against Jews, Christendom and Western Civilization in general in Al-Jazeera are not idle and it would be highly imprudent to deny or ignore them.


Fact 2: Fear CAN and will be misused.

As the mystics and now the theoretical physicists have said over and over, intention manifests whether we like it or not. We, as a species, leak. When fear is manipulated as a tool to promote an individual's or group's agenda, it is grossly misused and the individuals towards whom it is directed have a couple options, neither of them good.

1. Because at some level we can recognize the existence of those ulterior motives, we do not sincerely believe we are endangered and become inured to the adrenal sirens. We go numb under the relentless battery of wave after wave of red alerts that no longer hold any meaning. This is the new version of the boy who cried wolf -- the newsman who cried code orange. There is always a Next Osama, a new apocalyptic threat, a new reason to buy security cameras, insurance, or pills to make the pain go away.

2. We become so afraid, are so constantly in a state of terror, that we become paralyzed. This is what I think most Americans have unwittingly done. You can see that particular state of mind demonstrated in the amount of TV we watch, in the amount of food we eat, and in the amount of passive entertainment we require and demand. And always in increasing levels of intensity and quantity. We are a nation of sensation-addicts.

The unfortunate result of both of the aforementioned options is that fear flat lines us when we need to be alert, empowered, conscious and competent. We need to be able to act appropriately when there is a real threat. The irony in all this is that the very purpose of fear -- to inspire us to lifesaving action -- is diminished and even extinguished when it is thrown about like so much confetti.

Fact 3: The Fearful Need Leadership

It is axiomatic in trauma treatment and crisis intervention that in a state of shock, panic, or anxiety individuals overwhelmingly respond positively to benevolent authority. There is nothing more calming, more hopeful to an accident victim than the appearance of a man or woman in uniform. Authority takes the wounded, the fearful, the confused by the hand and says, "This way, follow me," leading them AWAY from danger.

Most people will agree that the hallowed halls of Congress have been woefully low on leadership in recent history. No one can agree on anything except the need to spin fear.

Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt (both Teddy and Franklin), Golda Meir, Ghandi -- these were leaders. Whether one agreed with their politics or not, it was indisputable that they had not only the charisma but the character to lead people through and OUT OF a crisis.

This is not a political or partisan issue. It is a cultural one. It infects not just our advertising, but our medical practice, and our schools as much as it permeates our politics. Whether we are aware of it or not Americans are walking a tightrope over an enormous chasm. With both arms held straight out, we totter painfully, gripping that fine line with bare feet. In one hand we hold freedom from harm and in the other we grasp freedom itself. Fear is a powerful and painful motivator, as it well should be. But when misused and overused we are in danger of losing balance when we need that balance most.

This article originally appeared on