The Threat Down

Appeals to fear are also common, especially since al Qaeda’s destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York on September 11, 2001. After an- other terrorist attack occurred in London in 2005, television news anchors and talk-show hosts flashed headlines like “Who’s at risk?”, “Are we next in America?”, “How safe are we in America?”, “How prepared are we?”, “Can we prevent a subway or a bus attack in the US?”, and “You have to wonder, will we ever truly feel safe again?” To be fair, televisions stations asked these questions because they knew that their audiences wanted answers to those very questions. A problem arises only when the media stirs up fears and fails to provide a balanced estimation of the real dangers. Such fearmonger- ing is parodied in Stephen Colbert’s segment, “The Threat Down,” which lists more and more outrageous fears. An even more serious problem arises when politicians use exaggerated fears to gain support for costly policies that could not be justified by the actual threats that people face. Of course, it is controversial how much fear and which policies are justified. Democrats accuse Republicans of distortion when Republicans use fear of terrorism to justify their counterterrorist policies; Republicans accuse Democrats of ex- aggeration when Democrats paint a scary picture of the effects of global warming. Defenders of any particular policy can reply that it really is needed to ward off peril. Some fears are justified, including some fears of terrorism and of global warming, of course. Appeals to fear are fallacious only when they are overdone or exaggerated in order to lead people away from an accu- rate assessment of the risks that really exist. But this happens all-too often; so, whenever anyone appeals to fear, we need to ask whether those fears are being amplified and abused.

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