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The Week

Freedom from fear

Fear and hope are the two great motivators of human action

22 March 2003

12:00 AM

22 March 2003

12:00 AM

Fear and hope are the two great motivators of human action, and neither untempered by the other leads to wise decision-making. Paralysis by unreasonable fear is as much to be avoided as the foolhardiness induced by groundless hope; but, of the two, fear is the more easily generated. It is certainly more common nowadays than unbounded optimism.

How easily unfounded fear is provoked has been demonstrated this week by the appearance of a new disease in China of unknown causation. No sooner had nine people died of it, out of a global population of six billion, than the end of the world, or at least of humanity, was deemed in certain quarters to be nigh: and this despite the fact that the great majority of the people who have contracted the disease have survived it, not died from it.

Nothing is easier to conjure up from the unknowability of the future than panic. There is no difficulty in imagining the most terrible of consequences from the most banal of actions, let alone from genuinely dangerous ones. Certain minds take pleasure in predicting apocalypses, and the failure of the last predicted apocalypse to make its appearance at the duly appointed time never reduces the certainty with which the next apocalypse is envisioned.

Because the future is inherently unknowable, and because dramatic predictions are so much more vivid in our minds than undramatic ones, the Cassandras of the world enjoy a certain natural advantage, which has nothing to do with their accuracy or clairvoyance. A book predicting disaster will always sell more than one which predicts that the world will continue in its chronically unsatisfactory but nevertheless survivable way.


This should be borne in mind when the possible consequences of the war with Iraq are discussed. The person who says that it will result in eternal enmity between the Middle East and the West, and in ever more terrorism directed at Western cities, will be paid more attention than one who predicts less fraught consequences, simply because what the former says is more arresting. Our desire to be entertained is generally greater than our thirst for truth; and apocalypses are nothing if not entertaining.

Eventually, decisions have to be made and risks taken. The risks involved in making war on Iraq are now slight because the armed forces arrayed against it are so formidable. Moreover, it is unlikely that many Iraqis will wish to go to their deaths to fight for Saddam Hussein and his small clique of thugs. No one can be absolutely sure of this, of course, and perhaps Iraqi civilians will turn out to be ferocious urban guerrillas. But if we seriously entertained such outside possibilities in our daily lives, we would make Hamlet seem impulsive and unreflective.

As for the undying enmity that making war on Iraq will supposedly generate, it assumes not only that, uniquely among large populations of human beings, unanimity of opinion exists in the Middle East, but also that those in the Middle East who do indeed hate us will hate us less than they do if we refrain from making war on Iraq. This is highly doubtful, to say the least; it assumes that we are hated for what we do rather than for what we are and what we represent. A withdrawal from war would not now make us more loved, or even less hated; it would simply make us ridiculous.

For every fearful vision of the future, there is an equal and opposite fearful vision. The epidemic in China could, if it evoked an exaggerated response, bring about a collapse in world trade, as China and South-east Asia were sealed off or quarantined from the rest of the world. If Saddam were not checked now, his successful defiance of the most powerful country in the world would set an example for many aspiring regional despots to follow, and in the end would result in many small nuclear wars.

One of the problems with pre-emptive action is that what has been pre-empted can never be known for certain, while the undesired effects – what the Americans call collateral damage – can be assessed retrospectively with some degree of accuracy. On this view, pre-emptive action is never justified; for only collateral damage is certain.

Prudence, the greatest of all political virtues, shades imperceptibly into timidity and outright cowardice. Fearful imaginings can always be made a reason for doing nothing, or for retreating into a world of one’s own. The agoraphobic refuses to go out because he is prey to fears of what might happen to him once he leaves the safety of his domestic cocoon, though of course sometimes unpleasant things do happen to people who leave their homes. But if everyone were agoraphobic, the human race would soon die out, for no one would produce or distribute anything. The world needs nations, as well as men, who are unafraid.

The choice before humans is never between risk and no risk; it is always between different risks. The risks of making war are now far outweighed by those of not making war. And the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.


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