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The Triumph of Fear

PARIS – In May 1981, Pope John Paul II survived an assassination attempt. Thirty years later, Osama bin Laden was killed by United States Special Forces. But, looking at the world now, one could easily conclude that the inspirational leader whose credo was Franklin Roosevelt’s injunction to fear only “fear itself” has lost, and that the fanatic who wanted fear to dominate the world of the “infidels” has prevailed.

Today, fear is ubiquitous, and the bombings at the Boston Marathon must be understood in that context, for the attack both highlights and deepens our pervasive sense of insecurity.

The scale of the Boston attack was, of course, much smaller than that of September 11, 2001. But Americans will remember this homegrown plot as a highly symbolic moment: an attack on a venerable international sporting event on Patriots’ Day. The marathon is a cherished event, for it reflects the peaceful values of a democratic society that seeks to transcend its challenges through sheer endurance. Will an attack on such a symbol reinforce the prevalence of fear in an American society that was once defined by hope?

Fear of terrorism is only one segment of what might best be described as a multi-level structure of dread. Domestically, there is fear of “spontaneous” massacres like the slaughter in December of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut. Internationally, there is fear of civil wars in the Arab world; of social unrest in crisis-ridden Europe; and of war in Asia resulting from North Korea’s brinkmanship or the irresponsible escalation of territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. And then there are global fears linked to climate change, epidemics, cyber wars, and more. The list seems endless.

Revisiting my 2009 book, The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are reshaping the World, it seems clear that fear has gained the upper hand. Does this mean that a fearful West has prevailed once again? And is fear in the rest of the world a response to the West’s strength, or to its new weakness?

Either way, the West has now spread its negative emotions, after having once imposed its mostly materialist values on the rest of the world. It is, of course, too early to say whether this is a sign of deep change, or merely a passing trend, and reality is, no doubt, much less simple. But, to distill the essence of today’s mood, one could say that fear is the direct result of the process of globalization: the world is not necessarily flat, but it definitely feels smaller – and “others” appear more menacing than ever.

In the aftermath of World War II, a group of idealistic Frenchmen bent on reconciliation with their former enemy declared that France would have “the Germany she deserved.” That is, German behavior would be a function of how France behaved toward its defeated neighbor.

In the same vein, we will have the “other” we deserve. If our behavior is based on fear, we will look with suspicion on all those who are different from us, deepening the alienation of the millions inside and outside our countries who believe that they cannot integrate into even the most open societies. Their response could, in turn, call into question that very openness.

Of course, in today’s interdependent and transparent world, no society can protect itself fully. There is no isolation from globalized markets, your neighbors’ identity crises, or the humiliation felt by those you have tried with so much (at times misguided) energy to integrate. The simultaneity of unmanageable uncertainties – the crux of globalization itself – may lure some into seeking to reverse a process that has become inescapable and over which no one has control.

Given that all alternatives to globalization are unrealistic, frightening, or both, how can we sublimate, transcend, or at least channel our fears? Can Western societies remain what they are, or at least should be – open, tolerant, and respectful of difference – while responding to demands for greater protection against the multifaceted threats, whether imagined or real, that we face?

How we answer these questions will in large part determine whether, in a relentlessly globalizing world, fear has the last word.