Friday, April 18, 2014
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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.

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  1. CommentedOlanrewaju Kamil-Muhammed OSENI

    We are simply living for the fear of something in the present world. Africa has challenges with leadership and fear of failed states and unending civil wars and insecurity. Fear and risks everywhere and we are not jointly and commonly talking about the fundamentals of these fears and the changing landscape. The gap between the poor and rich growing and this will raise is ugly head someday.

  2. Commentedudi cohen

    The answer is quite simple, Broad understanding among citizens of the free world that Democracy and Liberalism are the new instruments being used by extremists and some difficulties question should be asked regarding the definition of those terms.

    Stopping the hypocrisy and the politically correct discourse and floating the religion issue to try to understand who are the real power fueling this war and who those it serve because as we know most of western world is beyond tolerance to other religions.
    wars based on controlling of natural resourses borders or influence can be manageable but war caused by Religion- especially in times that inequity of income fueling it -requires all new attitude and i suggest that clergy of all faiths together with policy makers will once and for all acknowledge of the right of each and every one right to live by his own will and agree on looking forward to the future and cooperation and allowing countries manage their own folk as they see is right (the revolution of technology and the knowledge streaming will change the way of life even in the most closed societies) it all matter of time and adaptation -take china for example.
    I agree that the globalization effects are, probably, irreversible especially regarding immigration that changes the character and cultural aspects of the western world for good or bad.

  3. CommentedKen Presting

    Disappointing treatment of a deep problem, ignoring the familiar distinction between intelligent appreciation of risk vs. irrational reactions. The real problem is greed.

    In the US we have a powerful industry which markets its products as a means to safety, but whose real consequences are increased danger to everyone. In every instance cited by Prof. Moisi, there may be evidence of fear, but there is far more evidence of greed. Those who have their fingers on the triggers, levers, and switches have no concern for the welfare of others.

    Moisi's problem was stated in its strongest form by Thomas Hobbes, although his famous formula, "nasty, brutish and short" leaves fear implicit. The modern solution is due to JS Mill. If you hope to live in a society free of fear, you will want to know that your peers were raised to care more about their community than about themselves.

    Contrary to Moisi's thesis, such cultures are quite common, and advancing. Not without interruption, but clearly.

  4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I think this is the most important message of the article. Indeed globalization is here to stay. Human beings are connected into the same network, matrix whether they want it or not.
    But at the moment we still try to use this interconnected network with the same self-centered, self-calculating, exploitative attitude, paradigm as before.
    At the moment "connection" still means another avenue to get profit, to exploit another one.
    Thus unbreakable interconnection on one hand, and exploitative, selfish attitude on the other inevitable leads and will lead to clashes, conflicts, terrorism and wars.
    And there is not even a "right or wrong" scenario, from their own selfish point of view all opposing parties are right.
    We have plenty of conflicts in the world today where looking from the point of view of the participants, from their own side they are telling and acting the truth.
    Humanity has only one option: to rise above the present picture, the inherent, long standing separation and hatred and find a common ground which people can build on.
    The separation, hatred will not disappear, there is simply no solution at the level we are today.
    Even Einstein said that problems cannot be solved on the same level they were cause.
    Humanity has to start a "round table" dialogue to identify what is connecting us, what could give us a common foundation above what is separating us.
    Why?
    Because in a global system we are all sitting on the same boat, we all depend on each other, we cannot survive without each and every on of us contributing its own special piece, complementing the human puzzle. There is nothing obsolete in a natural, integral system, all, even the smallest pieces are necessary.
    If we are able to achieve such a necessary, mutually complementing unity above the inherent separation, we will get such a force, such energy that can fuel a very different lifestyle, a very different humanity with unprecedented potential and capability.

  5. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    I don't see a point in drama because of a bombing. Certainly the US will make billions to market entertainment products about the incident, telling us how spectacular important it was, while it wasn't. Inducing fear leads to dangerous reactions.

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