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.