Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Responses to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats

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Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats
By Robert Wuthnow
Oxford University Press, USA, 2010
304 pp. $29.95
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It is hard to get threats right, to find the right balance between scaremongering and complacency, between panic and passivity. Wuthnow considers how Americans have responded to seemingly existential perils, including nuclear weapons, terrorism, the millennium bug, the avian flu, and global warming. He traces how threats, first described by governments, the media, and experts, eventually seep into literature and movies, such as Nevil Shute's On the Beach or Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. This thoughtful account explains how official responses become institutionalized in organizations and professional bodies that have an interest in describing a threat in ways they can manage. Drawing on "terror management theory" from the field of psychology, Wuthnow finds that the public feels a need to do something, even something inconsequential and inappropriate, in response -- from charitable giving, vigils, and demonstrations to violence against members of those communities supposedly responsible, as after 9/11.