Why We’re Living in the Age of Fear – Rolling Stone

Why We’re Living in the Age of Fear – Rolling Stone

This is the safest time in human history. So why are we all so afraid?

Jen Senko believes that her father was brainwashed. As Senko, a New York filmmaker, tells it, her father was a “nonpolitical Democrat.” But then he transferred to a new job that required a long commute and began listening to conservative radio host Bob Grant during the drive. Eventually, he was holing himself up for three hours every day in the family kitchen, mainlining Rush Limbaugh and, during commercials, Fox News.

“It reminded me of the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Senko says. “He used to love talking to different people to try to learn their language, but then he became angry about illegal immigrants coming to the country, that they were taking jobs from Americans, and that English was becoming the secondary language.”

Senko is not alone. A California schoolteacher says her marriage fell apart after her husband started watching Fox News and yelling about government plots to take away his guns and freedom. On the left, my friend Phoebe has had to physically remove her mom, who she describes as a “Sam Seder news junkie,” from family functions for raging against relatives about the “dark place” this country is going to.

“All of these emotions, especially fear, whip people up into a state of alarm and they become angry and almost evangelical about what they believe,” says Senko. “It’s like a disease infecting millions of people around the country.”

If this election cycle is a mirror, then it is reflecting a society choked with fear. It’s not just threats of terrorism, economic collapse, cyberwarfare and government corruption – each of which some 70 percent of our citizenry is afraid of, according to the Chapman University Survey on American Fears. It’s the stakes of the election itself, with Hillary Clinton at last month’s debate conjuring images of an angry Donald Trump with his finger on the nuclear codes, while Trump warned “we’re not going to have a country” if things don’t change.

Meanwhile, the electorate is commensurately terrified of its potential leaders. According to a September Associated Press poll, 56 percent of Americans said they’d be afraid if Trump won the election, while 43 percent said they’d be afraid if Clinton won – with 18 percent of respondents saying they’re afraid of either candidate winning.

Trump’s rhetoric has only served to fan the flames: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” “It’s only getting worse.” “You walk down the street, you get shot.” Build a wall. Ban the Muslims. Obama founded ISIS. Hillary is the devil. Death, destruction, violence, poverty, weakness. And I alone can make America safe again.

But just how unsafe is America today?

According to Lewis & Clark College president Barry Glassner, one of the country’s leading sociologists and author of The Culture of Fear, “Most Americans are living in the safest place at the safest time in human history.”

Around the globe, household wealth, longevity and education are on the rise, while violent crime and extreme poverty are down. In the U.S., life expectancy is higher than ever, our air is the cleanest it’s been in a decade, and despite a slight uptick last year, violent crime has been trending down since 1991. As reported in The Atlantic, 2015 was “the best year in history for the average human being.”

So how is it possible to be living in the safest time in human history, yet at the exact same time to be so scared?

Because, according to Glassner, “we are living in the most fearmongering time in human history. And the main reason for this is that there’s a lot of power and money available to individuals and organizations who can perpetuate these fears.”

For mass media, insurance companies, Big Pharma, advocacy groups, lawyers, politicians and so many more, your fear is worth billions. And fortunately for them, your fear is also very easy to manipulate. We’re wired to respond to it above everything else. If we miss an opportunity for abundance, life goes on; if we miss an important fear cue, it doesn’t.

“The more we learn about the brain, the more we learn it’s not something that’s supposed to make you happy all the time,” says Andrew Huberman, a Stanford neurobiology professor who runs a lab studying fear. “It’s mostly a stress-reactive machine. Its primary job is to keep us alive, which is why it’s so easy to flip people into fear all the time.”

In other words, our biology and psychology are as flawed and susceptible to corruption as the systems and politicians we’re so afraid of. In particular, when it comes to assessing future risks, there is a litany of cognitive distortions and emotional overreactions that we fall prey to.

Many believe the amygdala, a tiny, almond-shaped region deep in each hemisphere of the brain, is the home of our emotional responses, specifically fear. The author Daniel Goleman has coined the term “amygdala hijacking” to describe what inflammatory rhetoric and imagery are designed to do: trigger the emotional brain before the logical brain has a chance to stop it. This is what both the right and the left believe their opponent’s media are doing to people.

So in order to resist being manipulated by those who spread fear for personal, political and corporate gain, it’s necessary to understand it. And the first thing to understand is that although the emotion may look like fear, sound like fear and smell like fear, neuroscientists argue that it is actually something quite different.

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux is slender, soft-spoken and well-mannered, with a seemingly extensive supply of patience, which is no doubt exactly what it takes to study Bible-paper-thin cross sections of rat brain for more than three decades.

I have spent the day with LeDoux at his lab at New York University’s Center for Neural Science looking at human and animal brains – specifically, a tiny triangle of nuclei that sits on the amygdala, which is now popularly thought of as the fear center, thanks in part to LeDoux’s research. The problem: Despite what countless psychologists, journalists and teachers assert, fear doesn’t occur in the amygdala, according to LeDoux.

LeDoux never meant for his work to be interpreted this way. It was, he admits now, an imprecise use of words. A more accurate way to put it would be “threat detection and response.”

Here’s how it works: The triangle of neurons on the amygdala, known as the lateral amygdala, parses through stimuli coming in from the outside world, looking for, among other things, threats. If it senses danger, then the neurons start firing, signaling the central amygdala to activate a defense response in the body. This whole process is an unconscious physiological response (perspiration, increased heart rate, shortness of breath) and behavioral reaction (freeze, fight or flight), not an emotion.

“We need to recognize that emotions are not innate hard-wired states as presented in Inside Out,” LeDoux says. “Emotions are very complicated: They morph and change, and go back and forth, and you can have as many emotions as you can conceptualize.”

Fear, then, according to LeDoux, is actually experienced in the conscious mind – the cerebral cortex – where we assemble the experience and then label it as an emotion, or at least categorize it with other experiences that feel similar. It’s what we call it when, for example, the amygdala’s emergency-response system is activated by a cobra raising its head to strike or, elsewhere in the brain, the hypothalamus recognizes that the body is in danger of dehydration.

Make sense?

Good, because most of this has nothing to do with what’s happening politically in this country.

“What we’re talking about is anxiety, not fear,” LeDoux says. Where fear is a response to a present threat, anxiety is a more complex and highly manipulable response to something one anticipates might be a threat in the future. “It is a worry about something that hasn’t happened and may never happen,” says LeDoux.

So if someone opens fire at a concert you’re attending, you experience fear. But if you’re at a concert and you’re worried that a shooting attack could occur there, that’s anxiety.

The biological difference, says LeDoux, is the worry and nervousness that we label as anxiety originate not in the amygdala, but predominantly in a small area of the stria terminalis – the pathway connecting the amygdala to the hypothalamus – known as the bed nucleus. It is this area that researchers believe is hyperactivated during generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety.

This may seem like a small distinction. But in actuality, it is everything. Because where fear is about a danger that seems certain, anxiety is, in LeDoux’s words, “an experience of uncertainty.”

And that uncertainty is the exact lever that politicians regularly use to try to influence your behavior. According to last year’s Chapman University Survey of American Fears, a highly cited study in which 1,500 respondents were surveyed about 88 different fears, Americans are most afraid of corruption of government officials, followed by cyberterrorism, corporate tracking of personal information, and terrorist attacks. These would all be anxieties, according to LeDoux. And the chief anxiety, about one’s own government, helps explain the attraction to Trump as a political outsider.

But even more telling is what the Chapman survey says is the number-one way in which Americans respond to their anxieties: voting.

“So you’ve come to us from the den of the devil,” a crime writer named Elaine says, by way of a greeting, meaning this magazine.

I am in a waterfront Redondo Beach, California, apartment, at a meet-up group of Trump supporters. It is clear that no one here is in fear. They are drinking beer and wine, eating finger foods and watching CNN on mute. But they do have a lot of media-fueled anxieties. And as they share them, the mood in the room intensifies, the side conversations halt, the group huddles together and their voices grow strident.

“We have Syrian refugees coming in by the thousands, unvetted,” says Chris, who works in corporate sales.

Debra, who’s in nursing school, reels off a short list of murders by immigrants. “I worry for me, and worse for my daughter with two children,” she concludes. “I feel like we’re on the edge of doom. We’re destroying ourselves.”

“The country is under attack,” says a retired soap-opera actress who requested that even her first name not be used. “There are unspoken agendas. I feel I’m getting pulled along in something that’s leading somewhere that I don’t want to go.”

“It’s the end of Western civilization,” confirms Elaine, the crime writer. “When we get this sexual-libertine bent to a society, it is always the last gasp before destruction. I’m a proud fag hag from way back, but these transgender bathrooms are not about transgender people at all. They are about giving license to sexual perverts. It is child abuse.”

What’s occurring in this meet-up group right now is what social psychologists call the “law of group polarization,” which states that if like-minded people are concerned about an issue, their views will become more extreme after discussing it together. Theoretically, most people here, and in similar meet-ups around the country, will leave the room not just with stronger opinions but with less empathy for those with contrary views.

Accompanying me at the meet-up is Christopher Bader, one of the architects of the Chapman survey. “The longer we delve into fears, the more I see fears as responses to uncertainty,” he says afterward. If there is a crack in human psychology into which demagogues wriggle, it is by offering psychological relief for the anxiety created by uncertainty. Because when people are unsure – or made to feel unsure – and not in control of the safety of their finances, families, possessions, community or future, their natural inclination is to grasp for certainty.

This is where a good scapegoat comes in. “That’s something Trump creates very well: There’s us – real Americans – then there are Muslims and immigrants,” Bader says. “Fascist governments have risen in times of economic change because they offer simple answers to complicated personal questions. And one of the most popular ways people can have certainty is by pointing to a villain to blame things on.”

The crucial combination of uncertainty with perception of an escalating threat has led historically, according to Bader and other researchers, to an increased desire for authoritarianism. “A conspiracy theory,” he continues, “brings order to a disordered universe. It’s saying that the problems aren’t random, but they’re being controlled by a villainous group.”

It’s big banks. It’s ISIS. It’s the environmentalists. It’s the NRA. It’s Wall Street. It’s the patriarchy. It’s the feminists. It’s the right. It’s the left. It’s the Illuminati. Choose a single enemy and simplify your life – but know that it won’t make you any happier.

Psychologists George Bonanno and John Jost studied 9/11 survivors and witnesses. They discovered that those exposed to the attack became more politically conservative, embracing ideologies that “provide relatively simple yet cognitively rigid solutions (e.g., good versus evil, black versus white, us versus them, leader versus follower) to problems of security and threat.”

But, despite this, the political shift didn’t improve their overall state of mind. “On the contrary,” Bonanno and Jost concluded, “political conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism and conservative shift were generally associated with the following: chronically elevated levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, desire for revenge and militarism, cynicism and decreased use of humor.”

Delving deeper, Jost and his students recently went through more than 100 studies by researchers all over the world, involving more than 350,000 participants, and found similar results. “People who perceive the world as a more dangerous place in terms of crime, disease and terrorism are more likely to be conservative,” says Jost. “And exposure to a terrorist attack – whether it is in the U.S., England, Spain, Germany or Israel – is a significant predictor of a conservative shift.” In other words, it’s not just America: It’s Brexit, with its slogan of “Take back control of our borders.” And it’s the ascendency of anti-immigrant politicians around the Western world, from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer to French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who compared Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation.

Several of Jost’s conclusions are consistent with a concept that is key to understanding the factionalism, tribalism and nationalism of today: “terror management theory.” One of the most important ideas in social psychology of the past three decades, it is predicated on the notion that as adult human beings, we have a desire to live, yet we know that – at a time and by a cause unknown to us – we are going to die.

To manage this existential anxiety, we embrace a cultural worldview that provides us with order, meaning, importance and, ultimately, self-esteem. The effectiveness of this strategy depends on the agreement of others who share our beliefs. Meanwhile, the existence of other people with beliefs and values that differ from our own can subtly undermine the protection this worldview provides. So, according to the theory, when these beliefs are threatened, we will go to great lengths to preserve and defend them.

University of Colorado psychology professor Tom Pyszczynski, one of the three researchers who came up with terror management theory in 1986 and co-author of The Worm at the Core: The Role of Death in Life, believes that this concept explains the right-wing extremism in this election cycle. “I suggest that one of the things frightening them is the de-whitening of America,” Pyszczynski continues. “I don’t think people are afraid of illegal immigrants committing crimes against them – but they’re bothered by certain kinds of immigrants diluting the whiteness of the country and the American identity that people get their sense of security from. The idea of ‘taking our country back’ after having a black president is a prime example of that.”

One of the related tenets of terror management theory is that when people are reminded of their mortality, whether through questions about what happens after death or bringing up tragedies like 9/11, they can become more prejudiced and more aggressive toward people with different worldviews.

In a 1998 study, for example, Pyszczynski and his colleagues devised a clever means of measuring aggression: seeing how much hot sauce participants were willing to feed others who expressed a clear distaste for spicy food. And after being asked questions about their own death, liberals fed conservatives twice as much “painfully hot salsa” as they did to fellow liberals, and vice versa. In some cases, they gave one another the maximum amount of hot sauce possible in the experiment. When the groups weren’t asked about death, this effect didn’t occur.

Several other studies have led to a similar and tragic conclusion: After death reminders, people are more antagonistic toward those with different beliefs and values. In addition, political beliefs shift to support militaristic policies, charismatic nationalists and increased domestic surveillance. Another study showed that George W. Bush’s approval rating rose and dropped in near-tandem with the terror threat level in the country.

Naturally, one would assume that this effect would similarly benefit Trump, who regularly calls the country’s current leaders weak and promises toughness, strength and greater punishment if he is elected (“If they could expand the laws, I would do a lot more than waterboarding”). And sure enough, earlier this year, Pyszczynski’s colleague Sheldon Solomon found that college students, after being asked to reflect on their own deaths, were more likely to support Trump, regardless of their political affiliation.

But, of course, these are just laboratory studies. It’s not like we have death reminders coming at us every day, right?

Senko’s claim that her father was brainwashed by Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and Bob Grant isn’t just anecdotal. There is hard evidence of her father’s transformation from a sweet, passive man to an angry, argumentative ideologue in Senko’s documentary about him, The Brainwashing of My Dad. In some scenes, he is so angry, the viewer feels sorry for him – and concerned for his health. “It was almost like he’d joined a cult or had a new religion,” Senko recalls. “He became enraged and unreachable.”

She believes the tactics used by right-wing hosts, combined with her father’s independent streak, caused his shift. “As human beings, when listening alone for long periods of time, we are susceptible to being swayed by a confident voice speaking authoritatively, especially if it’s the only thing you consume,” she says. “So they would say things that provoked my dad to anger and indignation, and once that got going, he’d stop thinking rationally.”

Eventually, Senko’s dad became someone his family and she couldn’t recognize. He’d get apoplectic on a regular basis about his new beliefs that “most black people were on welfare and that there was too much government; that global warming was a hoax and ‘Al Gore was an asshole’; and that he should be head of the household and his wife should wait on him. He even joined the NRA, although he never owned or used a gun. Everything was antithetical to how he was before.”

Inherent in the ways the news is both reported and received are a number of biases that guarantee people are not informed, but rather misinformed. The first problem with the news is that it must be new. Generally, events that are both aberrations from the norm and spectacular enough to attract attention are reported, such as terrorist attacks, mass shootings and plane crashes.

But far more prolific, and thus even less news-worthy, are the 117 suicides in the U.S. each day (in comparison with 43 murders), the 129 deaths from accidental drug overdoses, and the 96 people dying a day in automobile accidents (27 of whom aren’t wearing seat belts, not to mention the unspecified amount driving distracted). Add to these the 1,315 deaths each day due to smoking, the 890 related to obesity, and all the other preventable deaths from strokes, heart attacks and liver disease, and the message is clear: The biggest thing you have to fear is not a terrorist or a shooter or a deadly home invasion. You are the biggest threat to your own safety.

It would make logical sense, then, that if Americans were really choosing politicians based on their own safety, they would vote for a candidate who stresses seat-belt campaigns, programs for psychological health to decrease suicide, and ways to reduce smoking, obesity, prescription-pill abuse, alcoholism, flu contagion and hospital-acquired infections.

But our fears are not logical.

In 2002, a law professor and former White House adviser named Cass Sunstein coined the term “probability neglect.” It suggests that when people are emotionally stirred by something, especially something they can vividly imagine, they will fear its outcome even if it is highly unlikely to happen. So, the fear of domestic ISIS-spawned terrorist attacks, for example, becomes far greater than the fear of everyday experiences that are much more likely to result in a fatality.

There are countless examples from psychological research of how bad we are at decision-making, responding more to emotional impact than actual facts: A 1993 study demonstrated that people were willing to pay more for flight insurance to protect them from terrorism than they were to pay for flight insurance covering “all causes.”

One of the dangers of probability neglect is that, in the face of a highly visceral event or fear, Americans are more likely to accept invasions of privacy and restrictions of freedom that they otherwise wouldn’t accept, such as the passing of the Patriot Act weeks after 9/11.

These are the wages of a 24-hour news cycle, regurgitating constant powerful visuals and reminders of our own vulnerability to dangerous forces beyond our control. Add to this what psychologists call “loss aversion,” which is the idea that people are more fearful about losing something than they are excited about acquiring something equivalent – and often, something even greater – and you have an election in which people vote based not on who’s going to help the country most, but who’s going to hurt it the least.

It doesn’t help much that in the past few years, we have entered an even more extreme cycle of news omnipresence, which values shareability over accuracy. Instead of having to turn on the TV or radio to see what’s going on, the news comes to us. Between our phones and browsers, most of us are plugged into a nonstop feed of headlines and opinions that are responsive to our specific interests and fears.

“I’ve looked a lot at why we are more fearful now than 200 years ago,” says Margee Kerr, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. “And one thing that keeps coming up is the immediacy with which we get the news. This makes it feel more emotionally charged. We start receiving notifications on our phone as soon as these disasters happen. So there’s a false sense of involvement that we didn’t have 150 years ago.”

Add to this media landscape channels like Investigation Discovery, with its 24/7 stream of true-crime shows, and the spate of CSI and Law & Order-type police procedural dramas, and it’s easy to understand why, after voting, the next most prevalent ways Americans respond to fear, according to the Chapman study, are getting a home alarm and buying a gun.

“The more we see dramatized and traumatic events, the more common we believe them to be,” Kerr continues. “It’s confirmation bias. We see a shooting on the news and it sensitizes us to pay extra attention to shootings whenever they happen in the future, which confirms the idea that it’s a big problem. Even with dramas, people are bad at remembering what’s real. There have been many studies done where, after seeing a false and a true statement, the next day someone can’t remember which was real and which was fake.”

Here’s another recent revolution in news consumption: In an era in which so many news programs, radio shows and websites look like news and sound like news but are actually just theater sets for partisan advocacy groups and commentators, anyone can create a digital ring of fire around his or her belief system that doesn’t allow other information to enter. When people tune all of their radios, TVs, Internet browsers, social-media feeds and mailing lists to the same opinion, they tend to think that a marginalized view is common sense because everyone clearly agrees with it, and any outlet that doesn’t is lying to serve an agenda.

This can’t be good for the brain. And, of course, it isn’t. Says Kerr, “Studies have correlated the hours of news consumption with reported levels of anxiety and fear of specific people.”

There are two particular ways, among many, in which living with these anxieties month after month can change your brain.

The first: “If you look at the cellular level of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus” – the thinking and memory-forming parts of the brain – “when you’re living under constant states of fear and anxiety, you can actually see them shutting down,” says Justin Moscarello, who works in LeDoux’s lab. “They shrink. They wither. And the amygdala actually gets bigger.”

In the process, attributes such as conscious decision-making, risk-taking, exploratory activity and logical thinking are adversely affected.

The second way: Anxiety can turn to fear. Part of threat detection is learning, and the brain can create a false correlation when a stimulus that’s not actually a threat activates the body’s threat-response system.

Let’s say you are at a concert and you’re anxious about Islamic terrorist attacks. You spot a Middle Eastern man with a duffel bag and, suddenly, he unzips the bag and pulls out an umbrella. But it happens so quickly that you think it’s a gun and freak out. Not only is that fear, but you may have just changed your brain circuitry.

“When cells fire like that, it causes certain somatic changes in the configuration of the cell that make it open to plasticity,” LeDoux says. “So the cell is now sensitive to any input that’s coming in.”

In the case of rats, an electrical shock paired with a tone conditions them to have a threat response to the tone on its own afterward. Similarly, continues LeDoux, in the concert example above, “certain brain chemicals wire in that response and associate it with the sight of that type of person.”

Just last year, researchers discovered a neural superhighway between the specific areas of the brain that represent faces and symbols, and the areas of the brain involved in stress and threat detection. “These sorts of associations form pretty easily but are hard to undo,” says Huberman of Stanford. “Campaign strategists and certain media are taking the opportunity to engage us in a form of strategic neurobiological warfare. They know that it’s very easy to take a symbol or a face and link it to a specific negative outcome, and eventually it moves from the conceptual areas of the brain to the stria terminalis to the amygdala.”

So what you get is a completely manufactured anxiety turning into a full-blown fight-freeze-or-flight fear response. Any guesses where else we’re seeing this occur in society?

For one study, University of Colorado social psychologist Joshua Correll brought in police officers to play a video game in which they were asked to shoot armed assailants. Half the targets were white; the other half were black. Some were carrying guns, others phones or wallets. The results were tragically unsurprising: Officers were quicker to shoot black people – both those who were armed and who weren’t – than they were to shoot white people.

“We rarely found the race of the officer to be a factor: Everybody shoots black people,” Correll observes. “It looks like a cultural-stereotype thing, as opposed to an in-group/out-group thing. If you stop and look around, you will see these patterns everywhere. In newspapers, they’ll show pictures more often if the subject is black and mention race more often if the subject is black. So your brain starts to think that black people commit crimes.”

Correll mentions the “illusory correlation” as one of the factors responsible for this misperception: “If you have a group that is rare and a group that is prevalent, if the same percentage of people in both groups engage in a negative behavior, you’re going to notice it more in the rare group because they stand out more. And you will think you see a correlation between race and negativity when there is none.”

“Campaigns and certain media are engaging in a form of neurological warfare.”

Clearly, these and other fear illusions affect our behavior, from voting decisions to supporting policies that are against our own interests to prejudices, divisive rhetoric, murder and crimes against whole groups of people. In the wrong hands, this is a playbook that can be used for mass manipulation and personal power. But if our anxieties and fears can be stoked by certain techniques, why can’t they also be quelled by other techniques?

Correll, when asked for a solution to the problems he’s pointed out, suggested, “We should be mixing things up more. Everyone should have friends who are black and white and Middle Eastern and Latino and everything else. If the prevalent group is multiethnic, then you’re used to all faces, and one group doesn’t stand out.”

Researchers in LeDoux’s lab cite a phenomenon related to uncertainty: agency – your capacity to exert your own power on your environment. “The world is how you assess it,” Moscarello summarizes. “It’s your belief about your agency that ultimately determines your emotional outcomes.” Believing you don’t have control over your own life can lead to depression, he continues, while believing that you have a voice and can influence a situation can lead to positive feelings.

Of course, rather than grasping for control and certainty, one could, as University of Pittsburgh sociologist Kerr puts it, “learn to have a degree of acceptance around uncertainty and ambiguity, learn to feel comfortable with change, and seek to understand things you may be afraid of rather than withdrawing from them.”

Pyszczynski, of the University of Colorado, has a related theory. One day, he began trying to understand why religions that were promoting love and compassion as core values seemed to, at the same time, “whip up people to kill.”

So he began running studies in which both American fundamentalist Christians and Iranian Shiite Muslims were reminded of the values of compassion central to their sacred scriptures, such as “love thy enemy” and “turn the other cheek.”

“We found that reminding people of death typically increased hostility and the desire to fight the other,” he says. “But when combined with compassionate values, death reminders had the opposite effect, leading Americans to have less hostility toward Iran and Iranians to have less hostility toward the United States – and less support for terrorist acts to stop Americans.”

So if people change their cultural inputs, their outputs will change too. Take the case of Senko’s father. Eventually, he and his wife moved to a senior community. His radio broke during the move, and when they replaced the old TV with a new one, his wife programmed the remotes. They were so complicated that her husband didn’t bother to figure them out. Later, she unsubscribed him from his conservative mailing lists. And after 15 years of witnessing her father’s extremist rage, Senko recalls, “He started leveling off and returned to most of who he was before, including his old beliefs.”

All this doesn’t mean that we should completely unplug, live in ignorance and accept terrorism, murder, racism, sexism, poverty, human rights violations and all the other problems in our world. One instance of any of these is too much. It also doesn’t negate the fact that technology has made it possible for one rogue person, group or nation to cause mass destruction and death.

The goal, however, is to separate real threats from manufactured ones. And to find a balance where we are not so scared that we’re making bad decisions that hurt us and our freedom, but not so oblivious that we aren’t taking steps to protect ourselves.

If we are to address the very real and numerous problems facing the country and the world today, we must do so without fear and anxiety, but with our heads clear and a sense of compassion for everyone, not just the people who look like or agree with us.

The fact is: Anything can happen in the future. For some people, that’s exciting. For others, that’s scary. And even if both kinds of people are working toward a better world tomorrow, only one of them gets to be happy today.

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