The Mechanisms of Fear

Ini­tial­ly, the fear of Coro­na was sup­posed to unite the peo­ple in the joint fight against the pan­dem­ic. This fear is increas­ing­ly turn­ing into hatred, agi­ta­tion, and sep­a­ra­tion. It is time for us to con­front this cor­ro­sive ten­den­cy with deter­mi­na­tion and unity.

The Coro­na pan­dem­ic relent­less­ly expos­es abus­es. First and fore­most, there is the deplorable state of the Ger­man health care sys­tem, which was already bro­ken even before the pan­dem­ic. Although it has received a great deal of applause and sol­i­dar­i­ty over the last twen­ty months, it strange­ly has not seen any last­ing improve­ment; on the con­trary, there are now around 4,500 few­er inten­sive care beds than there were a year ago. Our elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives do not take this urgent and quite obvi­ous task near­ly as seri­ous­ly as their pub­li­cized role as warn­ers and admon­ish­ers in the omnipresent pan­ic orches­tra or, like Markus Söder as a brave gen­er­al and cru­sad­er, wild­ly deter­mined to impose harsh restric­tions, even if they then turn out to be unlaw­ful after the fact, as in the case of the cur­fews in Bavaria.

This cri­sis has also exposed our elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives’ col­lec­tive lead­er­ship fail­ure. Our gov­ern­ment — and the oppo­si­tion in large parts just as well — con­sis­tent­ly apply only one tool since the begin­ning of the pan­dem­ic, and that is the stok­ing of fear and the spread­ing of pan­ic. They fol­low the roadmap from the April 2020 paper of the Min­istry of the Inte­ri­or. In this paper, there is clear advice to use shock effect, cul­mi­nat­ing in the (now seen as false) claim that chil­dren infect their par­ents, who then die in agony at home — all because the child for­got to wash his hands after play­ing (sic!). To this day, the gov­ern­ment uses pri­mal fears (suf­fo­ca­tion, guilt) to por­tray the seri­ous­ness of the sit­u­a­tion and to swear the pop­u­la­tion to a line of cau­tion and — a prankster who thinks evil of it — of uncon­di­tion­al obedience.

Fear and ter­ror were already the lead­er­ship prin­ci­ple of Caligu­la, who ruled as emper­or in Rome from 37 to 41 AD. He described his unchar­i­ta­ble rela­tion­ship with his peo­ple with his mot­to, “Oderint, dum met­u­ant” (let them hate me as long as they fear me). An atti­tude that many auto­crats after him cul­ti­vat­ed sim­i­lar­ly. Pres­sure cre­ates counter-pres­sure, and vio­lence leads to counter-vio­lence. So Caligu­la was mur­dered by a Prae­to­ri­an Guard after only four years as emper­or at the age of 29, and his mem­o­ry was sub­se­quent­ly destroyed.

Oper­at­ing so offen­sive­ly with fear and ter­ror to force obe­di­ence only works short-term. It ends in blood­shed, as his­to­ry shows with the exam­ple of many despots before and after Caligu­la. How­ev­er, for politi­cians in a democ­ra­cy, it is not an option to be hat­ed by too many. Nev­er­the­less, intim­i­dat­ed and thus unques­tion­ing­ly obe­di­ent sub­jects are prac­ti­cal and tempt­ing for elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Then, the high polit­i­cal art is to stir up fears with­out becom­ing the tar­get of the major­i­ty’s hatred or, even bet­ter, to be hailed as a sav­ior by the mass­es with an appro­pri­ate­ly res­olute stance and strict measures.

The threat of a new kind of virus is per­fect for forc­ing uni­ty and obe­di­ence through fear on the one hand, while at the same time being hailed as a sav­ior by most for pro­tec­tion and author­i­tar­i­an mea­sures. Which politi­cian can resist this temp­ta­tion? Per­haps this is why these some­times total­i­tar­i­an reac­tion pat­terns are sim­i­lar in most democ­ra­cies world­wide. And thus, fueled by the media, for whom this mass psy­chosis con­stant­ly brings high rat­ings and click rates, an esca­lat­ing spi­ral of pan­ic and an out­bid­ding com­pe­ti­tion of mea­sures has been set in motion. In the mean­time, even sci­en­tists have reject­ed the stok­ing of fear for behav­ior con­trol as uneth­i­cal, but it’s too late to shut the sta­ble door — the horse has already bolted.

Fear of a threat to the com­mu­ni­ty unites. But fear of some­one with­in the com­mu­ni­ty divides and cor­rodes. It cor­rupts both him who uses fear and him who fears.

Peter F. Drucker

Doubts about the mea­sures and fear of their con­se­quences for the indi­vid­ual and soci­ety are, on the oth­er hand, unde­sir­able and there­fore have been con­sis­tent­ly ignored, talked down, and fact-checked since the begin­ning of the pan­dem­ic. The crit­ics were defamed as coro­na deniers, “Quer­denker”, tin-foil-hat-wear­ers, or — as ulti­ma ratio — Nazis. Even those who have good ques­tions and express legit­i­mate con­cerns make them­selves sus­pect, under­mine uni­ty, and thus become oppo­nents of mea­sures or anti-vaxxers. The rhetoric of pol­i­tics and the media slips month by month fur­ther toward a reli­gious war of a fright­ened, obe­di­ent, and applaud­ing major­i­ty against a crit­i­cal­ly ques­tion­ing minor­i­ty. The lat­ter also includes some off­side groups and opin­ions. Still, they are only a mar­gin­al phe­nom­e­non in this minor­i­ty, even if the media styl­izes them as pars pro toto. 

The fear of the exter­nal threat, which ini­tial­ly seemed valu­able and prac­ti­cal in unit­ing the com­mu­ni­ty in this cri­sis, is increas­ing­ly becom­ing a fear that divides the com­mu­ni­ty more deeply week by week. Those who speak of the “tyran­ny of the unvac­ci­nat­ed,” as Frank Ulrich Mont­gomery, the Chair­man of the World Med­i­cin Asso­ci­a­tion, recent­ly did not only accept that fear will turn into hatred but are on the verge of com­mit­ting incite­ment to hatred. And the media thank­ful­ly spreads this breach of taboo with­out fur­ther ques­tions or even objec­tions, which was unthink­able two years ago. 

Fear is the path to the dark side … fear leads to anger … anger leads to hate … hate leads to suffering.


Here we are now, and I don’t want to go this way. At least the last part of this causal chain of Yoda, the suf­fer­ing as a con­se­quence of hate, I want to pre­vent. We may look dif­fer­ent­ly at this com­plex sit­u­a­tion, we may have dif­fer­ent opin­ions, our fears may be dif­fer­ent, and our needs may be dif­fer­ent. Still, we will not be played off against each oth­er and incit­ed. Nev­er. Not in this coun­try. We talk to each oth­er, argue about data, facts, and their inter­pre­ta­tion, bring argu­ments and counter-argu­ments, lis­ten to each oth­er, and strive for under­stand­ing. And in the end, we join hands for a shared future in peace.

Out beyond ideas of right or wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.


Pho­to by Pla­to Ter­entev on Pex­els.

Share This Post

By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

Leave a Reply