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.

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