Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

January 15, 2013

We the People: Fearing Fear Itself

By Bob Hoyt
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — A current political preoccupation is fear mongering. Many are convinced that Muslims are planning to take over the government by force. A puzzling number find that believable and buy more guns. Some fear that the government has gone bonkers and is threatening the freedom of everybody. Just why the government would want that is unclear because the people are the government.

There are individuals and movements that see socialism growing among us like fungus. A few are afraid of the decades-old ideas of Franklin Roosevelt. They thump their tubs to inspire quivering. It’s not always clear what alarmists are for, or against, or afraid of. But one thing is clear. There are innocent people who are easily led (or misled) by pronouncements from the fringe nuts of the world who are in hot pursuit of lost causes and self-serving ambitions.

Some threats, however, appear to be worth serious thought. There was a startling article in last November’s Atlantic Monthly. According to the Atlantic article, it is now possible for computer hackers who work with synthetic biology to cheaply sequence and rearrange human genetic material. A few years ago it was expensive to sequence DNA and manipulate it. Modifying DNA was used almost exclusively to cure diseases. Unlike bacteria which attack human organs and infect or destroy them, a virus enters human cells and replaces the cell’s DNA with foreign DNA and then reproduces the altered cell. That may create positive changes by producing modified cells to resist diseases. But hackers can also recreate modified cells to kill us and spread disease. We could become at risk for a pandemic because DNA sequencing and modification has been simplified and made cheap enough that anyone with a few thousand dollars and the right technical training can manufacture all kinds of deadly viral mischief. It would be safe to wager that enemies of our country are doing that very thing in small and clandestine laboratories in several countries. That is a real fear to be reckoned with.

So, where should we come down? On the dark side of humanity’s fear? Or should we follow the Pollyanna streak in our nature and pretend our world is always bright and sunny? Probably neither. Life is risky. It always has been. Our solar system and our universe are violent places. We could get hit by a wandering asteroid or comet that could cause tsunamis and release poisonous volcanic gases. All plants and animals could die.

Risk is a part of life. Politics can’t stop every catastrophe. Perhaps the most important thing is to learn more about the world and to consider our options rationally in the unlikely event of a huge catastrophe. We should make it a point to not manufacture fear or pass along what we know is not true just to bolster a political point. Humans have lived on the earth for thousands of years. The life on earth has been around for billions of years and probably will keep going for a long, long time. We should concentrate on finding more truth and cultivating less fear if we really want to find ways to work together to preserve human civilization instead of ending it.