The politics of fear blows into New York

The world’s greatest city was brought to a standstill not by Hurricane Irene, but by politicians’ worst-case thinking.

There was a lot that was unprecedented about Hurricane Irene. It prompted the first weather-inspired, mandatory evacuation of New York. It caused the first-ever shutdown of the city’s subway system. And it provoked an incredible round of almost titillated forewarnings of what would be left of New York after Irene had wended its destruction-strewn way across Manhattan and beyond. What was not unprecedented, however, was Irene itself.

In fact, despite the Biblical predictions of flooding and wind-induced havoc, by the time Irene hit New York early on Sunday morning, it wasn’t actually a hurricane anymore. It had been downgraded to the status of a ‘tropical storm’. Or, as we call it in England, ‘summer’. It was wet. It was windy. But it was not The Day After Tomorrow.

Flippancy is the wrong approach, though. Despite Irene’s damp-squibbish reality in New York, it had caused significant damage elsewhere on America’s east coast. Twenty-nine people had been killed, power cuts were widespread, and billions of dollars worth of damage had been inflicted on property and infrastructure.

But for all that it was a damaging and, for the bereaved, tragic event, there is little getting away from the fact that the likelihood of Hurricane Irene wreaking death and destruction across New York was always minimal. This is not hindsight talking. By Saturday – that is, the day before it was due to hit New York – Irene had already been downgraded from a category 2 hurricane to a category 1 hurricane, and many predicted that it would continue to decrease in strength the closer it got to the city. Which is exactly what did happen.

Yet despite the possibility of hurricane havoc shrinking with each passing hour, the US authorities actually went the other way. They ramped up the threat, turning a highly unlikely scenario into the expected result. What else can explain the decision on Friday to issue a mandatory evacuation for the 350,000 New Yorkers living in low-lying areas? ‘By five o’clock tomorrow you have to be out’, announced the calm-averse New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg: ‘Waiting for the last minute is not a smart thing to do. This is life-threatening.’ If anyone expected his fearful fervour to have been dampened somewhat by Irene’s dissipation during the course of Saturday, they would have been disappointed. ‘Time is running out’, Bloomberg intoned ominously: ‘It’s going to get dark in a little while… If you haven’t left you should leave now. Not later this evening, not this afternoon, immediately.’

And so Bloomberg and Co managed to do something that countless other events, natural and social, have singularly failed to: they brought New York to a standstill. Remember, this is New York we’re talking about. This is a city that withstood the 1929 Wall Street crash and the Great Depression, a city that, for the most part, kept calm and carried on despite the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, a city that for its 400 often-tough years, persisted and eventually flourished. Yet today, all it takes for everyday life to be suspended is the minutest possibility that something bad might possibly happen.

That there was an overreaction to what was a bit of rain and bluster has been widely acknowledged. However, the main recipient of blame so far has not been the politicians who made the decisions; it has been the media, which supposedly inspired the politicians through their over-the-top reporting. Writing for the BBC News website, one American ex-pat was not impressed by what he believed to be a media-created reality: ‘American society has finally become “media-tised”. By that, I mean many people (by no means all) find it hard to consider something real unless they encounter it via media.’

Elsewhere, Daily Beast columnist Howard Kurtz shouted, ‘Someone has to say it: cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon.’ In the Washington Post it was the Weather Channel’s tendency towards hyperbole that was criticised, which was perhaps understandable given this statement on its website: ‘Irene is a hurricane that poses an extraordinary threat and is one that no one has yet experienced in North Carolina to the mid-Atlantic to the Northeast and New England.’ As a Washington Post columnist concluded, ‘Be scared’ seemed to be the message. In the words of one New York resident speaking to the Guardian website in the undramatic aftermath of Irene: ‘Now I realise that the whole thing is just media hype, to get us all upset and anxious, to feed into the American way of getting us paranoid and fearful.’

This scepticism towards the overhyping tendency of the 24-hour news-cycle, not to mention the fearful proclamations of politicians, is certainly admirable in one respect. It testifies to our actual resilience and our preparedness to take on what hardships come our way, even if they’re travelling in 75 miles per hour gusts. For instance, one woman interviewed at a New York evacuation centre said that many of her neighbours had remained in a south Brooklyn waterside block: ‘We warned a lot of them but I guess they took it as a joke.’ Elsewhere, a New York couple responded to a question as to how they found the storm with a phlegmatic response. It was ‘underwhelming’, he said. ‘We were asleep’, she interjected.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Confronted by testing events, people do actually tend to display far more resilience than the authorities ever give us credit for. Our experience and the support of those around us tend to count for far more than a thousand overhyped weather forecasts. For instance, late last year, as Cyclone Tasha began to inundate the Australian state of Queensland, residents long accustomed to putting up with flooding were far more reasoned and composed than many in the media and the authorities seemed to anticipate. Deon Barden, a resident of Rockhampton in Queensland even turned his flood-enforced exile on the fringes of Rockhampton into a joke: ‘My missus and everything is all stuck in Rocky – I’m out here by myself so I’ll have a bit of peace and quiet if anything.’

But while the contrast between doom-laden media reports and the actual response of people on the ground is often pronounced during such events, to blame the media for hyping Irene up to apocalyptic proportions is to ignore the extent to which the authorities, from politicians to bureaucrats, provide the real impulse for the politics of fear.

This does not mean, as it is normally taken to, that politicians manufacture fear to further some nefarious end, be it a crackdown on civil liberties in the case of terrorism or an increase in the sales of inflatable dinghies in the case of Irene. There is nothing conspiratorial about the politics of fear. Rather, politicians and those in positions of authority are genuinely fearful about the future. This is because to this disconnected, largely purposeless, not to mention impotent clique, the future really does seem radically uncertain, a wide-open space in which Bad Things of one sort or another abound, from super-resilient, super-deadly flu viruses to variations on the environmental catastrophe that is surely heading our way. These are not grasped as absolute worst-case scenarios; they are seen as likely outcomes. Never has imagining the worst that could possibly happen been so routine. It doesn’t matter what the event is, whether it is tsunami-induced problems at a nuclear plant in Japan or strong winds over the Atlantic, the contemporary propensity of those in authority to imagine the worst seems almost ingrained. The future no longer opens up an opportunity for utopian thinking; it is instead a place of fevered dystopian imaginings.

And it is in this context of worst-case thinking, that Irene came to assume its New York-ending characteristics. There was nothing probable about a hurricane causing the ‘unprecedented’ destruction of New York. There was no rational, risk-assessed underpinning to Bloomberg’s increasingly shrill demands that New Yorkers leave and leave now. It was a response based on what one could imagine as the worst in the worst of possible worlds. For these political pangloomians, New York was not about to be hit by a storm – it was about to get its Old Testament-style comeuppance.

While the politics of fear speaks to the sense of powerlessness of those in power, it does, paradoxically, provide the authorities with a raison d’être. They now exist to protect us from the worst that could possibly happen; they are there to manage our safety, to assuage the fears they are stoking. On Saturday, for instance, New Jersey governor Chris Christie seemed happy enough with being seen to appear cautious: ‘Certainly we’re not going to put you under arrest to make you leave but we do have your safety first and foremost in out minds.’ And on Monday, as Bloomberg defended the evacuation decision, he invoked what he believed was his political mission: ‘Look, what we want to do is protect people, and protect people’s lives.’ He went on: ‘We’re never sure what’s going to happen with a forecast for the weather… But you want to go and take the kind of precautions that in retrospect, if the worst case arrives, [you can] say, “Yes I am glad that I did that.”’ Here, the radical uncertainty of the future, its absolute unpredictability, provides the rationale for decision-making. It makes being hyper-safety-conscious, fearful even, into a contemporary virtue.

Still, as Bloomberg himself says, we’re better safe than sorry, right? Hardly. In the case of Irene and the evacuation of New York, many chronically ill people in hospitals and nursing homes were endangered by being forced to move out of the city. All for the sake of something that could – if all the planets line up, and all our bad luck comes at once – happen. But there is a bigger problem. In approving the massive, politically driven overreaction to Irene on the basis that something could have happened – after all, hurricanes change very quickly we’re told – there is the danger that worst-case thinking becomes further entrenched. In this context, every outbreak of flu, every variation in seasonal temperature, every extreme weather event, is treated as the coming cataclysm - and we have to respond accordingly. This, as those who remained in New York know, is no way to live.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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