SOS: Scaring Our Selves
If the SARS panic wasn't so dangerous, it might make for a funny TV show.
In the USA, reality TV is everywhere. There seems to be no end to the variations on dating, situation and ‘real world’ shows. Meanwhile, in the real (real) world, an even stranger reality is playing out: that of panic-stricken societies that always seem to believe worst-case scenarios. If it wasn’t so dangerous, it might make for a comical gameshow.
As I prepared to leave New York, the feisty Big Applers were getting fearful about the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) ‘pandemic’, ‘potential epidemic’ or ‘generally bad situation’, depending on which newspaper headlines one had been reading.
The sublime became ridiculous with an incident in Chinatown. Crowds mobbed the Abacus Federal Savings Bank after a manager was dismissed for embezzlement, fearing that they might lose their savings. And many of them turned up in masks, worried that they might pick up SARS (1). It turned out that the bank wasn’t in financial trouble at all. For me, the Chinatown incident demonstrated how we are susceptible to fearing the worst in many areas of everyday life.
There were very few passengers on my American Airlines flight back to London. These are troubled times for the aviation industry – the ongoing fear of terrorism, alongside the new worries about SARS, seems to be pushing the potential Chapter 11 ever nearer for American Airlines.
How sad that, for all our tremendous technological capabilities, we continually pull the rug from under ourselves with an overblown sense of risk. Rather than having bold visions and the courage and conviction to move forward, we seem to be more inclined to retire, to keep within our limits rather than do anything that might prove risky.
Boarding a plane today is akin to being lectured about our frightening world. At JFK airport, there were stringent post-9/11 security checks. We were strenuously advised to do some leg exercises to help us avoid getting blood clots on the long journey home. Arriving at Heathrow was not any more reassuring, as we were greeted by staff wearing the now-obligatory face masks.
Travelling back into central London on the Heathrow Express, I was surrounded by Evening Standard headlines about ‘SARS alerts at Heathrow’ and ‘The risk of our road tunnels’, and one businessman was coughing violently next to me. In an attempt to offset feelings of fear, I resolved to think of all the TV shows that could be developed based on today’s fearful disposition….
How about a family gameshow, where no one was prepared to gamble in order to win the big prize in case they became addicted to the adrenaline of it all? Or a TV talkshow where people could ‘share’ their stress at overdosing on TV violence? What about a ‘yoof’ show, where young people discuss their concerns with growing up and having to face the big, bad world…?
We seem to living in a reality TV world, a living TV show, which could be called ‘SOS’ – but rather than referring to the old notion of ‘saving our souls’, SOS stands for ‘scaring our selves’. A world where we all expect the worst from each other and ourselves…what could be scarier than that?
Alan Miller has just completed a documentary film Eroica! for PBS in the USA.
Apocalypse from now on, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
Viral scares, by Stuart Derbyshire
The SARS farce, by Mischa Moselle
(1) ‘Chinatown Bank Endures Run as Fear trumps reassurances’, New York Times, 23 April 2003
(2) Editorial, New York Times, 22 April 2003
(3) ‘SARS Alert at Heathrow’, London Evening Standard, 24 April 2003
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