News and Commentary

SCHAEFFER: The Most Dangerous Pathogen Is Fear, And We’ve Allowed It To Destroy Us

Covid has brought the monsters back to Maple Street.
Coronavirus COVID-19 and USA map with Flag
Peter Zelei Images/Getty Images

In 1960 Rod Serling wrote an episode for his Twilight Zone series called “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.” The story is about an idyllic American street in any suburban neighborhood. Children ride their bikes while neighbors go about their peaceful lives. Then a mysterious object warbles overhead and crashes into the nearby hills. Although a curiosity, all just assume it’s a meteor.  Suddenly the power on the street goes out, lawn mowers stop functioning, cars won’t turn over. The residents gather in the street to discuss the situation. Tommy, a boy with an overactive imagination, warns everyone that this might be an alien invasion. He further claims the aliens may have infiltrated one of their own into their midst, surreptitiously living among them while gathering intelligence. Initially, the adults dismiss Tommy’s fanciful notions.

Then a car starts on its own.

The gathering looks suspiciously at the owner. Why does his car run but nobody else’s? Maybe Tommy’s right. The man always was “an oddball” they say. But then someone recalls another neighbor likes to play with a ham radio. Could he be the alien spy, communicating with the invaders? And so it goes. Suspicion descends into paranoia and soon neighbors confront neighbors, accusations fly, and guns come out. Then the lights start to go on and off in each house, cars up and down the block start up, lawn mower engines come to life. All hell breaks loose and the good people of Maple Street deteriorate into a paranoid, rampaging mob, abandoning all reason and common sense.

The episode concludes with two aliens up on the hillside by their craft overlooking the chaos and destruction they’ve triggered. They marvel at how easy it is to manipulate the people of this planet by playing on their fears and tapping into their paranoia.

Serling presented it as a morality play to lay bare the irrationality and ugliness of prejudice, but I think there’s another message, more relevant to today.

What prompted me to recall this particular episode was a blurb that ran in the Daily Mail. It featured a water park in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the virus that has so decimated not just lives but global economies. The accompanying photo was of a crushing horde frolicking shoulder-to-shoulder in the water. They wore no masks, and indeed practiced the opposite of social distancing. Apparently they were unconcerned about the mysterious disease that has so many in our own country whipped up into a Maple Street-like frenzy.

Later, as I sat at a red light, I glanced over to the car in the lane next to me. Even though the young driver was alone in her vehicle and the windows were rolled up, she wore a mask. The contrast between the Wuhan swimmers and this driver was stark, and it presented a grim conclusion: we have utterly surrendered to our fears.

That fear has now spread like a pathogen of its own into our daily lives. We willingly surrender liberties while being subjected to the judgments of those whose visceral anxiety over the virus is so burned into their emotional make-up they will turn on, sometimes violently, anyone who doesn’t wear a mask in public.

I cannot help but question what those people swimming en masse without worry in the very heart of the outbreak know that we don’t?  It’s tempting to see a parallel between the CCP’s manipulations, setting loose their virus on an unsuspecting world, and Serling’s aliens who find it so easy to transform a prosperous and peaceful, but very fragile, Maple Street into a dystopian nightmare.

I see it when I ride the train into New York City. While disembarking at Penn Station, the voice on the intercom says: “Thank you for riding New Jersey Transit, and have a safe day.” Not have a nice or pleasant day. But a safe day. Is this what we have become? A nation of people for whom avoiding risk trumps all other ambitions?  How did we become so risk-averse a society?

There are many tributaries feeding into our river of fear.  

First there is, of course, the media. Danger sells. “If it bleeds it leads.” The more danger the media places before us, the better the ratings…but also the greater our fears, which are often misplaced.  A 2016 Vox survey found that 69 percent of Americans believed there was more crime in the USA than two decades before. But according to FBI statistics by 2016 crime had actually plummeted, with the violent crime rate being only half the 1995 level. So why the disconnect between perception and reality? On news websites, crime stories consistently garner the most online hits, so media outlets will post more crime stories in a vicious feedback loop. This creates what some psychologists call “mean world syndrome.” The more engaged with media the subjects, the more dangerous they believe the world to be.

And Covid-19 is the ultimate lead-in story. Giddy reporters travel far and wide to bring us those pockets of outbreaks and death. They’ll cover with much hand-wringing excitement the arrival of a hospital ship in New York Harbor to deal with the expected deluge of virus patients…but will ignore the empty holds and the vessel’s quiet departure, unneeded and unused. Nor will they remind you how many deaths have been in elder care facilities…places where the target audience rarely sets foot. And we eagerly await the next monster in our closet. As Elon Musk astutely put it: “It’s almost like people really wanted a panic.”

Then there is the fact that death is a relative stranger to us. Before antibiotics and vaccines, you rarely found someone who hadn’t experienced the loss of a loved one, either from disease, childbirth, or accident. Today we live in the age of competent medicine, advanced dentistry, rapid response EMTs, first-rate ICUs and ERs. So for us death up close and personal is not nearly so commonplace. And thus the obscure  notion of death is more mysterious and frightening. 

We are also narcissists.  Starting with “everyone is a winner” and carrying us into the age of the selfie. No matter how it impacts society as a whole, if it saves one life — especially mine — it is worth anyone else’s sacrifice.

We’ve also become less religious and thus more reflexively fearful of death. I can only speak with authority on the Christian mindset: we view this life as a stepping stone to God’s eternal Kingdom, weighing our brief earthly existence against the grander scale of the everlasting. Death to us is not the terrifying void it is for the atheist. According to Pew, some 3% of Americans describe themselves as atheist. Another 4% agnostic; 23% have no religious affiliation. That’s some 16 million non-believers and another 73 million who are indifferent to religion. This is a lot of Americans for whom life is the end all and be all.

Now we face a virus we are told is killing us by the tens of thousands. And that’s all that we need to know. Inject this imagery of terror into an already fearful populace for whom having a “safe” day is paramount, and you get a country highly susceptible to manipulation.

We haven’t always been this way. 

Each summer like clockwork for 40 years a different virus once prowled our streets. And when the wave of infections receded, we knew that some 30,000 people, mostly children, would either be dead or disabled for the rest of their lives. We didn’t have to extrapolate from woefully incomplete data fed into deficient models to predict what would happen when the infections started. We knew. 30,000 every year for four decades (90,000 if you adjust for today’s population). This was life in the age of polio from roughly 1916 until the Salk vaccine in 1955.

So let’s ask ourselves. Would those who are in charge of managing our response to Covid-19 today, Doctors Fauci and Brix, et. al., the tyrannical governors and oppressive mayors, have effectively shut down the country every summer for forty years, and forced tens of millions into joblessness and despair, until a vaccine was finally developed? What kind of country would we have been? At what point does “saving lives” no longer supersede the needs of society as a whole?  For our grandparents, they understood that life, though precious, is not the absolute arbiter of socio-economic policy.

We are now over half a year into this pandemic panic. We have seen tens of millions thrown into unemployment and business after business close their doors for good. Our cities are aflame, no doubt in part due to the simmering frustration months of lock-downs incubated. Our civic activities and artistic outlets have been denied us, our national pastimes like pro and college sports have been upended.

Most disconcerting, our children are suffering rates of depression never seen before due in part to the social isolation resulting from draconian lock-downs ostensibly to protect them from a disease that’s less a threat to them than the flu. The CDC tells us that 25% of young adults surveyed in June have contemplated suicide. And what do they have to look forward to? Consider the debt load placed before them. We have added $6 trillion to the national debt in the form of lifelines tossed to those in destitution courtesy not of a war, or a natural disaster, or a routine trough in the economic cycle, but rather a government-imposed immolation of the American way of life upon the altar of fear of…well, as FDR said, fear itself.

While the CCP pursues its ambitions to make this the Chinese Century, we have Karens scurrying around shouting “wear your damned mask!” and people avoiding each other out in the open air. We have millions languishing in despair and many livelihoods and dreams destroyed. We have cities that will be hard pressed to recover, if they ever do, after the mass-exodus to the safety of suburbia and disinfected home offices runs its course. And we have made this a far less cohesive, united, and functioning society.

Indeed the monsters have come back to Maple Street, and as Rod Serling showed us 50 years ago, they are still our own apprehensions.

Brad Schaeffer is the author of the acclaimed World War II novel Of Another Time And Place (Post Hill/Simon & Schuster, 2018).

More from Brad Schaeffer: Why People Of Faith Can Support Trump

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