America's very own Cold War

The paranoia lying deep in the American psyche has spawned an irrational need for bizarre personal security devices

America's fear industry is booming, despite a spectacular drop in crime rates. In New York, for example, crime rates have fallen 40 per cent since 1994. The FBI reports that incidents of serious crime have been declining nationally every year since 1993.

Statistics, however, are no deterrent in this business. In order to meet burgeoning demand, an abundance of gizmos were put on show last week in New York at the International Security Conference and Exposition.

Americans have traditionally combated fear with hand guns and capital punishment, but the commercial success of a non-lethal, hand-held device for tackling muggers and thieves suggests that they may be softening, to a degree. The Air Taser, a favourite at American personal security stores, stuns and temporarily immobilises assailants without necessarily inflicting any enduring harm. Shaped like a medium-sized torch - small enough, therefore, to fit neatly in a handbag, say the manufacturers - the Air Taser shoots two small needles a maximum distance of 15 feet.

The needles, or "probes", remain connected to the device by two wires sending out a powerful electric current which "jams" the assailant's nervous system, blocking communication between the brain and the body - only temporarily, of course.

A telling part of the manufacturers' sales pitch is that "the Taser method" is the least violent means possible of responding to threatening or intimidating experiences - less violent than the various chemical sprays on the market, for example. According to the sales brochure, out of 218 "Taser patients" admitted to a hospital in Los Angeles, 92 per cent said they had no recollection of having been attacked; and most reported no conscious pain. One possible weakness of the device is that if a high-voltage needle hits an assailant in the eye, the damage could be severe, and permanent. Paul Barnes, Air Taser's national sales manager, agrees. "But it does a lot less damage than a bullet," he says. "Imagine a bullet in the eye."

Mr Barnes was manning the Air Taser booth at the fair, where hundreds of gadgets, surveillance devices and hi-tech anti-crime systems were on show. Endless varieties of ingenious gadgets designed to keep the home safe were available, such as the computer system which is linked by modem to video cameras installed in every room, the garden, the front of the house. A four-way split computer screen allows parents to keep a 24-hour watch on their children, the guests, and any possible intruder.

As an extra precaution, entry to the house can be controlled by a voice- verification device attached to the front door, a system which eliminates the nuisance of keys getting lost or not being to hand. In case the danger lurks over the telephone line - via heavy breathers, cheating spouses, or untrustworthy domestics - a computerised telephone snooping device will mark the precise time of every call and record up to 300 hours of conversation.

If visits to the house by strangers - gas men, video camera repair people - are a worry, then there might be a case for going the whole hog and buying a Body Orifice Security Scanner. BOSS, as it is known in the trade, is a chair fitted with highly sensitive electronic sensors capable, as a man at the security expo explained, of "scanning for small weapons or contraband metal objects carried in the oral, anal or vaginal body cavities".

Before allowing a stranger into the home the idea would be to ask him or her to sit down on the BOSS chair placed, presumably, outside the front door and wait just a fraction of a second while the machine performs its diagnosis. The beauty of the electronic orifice scanner is that it bypasses the need to engage in the messy, embarrassing business of conducting the checks by hand. These devices have a wider commercial use too. The potentially lucrative markets are still large companies or, in the case of BOSS, jails, airports and diamond mines.

EVIDENCE of the boom in the fear business is that the value of the top 123 security stocks traded on Wall Street were up 41.5 per cent on average last year over 1995, according to an article in the New York Times in May. Americans are spending more than $400m (pounds 280m) a year on personal security, double the amount 15 years ago. The installation of home security systems has doubled in five years and the number of gated communities - America's version of the walled medieval town - stands at 25,000, and rising fast. But why is it that the anti-crime business in America is on the up and up when crime is going down and down?

Part of the answer is that there is something in the American character which thrives on paranoia. Richard Hofstadter, a distinguished American academic who wrote a classic in the Sixties called The Paranoid Style in American Politics, described "the paranoid disposition" in terms of the Soviet threat and the McCarthy witch-hunts, linking them back to the Puritan settlers who fled persecution in England. In a recent book, American Exceptionalism, Seymour Martin Lipset cites a poll showing that while 69 per cent of Americans believe in the devil, only a third of Britons do.

If reasons for fear do not exist, Americans will invent them. The Cold War is over and Moscow is no longer the seat of evil empire, but in its place has come Washington DC, identified by the right-wing militias as the enemy of human kind and by conservative folk everywhere as a den of wastefulness and sin. (A Washington Post poll last week suggested that three Americans out of four don't trust government.) These notions are fuelled by television series like the amazingly successful The X-Files, whose plots are always predicated on the idea that "big government" is playing tricks on the little guy by hiding from the American people knowledge it has of the existence on our planet of malign extra-terrestrials. This, in turn, feeds Americans' well-chronicled preoccupation with UFOs, which can be turned into a very nice profit by making films like Independence Day and Invaders from Mars.

The politicians in Washington, in turn, persist with irrational fears - of Third World Cuba, for example, and obsessions, as with Iran. This year they are busy getting into a froth about the dangers China will pose for civil- isation in the next millennium.

At a more mundane level, women fear men. As sexual harassment suits increase, men fear women. Whites fear blacks. Blacks believe whites are out to get them. Everybody fears Muslims. Christians fear Disney - or at least the 15 million members of the Southern Baptist church do since they are boycotting the company's products. Their fear is that cartoon films like Pocahontas and The Lion King deliberately seek to brainwash children to embrace homosexuality and other perceived deviations.

The fixation with inchoate everyday dangers is, by logical extension, a great common denominator. Sometimes the concern may be justified, but the majority of Americans, especially the affluent who attend security expos, have little to worry about. It is crime in the inner cities which is mainly responsible for an American homicide rate 10 times higher than in Western Europe. Few inhabitants of America's mean streets can afford sophisticated security gadgetry. However, those who can are splashing out.

A specialist branch of the security market has been experiencing rapid growth because it caters to the anxieties of rapper artists fearful of enduring the same fate as their two recently slain brethren, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. An outlet called Urban Body Armor in Jersey City has been doing a brisk trade on its "dress-to-live" line of bullet-proof accessories. In recent months rappers have been "vesting up" with a vengeance, forking out as much as $15,000 a time for bullet-proof mink coats. Employing a thin coating of a bullet-resistant fabric called Kevlar - reputed to be "light as silk" - the manufacturers in New York have contrived to create a nice line in leather trousers, camouflage jackets and designer ensembles by the hip-hop fashion label Mecca, and by Tommy Hilfiger. Also available are bullet-resistant bras, sunglasses, baseball caps, and even jockstraps, to protect what rapper slang calls "the family jewels".

For the ordinary man and woman, the impulse to buy bullet-proof gear, stun-guns and life-size inflatable car passengers (to give the false impression of numbers) would seem to obey this need to feel under threat. For the greater glory of the security goods' manufacturers, this need that meshes felicitously with two other national character traits: individualism, expressed partly by mistrust of state institutions like the police to do their job adequately; and the lust for gratuitous acquisition. As Gore Vidal once put it, the American way of life is "an economic system involving the constant purchase of consumer goods on credit to maintain a high standard of living involving the constant purchase, etc". I buy therefore I am.

The Air Taser costs $249.95. For an additional $50 you can purchase the Air Taser Sports Companion which includes a "fast access" fanny pack (or pouch) and "Power Handle colored in bright Sports Yellow". Like many of the goods at the show, the Air Taser is an item which might best be described as an adult toy.

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