Fear is gripping society that is out of all proportion to the dangers we face

Like arms dealers, politicians rather like fear. It makes the voters more biddable

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The Independent Online

The nights are closing in. The owls are hooting. Halloween will soon be upon us. There is fear all around us, and it is being caused not by our imaginations being goosed by spooky fictions, but by reality itself. “Am I the only one who detests Halloween and all it stands for?” a contributor to Streetlife, the local social network website, has asked.

“Don’t we care about our terrified elderly residents, or the harm our children are putting themselves in?” Amazingly, this concerned citizen was not alone. An anguished correspondence ensued, with calls for legislation, action from the police and local councils, and a grim warning about dabbling with the supernatural. “Dipping one’s foot into the dark spiritual realm is a real and dangerous thing to do,” Streetlifers were told.

There is something very 2014 about a campaign against Halloween. The world, as fearfully glimpsed through the net curtains of solid citizens, is an increasingly threatening place in which pensioners tremble for their lives, paedophiles lurk on every street, and the most innocent of us can, while at a party or out trick-or-treating, fall victim to the dark side.

Has there ever been a time in modern history when so many people have been afraid of so much? Not so long ago, the wimps among us would have been told to pull themselves together. Living in the Western world during the early 21st century, they would be reminded, we are fortunate enough to inhabit a society which has not been at war for 70 years, where most violent crime is on the decrease and in which the most urgent threat to health is caused by people getting too fat.

Yet, perhaps because we like to think of ourselves as more sensitive and caring than previous generations, the opposite is taking place. It is those who are most eager to spread general alarm – the Chicken Lickens forever squawking that the sky is falling – who are taken most seriously.

With the help of an apocalypse-fixated media, irrational fear has been creeping up on us for some time. The recent global recession was presented as the worst economic collapse in history. Polls have shown that the rise of fundamentalism has convinced even the politically sophisticated in America that the world is at greater risk now than at the height of the Cold War.

Every untoward weather system has had newscasters putting on their best no-but-this-is-really-serious faces, and announcing amber or red warnings. Storms which were once part of daily life are seen as presaging the end of the world. Recently, the fear has been of a new contagion. When an idiot refuses to allow his child to go to school for fear of a disease of which not a single case has occurred in this country, his story is reported sympathetically. When the presence of a perfectly healthy nine-year-old from Sierra Leone at a school in Stockport causes parents to complain, the head teacher responds by suspending the child. In America, the level of ignorant panic and hysteria surrounding Ebola has been even more absurd.

Of course, like arms dealers, politicians rather like fear. It makes the voters more biddable. The perceived terror threat of the past decade or so has permitted a sharp reduction in civil liberties. Ministers in the past two governments have shamelessly peddled the plausible lie that the most important freedom for citizens is the freedom from danger.

In this context, the rise of a party like Ukip is inevitable. Its appeal is, above all, to those who are afraid – of foreigners, immigrants, Europe, the Establishment. Like the Halloween-hater on the Streetlife website, the Faragists see danger at every turn. Oldsters quaking behind their doors, parents afraid of marauding abusers, are good news to them.

Fearfulness strikes the liberal soul, too. Those who object to a bad-taste joke, a dodgy song, an unacceptable opinion about this or that, are expressing their own fear of the dangerous effects on the vulnerable in an increasingly intolerant world.

At a time when threat is seen to be all around, people tend to huddle together. It is no coincidence that, over recent weeks, there has been much talk of something called “networking” – that is, meeting and ingratiating yourself towards others who might do you good in the future. Such is the importance of this type of self-protection that Radio 4 has devoted a series to it.  The PR types who purvey this idea that  we all need to market ourselves have  been solemnly profiled in the media as if they are in possession of some rare and important truth.

It is time for someone in public life to speak up against this general lack of courage and in favour of individualism – to get us all to look beyond the relatively small threats of the moment, and butch up. The alternative is a cribbed, timorous world where every day is Halloween.

Twitter: @TerenceBlacker