Scared to Death: the Dominion of Fear in Politics by Richard Sale

Richard Sale headshot (2) 


When fear seizes us and has us in its grip, it dethrones our reason, abolishes our conscience, erases our scruples and reduces us to a batch of blind, panic-stricken reflexes.

After fear retreats, we are puzzled as to why it wielded its power over us the way it did. What happened? What force could wipe our minds clean of everything but abject terror? During the Chicago Convention of 1968, I was working as a cub reporter for LIFE Magazine, I watched police beating people, young and old, in a wild frenzy; I watched people falling after being tear-gassed, I saw others choking on their own mucus on their knees. I saw ordinary people running in panic trampling over others to escape bodily harm. An image that never leaves me is the sight of two cops dragging an unconscious man by his legs, the man’s bloodied head bumping along the ground.

At one point, near midnight, the cops stopped an old woman who had just emerged from the subway. I was traveling with the police unit. Suddenly three cops ran over to her and formed a circle around her and began to scream obscenities into that grizzled face that looked like buckled tin. I tried to intervene, but they charged me, and I backpedaled, demanding they leave the woman alone, and a while later, they turned on me, yanking me by my hair, clubbing me in my ribs, my collarbone, until I fled in terror. I could barely run because I had very badly infected tonsils and a sinus infection, and when tear gassed, I had to breathe through my mouth, my lungs taking the gas in directly. Two months later, I developed asthma that plagued me for fifty years. I never did discover the old woman’s fate.


So when we view such events and the clashes between groups, we often fail to take into account the workings of fear in every confrontation. Instead, we turn it into a melodrama – good versus evil, instead of examining the influence of fear on both parties. I was a victim of police brutality, yes, but afterwards I did ask myself were the cops brutal because they liked to inflict harm or did the demonstrators scare them half to death, and, in terror, they began to blindly lash out, afraid for their own lives.

Yet the odd thing about fear is that when it recedes, we wonder how it exerted its absolute power over us. When fear is gone, when its grip over us vanishes, we ask what really happened. Was fear simply a malign spell that could not be escaped? In the case of Chicago, I began to ask why I hadn’t done better in resisting fear. I asked what had paralyzed me, wiped my mind clean of will, and reduced me and my mates to mere panicked reflexes. Looking back now, it all seems like a bad dream.


We often misinterpret the meaning of events because we don’t see in them the workings of fear. Today, some Americans criticize a certain American leader for his braggart manner, his petulant cruelty, his swagger, his obnoxious certainty, his incessant retailing of falsehoods, and they are either baffled or offended. His critics call him unsound, mentally unhinged and emotionally unstable, and some have made a profession of criticizing him and painting him in the blackest colors.

But what if we look at such a leader from a different angle, from a different lens.

Fear not only frightens us but it influences the way we analyze events. Almost all of us underestimate the part fear plays in our politics. Today every way we look, we see the insecurity, the anxiousness, the jitteriness of a frightened population. In other words, fear induces irrational conduct when we make our choices. In fact, obnoxious conduct often has its basis in fear. We forget that the symptoms of fear often appear very unlike fear. Fear may constrict the conduct of people without them realizing that fear lies behind their attitudes or conduct.

The tendency to judge the merit of a leader by his missteps is, I believe, a symptom of fear. If something makes you uneasy, it means you are afraid of it, and vilifying it makes you feel strong, ignoring the fact that this so-called strength is fake, forced, and artificial and flimsy at heart.

Of course, fear, if left unchecked can give birth to outright hysteria. In Los Angeles in the 1930s Mexican immigrants began to arrive in large numbers. They put down roots, got jobs, paid their taxes, but their presence began to deeply alarm the white citizens of the city who thought the foreigners would undermine their society. As more Mexicans came, the white citizens grew more hostile, and unscrupulous newspapers began to write false and inflammatory articles about them, many of them fabrications.

Then came Pearl Harbor. After the attack, the mob in the street in Los Angeles believed that if Japan could attack Hawaii without being detected, Japan could mount a sneak attack on Los Angeles. The distance between Hawaii to LA is 2,491 miles, and to invade the city meant Japan would have to sneak troops and supply ships and ships of the fleet into California waters. This ignored the logistical problems of refueling at sea, the limits of resupply and the problem of protecting the landing forces once they arrived, etc. All of this was completely fatuous, yet hysteria seized the city. Very quickly most Japanese-Americans were interned in armed camps, their businesses and property seized without due process.

That hysteria set in motion another one – the “enemy within” – the Mexicans. All Japs were now our enemies, but then a new menace emerged with the arrival of a new wave of Mexican immigrants and their offspring, the “zoot-suiters.” Soon the local newspapers were posting stories about a “Mexican crime wave,” stirring up anger and anxiety very similar to the recent story about a Central American caravan invading America.

What is the chief factor in this? Gullibility. Gullible people lack the knowledge to question and analyze what they’re being told. Worse, what they are told coincides with their ingrown prejudices. What is forgotten is that your prejudices lie to you. They fill you with falsehoods. They stoke you with illusions. Doesn’t it ever worry you that you prejudices always proclaim you the winner? They never tell you that you are in need of additional effort and improvement. You are wonderful just as you are.

Gullible people can’t reason critically, and unprincipled politicians always use the ignorance of the unthinking to gain their political goals, and they know that fear makes people susceptible of believing errant and utter nonsense. Why urge people to be reasonable and thoughtful when all you have to do is frighten them?

The rejection of a stranger has its root in fear. So often when traveling in Europe, I came across Americans who felt threatened by anything that wasn’t familiar, and their reaction was to criticize it and run it down before examining it. They had no tolerance, gave no leeway for a different culture, with its traditions, its history, its peculiar temperament and habits. If it wasn’t American, it was no damn good. There was something missing from it, something inferior and alarming, something unsettling and dangerous. This defensiveness had its root in inferiority. It pretends to be critical because it wasn’t convinced of its own value. People who accept their own virtue and worth don’t bristle when encountering the new. They can compare and weigh the unfamiliar without throwing up defenses.

Other Effects of Fear

Corrupt leaders often resort to drastic measures to maintain or expand their power. They do horrible things on the grounds that they will strengthen their policies and establish widespread security. For example, the policies of impeachment or the coup d’état are due to fear mixed with greed for advancement.

Fear is often the father of wishful thinking, always hoping that things will be better instead of working to improve them. Fear is a constant and irrational factor in our collective life. Its presence may curb the natural desire to react against injustice. Fear may keep people from examining the flaws of their own policy or beliefs. It may allow leaders to comply with the unjust demands of more powerful figures afraid of calling down retaliations if we disagree.

Fear is the chief cause of war. Few people remember that at the close of the nineteenth century, the tensions between France and Britain were seen as the greatest threats to world peace. Today, that attitude seems quaint, but even Napoleon was moved by fear, believing that his empire might collapse if he didn’t move against the Russian threat.

To pretend that you are strong when you are vivid with fear is a dismal spectacle. When weakness parades as strength the only person fooled is the strutting weakling. Fear makes compassion impossible.

Competition between rivals often ends in a deadlock of suspicion and counter-suspicion. Rivals exaggerate the defects of the other, fanning more fear. The English philosopher Hobbes talked of a situation where men turned brutish because they were afraid that if they weren’t brutish enough, their opponents would have the advantage, and they had no choice but to make themselves more brutish to be equal. This, of course, is absurd.

Fear acts to deepen anxiety, and it exaggerates threats while it over-praises its own superiorities. We should remember that during the Wars of Religion in the 17th century, a slaughter that killed over 10 million people, the Protestants and Catholics made peace without either of them surrendering any of the chief principles of their faith. Such things make you wonder.

Today, we see rival parties and groups reared up against each other, each seeing the other as threatening and dangerous, seeing the other as representing mutually exclusive systems or values poised to annihilate their own. So they watch each other with suspicions like a tiger jealously watching another tiger, waiting for a chance to spring and pounce. When we exaggerate the fear that another group poses, we waste time in denunciations and mischaracterizations instead of looking for ways to improve our own strengths.

One way to counter fear is to display restraint. Don’t shoot first. Wait. A man skilled in hand-to-hand combat will not be the first to strike a blow in an argument. He knows the damage he can do if attacked, and so he waits, observes, holds back and only hits when his opponent makes the first move, and then he hits to wound and disable. He hits with all his force and skill. But that hesitation at the beginning, is not due to fear; it is due to confidence in his abilities and a reluctance to do harm to some menacing idiot who has no idea of what is coming if he persists.

To panic would produce mayhem. To allow your opponent to jeer and taunt and unnerve you is foolish. An angry man whose lips have turned white is a dangerous man. The key for a fighter is to keep calm, with eyes fixed a bit lower on the eyes of the antagonist, and wait. You can drop your gaze because it keeps you from wasting spiritual energy, and, to the opponent, it makes you look a bit crazy. His face may be contorted with rage, while in your own mind you should be concentrating and gathering spiritual energies for a telling blow.

Keeping calm is key. At 1:30 in the morning in New York in the 1970s, having left the house of a friend, I was walking along Columbus Avenue with its boarded up stores, carrying my gym bag. I sensed another presence – a mugger. I began walking more slowly, feeling the man edging up, and finally I turned to him, and said, “If you move again, I will kill you where you stand,” and he left.

(I was young in those days.)

But it cannot be emphasized enough that the fears of men and women play a major part in creating their political attitudes. The obsession with one’s own security can make rivals or competing parties feel insecure, and then you have a situation where rivals become over-suspicious of each other and violence or atrocity can result. I think it was Hobbes who told of a dilemma between two rivals, each holding a loaded pistol facing each other. They grow tired of the confrontation, and each wanted to end it by laying down his pistol, but didn’t because he wasn’t sure that if he did, the other would disarm as well.

Robespierre’s fall was brought about because the day before, after he leveled a lot of vague charges against his peers, they felt threatened by him and they killed him to be safe.

Some countries exert themselves to make sure the world doesn’t see them as being afraid. They want to be seen as invincible. This is foolish. Supremacy has its pitfalls. It makes rivals unite. If one nation dominates most others, it will always be fearful that it might, through unwise actions, lose whatever it has obtained.  

To Conclude

So what does all of this mean? I conclude that what is most required for safety and well-being is the talent that allows us to enter the sensations of other people.


­­­­­­I am a student of the British conservative historian, Sir Herbert Butterfield to whom I owe a great debt.

Many of my insights come from studying his International Conflict in the 20th Century; and I would urge people to read his Christianity and History. It’s worth the effort.


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