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We Have Much to Fear, Including Lack of Fear Itself

April 2nd, 2020 by dk

I first wrote about coronavirus COVID-19 six weeks ago. Most of us have been thinking about little else since. The threat became apparent to many of us almost exactly 87 years after FDR’s inauguration speech that included this unforgettable line: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The contours of this challenge are coming more clearly into view now. And FDR’s aphorism is dangerously irrelevant. In its place, insert Oregon’s official public service maxim, crafted by Nike’s sloganeering powerhouse Wieden+Kennedy : “Don’t accidentally kill someone.” Updating Roosevelt, we have much to fear, including the lack of fear itself.

This is new ground for all of us. Our muscle memory is built around maintaining the status quo. The Brits used “Keep calm and carry on” to carry them through two world wars. George W. Bush couldn’t turn a phrase in memorable ways, but he encouraged Americans to go shopping after the 9/11 attacks.

After stock market crashes, shootings, bombings, and anthrax mailings, the call has been consistent. Fear has always been an enemy, and often the first enemy. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Hijackers steered marauding airplanes into buildings in pairs. This way, the horrifying images could be captured and spread to millions. (Same with bombings in Madrid and at the Boston Marathon — always in pairs.) This page of the terror playbook may have been Osama bin Laden’s keenest insight. He didn’t have to kill very many, so long as everyone became afraid that they might be next. Terrorism took fear as its name.

Most of us didn’t feel those calamities directly, unless you count the trauma of seeing the heartbreaking images in our living rooms. Nevertheless, we felt decimated — haunted that it could have been us. Look up the etymology of “decimate” and you’ll learn that terrorism’s playbook has been around for millennia.

The healthy response to each catastrophe was the same. Stay strong. Be generous. Reach out. Stick together. Fear not.

But now we’re encountering a bug that doesn’t care about our mood. It cares what’s in our lungs, not what’s in our minds. Fear is no longer a tool of the enemy. In fact, it’s mostly an ally. Cavalier attitudes and behaviors are what’s getting people killed. Mardi Gras five weeks ago presaged devastation in New Orleans today.

Initially, President Trump and several Republican governors stayed with muscle memory, projecting calm in the face of oncoming fury. That’s what our leaders have done for 100 years. Now we’re battling a force that stays invisible until it’s too late. Once we see its effects around us, engulfment is only a matter of time — usually 14-21 days.

Can Americans build an alliance with fear, without succumbing to outright panic? Can we learn to behave appropriately to keep others — strangers and loved ones — safe? Can we fathom that the danger may be lurking inside us? We’ll know the answers sooner than we’d like.

It’s not your fault if all this takes a while to sink in. We’ve never been asked to be afraid. Meanwhile, “Don’t accidentally kill someone.”


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at A short clip from GWB’s “go shopping” speech can be found here:

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