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Conventional wisdom says that fear paralyzes people. And activists who preach about perils accuse Americans of being in denial. "Denial is not a river in Egypt," declared then-Senator Al Gore in his book Earth in the Balance, reviving a familiar line from Mark Twain. In a recent interview, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow told Christianity Today that accusations of denial are mainly "rhetorical devices" designed to "get attention and mobilize people."

Wuthnow's new book, Be Very Afraid (Oxford University Press, 2010), examines "the cultural response to terror, pandemics, environmental devastation, nuclear annihilation, and other threats." He surveys the history of American responses to crises beginning with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. He concludes that Americans tend not to freeze in the face of threat, but get busy and buy duct tape.

Is your book's title ironic?

Yes. As most everybody knows, it's from the 1986 movie The Fly—"Be afraid. Be very afraid." We have reason to fear some terrible catastrophes that might hit us, but fear has often been misunderstood and overplayed in the popular media. We don't usually just recoil from danger. We buck up, take courage, and try to face it.

Does being afraid help society face crises?

It does. To be blasé about everything isn't appropriate. We're learning from neuroscience that fear does not just prompt us into fight-or-flight syndrome but also into an engaged problem-solving mode. That can be quite useful.

Even accusations of denial can make us start thinking about our moral responsibilities: Am I sitting back and not being a good citizen? Am I not protecting my family?

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August 2010

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