The first time the phrase “stay safe” stuck in my memory, I was watching a TV news broadcast. After the correspondent gave his report, the anchor thanked him and then with a concerned look said, “Stay safe out there.”
It was actually jarring to me because I’d been a reporter and editor for decades and, with the rare exception of first-person features, we kept ourselves and our efforts to get the story out of the final product. It was part of the canon of our profession: focus on the story and the facts.
This “stay safe” struck me as a conscious departure from that canon — a new kind of subtle marketing maneuver with the unspoken message: “Our people are risking their lives to bring you the news.” It was an incremental advance in that medium’s ever-creeping sensationalism and emotionalism: “It’s a dangerous world out there — don’t get hurt.” In reality, the world was no more dangerous, but by implying it was, these networks imperceptibly ratcheted up their viewers’ fear level and their need to stay tuned.
Since then, “Stay safe” has become the new American mantra. Now, instead of “Goodbye,” “See ya” or “Later, dude,” more often than not, someone will say “Stay safe.” I know it’s well intended, but it bothers me. Since when did we Americans become such a fearful, fretful and safety-obsessed breed?
Let me step back and explain myself a little. For years, I’ve known that, in terms of safety and risk, I see things a little differently. Some might conclude that I’m peculiar.
For instance, when our children were trick-or-treating years ago, I was kind of shocked when some parents wouldn’t let their kids trick-or-treat in our neighborhood because they thought it was too dangerous. Instead, they drove their kids to the well-lit commercial district nearby and supervised their store-to-store route. We all lived in Squirrel Hill then, one of the safest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, which, statistically, was and is America’s safest big city. I said to one parent that if everyone receded from their own neighborhood as they were, one day it might actually become the dangerous place they feared.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was covering that day’s historic events for the Post-Gazette, when our children’s school called to say they were closing early and could we pick up the three kids? It turns out many parents had come already, before the school decided to close. I remember thinking, “Why? Pittsburgh’s not in danger. What are we teaching our children, to be afraid? Are we going to let these terrorists who hijacked four planes shut down our entire country?”
And four days after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, when one of the two bombers was dead but the younger one remained at large, the governor shut down the whole city of Boston — schools, transit, stores, everything — and told everyone to “shelter in place.” Because one teenager was on the loose, 1 million others should cower at home? I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t agree with it.
However, I’ve never considered myself to be an actual outlier in the human herd until the last 15 months. Since the beginning of COVID, I’ve felt that the public policy responses — lockdowns, etc. — have been a dramatic overreaction, especially in Pennsylvania. And if anyone ever gets to the bottom of it, I think history and science will show that these lockdowns were much more damaging than the actual disease.
COVID has clearly been dangerous for the very old, those with co-morbidities and the obese. It’s also been somewhat unpredictable; relatively rarely but very notably, it’s claimed healthy younger people among its 580,000 U.S. victims. But here are two salient facts: In a country of 333 million people, COVID deaths represent 17/100ths of one percent (.17%) of Americans. Among those under 75, the figure is 8/100ths of 1 percent (.08%).
I think that the fear/hysteria has been disproportionate to the reality. Fear was understandable at the beginning when we knew little about COVID and when the forecasts — long since revised downwards — were so grim. But after we learned how it spread, whom it attacked, how to treat it and to sequester those in danger, the fear didn’t subside. It took on a life of its own— fueled by election year politics — galloping faster even as the facts argued it should slow. But the facts and those who defied the hardening orthodoxy often were obscured in the newscasts with their daily new case and death tallies, always a new record, of course.
COVID wasn’t alone in stoking the bonfire of anxieties. After protests and riots erupted following George Floyd’s murder, whole sections of some cities — most notoriously Seattle — became “self-governing autonomous zones” under mob rule. And 2020’s toxic brew continued right through the November election, reaching a final boiling point with claims of rampant voter fraud and ultimately the January 6 Capitol riot.
Even before those events, though, we’ve been building a culture and even an industry of fear in America. Fear sells products. It has spread from body odor and bad breath to ads for chemically dousing every surface in your home and office, to the front door cameras so you can see who’s ringing your doorbell from your fortified safe space. And of course, fear sells guns, which have broken record after record sales since last summer.
Most of all, fear sells television advertising. When things settled down in February and the TV stations no longer had former President Trump to cover, they turned back to “mass shootings.” Yes, these shootings are news — and they’re disturbing. But cable news especially has turned these events into sensational orgies of emotion and fear. They don’t provide context by reporting that the murder rate is less than it was in 1960 and less than half of what it was in 1980 (which is true). And they don’t question whether their saturation coverage bears some responsibility for the proliferation of mass shootings. Instead they pander for ratings and deliver weeping and wailing.
Fear definitely sells, but it’s also crippling. It distorts and damages, and that damage has consequences. For example, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf quickly jumped in line behind New York’s Andrew Cuomo issuing panicky COVID lockdowns, closing untold thousands of small businesses as “non-essential.” Wolf’s legacy will be that Pennsylvania tied with New York for the nation’s highest percentage of small businesses closed during the pandemic — 31 percent. That’s hundreds of thousands of enterprising people who’ve lost their livelihoods and fortunes because of fear.
Fear also has ushered in an intellectual orthodoxy that may exceed the McCarthy era. The marketplace of ideas has dramatically narrowed in U.S. universities, where professors lose their jobs if they express unpopular positions or even encourage discussion on controversial subjects. Americans are afraid to speak their minds on many issues now for fear of being “doxxed” or “canceled” by “woke” social media mobs. And that fear is causing innumerable Americans not to do or say what they think is right, but to do and say what they think will be perceived as correct and “safe.”
Perhaps the worst part of our year of fear is the damage we can’t yet see. The $6 trillion in national debt accumulated will strain future generations, but that’s “just money.” Worse is the damage to young people in public schools that remained closed, some for more than a year, despite the fact that the COVID danger statistically approaches zero for young people. This was unconscionable. They’ve been deprived of their learning, social lives, sports — nearly everything — and especially for young people, those years aren’t coming back. Worst of all is the fear that they’ve internalized. They’re afraid to walk outside in nature without a mask, and they’re learning that America is the home of the scared and the ‘fraid, a place where they need safe spaces to hide from a dangerous world.
A friend of mine says this is China’s century. He looks at America, and he doesn’t see the spirit of old — the imagination, the innovation and the will. Though I don’t dispute some of what he says, I won’t concede his main point. But if we continue being a nation of media-programmed scaredy cats obsessed with “staying safe,” my friend will almost certainly be right.
Long ago, my dad told me the old saying, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man dies but once.” I’m embarrassed to think what he and my grandfather who fought in World Wars I and II and my mother and grandmother would think of how fearful people are now. Americans used to be made of sterner stuff. And perhaps, if we strip away all the media noise, the political posturing and remonstrating, a majority of Americans still are. Time will tell, but I think we need to rescue this country from the fearmongers and what Teddy Roosevelt called “the lunatic fringe.”
Here’s a good place to start. It’s summertime. Let’s all turn off the TV news and social media, get outside, and breathe in the fresh air. Think about how lucky we are to be Americans and how America got to be the greatest country in history. Think of the courage it took to be a frontiersman, an astronaut, a civil rights leader, an entrepreneur — a founder of this nation.
And instead of staying safe, let’s stay strong, stay free and stay brave. Let’s stand up and be Americans.