What Are We Afraid of Now?

Hysteria may be the worst threat of all.

Posted Oct 20, 2014

I live in "Earthquake Country," otherwise known as California. My newspaper arrived on my doorstep this morning bearing a spine-chilling front page headline: MASSIVE QUAKE COULD HIT ANYTIME. We've been hearing that for years, but something happened recently to alter my usual ho-hum response to such news.

A few weeks ago, there was a 6.0 quake at 3:22 a.m. just over the line into the next county. I know the exact time because it jolted me awake and sent my cat scurrying into the closet -- probably the safest place to be, come to think of it. That quake occurred on one of several faults in the 44-mile wide area that defines the infamous San Andreas system. 

The newspaper goes on to describe the strain building along the Rodgers Creek fault, which as far as I can tell from the map, runs directly beneath my living room. Apparently there is something called "fault creep" that relieves the stress along the uppermost part of the earth's crust. Stress is released with this gradual creeping, diminishing the strain and potential energy along any given fault. 

That should be good news, but it's not, because my fault (the Rodgers Creek) is "locked." No creep. Any quake here is likely to be "eventful," according to the article below the screaming headline. Will it be the Big One when it hits? 

Wonderful. Now, in addition to Ebola and ISIS, and some other scary things, I have to worry about my house collapsing on top of me. 

Or do I? Some psychologists are suggesting that hysteria -- in particular, mass hysteria -- can be worse than the dangers that we perceive are out there. What are we, a bunch of Chicken Littles, waiting for the sky to fall? 

Some of us can remember a 1938 radio broadcast dramatized by a young Orson Welles, called "The War of the Worlds," that may have been deliberately done in such a way as to make people believe that there actually were  Martians landing on Earth. It was adapted from a novel by H.G. Wells, which was set in England. The radio drama was set in New Jersey, and had people all over the country believing that there was an alien invasion going on. Mass hysteria ensued, and there were even reports of people jumping to their deaths from tall buildings, which turned out to be false. One man died of a heart attack -- the only confirmed fatality. 

Today, hysteria is building over the threat of Ebola, and it is disturbing that some mistakes were made at the hospital in Texas where the first death occurred. Now there are two sick nurses, and one actually travelled on a commercial flight, which should not have been allowed. Unfortunate, but we are told over and over that the disease is not transmitted through casual contact or mere proximity. 

Officials try to calm our fears with assurances that they are taking extraordinary steps to protect the public, out of an "abundance of caution." And what should the rest of us be doing?  It's probably not a good idea to travel to West Africa right now, but I wasn't planning to, anyway.

No, I plan to stay right here and calmly wait for the Rodgers Creek fault, underneath my living room, to usher in the Big One.