- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

I’ve never had a flu shot, and I sure as heck won’t get one this year. For one thing, I’m in that category of Americans deemed “expendable” and therefore not worthy of receiving whatever protection — psychological or physiological — a flu vaccine might afford: I’m a white, middle-aged male.

Even were I among the chosen few deemed by the government as sufficiently valuable to warrant a vaccine, I wouldn’t get one. Consider it my personal protest against the politics of fear that has fallen across the country like a blanket since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Now that the election is finally over, can we please get on with life? Life has always been inherently risk-laden. But in 21st-century America, life is becoming increasingly a search for the Holy Grail of security in everything we do, from flu to finances to flying, and from sports to politics.

The hysteria over the flu is but one example of the fear that pervades America and much of Western civilization these days. But if we can’t come to grips with the reality of a tiny virus, how can we hope to come to grips with a worldwide terror network threatening our very way of life?

The flu — influenza — has been with us since time immemorial. And despite the advances in medical science that allow us to minimize its effects, the flu almost certainly will be with future generations for ages to come.

Every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, 15 million to 60 million people get influenza between October and May.

Of these victims, far fewer than 1 percent are hospitalized, and fewer than .01 percent die; that’s less than 1 percent of 1 percent, for heaven’s sake.

Sure, the flu is an annoying condition, with fever and muscle aches, but it is not the bubonic plague, which wiped out nearly half of 14th-century Europe’s population.

Nevertheless, our national irrational hysteria pastime has ramped up again over this year’s flu vaccine shortage . Americans cross the border in droves to get a socialized Canadian shot in the arm. Drastic emergency powers legislation pass in state after state to empower governors to criminally charge, if not burn at the stake, those who dispense flu vaccine to “low-risk” patients.

The CDC formed its own special ethics panel to weigh the moral questions about who gets vaccinated. (We need ethics in government, Lord knows, but a panel of ethicists to decide who gets a flu shot? Come on, folks, get a grip.)

Granted, the flu virus is a danger to both the very young and the very old, as well as to those with underlying medical conditions. If that’s you, please, by all means, try to get a flu shot. But, for everyone else who wants to know how to stop the flu: Wash your hands. Cover your mouth when you sneeze. Don’t go into work when your sinuses feel like they’re filled with cement and you could cook an egg on your forehead. If every American followed the basic life lessons learned in kindergarten, the CDC wouldn’t have to go to red alert every time something like this happens.

The flu panic, however, belies a larger failing in America. We tend to like to be scared, and in recent years we’ve allowed that predisposition to control our national decision-making. It’s tough to blame Americans writ large for this unfortunate tendency. The media, popular entertainment and politics all center around some form of “if it bleeds, it leads.” And most “average” consumers of news lack the basic knowledge to separate the wheat from the chaff about real threats and false threats.

This fear-mongering, however, has very real and unfortunate consequences for public policy-making, especially in the context of counterterrorism. Unfortunately, because of public anxiety after September 11, 2001, and the consequent message to politicians that something — anything — had to be done, we ended up with the Patriot Act, the CAPPS II airline profiling system and a whole raft of other “security” measures more about making people feel safe than actually making them safe.

It’s the same phenomenon as the new CDC ethics board; it will do little to improve the medical condition of the populace, but provides window-dressing to a jittery public.

My humble request is that everyone just take a deep breath and do a Google search before worrying about any of the social scourges the press and politicians like to say are out to get us. Learn about the particular risks of the flu and what you can do to minimize them. Teach yourself the specifics of al Qaeda and like groups, so you can know where they come from and what they want before you talk about how good or bad the Patriot Act is. Get a handle on the finer points of crime statistics, and the social phenomena that underlie criminal activity, before going into palpitations over the latest shooting reported on the 11 o’clock news.

And, most important, get some independent second opinions before voting on the basis of fear. That means stop listening to Washington leaders of both parties, who see our fear as a chance to aggrandize political power.

America is built on the principle of risk vs. reward. Our entire economic, legal and political system is geared toward encouraging informed risks in the hope adventurous investing and entrepreneurship will cause capital and wealth to grow, thereby prodding invention and innovation. Had our forebears been as hung up on fear and threat as we, America would be a third-rate power nestled in the narrow corridor between the Atlantic and the Shenandoah Valley, without railroads, airplanes, heavy industry or the Internet.

If we don’t slap ourselves out of this fear-induced dormancy, there wait in the wings some lean and hungry nations to our west that seem to have more of America’s old risk-taking spirit than we now do.

Bob Barr, a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia, is a columnist for United Press International.

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