Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle

Korstanje Maximiliano (Department of Social Psychology, University John F. Kennedy, Buenos Aives, Argentina)

International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment

ISSN: 1759-5908

Article publication date: 19 July 2011



Maximiliano, K. (2011), "Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle", International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, Vol. 2 No. 2, pp. 180-182.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The 11/09 represented the starting for a new era for USA as well as the rest of the world. Even though, many countries had experience in their kin, not exactly the case of USA, the whip of terrorism (such as Spain, UK even part of Latin America), the World Trade Center's (WTC) tragedy signified a great impact in the way of perceiving and living the homeland security in USA. Next years to this episode were accompanied with a gradual paranoia and the exponential growing of risk perception studies. Under such a context, C. Susstein presents a striking but polemic work entitled Laws of Fear, Beyond the Precautionary Principle which has been recently published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press. We say striking because this work examines issues which have been covered in the sociological fields, but polemic since his thesis is constructed on the belief that democracy is the best and only possible pathway for a civilized nation; of course a point which has been coined during the process of colonization and echoes up to date years of anglo‐centrism. Susstein trivializes the influence of fear as a form of self‐indoctrination imposed by local and international aristocracies over the populace, even in democracies.

At a first glance, Susstein's concerns are related to the examination of the role played by rationality in the inception of political fear and its consequent relationship with democracy. This begs two interesting questions which should be examined, “why people really fright?” and “why people are safe when they should feel fear and vice versa?.” From Susstein's point of view, in a democracy, or at least in a deliberative democracy, cultural and not errors prevail. This is the moot point that distinguishes a deliberative democracy from a demagogic populism. The state of a disaster involves a community can be prevented or mitigated according to the action of a deliberative democracy wherein the issues which can impinges on the public life are previously discussed. This thought would explain the reasons as to why democratic societies have more instruments to face disasters than totalitarian or authoritarian ones. Whereas the latter does not provide their citizens with the necessary steps to evaluate the pre‐existing risks, the former invests a considerable amount of capital in the process of mitigation and preparedness of natural catastrophes.

The problem of public fear is inextricably interrelated to the extent citizenship can be or not censored by state. Susstein goes on to acknowledge “democracies do best if they abstract from the largest questions and try to obtain a consensus from people who disagree on, or are unsure about, how to resolve those questions. In the context of fear, I suggest, it is possible to obtain just such a consensus […] I understand fear to depend on some kind of judgment that we are in danger” (Susstein, 2005, p. 3). Starting from the premise that fear are determined by previous beliefs enrooted in the ways of perceiving the events, he considers that people seem to be prone to experience serious risks in matters that are safe whereas circumstantially they avoid real threats because of ignorance or even imprudence. The main thesis throughout the book is that the precautionary principle stems from a focal belief about health, safety and environment born in the core of European enlightment during eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nonetheless, fear like other emotions is a cascade or better a virus that contaminates others hosts. Under such a context, the social day‐to‐day interaction potentiates the impacts of what can be considered a frightful event.

Basically, Susstein brings into question the thesis that argues Europe accepts the precautionary principle while USA refuses it. Since Europe admits the world should be understood within a threshold of risk in public decision‐makings, there should be some gaps which should be secured. The responsibility to fulfill these shortcomings is of nation‐State. Inversely, American society seems to be unconsciousness about the risk of global warming or genetic food modification policies. This suggests an erroneous idea associated to USA requests a proof (evidence) of the danger. The false opposition between USA and Europe leads scholars to a bad direction in their reflection about impacts of fear.

In this valuable book, Susstein emphasizes on the precautionary principle should be reconsidered taking into account the following relevant points:

  1. 1.

    The principle of precaution very well gives origin to the risks it tries to prevent.

  2. 2.

    Over‐exposition to precautionary doctrine predisposes public opinion to panic and inaction.

  3. 3.

    This early mentioned principle of self‐blinding activates a guidance of other dangers which should be faced. Selectively, societies are more interested in creating their own fears in order for ignoring the importance of the real hazards.

  4. 4.

    The principle of precaution often initializes a set of different proceedings in the justice.

With this background in mind, our author addresses an objective definition of risk linked to the potential danger a person can suffer, or even certain probabilies a subject physically or psychologically can be injured by a third‐party. In other terms, the risk should be adequately verified and tested by scientific‐based research. A further understanding about the problem reminds reader that risk are often associated to empirical practices of persons who may affect the life of other persons. Practical policies or strategies can be discouraged or encouraged depending on the degree of risks they represent for US soil. The moot point here appears to be that Susstein's development is unable to resolve the accuracy of what contingent is. Also, the question immediately begs into the following issue “can the law sustains their sentences just on a speculation based on principle of precaution?” After all, the event has not been taken yet place. Even though the probabilities of harm are serious, “how to determine what is an offense by means of an acting that has never taken room?.” Of course, this question reveals the problems around the concept of precautionary principle. The book at hand can be turned in an interesting piece for readers who are concerned about the perception of risk, hazards and the necessary policies to prevent the panic in general. A book self‐oriented not only to the mitigation of real‐based risks but also to the academician assessment of under what circumstances the fear operates and becomes in panic. The analysis of Susstein seems to be related to the following problem.

As a well‐known and recognized lawyer and although he reviewed a whole part of psychological specialized literature, he does not see the explicit dissociation of fear as a primary emotion with angst and risks. Unlike anguish or angst which is of course connected with anxiety, fear represents a grounding emotion that comes often up in order for the involved organism to trigger a certain response. This means that the fear is certainly determined by a previous real stimulus. This was the case for the thousand of people running through the street of New York after the second airplane impacted against the second tower. This unruly multitude did not question the reasons behind these attacks or the influence of USA in Middle East, they only ran to be safer. Conversely, the anguish or angst operates with a broader spectrum of possibilities and responses which are enrooted in the principle of contingency. The supposed threats are first hypothetical but most important they correspond with a much broader sentiment of uncertainty. The angst overrides all spheres of human life based on a future relied on imaginary. To be more precisely, a couple of months later of WTC episode, American audience came into panic whenever experts and official managed the feasibility of a next terrorist attack where perpetrators would use nuclear mass‐destructive weapons. In sum up, whether fear can be explained by the presence of a real outsider‐danger, the anxiety is subjectively created and expressed in terms of a potential future. Ultimately, risks, other notion Susstein does not accurately define, are only generated by the presence of a previous decision‐making process. However, this decision should affect or have some aftermath over us. Exactly this is the conceptual difference between risks and dangers. Whereas the latter represents an external harm for the subject, the former ones are certainly conceptualized as a result of a previous decision enrooted in the principle of contingency (this means no other thing that it can be avoidable). For that reasons, the crash of an airplane, a terrorist attack, the outbreak of a new pandemic as Swine Flu should not be considered risks in such but hazards. On this conjuncture, the involved victims are surely unable to prevent a catastrophe of this nature. In rare occasion the victims had the opportunity to review their behavior to prevent the consequences of a decision made by others (the aristocracies). Most likely, this is one of the theoretical problems of Susstein's development of fear and risk.

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