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The Age of Universal Fear

February 20, 2016
breugel-wedding-dance-in-the-open-air

Breugel, Wedding Dance in the Open Air

Perhaps the most underwhelming political comment of the past two weeks came from Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister, when he warned that “we have slid, in essence, into times of a new Cold War.”

If only things were that simple.

It certainly seemed that way in 1983. A bipolar world in which the Soviet Union and NATO stood locked in decades of mutual suspicion, each ready to blast the other into oblivion at the first sign of an attack. This is the context of Deutschland 83, a TV series set in East and West Germany at the height of the Cold War.  Looking at modern Germany, it’s hard to believe that the country was once divided into two nations driven by diametrically opposing ideologies.

The series is about a young East German soldier sent to penetrate and spy on the NATO headquarters in West Germany. Two episodes in the storyline particularly stood out for me. Stamm, the spy, was offered a Sony Walkman in Brussels by a street vendor. “What’s a Walkman?” he asked.

In the next episode, he manages to steal a couple of floppy disks containing NATO’s targeting plans in the event of nuclear war. When the disks reach the hands of East German intelligence, they turn out to be unreadable, because the IBM computer on which the information is encoded is not available in the GDR.

Which serves as a reminder of the extent to which, pre-internet, the communist bloc was commercially and technically isolated from the West. In the era of globalisation such scenarios would be unthinkable.

Yes, there are parts of the world where people are denied technology because they can’t afford it. But name me a country that doesn’t have the ability to take any electronic file and have a crack at decrypting it.

These days, as the FBI’s attempt to “persuade” Apple to unlock the content of the San Bernadino shooter’s IPhone shows, the battle for access to encrypted information is as much between governments and technology companies as between countries.

In 1983, the world certainly seemed simpler to me. I was living in Saudi Arabia. Although the country seemed to be encircled by conflict – in Eritrea, Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Yemen, by and large these seemed like local wars without an international (in other words, Cold War) dimension. Palestine was an obvious exception, but all the other conflicts blazed away courtesy of international arms dealers rather than with the encouragement and at the instigation of the primary geopolitical adversaries.

The real threat was always war between the US and the Soviet Union, or between their proxies. The prospect of being wiped out by nuclear weapons was what kept governments and ordinary citizens awake at night. It was a reality that is compellingly portrayed in Deutschland 83.

But what keeps us awake today? Much more than nuclear war. Even that horrific event could be sparked off by one of ten or so nuclear-armed states rather than two opposing monoliths.

In 2016 we seem to be enveloped by fear on many fronts. Very few countries are immune from the consequences of disasters that appear to be staring us in the face.

We fear another financial crisis that might end up impoverishing vast numbers of people even in the most prosperous countries, with the possible consequence of decades of political instability.

Ebola has reminded us of the destructive power of infectious diseases. Now we fear that Zika might stunt a generation of children in countries that can least afford their care, thus leading to further political instability.

We – at least in Europe and the US – fear that economic and war-induced migration will change for ever the social and cultural make-up of our societies.

We are worried that climate change will displace so many people that the current Middle East refugee crisis will seem in retrospect like a minor problem.

We even fear that before long a super-volcano in Yellowstone will blot out half the United States, and that a land-slip in the Canary Islands will send monster tsunamis that will inundate all the coastlines facing the Atlantic ocean.

We are afraid of terrorists, of muggers, of burglars, of murderers, rapists and child abusers. We are afraid that when we get old nobody will care for us. We are afraid of asteroids colliding with the earth, of being abducted by aliens.

The more we know, the more we discover, the more we share through the social media and the more we Google, the more afraid we are.

For all Mr Medvedev’s efforts to scare us, a new Cold War is only one of our potential problems. And how many of our modern fears preoccupied us in 1983?

They have slowly crept up on us since then. And now, when we look about us, it seems that we live in an Age of Universal Fear.

A few centuries ago, we as a species didn’t believe that we could solve every problem. We lived with the understanding that death could take us at any time through any number of ailments for which we had no cure. That our settled lives could be disrupted at any time through natural disaster, famine, social unrest and war.

We took fear for granted in a way we don’t today. We were comforted by our faith in the divine and the supernatural in a way we aren’t now. We also dealt with our fear by not thinking too far into the future, by living more from day by day. Each good day could be followed by a bad one, so best to enjoy the good day.

Today is Saturday. This morning I played a round of golf and had a few laughs with friends. I came home and chatted with my wife, and then finished a book I’d been reading over the past few days. This evening one of our daughters is visiting with her boyfriend. So far, this has been a good day. There will hopefully be more good ones to come than bad ones, until there are no more.

In the Age of Universal Fear it’s good to appreciate the simple stuff in our lives – the good stuff, the good days –  because that way we can put the fear where it belongs: in a different place called the future.

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