Commentary: Ruminations on Kims, snakes and North Korea
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Moral panic is a disproportionate fear of a specific danger. The threat is definitely genuine but also unlikely to occur. An extreme example I often cite is the prospect of an asteroid striking your home. If a supersonic boulder from outer space should come barreling through your rafters, the consequences would be dire. On the other, if worrying about this possibility is keeping you awake at night, you’re suffering from moral panic.
The run-up to war is often characterized by this thought process. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, for instance, is generally credited with starting the Spanish-American War by inflaming public passions over an explosion on the battleship Maine while it was docked in Havana harbor.
"Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!” became the rallying cry of a nation marching off to a war that, in retrospect, could have been easily avoided. In fact, Joseph Pulitzer, whose papers also gave the disaster prominent play, privately remarked that “only an idiot” would believe Spain was responsible for the incident.
More recently, George H.W. Bush ordered American forces to Panama in 1989 to remove Manuel Noriega from power. In the days and weeks preceding the invasion, news reports highlighting the dictator’s many sins filled the airwaves. He was accused of international drug trafficking and money laundering, along with the usual human rights violations we attribute to tyrants we don’t like. It also revealed that Noriega favored red underwear, which he considered to be lucky.
American casualties in the operation were relatively light — 23 military and three civilian deaths. Panamanian losses were more substantial. Estimates range from several hundred to a few thousand fatalities. Because these people were placed into mass graves, covered with lye and bulldozed into oblivion, an exact headcount is problematic.
What is known is that Noriega’s underwear eventually ran out of luck: He was subsequently convicted of racketeering and narcotics charges in federal court. Though Noriega was a genuine sleazebag, the incursion to depose him proved to be little more than another bust in the continuing “war on drugs” that had no appreciable impact on the domestic supply of cocaine.
Of course, no discussion of moral panic would be complete without mention of the Iraq War. Here again, the folly was preceded by an intense media campaign to alert the public to the manifold shortcomings of Saddam Hussein and the imminent dangers posed by his fabled arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
The lurking menace of the moment is one Kim Jong-un, the grandson of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung and the heir to the throne of his late father, Kim Jong-il. He comes across as a man auditioning for the role of lead villain in an Austin Powers film.
Kim du jour reportedly rules his comic-book kingdom with an iron smile. He reminds me of the psycho cousin with a bad haircut who shows up at the school picnic with his reptile collection, only to go home hurt and angry because the pretty girls wouldn’t talk to him.
At present, the young tyrant has a problem: He wants nukes to get the big guys to pay attention to him, but the United Nations' sanctions his nuclear weapons program has engendered figure to bankrupt what passes for an economy in his starving nation.
Though Kim is an inviting target for satire, it would be a mistake to dismiss him with a chuckle. As Barbara Tuchman demonstrated in "The March of Folly," cartoon-ish miscalculation can lead to very real consequences.
The world is most assuredly a dangerous place. And the roll call of the malicious is so long that it seems almost unfair to single out any one offender for special scorn. The task of the reasonable is thus to think tactically without surrendering to paranoia — to recognize and assess potential threats while not allowing yourself to be consumed by fear, or to become obsessed by a remote menace while overlooking others that may be close at hand. It is, after all, the snake you don’t see that bites you.