Fear Is the Mind-Killer

W. J. Astore

As a new movie version of Dune is released, it’s a good time to be reminded of Frank Herbert’s wise saying that fear is the mind-killer.

Americans are kept constantly in a state of fear, or at least of high anxiety (a Mel Brooks movie, if memory serves), and that fear or anxiety makes us open and responsive to claims the Pentagon must have more weapons, more authority, and always more money, justified in the name of keeping us safe, whether from “terror” or from China (echoes of the old “Yellow Peril”) or from some other threat just beyond the horizon.

How is it that the world’s most militarily powerful empire is always so fearful? And always needs more weaponry for “security”? Perhaps it’s precisely because fear helps to stifle critical thinking? And because we think of weaponry as job-creators instead of life-takers?

I talk about this and other subjects with Burt Cohen on his podcast, “Keeping Democracy Alive.” Even Yoda makes an early appearance! To listen, please click on the link below.


Wars not make one great

14 thoughts on “Fear Is the Mind-Killer

  1. The mere passage of time does not alter the morality of crimes against humanity. The definition of “atrocity” does not depend upon who commits it or the reasons for so doing. . . Who among the leadership of any nation is qualified to order the use of nuclear weapons against another nation and its people? What qualifications identify such a person or group? Would you trust a high ranking critical-thinking politician with such a decision? A politician? Your political party or mine? There are always alternatives.

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  2. I was born and raised in New York & New Jersey. I spent all of 1974 in Denmark, and when I returned I almost immediately and very consciously noticed that I was returning to a society already convulsed by fear. At the time, I blamed local news which was an almost nonstop drumbeat of crime stories. This led viewers to believe that they were much more likely to become the victims of crime than was actually the case. This mismatch between the reality and viewers’ fears has only gotten worse. On Halloween of 1975, I saw parents taking their kids trick or treating in the malls (I worked in a mall that year) because they didn’t feel that their neighborhoods were safe. This was in suburban NJ, not in the South Bronx. Where there is a real risk of crime, such as in the South Bronx, the police understand that their role is as an occupying army, to keep the locals in their place and not to protect them from crime. It is suburban and rural viewers whose fear of crime is irrational, but their level of fear is greater. Trump got more votes than expected from Hispanic women who were afraid of crime (not necessarily irrationally, in some neighborhoods) and feared talk of “defunding the police” because they didn’t understand what that actually meant in practice.

    Newscasts do that because it drives ratings. Advertisers like it because it’s been known since the 1950s that anxiety leads people to buy more because it seems to them that it is giving them some control over their lives. Due to “boiling a frog” syndrome, had I not spent a year in a rational society, I might not have noticed the irrational level of fear.

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  3. Perhaps Americans do have something to fear. The United States has wronged many people in many countries across the world. Now two wars fought by ‘insurgents’ who did not want to participate in America’s vision of ‘democracy’, capitalism and western culture have ended badly. China is rapidly becoming the largest economy in the world and certainly has more influence in Asia and Africa than the U.S.

    The Romans too were full of fear from about the year 200 to the end of the empire in 476 AD. They could feel the decay in their society and knew the barbarians were closing in. America is now somewhere in the same type of era as those latter day Romans, and fear for their opulent life styles. Towards the end of the Roman empire the military was seen as the bulwark against those barbarians. Money, lots of it, was lavished on the military to maintain its loyalty. This had the effect of corrupting it such that more and more money was needed to satisfy it. The army became the empire, and ultimately the army sided with the most likely winner which was the Goths; then the empire was over.

    Perhaps when ( if ) Americans wake up, they will see that violence begets violence and fear begets fear, then they will be able to break the cycle of those evils.

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  4. I’m not fearful. But I talk to people all the time who live in various states of fear. They’d rather quit their jobs than get a stupid vaccination because they’re afraid of it. But I don’t call that fear … I call that stupidity.


    1. I try to avoid “stupidity”; ignorance, or lack of knowledge, is often more accurate. Or they’re misinformed. Or they’re truly fearful because they’re misinformed.

      Also, the government lies to us so often that people simply don’t trust it even when it’s got sound advice.

      The best approach, I think, is calm persuasion. Give people the facts in a clear and compelling way, then let them decide without pressuring them or calling them names. I think that’ll work with most people.


  5. USA keeps its citizenry in state of constant fear…. it was Russians are coming, Russians are coming. No it is Terrorists are coming, terrorists are coming.
    The USA ( and other govts ) under various administrations has terrorised civilian populations and committed war crimes. And kept its citizenry under constant surveillance.
    Something that might interest some readers…..between Oct 1 and Oct 31.


  6. Fear is a terrible thing and once one has it, very hard to get rid of as confirmation bias will keep it going. I notice fear expressed on the local “NextDoor” social site. Every small thing is reported with alarm. Who was that man we saw walking down the sidewalk at 2AM? Did anyone notice the open garage door in the 2300 block of Main Street last night? A friend of mine, single and female told me she was terrified at hearing a bang in the night. She grabbed a baseball bat and yelled “GET OUT OF HERE” in her darkened home. It turned out a picture had fallen off the wall.

    In keeping with learned anxiety, people become afraid to go out in their own neighborhood after dark as they watch a big screen dominating their living rooms. This astounds me as I am out at night all the time and in decades haven’t had a single incident that would make me hesitate to do so. In fact, the sidewalks are abandoned at night, at later hours cars are gone and it is a real pleasure to have peace and quiet and be able to smell the flowers while gliding down the street on two wheels.

    40 years ago I moved into a single family house to start a family. With a career in electronics, I immediately installed a home-built security system that monitored all the basement windows and required me to activate a couple of switches for normal entry at the back door. My Radio Shack TRS80 microcomputer would monitor everything and print out the status of the system.

    Then the kids were born and I realized my nifty system would be telling them something about their world every time they saw me operate the entry switches. I disabled the whole thing and they never saw it used. In all the years since, the house has never been burglarized.

    I rarely lock my bicycle as I observe others taking care to do so. Yes, they are protecting their property, but I’m protecting my mind and as the years pass without my bike being stolen, though I know that theft happens, I have no regrets. I wonder if the real damage done when a crime occurs is in the mind of the victim; forevermore wary, innocence lost, a new sense of having been a fool never to be fooled again, seeing danger in the stranger because of the act of one malicious person. What greater power over oneself could one give to another than this!

    A final example of general fear. When I am out driving and I see a car with only one brake light working, if I’m at a stop light, I walk up ahead and let the person know about it. I have learned to stay very far away from the car, to smile and wave and shout from a distance as coming nearer too often results in panic with the driver sometimes so startled (though the car window is closed) that they jump in the seat.

    Fear is a daily companion for so many, a rat in the skull that is almost impossible to expel. It is understandable in those who have been victims, but most pernicious in those who have had no bad experiences, whose natural openness is replaced by eternal vigilance. The best thing to be done is not to pass it on to children. One of my grandchildren, age 7, said to me, out of the blue, “Grampy, why aren’t you afraid of anything?” I told her I had never seen reason to be, but I thought to myself: mission accomplished.


    1. I agree that fear is problematic. But fear — or heightened vigilance — can be useful and even necessary.

      An example: In Colorado, my wife and I walked along a public path that had secluded sections. Occasionally, my wife ran there alone, but not often. One day, she noticed a guy who gave her a hostile look. But there were a few other people around, nothing happened, and she forgot about it.

      A few weeks later, a woman was raped on that path. The local newspaper had a photo of the guy. My wife recognized him as the man who’d glared at her.

      My wife while running was also once followed by a man in a car. She made it home and the car sped away.

      I’m sure other women, along with people of color, can recount instances and situations when they were fearful in which I as a white male have never been. I’ve never been followed while running; never have feared the lone man on a path who glares at me with violence on his mind.

      As a teenager, I had my bicycle stolen out of my basement. My brother had his car stolen, together with some household goods while he slept. My father had his home broken into — they stole his cable box but little else. I’ve had cars broken into and radios stolen. And a man was shot and killed near the front lawn of my father’s house.

      Again, irrational fear is bad. Too much fear is paralyzing. But sometimes being afraid can be a positive thing — it can stop us from unwise actions, it can help us to avoid calamity.

      I guess I’m saying “no fear” can be as unwise as fear everything.


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