An entire school faculty is put on trial based on their alleged associations, many of them being jailed for years; three young men are tried and convicted for a murder they did not commit, based on circumstantial evidence of their media habits and shared interests and beliefs; Congress holds national hearings condemning whole groups based on how they dress, the supposed beliefs they hold, and the actions they supposedly inspire.
None of this is new to America. We’ve been here before, we’ve seen it before. The target shifts as the times change — but in times of tension in the country, we all too easily fall victim to moral panic.
In the 1980s, which saw all the cases listed above unfolding, the panic was Satanism. Based on accusations obtained from dubious “psychological evaluations” of alleged victims by overzealous therapists and Evangelists, children and adults were manipulated into fabricating fantastical stories of satanic ritual abuse, which included infant blood sacrifices, child rape, blood orgies, etc.
It didn’t take much to spark a nation-wide panic; there were no Satanic terrorist attacks in New York or Satanic couples on a shooting spree.
The nation descended into periodic mass witch hunts throughout the course of several years. Hundreds of parents, school teachers and community members were accused of belonging to satanic cults, the evidence of which was based on retrieved “repressed memories” by therapists who used now-debunked techniques such as Recovered Memory Therapy and facilitated communication.
This had the combined effect of inducing false memory syndrome onto vulnerable children and adults. In addition, a host of crimes, drug use, suicides, prostitution and every other illegal and immoral behavior imaginable were blamed on secret cells of satanic cults, and law enforcement was trained and made videos of satanic cults a cornerstone element of crime investigation.
Law enforcement was trained to identify and investigate symbols, secretive communications, codewords and shared media that supposedly identified individuals as belonging to violent, drug-fueled criminal cults.
The Satanic Panic — as it was later dubbed — was largely fueled by creating boogeymen out of communities who were accused of facilitating and generating interest in the occult, many of whom were accused of participating in the sacrificial blood rituals in these fabricated cults.
The metal community, popular bands like Judas Priest, the goth community and other “social outcast” communities were scapegoated, ostracized and openly accused of criminal activities.
In summary, America suffered a bout of “moral panic,” a coin termed by sociologist Stanley Cohen to describe an “exaggerated social reaction caused by the activities of particular groups and/or individuals. Such activities are invariably seen (at the time, at least) as major social concerns and the media led reaction magnifies and widens the ‘panic’ surrounding them.”
Periodic outbursts of moral panic occur disturbingly frequently in every human society.
Usually triggered through a toxic mixture of societal fears born out of rapid changes in social norms and the need for a scapegoat to take the blame, moral panic as a sociological term is a “viral, widespread unrest sparked by our collective fears about society’s direction and fueled by a variety of cultural influences, including the media, advocacy organizations, religious groups, politicians, fiction and word of mouth.”
It makes sense in our current climate of media-induced fears regarding terrorism, a crumbling economy, race tensions and more global concerns (and controversies) over issues like climate change, that large segments of American society would try and come to terms with this overall instability by fabricating a worldview where their way of life is “endangered.”
Thus, in this view, they are locked in a moral struggle of biblical proportions, a “clash of civilizations” that resemble a Marvel blockbuster which posits their “side” as the “good guys” struggling against an overarching super-villain.
This current moral panic ignores nuance and the complexity of geo-politics — as well as exonerating their own leadership from any responsibility in their role to instigate and perpetuate political violence, both foreign and domestic — in order to formulate a simplistic worldview dominated by a moral binary of “good verses evil.”
Therefore, by completely dehumanizing their chosen adversary and stripping them of any moral complexity, they’re able to rationalize and justify persecuting and attacking their perceived super-villain of choice; in our current case, Muslims.
In the wake of the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shootings, American Muslims have faced increasing attacks fueled by paranoia of a “Sharia Law take-over,” and a widespread belief among a disturbingly large segment of society who are convinced the West is locked in a “clash of civilizations” with the Muslim world.
As a result, there has been an increased scrutiny of school curricula to ensure that American schoolchildren aren’t being “indoctrinated” into Islam.
Further, many special interest groups are targeting Muslims in positions of authority, demanding their immediate dismissal. Recently, a whole slew of incidents occurred across the nation that points to a disturbing trend of deliberately targeting and harassing Muslims:
In Riverheads High School in Staunton, Va., a teacher in a World Geography class gave students a standard assignment instructing them to copy the Shahada in Arabic calligraphy as part of a lesson in many parts of the world. When a student showed the assignment to his parent, a furor broke out across the country fueled by fears of “Islamic indoctrination” in the American school system.
The school was inundated with angry calls, letters and emails from people across the country, some of whom were so threatening, that the entire school district had to temporary close down over fears of violence.
In Blaine, Minn., the Anoka-Hennepin school district organized a holiday concert that featured Christian, Jewish and Islamic songs. While parents had no problem with their children singing Christian and Jewish songs, they protested in anger over what they perceived to be an “insensitive” decision by the choir director to include a Muslim song “in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino.”
After a slew of calls, letters and emails from people across the country, the school announced that children who didn’t want to sing the song were exempt with no repercussion.
In a recent poll, 30 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats wanted to bomb Agrabah, the fictional city in Disney’s “Aladdin.”
A civilian named David Rosenthal has organized protesters in an effort to get a Muslim Deputy fired in Pembroke Park, Fla.
The officer in question — Nezar Hamze — is also the director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and has worked tirelessly with local and federal law enforcement to root out extremism in various mosques.
Rosenthal, however, dismisses Hamze’s history of commitment to American law enforcement, and insists “The Islamization of Broward County has begun,” meaning he believes Hamze is a “secret terrorist” bent on infiltrating the government to institute Sharia law in America.
A professor named Larycia Hawkins was suspended from Wheaton College, a private and highly conservative Christian college, after she stated that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” and wore a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women.
A Palestinian-American teacher named Sireen Hashem in Hunterdon County, N.J. came under fire for showing an inspirational film about Malala Yousafzai, one which her non-Muslim counterparts also showed.
However, only Hashem was reprimanded for the film-screening. She also aided another teacher (Non-Muslim) in translating a conversation with a Palestinian author who was the subject of a book taught in the class. Again, only Hashem was reprimanded. Eventually, after parent complaints, Hashem was fired.
These incidents all share similar features regarding a hysterical fear of “Islamic indoctrination” and “infiltration” in the American education system and in government, as well as a knee-jerk reactions of trying to “protect” children from a perceived enemy.
The moral panic gripping America will only increase in light of direct military actions against Syria, as well as growing calls from politicians to engage militarily with Iran.
One of the defining features which mark a moral panic is the collusion of political leaders and the media to invoke a sense of communal solidarity against a perceived foreign threat, which often serves the interests of the ruling class to secure obedience and docility from the populace in regards to legislation that furthers their agenda.
The media is how government officials stoke mass fear to gain this acquiescence. I’ll end this piece with a quote from Stanley Cohen in his seminal work on moral panic entitled: “Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers,” which is used by sociologists and psychologists globally to describe the phenomenon:
The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation in their own right: Even if they are not self-consciously engaged in crusading or muck-raking, their very reporting of certain ‘facts’ can be sufficient to generate concern, anxiety, indignation or panic.” -Stanley Cohen
Image: TCN Cartoon