Fear is a primordial emotion that can cause rational humans to take leave of their senses. This was controversially demonstrated by the October 1938 Mercury Theater production of the H. G. Wells story "The War of the Worlds." Orson Welles and John Houseman were the creative minds behind the simulated news bulletins and coverage of a Martian landing in the New Jersey countryside and the subsequent attack on New York City. It was creative to the point that some listeners believed Martians had actually launched a deadly invasion, even though the radio broadcast featured multiple disclaimers, fictitious locations and glaring time lapses. Other radio stations continued with regular programming - hardly an indication of the annihilation of New York. For some, the real and unreal had become blurred beyond distinction. Today's practitioners of scare tactics have invented new Martians:

* The immigrant has wicked designs on someone's daughter.

* That chap with the Confederate plate has to be headed to a Klan meeting.

*The homosexual couple holding hands want to corrupt America's youth.

* The police officer is on a quest to shoot the innocent.

* The mosque down the street is a hotbed of terrorist activity.

* The people with different views have to be communists or uneducated gun nuts.

It does not take much to turn people against each other. Adding fear to existing prejudice and mixing in guilt by association skullduggery will turn the trick. The results are ready made scapegoats. At the end of the broadcast, Welles told his radio audience that it was no more than a Halloween offering. A way of "Dressing up in a sheet, jumping from a bush and saying Boo." Welles was an entertainer. The current merchants of fear are anything but harmless storytellers. They are playing for keeps, so beware. The Martians have indeed landed and are coming to a neighborhood near you.

JACK STRAFFORD

LYNCHBURG

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