News & Politics

Q&A With Mark Stein, Author of American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us, and Why

Stein discusses the concept of mass panic and how it has manifested in our country.


Author and DC resident Mark Stein (How the States Got Their Shapes) has a new book called American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why out this month. In it, he traces the history of panics in our country from the 1692 Salem Witch Trials to recent gun-control debates, explaining the similarities between such disparate events as anti-Catholic fervor, segregation hysteria, and fear over same-sex marriage rights. In a telephone interview, Stein revealed some of his findings about the patterns of panic through the centuries.

Did a panic trigger this book?

I was going to New York to meet my agent, and I knew he was going to ask what was next—and I didn’t have anything! I went into a bookstore and was struck by how many of the nonfiction titles were expressing rage with one issue or another. I mentioned that to my agent and he said, “Look into that.” As I began doing so, I was amazed to see how many similarities there were in the arguments, both in their structure and in their wording. The similarities in the wordings were striking some real common denominators.

How does panic breed panic?

Panic starts from the top down or the bottom up, I found: An example of the first is the 18ht-century panic over Freemasonry, which began in the media; an example of the latter is the 19th-century panic over Chinese railroad workers, which began with their colleagues.

But I’d best define panic: It’s something that causes people to get so upset that they do the very thing they’re afraid is happening. It doesn’t matter if you’re pro-life or pro-choice—when groups advocating the sanctity of human life engage in murder (as has happened eight times between 1993 and 2012), it is a panic-fueled activity.

Is American panic different from other panics?

No. Panic is behavioral, it’s human. The one difference we do have in the United States is that our Bill of Rights protects hate speech, which is prohibited in some other countries.

You note that many panic-fomenting groups invoke the Founding Fathers. Why is that?

When people panic, they’re calmed by absolutes. Invoking the Founding Fathers makes it seem like there’s something that can be relied on, but the fact is, the Founding Fathers agreed on very little—the only thing we can be sure that they all believed is that the Colonies should not be part of England.

Absolute language used to vilify is one of your key points. Let’s talk about examples of that today; it isn’t just quaint hyperbole.

Here’s an example from the pro-choice side: In a 2012 Washington Post piece about a book by Christina Page, the idea that all women should stay at home was referred to as a “bedrock pro-life idea.” Panic is when emotion prevails over reason. There is no way every pro-life advocate believes that, but pro-choice advocates fear the absolutist tone from the pro-life side . . . and so, in that case, someone panicked and used an absolutist tone.