5 Big, Dumb and Obsessive Social Panics: Sharks, Y2K and Beyond

The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March. Read the introduction to the series.

In the first part of this series, we looked at social panics – from Satanic ritual abuse to McCarthyism – which left indelible impacts on the American psyche. This list continues in that direction, but with a focus on panics that were slightly more fleeting. Though a few of these hysterical episodes called on long-standing and troubling American cultural biases and fears, others came and went, like so much fear-mongering dust in the wind. Here are five of the most absurd social panics of the last few decades.

1. Summer of the Shark. Before the news media adopted their current mantras (“Terrorists are coming to kill us all, this” and “Immigrants are definitely going to eat your babies, that”), there was a period when the scariest non-story the news could conjure was about killer sharks. It sounds downright adorable by today’s scare-mongering news standards, but in the months just before 9/11, the media made sharks into public enemy number-one. As one Fox News executive producer later admitted, during the slow news summer of 2001, the main question in newsrooms around the country was: “Are you going to cover [the disappearance of] Chandra [Levy], or are you going to cover sharks?”

The whole thing was set into motion when 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast, while standing in knee-deep Florida waters, was attacked by a shark who took a bite out of his leg and bit off his arm. That part of the story sounds crazy enough, and yet it pales in comparison to the rest: Arbogast’s uncle then dragged the 7-foot-long shark to shore by its tail, where a park ranger tried to pry open its mouth to remove the severed arm. Seeing it was out of reach, the ranger then shot the animal in the head four times. Jessie’s arm was recovered, put on ice and reattached, though he would suffer long-term health consequences as a result of the attack.

In the days and weeks that followed, sharks attacked a vacationing New Yorker in the Bahamas and another swimmer in Florida near where the Arbogast incident had occurred. Shortly after, multiple news outlets showed footage of hundreds of sharks gathering in the waters off Florida. Though not explicitly stated, the tacit suggestion was that they were holding a meeting about how to eat all the people and take over the world. (Sources have since noted that it “was likely part of an annual shark migration.”) "The Daily Show," featuring a youthful, relatively low-key Jon Stewart, made fun of the hysteria in a segment. Time magazine’s August 30, 2001, cover prominently featured a shark, its razor-toothed mouth agape, next to the words “SUMMER OF THE SHARK.” Two more fatal attacks kept the story alive until September 11. On that day, the shark story was abruptly buried by an event that, in both subtle and unsubtle ways, has continued to top the news every day since.

2. Y2K. In the late 1990s, as we were using AOL to dial up the World Wide Web and actually calling, instead of texting, our loved ones with our gigantic mobile phones, a creeping fear was developing around something called “Y2K.” The panic grew out of the idea that computer programmers, who hadn’t expected their software to survive until the new millennium, had used two numbers to designate the year (MMDDYY) instead of four (MMDDYYYY). On January 1, 2000, there was a chance that computers – which ran everything – would get confused and misinterpret the year as 1900, leading to a number of potential catastrophes. Elevators would get stuck. Airplanes would just stop flying. ATMs would break down. Launch codes for nuclear devices would accidentally be triggered. Robots and zombies would sign a peace accord that would allow them to do horrifying things to our brains. Okay, maybe not the last one, but some survivalist types really did think the world was going to end. Planning for Armageddon, they stockpiled guns, canned food and water, and hunkered down in their underground bunkers to await the rapture.

Nothing remarkable actually happened that New Year’s Eve, except that Prince’s “1999” got played more times than it probably ever would again. The President’s Council on Year 2000 Conversion, which Bill Clinton had basically tasked with keeping shit together, had effectively worked in partnership with a bunch of like-minded international organizations to avoid disaster. Wikipedia notes that a few mishaps did occur (problems with bus-ticket validation machines in Australia and some slot machines in Delaware), problems that Fox News would surely still be hyping had Obama been president.


3. Killer Bees. It’s hard to pinpoint a finite era for the killer bee panic, only because it’s become a perennial source of hysteria over the last 50 years. The first wave seems to have occurred in the 1970s, when fears of the bees’ arrival to U.S. inspired a series of B-grade movies that took camp to wonderful new levels. There were two made-for-TV movies, “Killer Bees” (1974) and “The Savage Bees,” (1976), as well as  cheesy disaster films “The Swarm” and “The Bees” (both 1978). These were joined by an SNL skit featuring John Belushi and guest Elliot Gould dressed as gun-wielding Mexican “bandito” bees that show we’ve made leaps and bounds in our ethnic stereotyping since the 1970s.

Fears subsided and then flared again in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the media again began handwringing about the mass arrival of vicious killer bees. Now labeled “Africanized” bees, news reports explained they were the cross-bred result of good and law-abiding European bees with thuggish, angry “African” bees, which sounds familiar and may say more about us as a culture than it does about honeybees. Sure, killer bees were more territorial and unrelenting than Western honey bees, but the scaremongering was palpable.

The bees did finally show up in America, mostly in states throughout the South and West, starting around 1990. There are rare instances of killer bee deaths now and again, like one very unlucky Virginia man last year. But as Pacific Standard pointed out in a 2013 article, “so-called ‘Africanized’ bees...have proven highly resistant to infections that have caused die-offs of the non-mixed strains. Those die-offs have potentially disastrous implications for agriculture, meaning that resistant, Africanized bees coming to your town is a good thing, economically and scientifically speaking.”

Who knew?


4. The Knockout Game. Right-wing media is like Charles Manson in lots of ways, with one of the most obvious being their propensity for declaring race wars in full swing. This happened for the millionth time in 2013, when the entire conservative news media became apoplectic over the “knockout game,” which neither was at the time, nor has since become, or has ever been at any moment in history, a nationwide trend. Yet for weeks, Fox News and its ilk – never ones to be dissuaded by actual facts – dedicated endless hours to the idea that gangs of blacks teenagers in swelling numbers were taking to the streets with the goal of knocking out white strangers with a single punch. (Mark Steyn’s NRO piece about it labels the supposed “black youths” involved in this nonexistent trend “savage[s]” and “thug[s],” and attempted to connect their “conduct” with Obama’s, specifically in passing the Affordable Care Act.)

And yet, as Alan Noble wrote in his oft-cited article, the entire story was such a classic piece of baseless right-wing bullshit you could destroy it just by asking for verifiable sources. As Noble stated, “Here’s the fascinating thing about this 'spreading' trend: nobody seems to have any evidence that it’s spreading, or that it’s new, or that it’s racially motivated, or that black youths are the ones typically responsible, or that whites are typically targeted...Most sources claim that it is spreading, and a number of sources claim that it is racially motivated. But how do they know? Where are they getting their data from?”

Others weighed in with similarly reasoned arguments. And then as quickly as it arrived, the knockout game disappeared, probably into the same Fox News hole where they bury other made-up classics, including the one about Muslim “no-go” zones and Benghazi.

5. The 2004 Flu Vaccine Shortage Panic. It all started when a flu shot supplier in Liverpool, England, was shut down by regulators because a batch was contaminated. With the closure, more than 45 million doses that were supposed to be shipped to the U.S. were lost, cutting America’s supply of flu vaccines in half for the season. Federal officials, planning for a severe shortage, requested that most people delay getting flu shots so that available doses could go to the most vulnerable: the very young, the very old, pregnant women and a few others — a request of which Americans were suprisingly accomdodating. But as panic began to swell, stories of bad behavior and heartbreaking incidents poured in from around the country.

For example, a crowd waiting at one Manhattan clinic reportedly got into a shouting match (Per the news story: “‘He don't look sick!" one man yelled out among a crowd of seniors and the frail clamoring for an orange index card that entitled them to get inside the clinic and receive one of 300 available shots. Another senior cried out: "You're under 65! I belong in this line!”). A Louisiana woman, after standing in line for hours, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct when she began screaming at a cop pushing back a crowd of 600. A 79-year-old woman in California died when she collapsed and hit her head after spending a very long time standing in line. In city after city, droves of mostly elderly people turned out in numbers that far exceeded the number of shots available.

John Kerry made a campaign ad blaming then-President Bush for the whole thing ("Seniors and children wait. Not enough vaccines for pregnant women. A George Bush mess"). Craven opportunists acted like scalpers at a concert, jacking prices up to “$800 for $60 vials of vaccine.” People got pissed that the Chicago Bears and a few members of Congress received vaccinations while everyone else had to wait. Garrison Keillor even did a skit about it for "A Prarie Home Companion."

In the end, not only was the shortage grossly over-reported, it actually turned out there was a surplus of shots available. Health officials went from telling people not to get vaccinated to creating a public safety campaign to convince more people to get shots. By January 2005, there were “nearly 5 million doses languishing in the federal government's hastily purchased stockpile.”

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