Fallout of fear: Leaders can lower the Roentgen count

IF we had a consumer confidence index for world events, as we do for the economy, its graph would have zigzagged sharply downward in recent weeks. In doing so, it would have dropped far beyond what any rational analysis of events called for.

Fear hasn't exactly been in the saddle, but its foot was in the stirrup.

The Western world -- particularly America -- has just gone through one of those periods when large numbers of its citizens seem almost to enjoy talking up their fears -- of terrorism, of travel abroad, of radioactive fallout, of unfair trading partners.

In some parts of Europe, anti-Americanism rose to a higher level than during the period of debate about Pershing and cruise missiles. And in America there was an undercurrent of recrimination about letting an allegedly unsafe and pusillanimous Western Europe go its own way.

Fortunately, the excesses of rhetoric and anxiety hectoring the two sides of the Atlantic seem to be subsiding. Name-calling between Moscow and Washington appears to be subsiding somewhat as well. The Roentgen count of fear is dropping along with the radiation count in Western Europe.

None of the causes of this ``fear-athon'' were to be taken lightly. That is obvious where radioactive fallout is concerned.

Unfair trade practices (and retaliation against them) are also known to create long-term damage to employment and income. And rashes of terrorism, whether driven by anarchism or exported guerrilla war, if not stopped tend to feed on each other and on publicity.

Terror attacks also feed on the smug expectation by conspirators that they can outthink big, clumsy governments.

There is, however, a difference between dealing seriously with such problems and indulging in the delicious thrill of chicken little-ism. Both leaders and citizens added to the latter.

On the terrorism front, President Reagan and his advisors seemed to ignore sensible European questions about the ultimate effectiveness of military action against Libya.

And West European leaders helped bring on that action by vacillating over economic sanctions against Libya. Then, leaders on both sides of the pond did little to allay the anti-Europeanism and anti-Americanism that resulted.

Even at their Tokyo summit, the Western leaders took few steps to repair this outburst of chauvinism, even though they wrestled for days on how to combat bomb planters.

It's not surprising, given this lack of leadership, that a trade delegation from Washington State cancelled its tour of European cities last week because of fear about safety in Europe.

Reagan might start the repairs by devoting his next Saturday broadcast to reassuring American tourists and business travelers about safety in much of Western Europe -- as well as the underlying pro-Americanism of the majority of Europeans.

European leaders could follow suit by speaking out bluntly against the misconception that Washington is dragging them closer to war -- and pettishly discouraging tourists.

But isn't it, in fact, dangerous for Americans to travel in Europe?

The question reminds me of the situation of a Vietnamese politician whom I know. He had been jailed by the Diem government and was later injured by a bomb planted in his car, presumably by the Vietcong. He was daily surrounded by a ferocious guerrilla war.

But when he was invited to go to the US for a speaking tour in 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, his wife pleaded with him not to go to America because it was too dangerous! She had seen TV footage of smoke rising over Washington and concluded the whole country was in flames.

Having been in three central European cities just after the Libyan raid, I can only note that Americans there were going about their business or pleasure unhampered except for some extra airport security.

A small bomb was set off several floors above an airline office where I had changed a ticket some hours before. But that was an action aimed at Saudi Arabia, not Americans, and barely marred a generally placid scene.

On the Chernobyl reactor front, the world still awaits a complete, dispassionate account.

But it can be said that flaws of the Soviet system (excess secrecy and too little government accountability) and flaws of the Western media (zeal to beat the competing network or paper with the most dramatic early account, even if unconfirmable, and acceptance of any and all expertise) were both displayed.

Soviet secrecy fostered the proliferation of speculative announcements in the West.

The technocrats Mr. Gorbachev has brought to power presumably realize this. It will be interesting to see if they conduct anything like the reexamination of their operations that some Western media have undertaken in the aftermath of crisis.

Franklin Roosevelt would doubtless be tired by now of hearing politicians and pundits quoting him on fear itself being the only thing we have to fear.

In all these cases fear is only part of the problem.

But it's the part that is all too often ignored.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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