A History of Panic

Posted: November 9, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

“A man’s mind will very gradually refuse to make itself up until it is driven and compelled by emergency.”~Anthony Trollope
 
Today was the nationwide testing of the Emergency Alert System (EAS). For days now, I have been seeing bulletins and commercials that had been warning the general public that the test was going to happen. I began to wonder what the big fuss was all about?
 
I grew up with these kinds of program interruptions every Saturday morning for only about 30 seconds. It really didn’t bother me all that much as a kid.
 
But this was the Emergency Broadcasting System (EBS) back then. Today was the EAS, which had replaced the EBS on the first of January in 1997. Today’s testing happened all across the USA, instead of when the EBS would do their testing in just the local area at each time and place.
 
So with all of the warnings in advance of today’s testing, I waited to see just how badly the EAS had failed to allow people the knowledge that “this is only a test”. Turns out, that each individual channel that I flipped through as the test was ongoing, had actually said that it was a test and not an actual emergency. Apparently, they were worried about people going into panic without the prior knowledge that the test was going to happen.
 
This got me to think of American history and widespread panic.
 
Enter: The War of the Worlds.
 
No, not that dumb failure of a film. The radio program. For those of you who just don’t know what I am talking about, let me arm you with some real knowledge:
 
The War of the Worlds was an episode of the American radio drama anthology series Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on the 30th of October, 1938, and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds.

The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated “news bulletins”, which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a “sustaining show” (it ran without commercial breaks), adding to the program’s realism. Although there were sensationalist accounts in the press about a supposed panic in response to the broadcast, the precise extent of listener response has been debated.

In the days following the adaptation, however, there was widespread outrage and panic by certain listeners who believed the events described in the program were real. The program’s news-bulletin format was decried as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast.

This radio program in 1938, did cause the panic because millions of people had tuned in to this show and wasn’t able to separate the fact that the radio program was purely fiction and not real. The world was not under attack. All of this because the company that put on this program wanted to give a little Halloween scare for the children. Instead, it scared men, women, AND children.

I had thought about this time again and again. What really did happen with the widespread panic of the country? I mean, were there riots, crime, or maybe even death??

Throughout the times that I have researched the events that happened around this time in the USA, I have come to the conclusion thus far that the possibility that people suffered either injury or fatality, is just an urban legend.

I recall an elder relative of mine who said that he heard the radio broadcast as a child, and that it was reported that a man had turned on his radio far late into the program, ultimately missing the warnings that were given prior that it was only fiction. He believed it to be true and he was scared so much that he was bound and determined NOT to be taken by any Martian aliens nor let his family suffer under them. So he had killed his wife and children with a shotgun. And just moments before he turned the weapon on himself, he was listening to the radio and then heard at the end that it was all just a Halloween prank.

But this too, appears to be false. And I might personally add, thankfully.

So many different stories about “what happened next” that it is too difficult now to know what really happened in the days after the radio broadcast. It was reported that many people attempted to sue for “mental anguish” and “physical injury”. But these cases were thrown out. Except for one case where a man from Massachusetts had sued for the price of a pair of brand new shoes. The man had actually spent his shoe allowance on a brand new pair of shoes, so that he could run from the invaders. Welles actually paid the man. But I would definitely need some kind of citation on that story to know that it really did happen.

For today’s testing of the EAS, I honestly do not think that there was any reports of panic, much less any widespread panic. I would have my doubts it did alarm anyone at all to react in the wrong direction and inappropriately.

Still though, it has happened in this country once. It could happen again.

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