How to Create and Sustain a Moral Panic in a Few Simple Steps

It’s an election year, so there must be some sort of moral panic.

René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH

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A yellow note on a wooden background reads “I want you to panic!”
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Criminologist Stanley Cohen defined moral panics as a time when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” Moral panics are interesting to study, and a little scary to live through. This is especially true if you are one of those persons defined as a threat to societal values.

When I Was Young and Foolish

Back in the early 2000s, I considered myself one of those rare Latinos who were conservative in every way. I was convinced the government was too big and did not align with my interests. Families made up of a mom and dad were best, in my opinion. I lacked a lot of evidence for my beliefs as a young man, but there were sure many people who felt the same way.

When the terrorist attacks of September 11 happened, something else happened to the echo chamber I used to occupy. Very quickly, people I agreed with turned on me. As an immigrant, I became suspect. I became part of a group aiming to “destroy” America. A coworker asked me shortly after the attacks, “Why do you hate us?”

Me? Hate the United States? Hate Americans? They would later tell me that they asked that question because conservative media told them that immigrants were out to end America, and that September 11 was the first step. Muslims, in particular, were the target of hate because of the religious views of the terrorists. The last name “Najera” became suspect in the minds of some people because of its Arabic roots. (When the Iberian peninsula came into Muslim control, the city of Najera got its name, and my ancestors traveled to New Spain [now Mexico] from there.)

No Equal Rights For You!

I survived that moral panic, but my political views did not. If so-called conservatives saw me as a threat, then I really couldn’t align myself with them. This triggered me curiosity about what other injustices conservatism was bringing to the world, and I got to see with clearer eyes the homophobic moral panic of same-sex marriage around the 2004 election.

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René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH

DrPH in Epidemiology. Associate/JHBSPH. Adjunct/GMU. Epidemiologist. Father. Husband. (He/Him/His/El)