Worries over how media portrayals affect real life behavior have been around for at least 400 years. That’s since the Spanish writer, Cervantes, published The Adventures of Don Quixote. The premise of the book is that an otherwise sage and gentle man is deluded into embarking on a series of self-destructive misadventures after reading tales about knights and chivalry. As the Don lies dying, he finally realizes the error of his ways and goes so far as to stipulate in his will that his niece is to inherit his estate only so long as she marries a man who swears never to read romances about errant knights. Today, concern is frequently expressed about the impact films and popular music have on how we think about ourselves and relate to others. Many social critics and researchers contend that the violence so often depicted in our movies and TV shows encourages people to be needlessly, sometimes dangerously, aggressive. Others have argued that certain types of rock music inspire anti-social defiance. Based on this analysis, you would have to conclude that the typical American media consumer is likely to be, well, pretty much like President George Bush Jr. That is, a swaggering, macho man with a robust sense of self and an appetite for trouble. “Ready?” you can practically hear him say. “I was born ready!” That’s why we spat in the eye of the United Nations and crumpled the Kyoto Accords on global warming. It explains our penchant for going it alone in Iraq and why we’d rather risk having no health insurance at all than a universal, single payer plan set up by a big daddy government. But I would like to suggest that our diet of ultra violence and rugged individualism isn’t a kind of conditioning so much as a cover-up. America, these days, seems governed more by fear than boldness. This has been especially apparent in our national response to the criminal attacks we suffered on Sept. 11, 2001. Those attacks were sponsored and perpetrated by fundamentalist bigots obsessed with power and control, whose sense of self depends on renunciation and doling out punishment. It’s been revealing to see how — rather than use that terrible blow to affirm our culture’s investment in human be-ing and that famous right to the pursuit of happiness — we have opted for paranoia. It’s the control freaks among us — not the liberationists — who have taken charge. Events that took place in Miami, Fla., at the end of November epitomize what I mean. Miami was the site for international talks aimed at creating a South American version of NAFTA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA. NAFTA, as we know, has turned out to be less than a smashing success. Talk to an unemployed Indiana manufacturing worker if you want to find out why. Therefore, it was predictable that the prospect of creating a similar trade zone all the way to Tierra del Fuego would make some people, including members of the United Steelworkers of America, hit the streets to exercise their right to free speech. Next thing you know, the Miami chief of police is calling people like the Steelworkers “outsiders coming in to terrorize and vandalize our city.” By raising the specter of Terror, the chief enabled Miami to qualify for 8.5 million federal dollars approved by Congress to fight, you guessed it, the War on Terror. Over 40 law enforcement agencies wound up providing security for the FTAA talks, including the FBI and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Reporters from corporate print and TV media were “embedded” with the riot cops, just like in Iraq. Eight thousand demonstrators turned out in Miami. Around 200 of these “terrorists” were arrested; all but two of them were released shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that the FBI has initiated a nationwide effort to gather intelligence on lawful antiwar protest activities and the Los Angeles Times has reported a similar project being undertaken by the Pentagon. It’s called Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), and it is charged with “data mining” — processing public records in order to find what is called “actionable intelligence.” The presence of real danger in our world cannot be denied — we need, though, to put it in its place. In Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore observed that our media’s emphasis on crime and violence has made us more afraid of the world than the facts on the ground indicate. No wonder, then, that when actually attacked our worst fears seem realized. This has been a terrible mistake. Like Don Quixote, we will someday rue what we do in the name of self-defense.