Sunday, October 30, 2011

When is a Panic not a Panic? The War of the Worlds under attack.

There’s an interesting debate going on this morning about the War of the Worlds radio “Panic” of 1938 and the question of what was really going on that night. The crux of the argument hinges on the question, was it in fact a “Panic”? Professor W Joseph Campbell of the American University, Washington DC thinks not, and has expounded on his theory in an article on the BBC website. It’s a good question, but while I heartily welcome his contribution to the debate, I think the professor may be letting his desire to see the word “panic” expunged from the account cloud his judgement a bit, and as a result imply wrongly that something extraordinary was not happening that night. It’s frankly a bit of a downer. I know in my heart that the people of Grover’s Mill were not out shooting up the water towers in the mistaken belief they were Martian Tripods, but I’m not going to go out of my way to spoil peoples fun.

But back to the case in point. Panic is a strong word. It implies all sorts of things. People rushing around blindly, a complete lack of accountability for ones actions, an inability to see things rationally and act accordingly. In broad dictionary definition terms, that was not happening on the night of the Orson Welles broadcast. But something equally amazing was.

The events of that night have been particularly well reported and recorded. The newspapers the following morning were full of accounts of crazy behaviour, some of which it must be said could have been exaggerated or even made up by journalists of the time. There was undoubtedly a residue of anger between newspapers and radio over a long gestating battle for the hearts and minds of the public and it would be wrong not to take this into account when trying to judge the extent of the reaction, but over the years, numerous other accounts have emerged that are not nearly so subject to the passion of the moment. These tell a much more sober and very convincing tale of events that night, proving to my mind that a great many people were seriously alarmed. Many people did believe Martians were attacking, some packed bags, still others gathered loved ones or went to church. A good proportion thought the radio had got it wrong, and it was really a surprise German attack.

I am therefore convinced that Welles deserves to be called the master of Halloween trick or treat, and then there is so much more to the tale. What for instance was Welles really up to? Did he actually plan to scare the nation? He certainly claimed so in later years, and that is a tale in itself.

Then we should not forget the other War of the Worlds radio broadcasts that followed, including the horrific account of the 1949 broadcast in Quito, Ecuador. If anything that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that something much more akin to a panic (a riot really) could arise because of a War of the Worlds broadcast. There may not have been a “panic” in the true sense of the word in 1938, but I think it fair to say that America dodged the bullet by a hair's breadth.