At times, societies, or sectors of them, are gripped by moral panics. During such times, the behavior of some of the members of a society is thought by others to be so problematic, the evil they do, or are thought to do, is felt to be so wounding to the substance and fabric of the body social that serious steps must be taken to control the behavior, punish the perpetrators, and repair the damage. The threat this evil presumably poses is felt to represent a crisis for that society: something must be done about it, and that something must be done now; if steps are not taken immediately, or soon, we will suffer even graver consequences. The sentiment generated or stirred up by this threat or supposed threat is much like a fever: heightened emotion, fear, dread, anxiety, hostility, and a strong feeling of righteousness. In a moral panic, a group or category engages, or is said to engage in unacceptable, immoral behavior, presumably causes or is responsible for serious harmful consequences, and is therefore seen as a threat to the well-being, basic values, and interests of the society, or sectors of the society. These perpetrators or supposed perpetrators come to be regarded as the enemy – or an enemy – of society, “folk devils” (Cohen, 1972; 2002), deviants, outsiders, the “Other,” legitimate and deserving targets of self-righteous anger, hostility, and punishment.
During a moral panic, then, a substantial number of the members of a given society harbor and express the feeling that evildoers pose a threat to the society and to the moral order as a consequence of their behavior, and therefore “something should be done” about them and their behavior. A major focus of that “something” typically entails strengthening the social control apparatus of the society – tougher or renewed rules, more intense public hostility and condemnation, more laws, longer sentences, more police, more arrests, and more prison cells. If society has become morally lax, a revival of traditional values may be necessary; if innocent people are victimized by crime, a crackdown on offenders will do the trick; if the young and the morally weak, wavering, and questionable are dabbling (or might dabble) in evil, harmful deeds, they should be made aware of what they are doing and what its consequences are. A major cause of the problem is, some say, society’s feeble and insufficient efforts to control the wrongdoing; a major solution is to restrengthen those efforts.”
-Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda
“The Moral Panic: An Introduction.”