"Peril is the mirror we hold up to ourselves. It forces us to ask what it means to be human. It focuses our attention on the shortness and uncertainty of our lives," writes Robert Wuthnow, the Gerhard R. Andlinger '52 Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and author of many books including Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Christianity.

In this serious and thought-provoking work, he examines the major disasters and catastrophes that have taken place in the country including entry into the nuclear age with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War, 9/11 and the ongoing war against terrorism; global warming, and pandemic influenza. In each case, the public has acted by taking action instead of becoming immobilized in denial and fear. The author outlines some of these responses. The nuclear age brought campaigns against nuclear proliferation, duck-and-cover drills in schools, and the construction of basement bomb shelters in the Cold War era. During the flu outbreak people lined up for vaccinations. Public policy debates and scientific studies of climate change and the possible environmental changes are already underway. Wuthnow points out that it is very difficult for the public to feel a sense of urgency about global warming despite the widespread viewing and impact of An Inconvenient Truth.

Many conservatives are upset about the increased role of the government in each of these crises. Others have been disappointed and even angered by the slowness of emergency-response bureaucracies to the plight of citizens who have been adversely affected by catastrophes. The solutions that these government agencies come up with are often outdated and ineffective. Wuthnow also looks at the media's role in these crises as well as what he calls "the institutionalization of peril" — a whole group of organizations designed to prepare us for danger and protect us from it.