Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

This article started as a comment I made on another thread. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that what I had said there wasn’t enough. It seems clear that this is the most important topic of our times. This is what is making me grind my teeth at night; this is what is making me worry that no matter how hard we fight for valid elections, Constitutional laws, government accountability, and so on we are still going to lose the things most precious to us if the fear behind them isn’t addressed.

This is what I said in the comment thread:

Humans are wired with certain impulses which we refer to as “fear”. This reaction to a given stimulus is a basic survival mechanism. You see a panther stalking you and you feel fear. The fear provokes a survival response: either run away or prepare to fight the panther. This is a productive fear, in that it serves a definite purpose in aiding your survival.Some types of fear, though, actually do the opposite. This typically occurs when the fear is continued over a long period of time, past a particular survival situation. If you are once stalked by a panther, and then become afraid that there are panthers stalking you every time you step out your door, for example. At this point, the fear becomes counterproductive, that is, it is doing the opposite of what it is designed to do. You will have trouble surviving if you can’t step outside your house because of your fear, and likewise you will have trouble surviving if every time you walk outside you shoot at everything that rustles. The fear is then hurting you.

In our society, here in the U.S., I perceive that the fear first created by the 9/11 attacks has far outlived a useful purpose. It is making us turn against ourselves as a people, making us afraid of everything that comes from “outside”. As individuals, we can survive this way (though perhaps less happily), but as a society we cannot. Fear of a slogan, merely because it is written in Arabic, is symptomatic of a deeper disorder. Encouraging it by saying that the problem is with the shirt, rather than with the paranoid passengers, is like telling a man afraid of panthers that you will bring him all his food so that he never has to leave his house because, you know, there could be panthers out there!! This approach helps no one, and in fact furthers the damage done by 9/11.

When the September 11 attacks first happened, my first thoughts were of what the reaction of this country, as a whole, would be. I argued at the time that the best thing our leaders could do would be to turn the other cheek, while fully aware that this would never happen. My reasoning for this argument was that forgiveness would castrate the impetus behind the terrorist movement. Instead, of course, we acted exactly as any student of recent human history could have predicted. We acted out of fear and the desire for vengeance. And the results, also, could have been easily predicted. We have had long, drawn out wars, a rising national debt, a surfeit of religious and racial intolerance, and no end in sight. Some have become war weary, and call for a cessation of hostilities, no matter what the cost. Some have retreated into apathy. And some have increased their calls for blood, as more aggression inevitably creates an endless toll on American lives. What I did not see, five years ago, was the spiraling into rampant paranoia that has taken hold of the United States. I should have, of course, but I have this chronic optimism issue which makes me want to believe the best of everyone. I wanted to believe that we would learn from the lessons of the past, and that while there would be a period of emotionally-fueled aggression, that eventually reason would again assert itself, and more rational approaches would prevail. I wanted to believe so badly, that I was willing to overlook the patterns of human behaviour over several millenia and put my faith in a condition which has never existed.

3,000 people died on September 11, 2001. It was shocking, it was tragic…but since that time there have been no more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Now I know that there are reports periodically that a terrorist plot has been foiled, thanks to the new powers granted our (and other Western) governments. Unfortunately, many of these terrorist plots appear half-cooked at best, and the fear we have allowed to grow like mold over our reason has prevented us from being able to realistically evaluate the degree of any threat. On the other hand, a report just released by TRAC, based on Justice Department data states that there has been a sharp decline in terrorist prosecutions since 2001. This means that either we are terribly incompetent at catching terrorists, in spite of all the hoopla about how helpful new policies are, or that there just aren’t as many terrorists as we have been led to believe.

A 2000 census report concluded that there were 1.2 million American citizens who reported as having Arabic ancestry. No one quite knows how many Muslims live in the U.S., but the estimates range between 1,104,000 and 8 million. If all those of Arab descent, or all who follow Islam, are potential terrorists, you had better just go ahead and lock yourself up in your house. It can’t possibly be safe to go outside.

On the other hand, we should consider that not one of those people has committed a terrorist attack.

What we must, somehow, remember is that if there is an Enemy, then our fear is their tool. Fear keeps us chasing shadows while being blind to the genuine threats. Fear leads us to act foolishly toward potential allies, causing them to abandon us. Fear causes us to turn against ourselves, creating a division in our nation which weakens us in a way that protesting a war or arguing about policy never could. As we pick ourselves apart, the terrorists (whoever, wherever, and however many they are) can sit back and laugh. Their work is done. They have no need to attack our buildings, hack our computers, or hijack our planes. They can sit back and watch while we dismantle our country ourselves, from the inside.

The next time you are boarding a plane and notice a man of possibly Arabic descent standing in the aisle beside you, take a moment and look at your fear for what it is. And then put it down. It will not save you. See that man for what he is: another man. Smile at him, and you may be surprised to find that he smiles back.