In 1983, I was 13 when Halloween rolled around, and instead of worrying about the exact placement of my zombie blood on my face, I was listening to my parents talk about the Tylenol tampering cases, and how I needed to inspect my candy wrappers before I ate any of it. It was a lot of discipline for a young teenager, but the message came at such a high frequency of fear that I heeded their proscription.
In 1982, the cover of our Time Magazine subscription screamed about herpes and how many people were walking around with such a horrible, dirty virus. By 1985 the virus emergency had shifted to HIV, replete with all of the horrifying ways in which it possibly traveled to other people. (Mosquitos! Swimming pools! Soft drinks!)
The mid-to-late 1980s had us fearing crack cocaine,* the last throes of the Soviet Union, and what would happen if we elected Gov. Dukakis instead of Vice President Bush. Not a year has gone by that I can remember in my lifetime in which we didn’t have some huge bogeyman to fear as presented in the US media.
PCP. PCBs. Iraq (the first time), and then soon after, Desert Storm Illness. Terrorists, welfare recipients, inner city youth, trade unionists were all out to get us. We couldn’t even celebrate the new millennium without fearing that all of our computers were about to implode with bad programming.
Then September 11, 2001 happened, and the fear messaging finally had corporeal form. The few images that made it over the Internet were horrible beyond description. The fear machine went into overdrive, and some of heard news reports that the Sears Tower was down in Chicago, the White House had been attacked, there was fire in Los Angeles, none of which turned out to be true.
The panic among the Bush Administration staff was palpable, at least in DC. Old-time bureacrats that I knew where astonished at how fearful George, and Donald, and Dick were when the risks from al Qaeda had been so well documented. People in the Federal service whispered to each other that it seemed like the White House was scrambling to invent new policy out of simple fear and with no rational basis. From this stance Bush pushed through the creation of the Department of Homeland Security with its most public face, the Transportation Security Administration. I was on the team to create TSA’s first web site. It was clear to me in those meetings that they were making it up as they went along. For one thing they’d spent big bucks on a content management system for the web site, but used an untrained staffer to put it together and so every piece of content was in one enormous file.
I drove through the checkpoints set up by the Capitol Police, stopping and rolling down my window every time I got near to the US Capitol, which felt weird and made me more aware of my half-Arab background than I’d ever noticed before. (Maybe it was all the “Arabs Go Home” signs tacked up near my office in Bethesda.) Fear had somehow become a part of my routine, either in terms of me mediating someone else’s fear or processing my own fear.
Appropriations were shifted across the Federal budget to shore up homeland security, and thus began the huge shipments of military weaponry that we’re talking about this week with regard to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. The very idea that a town of 21,000 needs a SWAT team or a tank is absurd to many of us. But somehow we’d come to believe that every town in America needed these things, just in case. There could be another Columbine, or Boston Marathon bombing. Fear intersected with political will not to create gun control restrictions, not to provide for drug user health and recovery, not to help lift people out of poverty or support their mental health needs, but to hand grenade stockpiles to ordinary police officers who in the normal course of duty should have no need for grenades.
Certainly the epidemic of shooting, profiling, and beating up young Black men is complicated and goes well beyond the question of fear-mongering and manufacture in the United States. Still I can’t but wonder: if we weren’t so indebted to feeling fear, would Michael Brown have been able to walk in the street without losing his life?
There must a come a point when fear does not motivate us into hate and violence anymore; when we are spent, or weary, or suspicious that this approach has changed our nation too much. When the list of people to fear (terrorists, teachers, immigrants, leftists, artists, climate change scientists, lesbians, transsexuals, women…) is so large that there is scarcely anyone left not to fear, and that when we turn to face these remaining people to see they too are holding rifles with white-turned knuckles, that we must simply give up on fear and try something else. If fear has isolated us from each other, perhaps someday soon we can give community and communal good a go as our national motivation instead of fear.