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What Are We So Afraid Of?

As a kid growing up in the 1960s, I remember watching the nightly news and seeing Black people marching for civil rights, only to be attacked by dogs and police welding batons and guns. But still, they heroically marched on. I recall watching war movies about brave, young American soldiers risking their lives for us back home, marveling at their bravery. In school, we read inspiring stories about American heroes from the world of sports, medicine, science, academia, art—tales of ordinary people facing their fears, taking huge risks because, most often, they wanted to make the world a better place, or simply because they believed it was the right thing to do.

When did America become a nation of cowards? When did “safety” trump “bravery?”Sure, the world is a different place from the one in which I grew up. We read newspapers or watch television and see terrorist attacks occurring on what seems to be an increasingly frequent basis. The truth is, terrorism exists and always has. The facts are that we as Americans have more to fear from random lightning strikes than we do being the target of an act of terrorism by a foreign nationalist. Of course, our infinitesimally small odds go up if we’re talking about a homegrown terrorist. But not by much.

Why are we so afraid of a threat that is miniscule? And where does this fear come from? Why do some of our leaders encourage the ridiculous notion that terrorists, or lately, protesters, are lurking around or marching up and down every Main Street corner, ready to blow us to pieces or bash in every store window in sight? Is it because they know that fear divides us? Is it because that by trying to convince us that they’re the only ones who can keep us safe, we’re more likely to hand over our power (and votes) to them? Some of our leaders blame the problems we face on immigrants, even when the facts say otherwise. Why? Is it because it’s easier to blame our failings on others rather than look in the mirror? Do they point the finger at others so that they don’t have to be accountable for doing the hard work of developing solutions to the challenges we all face?

Civilizations rise and fall. Sometimes, they fall because of attacks by outsiders. But often, they fall because of attacks from within. Small cracks appear, fissures that, unchecked, turn into chasms that keep us apart rather than bring us together. It’s then that people begin turning on one another, while those in power add the fuel of hatred and fear to the fire, fanning the flames, in order to ensure that they stay in control. But a house divided cannot stand. It will eventually fall. Every time.

When we let fear divide us, the terrorists win. When we cancel our vacations because we’re afraid to get on a plane, the terrorists win. When we slam the door in the faces of a family fleeing a warn-torn country, they win. When we cross to the other side of the street because a Black kid in a hoodie or a woman wearing a hajib is coming towards us, they win. When we give up our civil liberties and the values upon which this country was founded, they win. And when we refuse to extend those freedoms and rights to others, they win again.

And then, we all lose.

Finding our common moral courage won’t be easy. But the alternative is that we continue to hide under our beds, living in darkness and fear. I’d rather embrace the light.

Photo by Melanie Wasser on Unsplash

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