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A Proper Fear

The only American President ever elected to more than two terms — he would die at the start of his fourth term as President — Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously stated in the Inaugural Address to his first term his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Unlike today’s politicians, Roosevelt was all about quelling irrational fear. Whatever you might think about the specifics of his politics and plans, Roosevelt seriously wanted to improve society and thus tried to ameliorate fear by making us believe “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Those in power today want to keep us in a constant state of fear. They’ve turned scaring us into a highly-successful, hugely-profitable (for them) art form.

Americans in Roosevelt’s time knew something of fear. They had survived World War I. Roosevelt would lead America through World War II. The so-called Great Depression had been putting people out of work and starving families for at least three years before his first election. The Social Security Act did not yet exist. The United States did not have welfare: Roosevelt instituted “emergency relief measures” to help the unemployed and starving masses. Even then, Roosevelt’s “New Deal” focused on public spending and providing work, not individualized cash payments or anything resembling today’s welfare programs. And in some places — Toledo, Ohio, for example — the unemployment rate hit 80%. That’s not a typo: eighty percent!

In a sense, then, Roosevelt’s claim that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself was somewhat disingenuous. Losing everything you owned was a very real fear. Starvation was a very real fear. Families in trouble had about as much chance of survival as a BP-sponsored turtle.

Today those fears are somewhat mollified by the existence of the structures put into place by Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

Fear, however, can be a great motivator, as many in power have learned. If I want to build myself a nice little fiefdom, fear can be useful in helping me to get elected to head up, say, the local or regional police force and then scare the crap out of you to increase my funding. I used to think Margaret Mims was a complete idiot for how she handled her budget. I underestimated her ability to instill fear in the populace by unnecessarily releasing prisoners from the local jail “to rob and kill” us while she blamed “the problem” on our County Council for not providing her with enough money to keep them all locked up. In retrospect, it turns out she’s a far better con artist than any who came before her.

And its all because of fear.

I’m not picking on Mims, she just happens to be local to me and very good at making people think she is releasing prisoners reluctantly when I think it’s more likely a coldly-calculated act on her part to force the County’s bean counters — and elected Supervisors — into submission. The thing is that most politicians today seem to have learned quite well from Roosevelt’s words. A nameless terror is paralytic. So let’s slap some names on things and see if we can’t stir up a little wallet action — break you out of that paralysis and get you screaming for more funding to the po-po.

To do this, our leaders spin out all kinds of fantastic scenarios, actually transforming our society into something uglier than it is in the process. The most common approach is to take advantage of some dead kid and his (understandably) emotionally-overwrought family.

“Pedophiles watch our children from the shadows,” warned U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. “They lie in wait, studying, planning to ensnare and violate the innocent.” (Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain(2008) p. 182.)

What no one ever talks about is that, as horrific as these cases can be, “the likelihood of a child being snatched by a stranger is almost indescribably tiny.” (Gardner, supra, at p. 186.) According to NISMART (National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children), an agency set up by Congress to do research and produce reports on the number of missing kids, an estimated 115 “stereotypical kidnappings” of children occur in the United States each year. (Gardner, supra, at p. 185.)

With just 115 cases of kids under eighteen being stolen by strangers, the risk to any one American minor is about 0.00016 percent, or 1 in 608,696. For kids fourteen and under, the numbers are only slightly different. There are roughly 59 million Americans aged fourteen and under, so the risk is 0.00015 percent. That’s 1 in 655,555. (Gardner, supra, at p. 186.)

The news media, driven by power- and money-hungry politicians and law enforcement groups and individuals, plus the aforementioned emotionally-overwrought families eager to ensure that their children did not die in vain, have us so scared that we readily pass legislation to prevent the possibility of such crimes occurring. The result is longer prison sentences for people who might be a threat to our children, perhaps boosting the likelihood of a kidnapping from 0.00015 or 0.00016 to 0.000165.

We’ve become so frightened about the prospect of being crime victims that we’ve dropped any attempt to reform people, preferring instead that longer and longer prison sentences more-or-less permanently remove them from our midst. And then we wonder why we’re running out of money.

In my article, “If Worms Carried Shotguns,” I wrote about our collective inability to reduce our prison population — and thus perhaps avert the systemic bankruptcy that threatens state and local governments throughout the U.S. — because of these irrational fears.

This pervasive fear with which we are inculcated, though, has other deleterious effects on our society. Children today are themselves imprisoned by our distorted belief that “it’s not safe out there.” It’s not safe for them to play outside, unattended. It’s not safe to allow them to walk to school alone. It’s not safe to fail to treat our schools like miniature prisons, complete with prison-like fencing, metal detectors, cops and even probation officers.

In reality, these kids are probably more endangered by these “safeguards” than by anything that would happen if the “safeguards” did not exist.

Recently, in Bakersfield, California, two young girls proved that they have well-learned the lessons on just how dangerous the world is, when they called police to report a kidnapping. By a group of people in a van. If the statistics on “stereotypical kidnappings” are so out of whack with our perceptions, imagine the statistics on groups of people in vans snatching children off the street.

The police did their part, as well, dutifully setting up roadblocks, involving numerous police agencies in the search in both Bakersfield and Los Angeles (the girls got the plate number) and ultimately the expensive dragnet revealed what anyone in their right mind, not fueled by fear, would have probably realized from the start: ’twas no band of kidnappers merrily trolling for children.

The officers made contact with the van and it was determined to be a group of telephone book delivery people, one of whom was an extremely small adult woman who was apparently mistaken for a child, police said. (“Telephone Book Delivery Crew Confused For Kidnappers” (June 3, 2010) KERO-23 ABC.)

In addition to the above,

Officers made contact at Independence Elementary school and were provided with a list of names and addresses for children whom [sic] were dropped off by the school bus in the neighborhood where the possible abduction was reported. Officers responded to all of these children’s respective residences… (“Telephone Book Delivery Crew Confused for Kidnappers,” supra, emphasis added.)

Nothing like a little door-to-door fear boosting. I wonder how many of those kids were allowed to play outside that day.

A proper fear — one that is based upon actual dangers with at least a fair likelihood of striking if we don’t take steps to make ourselves safe — is a good thing. Irrational, unreasoning fear, ultimately does more damage to society than the things society fears.

We are safer and healthier than ever and yet we are more worried about injury, disease, and death than ever. Why? In part, it’s because there are few opportunities to make money from convincing people they are, in fact, safer and healthier than ever — but there are huge profits to be made by promoting fear. “Unreasoning fear,” as Roosevelt called it, may be bad for those who experience it and for society at large, but it’s wonderful for shareholders. The opportunities for growth are limitless. All that’s required is that fears keep rising, and those who reap the profits know which buttons to push in our Stone Age minds to ensure that happens. (Gardner, supra, at p. 138.)

Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror is paralytic. Slap a name on it — pedophile, gang member, criminal, kidnapper of small phone books — and it becomes a great motivator. The problem is, it motivates us in the wrong way, to the wrong end.

Closer to the truth, the things we’re taught by politicians, law enforcement and overwrought emotionally-driven victims of crime are not the things we should actually fear. If Roosevelt were alive today, he might express his firm belief that the only thing we have to fear are fearmongerers themselves with their numerous, unreasoning, unjustified terrors scaring us away from dealing with society’s real problems, breaking both our banks and our bonds to one another.

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