The fear factor
The proper response to the recent shooting is one of precaution without paranoia
The tranquility and homeliness of the holiday season this year has been shattered by the brutal shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, leaving the country in a state of distress. The media has again, as in previous shooting tragedies, become a circus: the shooter, whom I will not name here as he would have liked to be publicized, has now been immortalized, with every nook and cranny of his life analyzed for possible motives. Some television programs offered a play-by-play of the shooting as if it were a football game. Any tragedy of this proportion is bound to be politicized, and indeed Sandy Hook has reignited the gun control debate as both pro-gun and anti-gun advocates are using the incident to galvanize their sides.
President Obama called for a ban on private ownership of assault rifles; the NRA has responded to the incident by calling for armed security around schools — a “good guy with a gun” to deter and neutralize possible threats. That so much sound and fury can come from the Sandy Hook shooting can be explained by a simple fact: tragedy is so politically efficacious precisely because it inspires such great fear. It is easy to see that Sandy Hook is but another episode that contributes to a greater culture of fear so painfully present today.
One could perhaps argue that, in some sense, fear is good — it makes us vigilant, prepared and able to respond effectively to calamitous situations in the future. But it is also apparent that our paranoiac tendencies make us act irrationally. It is not a coincidence that a surge in Islamophobia followed the September 11, 2001 attacks. Combined with the ignorance of the general public concerning Islamic culture and also concerning the difference between violent religious extremists and ordinary believers, Muslims — and Middle Easterners in general — have been targets of discrimination in the post-9/11 United States. Hopefully I do not need to tell you that this discrimination is unjustified. I am worried that all the political energy inspired by Sandy Hook will be used for similarly irrational ends, whether it be discriminating against a specific group of people — like, for example, the mentally ill — or curtailing the rights of citizens in general. And I am not just referencing the Second Amendment — acts of terror, as we have experienced, are used as excuses for greater measures of surveillance and control. Sandy Hook will undoubtedly be used as an excuse to mistrust one’s neighbors, one’s co-workers, one’s classmates; in short, anyone and everyone. Already we are seeing the beginning of this: some parents are taking their kids out of public schools to homeschool them instead. Lament the death of the American community, and I will tell you exactly what did it — paralysis by fear, fear that the people around you are the next to be immortalized in infamy on the 6 o’clock news.
This culture of fear is by no means a recent development. In his 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner diagnosed the ailment of the society of his time, which was then in the throes of the Cold War, as “a general and universal physical fear.” Rather than focusing on the “old verities and truths of the heart” — that of “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” — people, under the threat of a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, instead were preoccupied with the question: “when will I be blown up?” Replace “blown up” with “shot up,” and it becomes apparent that the ailment of fear has not waned but rather persisted and intensified. “The basest of all things is to be afraid,” Faulkner tells us, and indeed our response to Sandy Hook is full of baseness and lacks any sense of nobility.
Perhaps the hardest realization we have to make is that, unless we live in a completely proctored society, tragedies like Sandy Hook are nearly inevitable. Yes, maybe they can happen less often and at a lesser magnitude, but we must acknowledge the fact that our system is not perfect — our hospitals will not help all those who are mentally ill; the police do not have the power to patrol every inch of our neighborhoods. Put in this way, it only becomes a matter of statistics. Do not mistake this as an endorsement for quietism — we should be outraged and distraught anytime something like Sandy Hook happens. Tragedy should never become routine. But if we temper our response with the sense that tragedy is a fact of life, then perhaps we can respond with grace instead of being paralyzed by fear and acting irrationally.
In the same speech where he decries the prevalence of fear, Faulkner also says that “man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” This he thinks because man possesses a spirit capable of nobility. By the same token, I believe that we will move forward as a society after Sandy Hook, and that the media circus and political vitriol at present will cease. Such can only be possible, however, if we refuse to accept a culture of fear and actively renounce the paralysis and irrationality that such a culture engenders.
Rolph Recto’s column normally appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.