When individuals are frightened, they tend to overreact. When groups of individuals are frightened, they tend to overreact and lash out. When governments are frightened, they tend to overreact, lash out, and clamp down.
We are seeing all three of these processes play out in ways both big and small around our nation and the world. Whether we are seeing individuals who have been terrified into submission over COVID-19 for two years now try to adjust to the prospect of unmasking, listening to educators complain about the impertinence of parents concerned about controversial school curriculum, or watching the Canadian government invoke unprecedented—and virtually unlimited—powers to crush anti-vaccine protests and protesters, we are viewing the end results of fear.
Whether this is fear of a virus, fear of differing ideas, or fear of frustrated citizens, the overreactions produced by fear harden minds against logical discourse and produce additional problems that are maddening, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous.
We cannot, of course, either cater to fears or succumb to them. To allow fears—whether they are real, imagined, or wildly exaggerated—to rule our lives is a path to disaster on both a personal and societal level. Unfortunately, fear is the bread and butter of politicians who want a vote, journalists who need an audience, and activists who crave both disciples and money.
We are, moreover, hardwired as a species to react to threats in a manner that is neither reasonable or logical. We still possess our ancestors instantly combative DNA, which is all too easily activated when we are already aroused by a never ending series of emergencies. Whether we fear famine, crime, disease, war, drought, mass extinction, or any of a host of other holocausts that blare from our televisions, phones, or social media accounts, the consequence of our constant adrenal rush in the face of perceived dangers is that we are simultaneously exhausted and energized by our terrors, and we are suspicious of one another to a degree that is both unhealthful and unhelpful. We flail, we rage, and we scream—but the calm necessary for considered compromise unsurprisingly eludes us.
It is true that injustice exists, our burgeoning global population strains our available resources, rude words produce angry reactions, untrustworthy people rise to positions of power, many of our ideas and values might be irreconcilable with those of others, and the final reward for all of our best efforts is a certain death. Life is unfair, sometimes cruel, and sadly devoid of happy resolutions at times. Humanity has always had to deal with struggles, controversy, and violence. Our moments of joy are all the more precious because we often have to work so hard to find them, so it it is silly to surrender them to fear mongers who want to steal our happiness to advance themselves and their own causes.
By any reasonable measure, Americans today are still among the most fortunate people to have ever walked the earth. Although many might feel their lives are lonely or lacking in meaning, we enjoy remarkable safety and abundance overall, live much longer and more healthful lives than only a few short centuries ago, and are experiencing dramatic improvements in healthcare, communications, and transportation that will further enhance our lives—but which will also require careful thought to properly implement.
The fairest distribution of our nation’s blessings is yet to be determined, and the divide between the very rich and the very poor still bedevils us, but I am immeasurably happier to live in 2022 versus 1722. Despite what we are continually told by those who seek to frighten and divide us—endlessly and at a very high volume—we have it within our grasp to live good (but not perfect) lives if we are responsible, purposeful, and hard working.
Perhaps this is the reason that those with malicious or self-serving motives now have to work so assiduously to keep us afraid. Our fear serves their purposes because we are more easily manipulated and distracted when our adrenal glands are pumping. Never in the history of civilization have the psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists among us had an easier time convincing us to hate one another—while they pick our collective pockets and satisfy their lust for power. They also must be so very thankful that we each have an electronic agitator, otherwise known as a cell phone, tucked in our pockets or on our bedside tables every moment of our lives.
The individual personal costs of poor decision making and irresponsibility still remain high, and no one should expect to escape the consequences of their own foolishness—particularly if they expect others to pay for their mistakes. Thankfully, many bad choices can be avoided simply by choosing the right mentors and leaders, so we all need to carefully examine the motives of those who seem to exist only to fill us with fear and hatred. Blocking out the screeches of alarm that fill our days will be difficult—but well worth it in the end. This is not, however, all that will be required to finally free us from the fear mongers.
There will also need to be accountability for those who willfully use lies, exaggerations, faulty logic, incomplete data, destructive personal attacks, and appeals to atavistic tribalism to engender the fears that harm America and Americans.
What shape this will take obviously has yet to be determined, but the inquiries will likely need to look carefully at the effects the many inflammatory lies have had, their underlying motivations, and the roles that academics, journalists, and government officials have had in promoting public terror for private gain. Most importantly, all of this process must play out in public view in order to forestall both the suspicion—and the reality—of coverups concocted to preserve reputations and careers.
As with the sentencing phase of a criminal trial, victim impact statements—the victims being all of us—should be collected and published as part of an official record that goes well beyond the usual mealy mouthed mea culpas that are typically used to quell public outrage.
In order for our nation to heal, much discussion will be required, our frustrations will need to be heard—and our legitimate anger finally validated. Some of our rage will certainly be registered at the ballot box, but the benefits of democracy will be blunted if the outcomes are used by the losers to whip up more fear, more dissension, more suspicion—and more hatred—in order to serve an agenda that was rejected by voters.
There is, in addition, one other course of action worth considering: filing state or federal fraud charges against individuals, groups, or businesses that knowingly engage in falsehoods for monetary or personal gain. This might seem to some a momentous step that would harm the free speech rights of Americans, so it should be used only in situations where malfeasance is clear and unmistakable. These charges might, for example, be filed only when a civil judgement or criminal conviction has already been obtained in order to obtain monetary damages on behalf of those victimized—which, in some cases, might include the entire country. Whether this is a beneficial course of action will likely depend on the particular circumstances of each case, but this could serve as a useful tool to dissuade other hucksters from abusing the trust of the American people.
However, in the final analysis, it is really up to each of us to steadfastly ignore those who profit from fear. Reasonable individuals presenting reasonable evidence of problems must always deserve our thoughtful attention, but the dreadful partisanship that has infected previously trusted pillars of our democracy such as journalism, education, and the courts allows fear mongers to use the credibility earned by others throughout our nation’s history to advance agendas that promote fear, encourage hatred, and erase our faith in one another.
To continue to allow this insanity to continue is the worst mistake we could make regarding the defense of our great and good country against those who want to destroy our nation for reasons that only they truly understand. We, as concerned citizens, must take the first step by speaking out with firm resolve when we encounter this kind crazed and corrosive behavior from those taking advantage of the American freedoms they obviously disdain.
Making your voice heard can be uncomfortable at home, in public, and at your job. However, the alternative is to continue to allow fear mongers to peddle their poison uncontested.
We can no longer afford to do only what is comfortable.
It is now our responsibility to do what is right.