Fear is an incredible emotion. Anthropologists tell us early humans’ response to this primal trait allowed them to develop ways to survive and perpetuate as a species in an environment that often saw homo sapiens far from the top of the food chain.
Fear, in part, has led to advancements in medicine that have saved humanity from a rash of deadly diseases and epidemics. It has led to engineering and technological innovations throughout history that have allowed civilizations to survive the ravages of nature brought on by storms, earthquakes and other natural disasters outside of man’s control. Fear, or a rational and healthy response to it, has had beneficial results for mankind.
Like a coin, fear has two sides. An irrational or unhealthy response to fear has led to tragic and at times deadly outcomes. Fear, unfortunately, has too many times been the motivation for carrying out unwise and unjustifiable acts.
From legalized hunts for “witches” to the blacklisting of individuals for being “communist” or closet “communist sympathizers,” the irrational response to fear by society at times causes us to look back in solemn disbelief at how people can be swayed to respond in ways that can be so harmful and detrimental. Absent the filter of rational thought, fear can lead people to actions that are self-defeating, and birth a lifetime of regret.
It’s quite interesting that in the aftermath of the recent vote by a majority of Great Britain to leave the 23-year-old European Union one of the most trending Google searches in Britain has been “What is the European Union?”
Driven in large part by fears stoked over the issue of immigration, it seems many voted to divorce the nation from this collective European organization with little understanding of how it actually operates or its overall purpose.
Now cognizant of the economic and political consequences of their decision, many Britons are going through buyer’s remorse and wondering how their very momentous action can be undone. Irrational response to fear seems to lead to such contrition.
On the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives last week, Democrats staged a sit-in to protest the lack of movement on legislation aimed at curbing mass shootings. Specific measures sought were the opportunity to vote on legislation to ban the sale of guns to individuals on the terrorist watch list and to expand background checks for gun purchases. Similar legislation had failed to make it out of the Senate, so efforts were now being tried to get the House to act.
Some mocked the members’ actions as being a politicized, knee-jerk response to the deadly mass shooting in Orlando, others decried their efforts as a “political stunt.”
In light of the shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando, along with a string of others, Americans are dealing with understandable and legitimate fear. However, as we’ve been able to see, what’s most consequential is not fear itself, but how we respond to fear.
Far from exploiting the fear of Americans, the Democratic response is appealing to what is proving to be a rational collective response to the rash of mass gun violence in America, motivated by terror or otherwise.
According to a recent CNN/ORC poll on specific gun control measures, when asked whether they support a ban on felons and individuals with mental problems purchasing guns, 87 percent of Americans said yes. Ninety-two percent want to have expanded background checks.
Eighty-five percent of those surveyed support banning those on terrorist watch lists from buying guns. Even more telling, when just Republican respondents were asked the latter question — 90 percent said yes.
Prominent conservative Joe Scarborough pointedly noted about the sit-in: “[House Speaker] Paul Ryan said that this is nothing but a publicity stunt, if that’s the case it’s a damn good publicity stunt, and a damn good one that has 90 percent of Americans behind it … behind bills that the majority of Americans not just want voted on, but passed.”
The majority of Americans are grappling with fear and thankfully embracing solutions that reject calls to scapegoat certain Americans by requiring them to have special IDs, or banning people from the largest religion in the world from coming into this country. Counsel or advice fueled by irrational reactions to fear generally cannot be trusted, and consistently leads to bad outcomes.
Law enforcement personnel are making it very clear those who have been radicalized in this country seem to be overwhelmingly influenced through private online activity, not by radical communal pockets scattered across the U.S. Again, rational responses to our fear would have us target this specific problem, not broadly condemn a sizable number of Muslim Americans who love this country just as much as other Americans do.
It has been said that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.” Individually or collectively, it’s an emotion, a feeling, a state of being that will have to be confronted from time to time. This fact is inescapable. What is not fated, however, is the response to fear. There is always a choice.
When we are judged through the lens of history, when our response to the very real fear of mass gun violence and terrorism is evaluated, may it be said that a point was reached where rational and conscientious action was embraced, and prevailed — methods that speak to the best of our humanity, not the worst.