Afraid of guns, food, and our neighbors: Is this America?

What is it you're afraid of? Photo: Platinum Papers/http://bit.ly/HPAMLo

WASHINGTON, DC, December 25, 2012 — We’re all afraid of different things. I was in the first grade during the Cuban Missile Crisis, living on an Air Force base. That Christmas we were driving home when a radio announcer said that radars had detected 12 small objects and a larger one heading toward the U.S. from the North Pole.

I still remember the feelings of horror and desperation I felt when I thought we were about to be incinerated.

Kids today aren’t afraid of the NORAD Santa Tracker (though why anyone thought it was a good idea two months after near Armageddon, I can’t imagine). They’re afraid of more prosaic things, like being shot in school. Their parents are terrified. Sales of child body armor made by a small Utah company are apparently through the roof, along with sales of their bulletproof backpacks.

The sound of a car backfire sent one school into lockdown last week. An umbrella caused another lockdown panic.

We live in fearful times. A couple of weeks ago a school was locked down because a student brought a mercury-filled thermometer for his science class. That one also prompted hazmat suits. When I was a child, we had no privacy fences in our backyards, and children moved from yard to yard in our neighborhood. You might end up with an extra kid for dinner or be down one, but the mothers let each other know where their kids were.

Now we make play dates.

As a man, I can strike fear into mothers simply by walking past a playground, and if I smile at a child in a mall, I might risk a pepper spraying or arrest. Our children pick up on our anxieties, and some of my children’s friends are completely neurotic.

They’re also heavily medicated. There’s nothing so grimly ironic as attending a D.A.R.E. graduation and realizing that several kids up there are taking prescription mood-altering drugs.

America, can’t you give up your fear? Can you really say you’re living when you’re afraid of your food, people on the street, your neighbors, and swarthy men in airports? You’ve moved into gated communities and turned yourself over to the TSA. Over a third of you wouldn’t object to body cavity searches if you thought they’d make travel safer.

America, that’s pathetic.

Life is risky. Smart people manage risk. I don’t eat mushrooms that I pick in the woods, and I wouldn’t be caught dead riding a motorcycle, with or without a helmet. But I’d rather take the one-in-a-million odds that someone will blow up my plane than submit to a cavity search. There’s more to life than security. Living in a bunker or in a world without privacy isn’t really living.

As I read the articles and letters to the Communities and other online sites, I’m impressed not only by the fear some writers feel as the creep through life, but also by the amount of good-humored optimism. It’s a generalization to say that America is a fearful place, and not an unfair one, but it also remains a remarkably hopeful place, filled with people who are determined not to be afraid. We have a remarkably pragmatic point of view, people willing to think of unusual and creative solutions to pressing problems.

When a man-made disaster like Newtown comes along, our politicians go into their own “problem solving” mode, though being politicians, they favor solutions that safely reflect the conventional wisdom of their advocacy groups. We have a large population of parents who are terrified and want them to do something about gun violence in schools.

The something the Democratic left favors is banning “assault” rifles and large capacity magazines. The something favored by the GOP right is putting more weapons in schools – armed guards and armed teachers.

Just because an idea is conventional doesn’t mean it’s a bad one, but are these really the only two options – fewer guns, or more? The two sides have each demonstrated the ludicrousness of the two positions: Bad guys are creative and won’t be deterred by a law that says they can’t bring assault rifles to school; grade school teachers in a firefight is just a scary idea for all concerned.

I have no doubt that if we have time to stop and think carefully about this, there will be some good solutions offered. Solutions made in the heat of the moment, in the heat of anger or fear, are more likely to heavily flawed and not carefully examined. Fear drives rapid action, while calm reason is unlikely to favor anything that political leaders can come up with. The notion that we must act now because only now will we get Congress to act is a dangerous one that should be resisted.

Fear and anger cloud the mind and kill reason.

Schools may be more dangerous than they’ve ever been, but they’re still remarkably free from gun violence. The greater danger they pose is to the mind. It’s far more likely that a child will develop a lifelong dislike of learning in our schools than that he will be shot, more likely that her mind will be filled with drivel and excessive self esteem than her body pumped full of lead.

I want my kids’ schools to be safe and effective learning environments. Adam Lanza is no more my biggest fear than is being hit by a meteorite or eaten by a polar bear.

What terrifies me is that my kids will come out of their schools as fearful, close-minded, ignorant ninnies. In the America of today, that’s a greater threat than gunmen, and it’s the threat that we focus on. But if another Adam Lanza is your biggest worry, at least let’s not feel obliged to meet an arbitrary political deadline to come up with something, anything. In that situation, nothing would be better.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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