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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010 10:24 pm

Steps toward a fear-less nation

I recently read In the Combat Zone by Leslie Marmon Silko, a Native American writer and activist. Published in 1995, the essay contains this sentence: “As the U.S. economy continues to ‘downsize,’ and the good jobs disappear forever, our urban and rural landscapes will include more desperate, angry men with nothing to lose.”

The sentence seems prophetic, I thought, but then my mind veered to the topic of fear.

Consider our fear of terrorism, although any fear – mortality, damnation, embarrassment, exposure, victimization, insect phobias, impoverishment, loneliness, disfigurement – will do.

To a degree, fear results from a denial of reality and an awareness of diminished capacity.

Most Americans have been percolating fear in their heads since Sept. 11, 2001. But perhaps we can try some different groupthink than we currently enact?

Suppose that Americans are tired of nine fearful years, weary of how our unrestrained anxiety resulted in terrible public-spending decisions and willing to try something different. What would different look like?

First, we should demand that the Department of Homeland Security abolish its “Current Threat Level” Advisory System. It includes five warning levels (severe, high, elevated, guarded, and low). On Dec. 12, 2010, “The United States government’s national threat level is Elevated, or Yellow. For all domestic and international flights, the U.S. threat level is High, or Orange.” The warning level has been the same for almost five years.

Such institutionalized insanity will provide decades of satirical fodder. The advisory system tells us that we face a real and continuous risk of terrorist attacks. Doesn’t any citizen remotely in touch with reality know that truth?

To be a U.S. citizen is to be a person that someone in the world wants to kill – as a general principle. An Israeli citizen exists in the same way, but so does a Pakistani citizen, Indian citizen, Sudanese citizen, or French citizen. Hatred is globally democratic.

Even Homeland Security admits the system is useless. A Washington Post article on Nov. 25 disclosed that the department has proposed the “dismantling” of the system, with one anonymous official calling it “a system that communicates nothing.”

Second, we should cultivate a conscious understanding of reality and a tenacious resiliency toward circumstances beyond our control. Statistics are reassuring. For adults and children, automobiles and falling television sets are greater risks than terrorist and shark attacks.

Nineteen terrorists can hurt a nation of 310 million citizens, but terrorist gangs have inherently limited reach. Other nations even have survived horrific WMD attacks. Japan recovered from losing two cities to atomic bombs and 64 other major cities to firebombing raids during World War II and endured a 1995 Sarin-gas terrorist attack. Resiliency.

Third, we should eliminate a source of our fear: our diminished capacity. We would not be such a fear-filled nation if most citizens were physically fit and knew how to handle themselves in physical confrontations.

While explaining her personal decision to carry a handgun (in Arizona), Silko urged women to assume the “primary responsibility” for their safety, observing that “We don’t trust the state to manage our reproductive organs, yet most of us blindly trust that the state will protect us (and our reproductive organs) from predatory strangers.”

Silko’s solution might be imperfect, even though she listed several other options (e.g., “self-defense courses”), but she is tracking an important idea. Rapists, like terrorists, always will share the planet with the rest of us. Silko faced that hard truth and acted individually to make life more difficult for criminals. With preparation, planning, and the proper mindset, individuals who want to be safer can be safer. Her essay hints at how a fear-less nation must think.

Fear assassinates reason. It damages our ability to make good decisions.

How long will we choose to live this way?

Nick Capo is associate professor of English at Illinois College in Jacksonville. 
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