A climate of fear

Several years ago, when we were just starting our firewood deliveries, we were traveling in a small caravan of pickups and trailers to a location on the Pine Ridge Reservation to make a delivery. We stopped at Sharp’s Corner to use the bathrooms and purchase a few snacks. Sharp’s Corner is a typical Reservation location: a convenience store and gas station in an older building. Locals come to the area because it is the closest source of gas and groceries to their remote homes. Sure the price of milk is high, but when you have to drive for all of your supplies you learn to factor in the price of gas when you head out for groceries. These days there is a dialysis center at Sharp’s Corner, but back then there wasn’t much else there.

Later, after we had gone back home, I learned that some in our caravan had chosen not to go into the store. One person commented to me that there was a question about the safety of the place. The comment set me back. You have to understand that I’m a real small town kid. When I lived in Chicago, I used to fear having my car break down in busy, urban areas. I thought that no one would help me and that they were dangerous places. On the other hand, I had no trouble driving our old, quite worn and usually overloaded car across the wide open spaces. I would cut across the Cheyenne River and Crow Reservations in Montana because the narrow country roads felt more safe to me than the Interstate highway. I knew if I had trouble, the first car that came along would offer help. I used to breathe a sigh of relief each time we crossed the Missouri River heading west. It seemed to me, at the time, that folks were more friendly and I was more at home west of that river.

I’ve since learned that some of my biases are inaccurate. There are some really nice people who live east of the river. We even met some genuinely nice people in Chicago. I’m nowhere near as afraid of the city now as I was when we first moved there.

Still, I just couldn’t understand why someone was sensing danger about going into a little store in the middle of nowhere. It seemed perfectly safe to me.

Later I learned that there are some people who live in our town who have never gone to the neighboring Reservations and who think of them as drug-infested, alcoholic-filled places of danger. I’ve even learned that there are people who think that some neighborhoods in our city are too dangerous to visit at night.

I just don’t experience any fear. I enjoy trips to the Reservation. I like to see my friends who live there. I respond to calls in all of the neighborhoods in our town and I go wherever I have business without any fear at all, day or night. Yes, there are some crimes committed in our town, but they have never been targeted at me. We live in a very safe place. Anyone with just a little bit of street smarts can walk anywhere in our town without fear.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It can be stoked by conversation and talk. More often than not, people’s fears are based on stories that are less than true. The things of which they are afraid are dangers that exist only in the imaginations and stories of others.

Psychologists have special language for identifying and treating those who suffer from excessive fear. Paranoia is the irrational and persistent feeling that you are at risk. Those suffering from this condition often feel that others are out to get them. Psychologists distinguish between paranoid personality disorder, delusional disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. The middle of those three, delusional disorder, is fear when no real danger exists. In its extreme form it is a mental illness that requires intensive treatment, often including powerful medicines and treatment in a hospital.

There are plenty of people, however, who do not have a mental illness and do not need intensive therapy who experience fear when no danger exists.

Stirring fears has become a popular political strategy in recent years. Politicians pontificate about dangers as reasons that people should vote for them. Often the so-called dangers are things that are not really threatening, but if you repeat a story often enough some people will begin to believe it. If you speak of fear often enough, some people will become afraid. For millennia, those who seek power have known that a common enemy will unite people and that fear will motivate them to yield authority to leaders. There are plenty of stories from history of leaders who abused that power and who manipulated the fears of large groups of people without benefit to the people.

It certainly seems like the dominant emotion of the upcoming election is fear. Political ads predicting disaster are airing so often that it is hard, even for someone like me who doesn’t watch television, to escape them. Basically the formula is this: If you vote for my opponent, terrible things will happen. Scare tactics are being used by both sides in this highly divisive, hyper-partisan campaign season.

If you stoke false fears enough, they can turn into real danger. Yesterday, pipe bombs were discovered in packages sent to public officials all over the country. While investigators have not yet announced a suspect or a motive, all of the intended targets are favorite targets of politicians who use fear to stir up the public and make political gain. Attack ad after attack ad have been aimed at the same people over and over again stating that they present dangers and should be feared. Someone, or someones, probably suffering from delusional paranoia, attempted to eliminate the so-called threat by using physical violence. So far no one has been hurt, but real violence is often the outcome of exposing people to the constant drumbeat of fear.

Voters have spent months learning about imagined threats.

It is time for leaders who have the courage to speak of hope. Sadly, there seems to be a lack of courage in the current atmosphere of fear. Hope, however, never dies. So this weekend, we'll be delivering firewood again and thinking about our neighbors and their needs instead of the fears of politicians. In the end, as the Bible teaches, faith, hope and love remain.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!