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Issue Date:  February 3, 2006

Braving the culture of fear

An elected official examines how Americans have become prisoners of their own anxiety

Editor’s Note: NCR rarely publishes speeches, but a recent talk in Kansas City, Mo., by Jackson County Executive Katheryn J. Shields on Americans’ willingness to give up their liberties to defend themselves from imagined dangers seemed to us worth printing for what it says about the culture we’ve become.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I want to talk to you today about a matter that has been causing me increasing concern. Our nation is being overwhelmed with fear. Not the kind of fear that is the reasonable apprehension of a specific danger, rationally analyzed and guarded against. Oh, no. We are being overwhelmed by fear that vastly exceeds any actual rationally analyzed danger and our response to that fear has been paralyzing both socially and economically.

Consider this: For nearly two decades, violent crime in our country has been on a steady decline. Yet most Americans feel that they are increasingly unsafe in their own homes and neighborhoods. They are afraid.

Eleven years ago, I decided to take my 5-year-old to New York to see the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Friends, educated people who should know better, were horrified that I would consider taking a child to so dangerous a place as New York City. After all, didn’t I know about all the violent crime there? Actually, I did. What I knew was that the violent crime rate in New York City was, and is, about the same per capita as Boise, Idaho. But, no television cop shows are set in Boise. All the TV crime shows are set in big cities, and that means, with 150 cable channels available, it’s not inconceivable that more people were murdered in New York City last night on television than were actually murdered in the real New York City in the last decade.

The most popular show on television today is “CSI,” set in Las Vegas. Watch that show, and you would conclude that Las Vegas has at least one mass murderer a week pursued by the city’s one actual detective and a bunch of lab technicians.

We might laugh but for the very real effect this fantasy of fear is having on our society. People who are constantly afraid behave in ways that are not beneficial to a free society. That is why the philosopher Henry David Thoreau said that “nothing is so much to be feared as fear,” the origin of FDR’s famous quote that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes ...”

This unreasoning fearfulness affects how we behave and how we allocate our resources. Consider how many of us demand to have guns in our homes and even in our cars. Does it really make us safer to have a gun in our homes when the leading cause of death among teenagers is suicide, when statistically a handgun is three times more likely to be used to kill family or friend than stranger, and the actual number of times a gun is used to defend a home against invasion is so low as to be statistically insignificant? Or how about in cars? How can it make sense to have a freeway filled with armed, frustrated commuters? Yet unreasoning fear overcomes mere reason.

Fearful people demand more laws and harsher penalties, regardless of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of such efforts. And elected officials of both parties enthusiastically yield. Throughout the boom years of the ’90s, we spent billions of dollars building prisons. Not schools, not roads, not factories. Prisons. Expensive to build. Expensive to staff. And because there are actually only so many violent criminals to go around, no matter how long you make their sentences, these expensive prisons end up filled to the brim with nonviolent dopers, drivers and deadbeat dads.

While at the same time we raise tuition and fees at state universities and drive over foot-deep potholes in our highways.

Of course, the impact on our civil liberties has been horrendous, the liberties that we are supposed to value most dearly and which have historically distinguished America and Americans. You remember, that Land of the Free stuff we learned in civics class. Steady erosion of liberty is an understatement.

And that was before 9/11. The terrible events of that day burned into all of our psyches live on the morning news may have had a greater scarring effect on us than the bombing of Pearl Harbor had on our parents and grandparents. They had to wait a week for the newsreels. We watched the towers fall in real time.

Americans can be justifiably proud of the self-control of those first few weeks. The great majority of our leaders and our people made it clear that they would not tolerate the abuse of Muslim or Arab Americans. While there were too many unacceptable individual incidents, there would be no repeat of World War II’s mass mistreatment of the Japanese Americans. For the most part, the American people behaved better than their government, a government that began locking up people without charge or trial, claiming the right to hold people and trials in secret. A government that rushed through an artfully but inaccurately named USA PATRIOT Act. All done with the enthusiastic support of both political parties.

Benjamin Franklin warned that those who would sacrifice liberty to seek safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. But even worse are those who sacrifice liberty without achieving any greater safety. Much of this might be justified if there were some rational relationship to the actual threats. But that is rarely the case.

Consider this: After Columbine and other school shootings, metal detectors sprang up in urban public schools across the nation. Of course, Columbine was not only a wealthy suburb, but involved suicidal boys who outgunned the security guards. Other school shootings occurred outside the schools, making metal detectors useless except to scare the tar out of everyone and create the impression of a school as a fortress and of schooling as unsafe.

Or airline security. Does anyone actually feel safer arriving an hour earlier so we can strip-search some 10-year-old kid from Chillicothe or some grandmother from Olathe? Does that make you feel safer from the threat of al-Qaeda terrorists? Or is it just supposed to scare you or remind you that you are supposed to be scared?

Before Oklahoma City, large amounts of money were spent on courthouse security. After that event and now 9/11, it is virtually impossible to enter a public building without passing through a metal detector nor can you legally park near one. Of course, none of those actions deal with the actual threat: An illegally parked truck bomb, as was used in Oklahoma City. We act as if a mad bomber bent on mass murder will be deterred by the threat of a parking ticket.

While such actions may have little or no actual security value, they do create an illusion of protection while generating an atmosphere of fear. But at what cost? Aside from the expense in dollars, what is the impact of herding jurors through metal detectors as they enter the courthouse to deliberate? Does any student of American history really think Thomas Jefferson or John Adams would have tolerated being searched before being allowed to enter a public building? They might have just decided what the heck, may as well keep King George.

But the expense is not minimal. How much is fear costing us? Not just for government, but for private security. How much are we spending without creating a single thing of value? Is our fear creating a hidden tax of 2 percent? Five percent? What will be the long-term effect of such a hidden tax on our economy? How much does such a Fear Tax act as a drag on our global competitiveness?

In addition to the economic impact, what is the psychological effect of being always afraid? We have seen its impact on our willingness to defend our liberties. But does being afraid make us more aggressive, more prone to violence either as individuals or as a nation?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I suspect that the answers will not be good news. I do, however, have the answer to the question that I wanted to discuss with this group: What attribute and skill do we need in today’s leaders?

Courage. Courage. Courage.

We need leaders who will exercise some personal courage, and not be panicked into seeing criminals and terrorists behind every bush. The world may sometimes be a dangerous place, but Kansas City is not Kabul, and Baltimore is not Baghdad. And the Cowardly Lion may be an amusing literary character, but he makes a lousy leader.

We need leaders who will exercise political courage, leaders who will calm unwarranted fears, not encourage them or capitalize on them, grandstanding for votes. We need leaders with the courage to spend resources wisely, even or especially when that means building fewer popular prisons and more necessary roads and schools. Leaders who will, as the great conservative statesman Edmund Burke wrote, vote their judgment, not merely their constituents’ opinion.

Believe me, that takes courage.

Not all of those courageous leaders we need are political. We need businessmen and especially journalists who will stand up for reason and against fear. We need ministers. We need community leaders and labor leaders and PTA leaders.

This is not too much to ask of ourselves. We have sent nearly 300,000 young Americans overseas, asking them to risk their lives to defend our freedom. How can it be too much to ask ourselves to find just a bit of the courage we ask of them to defend those freedoms here at home, to give up our addiction to fear, to recognize that perfect safety is never possible and that freedom is precious, even if we must accept the risks that go with it.

It is at times like these that we must remember the wisdom contained in our national anthem -- that the Star Spangled Banner can wave over the Land of the Free only so long as we remain the Home of the Brave.

Let us be brave.

Katheryn J. Shields is Jackson County executive. She delivered this speech at the annual dinner of the Heartland Muslim Council on Dec. 3.

National Catholic Reporter, February 3, 2006

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