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Surrendering the weapon of fear
Decency compels all of us to surrender fear as a weapon, to reject its use even when it would seem to benefit causes we favor, and to contextualize it in our own minds in order to sap it of its excessive power.
In his "Letters from a Stoic", Lucius Seneca offered a piece of advice that resonates with distressing timeliness today: "[H]e who is feared, fears also; no one has been able to arouse terror and live in peace of mind." As we live in a time plagued by fear of a pandemic and approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it's worth asking what side of fear we're on.
■ Sure, it would be lovely for the human condition if we could eradicate fear, but we cannot. Children will have nightmares. People will be diagnosed with dreadful diseases. Nature will send unstoppable disasters our way.
■ But, on balance, human good tries to diminish the weight of fear, and evil brandishes fear as a weapon. It is literally from the fear itself -- the terror -- that terrorism takes its name. It was fear that drove more than 100,000 people out of Afghanistan as the Taliban took over. It is rule by fear that makes people want to escape the control of the Communist Party of China.
■ Minds clouded by fear cannot think straight -- at least, not optimally so. This is a scientific fact, not just a platitude. It is a powerful, intangible force, and for those who live in relative security, it can be hard to fathom the consequences of living in constant fear.
■ Unfortunately, that doesn't stop people from trying to use fear as a weapon, even in places of relative safety and security. Enterprising policymakers -- of both left and right -- are prone to using an expansive definition of fear to encompass feelings of mere discomfort. In so doing, they over-extend the reach of an effective state methodology to reduce fear.
■ The state tends to be immodest about its efficacy at reducing fear using institutional mechanisms. Fear is an emotional dynamic experienced mainly at the individual level. Fear may be contagious, but it is experienced one person at a time. And there, too, is where fear is most usually resolved. We are rendered heartbroken by the knowledge of what happened to Marine Sergeant Nicole Gee not long after she was photographed bringing comfort to an infant in Kabul. But her individual act of compassion for that one child is a beautiful image of someone using strength to ease another's fear.
■ Those who would hype up ungrounded fears about helpless people (like refugees), pounce on the use of intimidation to frighten their opponents, or employ violence as "a tactic of how we keep our communities safe" are all guilty of siding with the use of fear, rather than trying to diminish it.
■ Fear is far too prevalent already. Decency compels all of us to surrender fear as a weapon, to reject its use even when it would seem to benefit causes we favor, and to contextualize it in our own minds in order to sap it of its excessive power. Not everything that is uncomfortable or undesirable is to be feared. Fear itself is objectively worth categorical resistance.