I first got the idea for this book in late April 2016. At that time, my focus was really on how fear operates within each of us - on an individual level, rather than on a social or collective level. But, well, the world has changed in some unexpected ways since then, and now I’m thinking more about fear as a social phenomenon, too. How fear spreads in a crowd, how we form little herds and how we fear those who are outside of our own circle. How fear can be channeled into aggression and violence.
A few years ago, I wrote a story for Pacific Standard
about a young, charismatic militia leader in Alaska who was accused of plotting to commit a mass murder of government workers. Near the end of the story, I wrote this:
Fear is corrosive, a slow-acting poison. Schaeffer Cox was afraid—of the Office of Children’s Services, of the courts and the police, of the supposed six-man death squad from Aurora—and he instilled that fear in his followers. Then, together, they set about making others afraid. One of the TSA agents targeted by the Peacemakers testified during the trial that she has since started carrying a gun herself, for protection. Another airport employee reported that Cox approached her at work, took her picture, and told her that he needed to identify “all the Nazis.” And meanwhile, everything the authorities did to rein in Cox and his men only made their followers more afraid, too, more convinced that there was truly something to be afraid of.
“I put a lot of people in fear by the things that I said,” Cox told the courtroom
on the day of his sentencing. “Some of the crazy stuff that was coming out of my mouth, I see that, and I sounded horrible…. The more scared I got, the crazier the stuff. I wasn’t thinking, I was panicking.”
I thought about that old story this morning, as I heard the news about the crowd of young men who surrounded an Omaha elder
on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and jeered and heckled him while he sang and drummed. When I described Cox’s actions as being driven by fear, I didn’t mean that to excuse him in any way. A lot of the bad things people do to each other are driven by fear, one way or another, and that doesn’t make it okay. But as I watched the video clips of those young men, laughing and smirking and crowding in, I didn’t see fear. What I saw, instead, was a complete lack of fear - no fear of doing the wrong thing, of hurting someone else, of facing any consequences for their actions. They smiled for the cameras. They were not afraid of being punished for their cruelty. Their brashness startled me.
So that’s what’s on my mind today as I work on a section of the book about the ways in which fear can be necessary, and important - a warning and a corrective. It’s a bit gloomy, but hey, it’s a grey day in mid-January! Gloominess is what’s on the menu.
A reading recommendation! My friend Luke Dittrich’s phenomenal book, Patient H.M.
, explores some of the dark history of neuroscience and how we came to understand one of our most cherished brain functions: the making of memory. Check it out if you can.
Yours in fearfulness,