The Only Thing We Have to Fear

By Alex Abbott
American University

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Three Muslim students murdered in Chapel Hill. Activist Raif Badawi imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Secular activist, Avijit Roy, murdered in Bangladesh. Islamic State (ISIL) has continued its campaign of blood-splattered tabloid fodder.

With so much violence and bloodshed occurring around the world, should I be afraid? As a humanist, and as an American, should I be fearful? Should I be cowering and flailing wildly for retaliation in any form? Should you? Is this the time to respond to violence with paranoia? Instead, is it possible to overcome our anxieties rather than embracing our fears?

It could be argued that the idea of the social contract is based upon fear. The philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, posited the state of nature and its inherent chaos as a legitimate basis for the power of the state.

Beyond that, society often appears to have bonded together through fears of some ethereal other, weaved into a unifying thread of an exclusive, bellicose, black-and-white nationalism.

Is society fated to perpetuate a baseline level of fear? Is society predicated on fear to some degree?

American history is no exception. Manifest destiny, frequent xenophobia against successive waves of immigrants, fears of Masons or Catholics or minorities or gay people peal as a warning bell throughout the pages of our story…yet this is not an indictment of one country. This trend is a universal dynamic.

Look at France and the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. How French Muslims have faced so much prejudice and countless attacks on their mosques, even as one of their own died in front of the office of Charlie Hebdo to protect images blasphemous to his religion.

Behold, the danger of fear: too much plays into the hands of extremists; while society feeds upon fear, growing with fear as a companion; so how do people avoid the seduction of fear, as a weapon of repression or revenge?

It does not make the world a better place to demagogue with a broad brush against certain groups. Identifying the world into competing tribes or peoples who inevitably oppose each other? That dangerous way of seeing the world plays into the hands of extremists everywhere.

A friend of mine, who is relatively conservative, recently posted a distressing article. It profiled conservatives living in heavily liberal locales whose friends had ostracized and disowned them because of their views. We can choose how we treat people who are different from us. We can treat those who are different with dignity and compassion, or we can allow our fear and ignorance to blind us.

My aunt’s father, who fought against Nazis in WWIII, happened to be Japanese-American. I wonder what crossed his mind while innocent people, just like him, were consigned to prisons. Prison camps on U.S. soil, such as Manzanar, which incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans during the same war. While FDR said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself“, even he managed to cave into hysteria.

Rather, are the caliber of our fears the measure of our society? When FDR outlined his Four Freedoms, it illustrated a fear of want, repression and inequality. To some degree, shouldn’t we want to fear those things? Even if that fear clouds our judgment and often impairs our decisions?

It seems like there is a wobbly balance which has evolved over the centuries, at least, perhaps since the dawn of humanity…one which affects how each of us interacts with each other, how groups of people treat each other and how groups see themselves, and how we see ourselves in our own groupings. Which nation or religion or movement is immune from that problem?

Even though I am not a Christian, I admire when Jesus said, remove the log from your own eye before concerning yourself with a speck from someone else’s, and let the person who is without sin cast the first stone (Matthew 7:5). Let the country or community that isn’t predicated on or hasn’t abused fear speak up.

I do not have a magic solution to precisely calibrate the desirable amount of fear that you should, well, fear. So the fear of the unknown takes us back to where we started. We can choose to walk in fear or use our fears to fuel our hopes. We can destroy and divide or we can listen and learn from each other. Let’s be strangers together on this journey into parts unknown.

Alex Abbott (American University)

Yet Another ProfileAlex is a 2012 American University alumni with a degree in Political Science and Philosophy. He currently lives in Washington, DC and works for a non-profit membership organization which advocates on behalf of seniors. Arguably, he enjoys improv comedy, poetry, and politics too much. He is trying awfully hard to be a decent humanist, feminist, and liberal. He is also passionate about many other topics including religion, economics, climate justice, and disability rights. His Twitter handle is the semi-pretentiously-titled @Alexthethinker.

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