Fear

I just read this story. Someone phoned the police because a student was photographing locks in Washington State. They were afraid he was a terrorist. He’s definitely a photography student.

Last week in Vancouver I was stuck in traffic for an hour on Georgia Street. It was shut down by police because of a suspicious package at the post office. There where wires sticking out, and a note inside explaining they were for cooling apparatus for sensitive crystals. This turned out to be true.

At the building where I live the door screeches if it is left over for four seconds or longer. Doors from the parking garage from the building are locked – in both directions.

People are afraid. Since 9/11 they are even more afraid. There are many things in the world to be afraid of, but there are hardly more now than three years ago. I won’t repeat the famous quote, but the world will always be scary. Fear is the problem.

Since the fall of the twin towers many people have become afraid of planes, afraid of foreigners, of biological material. With last year’s SARS outbreak they were afraid of people who cough. Since Columbine they have been afraid of students in black, who write, who don’t like school or who prefer computers to sports.

I am afraid too. I’m afraid there will be a wold pandemic of a new virus, or of an old disease with new resistance. I’m afraid of the stuff in my food and the increased rates of cancer, asthma, attention deficit disorder. I’m afraid that global climate change will produce mass migrations of population and destabilize everywhere. I’m afraid in this small world that the next war will be too big for humanity after all. I’m afraid – no, convinced – that someday there will be a nuclear attack on a major world city, using material from the decayed military of the Soviet Union. I’m afraid of the earthquake. I’m afraid of death.

One of my classmates in high school told me had he spent his whole life in fear of the coming nuclear holocaust. The mushroom cloud loomed over his shoulder; it kept him awake at night. I laughed at him: What do you have to worry about? We live in Ottawa. Surly the Russians can afford at least one nuke for the capital of Canada. We’ll never know what hit us – what is there to be afraid of?

There’s enough fear to go around. There always has been: the Moriori were wiped out by invasion. The Huron were wiped out by smallpox and war. Whole cities were razed to the ground by the Mongolian hordes. These people never know what was coming or what hit them. If fear is coming to us, will we really see it before hand?

These fears eat us up. They distract us from the lives we have and from the good we can do. They make us give up our freedoms and give up our joys. They make us watch each other suspiciously and shut down a city when we see white dust. They make us suppress our writers and our artists and our culture. They make us keep our children indoors. They simultaneously bring inaction where we could improve the future – thinking: what can we do? – and action which damages what we have. They do these things because we let them.

The world is truly no scarier than it has ever been. Sure, someday we may follow the dinosaurs. But we are luckier, we are healthier, we are longer-lived than the generations who came before. Remember how hard they had it, and then remember that history is written by the survivors. There was a time when whole nations were suddenly wiped from the face of the earth without warning. And yet in those times humanity struggled and slowly, somehow built what we have today. We must fight for something, not react against our fears, and strive for better.

2004-07-14

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