Fear makes us malleable; knowledge is our antidote

Jenny Horsburgh spoke on fear and war
Jenny Horsburgh spoke on fear and war at our Dec. 10, 2015 vigil at Boston Common. Above, a Boston Globe photo of Jenny (metro section, page B3, Dec. 11, 2015 - Jim Davis photo)

Remarks delivered at the “Welcome Refugees – War is Not the Answer” vigil, Boston Common, Dec. 10, 2015.  More photos

Jenny Horsburgh

Yesterday morning at school, a girl I’m friendly with began complaining about Hillary Clinton, which I might have nodded along to, but then she said, “Hillary wants to raise the number of Syrians we’re taking in to 60,000 and I don’t think it’s a good idea. Is that even safe?” Then she said, “I mean, all these mass shootings we’ve been having lately, they’ve all been by Muslims.”

I was pretty thrown, and I told her, “There was a shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado just recently by a white non-Muslim US man.”

She ignored that and went on to say that it is “in their religion” for Muslims to commit violence.

“No, it’s not,” I said. I tried to explain the difference between Muslims and extremists like ISIS who are perverting Islam. I tried to explain some of the history in the region, our guilt and responsibilities. It’s a long, complicated story to explain in ten minutes of homeroom, though.

I expected hysteria and fearmongering and prejudice as soon as news broke of the Paris and then San Bernardino attacks, but this was the first time I’d run into such Islamophobia. And my friend didn’t come up with this herself–it’s something she’s been taught by dangerous narratives in our country right now. No wonder the emails that arrive in my inbox tell me that US support for war is high. What I heard from my friend is the rhetoric people are swallowing. This is the story presented as truth: we are under threat, Muslims are at fault, and we can’t accept them into our country because they would endanger us.

Never mind that the refugees are fleeing the same people we’re thirsting for war with; that they are victims, not aggressors. Never mind that to reject the refugees plays right into ISIS’s hands and their story in which the West is the devil incarnate. Never mind that it was our military misadventures that caused the crucible of instability and brutality and devastation that spawned ISIS. Never mind that we bear heavy responsibility not to turn our backs on the refugees we created. Never mind that 60,000 isn’t so much compared to the numbers that countries like Lebanon and Jordan are shouldering. Never mind that fear, ignorance, and the impulse to rush to military solutions first were what landed everyone in this lunatic blowback machine to begin with.

But no, never mind all that. (Actually, please do mind.) Because the official line is the same it always is: be afraid, be very afraid.

Fear is useful to the architects of war and other foreign policy. The fear that makes us malleable is a tool that will be used against us, to drum up support for wars. This is the fear that makes us accede to legislation that strips away our rights and laws–like the Patriot Act–and wars that drain money and human lives. This is the fear that spirals into apathy when our reaction is to batten down the hatches and seal ourselves off from what we may call terrorism.

Fear is inevitable in our volatile world, and it may well be justified. But that we are so willing to accept spoon-fed fear is scarier to me than the amorphous threat of Them, the terrorists, the newest enemy of the week, who are coming to get us.

One of the best antidotes to mindless, racist fear is knowledge. Awareness of the facts on the ground and the possible courses of action. What will cause the least damage and heal the most wounds that we have been gouging for so long. And the knowledge that this atmosphere of fear and instability and warmongering is a strategy, advancing the interests of the corporate and military elite. It has been done before and it will be done again. To quote a line from the punk rock band Anti-Flag in their song Anatomy of Your Enemy (10 Easy Steps to Create an Enemy and Start a War): “We need to see these tactics as a weapon against humanity and not as truth.”