Fear Itself

Fear is the sensation one experiences when confronted with the possibility that circumstances could get worse. Terror, on the other hand (or for seals, the other flipper) is the sensation one experiences when confronted with actual evidence that circumstances are definitely going to get worse. For example, one experiences fear when seated in an airplane that is making “prrrrt-krunk-pffft” noises from the smoke-belching starboard engine. One experiences terror when same airplane has broken into two separate pieces and one has been precipitated out of the fuselage, especially if the airplane in question was not parked on the tarmac when bifurcation occurred. Fear and terror are simply points along a scale, with “mild unease” at one end and “life flashing before eyes” at the other.

I broach the subject of fear because some of my correspondents are afraid, and some are terrified. They feel that America is plunging into an abyss, and yet the general mood is one of apathy. You have to wonder what’s the matter with the vast majority of people currently mouth-breathing through their days on the “mild unease” end of the spectrum. Surely they notice something is wrong? Surely they experience a frisson of mild dread, or a subtle dread-like frisson at least, when their tiny but serviceable imaginations turn to the subject of the future? Or are we merely nervous nellies, me and my correspondents? My word, what a lot of rhetorical questions. Let’s start with something simple: am I afraid?

To answer this question in some way other than “yes”, we must first ask what there is to be afraid of. I am speaking now of the sociopolitical realm, not the commonplace personal fears such as fear of heights, self-immolation, public speaking, Schnauzers, or getting caught reading ‘Das Kapital’ in the lobby of the Heritage Foundation. What is there to be afraid of from American civic life? After all, if you’re not a minority of any kind, or a Muslim, nor female or poor or an outspoken critic of the venal Administration of pirates who have propelled our nation into the darkest era in modern history, why worry? Unless someone holds a grudge against you, or a government computer attaches your name to the wrong list, or you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, you’re perfectly safe, right? All twenty-two of you who don’t fit into one of these risk categories can stop reading now and go back to your caves in the forest, secure that without a social security number or name you will not get caught in the gears of the Big Machine. Me? I’m scared shitless.

In correspondence with this writer, gentle readers applaud my courage for speaking out in a bold manner against the mad exploits of our runaway American government. But am I not afraid of the consequences, they shudder? After all, the way I put things is kind of tart is the wrong word, maybe caustic? But certainly the sort of speech that gets a fellow thrown into double secret detention, at any rate. This of course terrifies me and I think I’ve gone too far and spend the weekend hiding under a dumpster in the Garment District disguised as a bolt of soiled Nankeen silk. My cowardice backfires when a bumptious Polish dowager has me made into a set of cushions for a left-handed chaise longe.

In other words, it is risky to speak out in these times, but it is riskier to remain silent, and not just because there are feckless upholsterers abroad in the land. Find a fight and stay in it. One can be forgiven for avoiding anti-Bush Administration sentiments at monster truck rallies and the like, as the persons who attend such events will tend to be unquestioning supporters of same– unless it’s the Joe Stalin Truck Stomp in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But when is silence mere common sense, and when is it an abrogation of one’s duty as a citizen? This is a difficult question to answer, especially if you answer it in Schwyzerdütsch with pencils through your cheeks. But we must explore the subject while we still can. Freedom of speech begins and ends with the willingness to speak freely. Boy, it sure is hard to concentrate with all these Feds hammering on the door.

Anybody who is not afraid in these times is a dolt or poltroon of the first water. Overseas, the war on terrorism has led to the military invasion of two countries, the reopening of the arms race, and the dissolution of America’s historic alliance with Western Europe; Americans abroad are advised to pose as Canadians to avoid recriminations from an angry world (insert Canadian joke here). As American fear of the world has spiraled out of control, so has the world’s fear of America. Meanwhile at home, we are afraid of everybody. Libertarians see a massive government digging its talons into our cherished freedoms and so lash out at Liberals; Liberals see the government loosing all restraints on corporatism and so lash out at Libertarians; Corporations lash out at mortals, which group includes Libertarians and all Liberals except apparently Noam Chomsky, who is 3,000 years old; Conservatives lash out in all directions irrespective, because if you’re not one of them, you’re one of those Other People, and Other People are bad; and Other People lash out at each other, depending on their particular animus. All this lashing out leaves the near-mythic nasties at the top pretty much free to do whatever they want, which is nothing good. It’s a frightening situation. We’ve definitely hit the ‘fear’ end of the scale. But should we be terrified?

I’m not terrified, which has less to do with innate courage on my part (I suffer from irrational fears of marzipan, parrots, faint twanging sounds, and boiled wool) and more to do with the subtle difference between fear and terror. Back to that airplane, because it’s so fun to make airplane analogies. The engine is smoking. No, it’s on fire, and the condition of the portside engine cannot be determined because the wing has fallen off, and the airplane in general is trending in the downward direction at 500 knots. Fear is an appropriate response, because there is a very real possibility that things will get worse. But ­call me an optimist- I believe we can pull out of this tailspin (the airplane is also in a tailspin and cabin service has been discontinued). The time for terror has not yet arrived.

The path down which America has been shanghaied is a disastrous one. (I have given up on the airplane analogy. It was making me anxious.) But Americans are an ingenious people, inventive and spirited and willing to transform ourselves. As the patriotic music swells, read on, dear reader, read on: I believe we can once again reclaim the glories of the American experiment and become a great and proud nation, our greatest glory not the triumph of arms but the triumph of the human spirit. I believe America can once again embrace the greater family of mankind and rejoin humanity’s eternal march toward the garden of peace and understanding, the fruits of which are freedom and justice. But these noble outcomes will only arise from acts of courage, deeds of selflessness and determination untempered by fear for ourselves and our small comforts. The times will pass, and us with them, my friends, and our only epitaph shall be the future we leave to our children. (Author now rises from his chair as shaft of sunlight breaks through clouds and illuminates his waxy yet shining face, riven with tears of hope and joy.) Do not fail to act upon your conscience out of fear! Do not fail to uphold that which is good and right because so many others have forgotten that goodness and righteousness cannot be won by the detonation of a missile, the crushing of a nation, or the reviling of a people. Do not dishonor your freedoms by failing to exercise them. And most of all, do not let fear conquer your spirit, because fear makes slaves of us all. (Author starts singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and embraces bust of Abraham Lincoln while Old Glory unfurls in background.)

A paranoiac is someone who regards the absence of evidence of anything to fear as proof that there is something to fear. We must not succumb to paranoia. But the opposite extreme is complacency in the face of overwhelming evidence that something awful is going down. Yet there are so many complacent people that those of us who are afraid of what is happening may be lulled into the sense that maybe if we do nothing, our fears will go away. Did that weird stain on the couch go away just because you ignored it? No, it got worse, and turned black, and began to smell, and you ended up leaving the couch on the curb. But you cannot leave your rights on the curb, or they will be taken away and used for landfill. If today we fail to uphold what is right because we are afraid, tomorrow it will be too late, and we will be terrified, or something epigrammatic like that. Don’t let fear keep you silent, dear readers, because this airplane is a train wreck waiting to happen.

BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist. He can be reached at: credel@earthlink.net


Ben Tripp is America’s leading pseudo-intellectual. His most recent book is The Fifth House of the Heart.