The Exploitation of Fear

To the extent that we are afraid, they succeed in their radicalization because they radicalize us. It’s an ancient war and it’s never going to stop, no matter how many bombs we throw at it over there or how many draconian measures we institute over here.

I wrote this over the summer, and put it away as too much of a downer…until the events of this past week promoted me to bring it out again.

There’s been yet another terrorist attack in Europe. People doing nothing but enjoying a warm summer night were suddenly murdered, run down by a van or stabbed in an insane and senseless 8 minutes of violence.

Virtually the same language applies to what happened last week:

There’s been yet another attack on our collective sense of security. People doing nothing but enjoying a country music concert were suddenly murdered, executed from a quarter mile away in an insane and senseless 11 minutes of violence.

Some may draw a distinction between the attacks in Europe being a “terrorist” action and those in Las Vegas the acts of a “lone madman.”  But they are both unequivocally acts of terror.  And I’m not at all interested in the rationalization of vicious sub humans as to why they are doing these things, or sick justifications of their actions in the name of some perversion of a “religion” or “personal liberties.” Terrorism, to my mind, includes the fetishization of guns.  Really, what is the difference between terrorists and the Breitbart commentator who tweeted that ”the crusades need to come back?” It’s xenophobic, irrational, infused with an underlying intent to do harm, but it’s pretty clear that the idiot “journalist” who wrote this is running on the fuel of fear.

The attacks we are experiencing with increasing frequency are planned and executed to rain carnage and instill fear – or maybe more accurately, to project the murderers’ fear onto his victims. It has to be acknowledged that fear radicalizes people. We have a threshold as to what we are willing to tolerate, and while it’s a moving target, I believe we are wired to move from a sense of helplessness, to one of anger in the face of repetitive assaults on our sense of security.  The result is that we think thoughts and are willing to tolerate things that were formerly out of bounds for us.



Despots have been using this to leverage popular unrest for as long as people have been around. They recognize that people need to feel safe, and can be mobilized by incessantly repeating the message that 1) you are not safe, and 2) that is because of some specific enemy. It was used to marshal a populist movement in the last election, and it’s been used forever to subjugate others, to justify all manner of self-righteous violence, to rationalize wars most often in the service of one person’s God who is apparently just fine with the slaughter of people who believe something else.

I didn’t sit down to write a political diatribe, but I can’t help feeling really angry about this summer’s slaughter in London – or all of the slaughters before and since. I’m disturbingly pulled in two directions: On the one hand, intellectually recognizing that internment of identified “radicals,” which is being thrown around as some sort of solution and even manifested in this country as a justification for deporting children, is precisely the kind of “solution” that has historically been the slippery slope to genocide. On the other, I really want to be safe from people whose thinking is preoccupied with doing me harm because I don’t believe what they do.

Lizard-BrainWhat’s this have to do with Age Spots? While radicalism is usually associated with youth, I think that’s because people in their teens and twenties are more likely to act on the impulses coming out of their amygdala, or reptilian brain.  There’s a tempering with age, the insertion of some kind of buffer, whether borne of experience or a change in focus or the finite limits of individual energy, that moves most people to a more temperate state.   So we probably see more road rage, more violent crime, and more radical hate behavior perpetrated by younger than by older people. (I’m not up on the stats and could be off base here, and last week’s mass murder by a 64-year old is all the more frightening for violating our expectations.)  We send kids off to fight wars because they are less powerful as a political force, less geopolitically nuanced (my country right or wrong), and easier to manipulate.

It seems to me that a different set of impulses become dominant as we age, but they are no less destructive and probably more so because they have the authority of institutional power, given the average age of governing bodies. You know, the people who start the wars; it’s the sons and daughters of other people who have to fight. The impulses I’m talking about are the ones driven by fear. Fear of the uncertainty we’ve spent lifetimes trying to tame. Fear for the security of the families we have created, our children and grandchildren (the families we grew up in protected us). Fear of people who are different and wield that difference to do us harm. And those are the impulses that are so easy to marshal, by people touting simplistic solutions that so many people want to believe even if they have enough going on cognitively to know they’re not realistic.

Terrorism isn’t new

It’s not the assault on our values that terrifies, because the last 12 months made pretty obvious that those are fungible. It’s the assault, rather, on the nerve center of security, the preying on our fears, that is profoundly and painfully unsettling. The forces that want to harm us get this, and they do so instinctively. To the extent that we are afraid, they succeed in their radicalization because they radicalize us. It’s an ancient war and it’s never going to stop, no matter how many bombs we throw at it over there or how many draconian measures we institute over here. I’m not proposing a solution; I don’t have one. Only that we stop and take stock of what’s going on in our brains and maybe find there something, anything we might do to inhibit the violence that could ultimately have us all padlocking ourselves in our homes. 

Padlocked home


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