Hands DownAugust 20th, 2014

Many people are saying that Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager shot six times by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, was killed because of the color of his skin. That may be, but I suspect it was a perception of fearlessness that ultimately provoked his killer to lethal violence. We are meant to be afraid, and most of us are, but every so often we need a reminder, and that was Michael Brown’s function. He may have failed to show the proper level of respect, and we should all be aware that you can be killed for that. The police let his body lie in the street for hours to make sure that the community–including you and me–got the message.

There’s plenty to be afraid of: muggers, burglars, extreme weather, divine wrath, outbreaks of illness, Russia, odor-causing bacteria, China, Iran, immigrants, terrorists. Black people should be afraid of white people, and white people should be afraid of black people. And we must all tremble before the law. That’s the whole point of the military weaponry and camouflage fatigues.

Authorities of all kinds–religious, political, commercial–know that influencing others is most readily accomplished through fear. You are more likely to buy a gun and bullets if you’re afraid of street crime. You’ll support a permanent state of war if you’re afraid of powerful enemies in foreign lands. You will put more money in the collection plate and come more often to worship if you fear the consequences of irreverence. You will certainly demand less for your labor if you fear for your job.

Makes no difference whether the danger is real or imagined. As the street crime rate declined with the aging of our population, the frequency of TV and movie violence was pushed up accordingly, and our leaders responded to the rash of fictional violence with a panicked rush to longer prison sentences, warrantless searches, new legal prohibitions, and a huge private corrections industry to deal with our unprecedented prison population. After the big scare of 9/11/2001, we all became potential enemies; in the post-9/11 USA, you can’t ride an airplane without exposing your naked body to inspection for fingernail clippers and other dangerous objects that you might use to highjack the flight. So pressing is the fear today that people feel safer for the intrusions.

You may have noticed how easily we switch to a new enemy when an old one is eliminated. No sooner did we lose communists as enemies than we were excoriating radical Islam. Hussein and Bin Laden were quickly replaced by Assad and Putin. That’s because, for some, panic is a profitable condition, and you can’t have panic without enemies. Makers of pharmaceuticals and weapons and proprietors of private prisons thrive on fear. Bankers and other opportunists are adept at turning it to their material and political advantage. Frightened people are distracted, and this makes it easier to separate them from their principles and their property. The only thing our manipulators have to fear is that there might be nothing for us to fear.

Of all the terrorized people, the most pathetic are the civil liberties activists. Most of them seem to be in hiding. People who organize protest demonstrations hardly ever say, when 30 people show up, “This protest is a failure.” They should. As for the absent dissidents, they would never admit it, but they’re scared, many of them, of getting arrested or photographed or seen on TV by their boss. Their trepidation gives other would-be demonstrators an additional thing to dread: being part of a demonstration so miniscule as to be an embarassment, a testament to the weakness of iconoclastic spirit and proof of delusion among the protesters.

Nothing puts a bigger chill on dissent than fear. We know that when the authorities kill, justice is suspended. There is almost always a ready excuse in police brutality episodes and almost never a successful prosecution, and there is no prosecution at all in most cases. The risk of punishment is not a deterrent to official violence. It’s the sort of condition that will get you to say “Yes, Officer,” and “Sure, Officer,” when you’d really like to be saying something else.

In some quarters, the deployment of weapons of war in our neighborhoods is seen as a declaration of war on the people, and some citizens are not putting their hands up, despite the intimidating array of force. They know they can’t prevail by force of arms, but they believe it’s possible to restrain corrupt authority by force of numbers. Their demonstrations of courage and commitment are meant to empower their neighbors and relations, and we have seen them in action this past week. They may not win the battle of Ferguson, but they won’t surrender either.

The founders of our republic anticipated malfeasance in high places, and so they gave us the means to dissolve corrupt authority and replace it. All it takes is a majority, but here in the home of the brave, the majority is paralyzed with fear.