Terror and illegitimate fear

Michael Moore’s film, “Bowl ing for Columbine,” which I saw last Saturday, got me thinking, as most effective movies do. The film aims to explain America’s high gun-death rate and produces some interesting answers. Apparently, neither the availability of guns nor Marilyn Manson can fully account for our gun deaths. In the case of countries such as Canada, which owns 7 million guns distributed among 10 million households and experiences less than a hundred gun-related deaths per year to the U.S.’s 10,000, the presence of guns does not, in and of itself, lead to gun violence.

So why do we kill roughly ten times as many people each year with guns as the rest of the Western world? “Bowling for Columbine” concludes that we kill more because we are more afraid. Media coverage of shootings, killer bees, shark attacks, abusive nannies, defective products and the now forgotten Y2K bug, the film argues, has conditioned us to be terrified of that which poses little real threat. This heightened fear makes us more willing to pull the trigger.

Having grown up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I have witnessed such unjustified fear firsthand. Those responsible for my safety have narrated an unending saga of caution for me since my toddler years.

The advice dispensed has ranged in seriousness from not talking to strangers to being wary of the dangers of escalators. I still remember the time, money and grief wasted on asbestos (still not shown to pose the health threat parents were told it did), the West Nile virus (are the victims in the double digits yet?) and the blanket arrests of the city’s suddenly violent homeless.

But the list goes on: don’t walk through the park after dark, don’t answer when asked the time (they’re probably trying to steal your watch), don’t ride the subway after midnight, don’t talk to children from neighboring schools, don’t be unprepared for the great blizzard (still waiting on that one), don’t walk in tall grass (what tall grass?), don’t drink that brand of apple juice and, whatever you do, don’t jaywalk.

With the exception of those living in a few, particularly dangerous neighborhoods in which the police contribute a great deal to this danger, many New Yorkers do things everyday, from talking to a homeless person to stiffing a cab driver, that many consider dangerous.

Speaking for myself, I have never been in a fight in my 19 years of city life, and the reason is just as illogical as that for spraying the whole city with pesticides: if you wear a bubble jacket and timberland boots, stand around with a few other guys and look tough in most neighborhoods in New York, no one will mess with you. They’re so afraid of the images of male, minority violence crowding the Post everyday that they just assume I’m a killer, and don’t stop to consider that I’m about 140 pounds and a private school student to boot.

In this sense, I “survive” the city by playing off of other people’s fears, by presenting myself as a figure who is not afraid and has some reason to not be afraid, as if fear should be a default emotion in one’s own affluent, well-policed community. Well, whatever works, right?

Such quirks make the city what it is, but they are also quite destructive. For example, just about the only people I do fear nowadays are the police, and I don’t do so to be stylish. Think about it: they have the legal authority to ruin my academic career and life for any number of things I do or do not do on a regular basis.

If there’s one crew in all of New York that can push me around, it’s the cops: they’ve got guns and clubs and a knack for inventing reasons to use them against people who fit my description. Because my neighborhood is safe and my family well endowed with common sense, I have never once asked for a policeman’s help. In an attempt to create safety from safety, the city has pushed me into some really nonsensical positions.

To conclude, all of this talk has some pretty obvious applications to the world’s present problems, and it is high time we started asking ourselves just what should and should not instill fear.

The only one of my friends who has been killed died in a car accident (the number one killer of teens and young adults in this country), and the closest I’ve come to death was when I crossed the street without looking one night and was almost hit. I’m sure a lot, if not a majority, of Williams students would say the same.

So I ask: is the War on Terror really new, or have we been fighting it for years? Was 9/11 a manifestation of our worst fears, or did it merely force billions around the world to face fears worse than the prospect of enduring a few inches of snow?