(Warning: this post may have some political overtones)
In Plato’s Laches, Socrates is questioning the Athenian general Laches about – among other things – the very essence of bravery. What does it mean to be courageous? Old war horse that he is, Laches has a ready definition:
οὐ μὰ τὸν Δία, ὦ Σώκρατες, οὐ χαλεπὸν εἰπεῖν: εἰ γάρ τις ἐθέλοι ἐν τῇ τάξει μένων ἀμύνεσθαι τοὺς πολεμίους καὶ μὴ φεύγοι, εὖ ἴσθι ὅτι ἀνδρεῖος ἂν εἴη (190e)
(By Zeus, Socrates, that isn’t difficult. For if anyone in the ranks is willing to stand and fight against the enemy and not flee, you may well permit he is courageous.) -trans. mine
Socrates is quick to dispatch such simplistic notions of courage, pointing out examples of soldiers who have retreated wisely so as to win the war, even if they flee the battle. The dialog continues for a bit with more input before it ends in aporia as the group disperses to think more on the subject.
This post is about fear, specifically modern fear dressed in Western garb, but I thought it might be useful to first mention bravery. There is a notion held by many that the brave person is the one who has no fear, the soldier who crashes through the enemy lines without fear of harm, the Olympic athlete so self-assured of victory that the contemplation of defeat never occurs, the circus performer who puts his or her head in the mouth of the lion. But these notions are misplaced. The one who feels no fear when performing a task we mere mortals might find daunting, as opposed to the same person who does such tasks despite fear, is not brave, but instead confident, unconcerned, uncritical, or a combination of the three. In order to show bravery, one must act despite fear. Bravery is the overcoming of fear, the mastery of fear, not the mindless standing in the ranks and awaiting death under old Laches. In other words, some fear, a healthy amount of fear, is natural and it may perhaps be beneficial. Fear of wild animals, the cold, and the dark unknown might once have spurred our caveman ancestors to build fires at night. The fear of the obliteration of a person’s existence has driven countless artists to leave behind something more permanent than their bones. In other animals, it is fear that often keeps them alive. The sheep is skittish because it fears the wolf, and so it must to escape from the jaws of death.
So what can we say about fear? There are as many adages on fear as there are snowflakes in a blizzard. Shakespeare, Cervantes, sacred texts, and modern pop culture are filled with advice, whether it be to fear not, that the only thing to fear is fear itself, or that fear can be wise. Shakespeare braces us against fear in Julius Caesar, reminding us that “Cowards die many times before their deaths/ The valiant never taste of death but once.” “Fear has many eyes and can see underground,” says Cervantes. Worf, everyone’s favorite Klingon, is parroting centuries of real-world wisdom when he growls that “Only fools have no fear.” But perhaps my favorite quote on fear, and the one I have in mind here, was written by the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig:
“Fear is a distorting mirror in which anything can appear as a caricature of itself, stretched to terrible proportions; once inflamed, the imagination pursues the craziest and most unlikely possibilities. What is most absurd suddenly seems the most probable.”
Two articles from today’s newspaper remind me how true these words are. Let’s start with tragedy, so that we can end in farce.
A week ago, in Colorado, a heavily armed and armor clad gunman opened fire in a theater playing the newest ‘Batman’ movie, killing over a dozen and wounding scores of people. The stories from this horrific event have been disturbing, disgusting, and – in cases of people who tried to help others during the attack, inspiring. The young lady who stayed in the aisle and stemmed her friend’s bleeding, despite the fear and extreme likelihood of herself being shot, or the tale of the man who shielded his girlfriend with his own body, losing his life in the bargain, are stunning examples of the very essence of courage. No matter the frequency of public acts of violence, it is always shocking...and fear inducing. It makes us think about the frailty of human existence. Unfortunately, it also leads us to irrational conclusions.
The shooting has had a decided economic impact on ticket sales, one that illustrates Zweig’s observation. In the wake of the tragedy, many people expressed a fear of going to the movies at all, afraid that it could just as easily happen to them. Ticket sales in North America dropped 60 percent the day after the shooting, and though figures begin to rebound, many people recently polled still expressed reservations about attending the movie because of fear of another crazed act of violence. While death certainly can happen to anyone at any time, people let a horrific – yet fairly isolated – event dictate their choices. Of course, many people just weren’t in the mood to go see the flick because they found it might be distasteful or they weren’t in the mood for violent gun battle knowing a real one had happened during the movie. Still, many people were afraid to go. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be wary of being killed when they go see ‘The Dark Night,’ I’m saying they are afraid for all the wrong reasons. On opening night, before the effect of the shooting on sales, 100 million people worldwide went to see the movie, nearly 30 million here in the US. If there had been another Aurora, or two more Auroras, 26 more people would die going to see a movie. So, the odds of dying in a shooting by a at the hands of a crazed gunman in a theater if there were more crazed gunmen out there with the very same idea or with copycat ideas: more than one in a million. However, most of those people here in the US traveled to the theater in cars. But, if only half of them came to the movie in cars, and there were two people per car – both highly unlikely situations – then five million cars were on the road traveling to see the film. Chances of dying in a car accident: 1 in 6500. Of course, the odds go down when you localize the event, but you get the idea. The very act of driving to see the movie holds countless more perils than being in the theater itself. I’m not saying that what happened wasn’t incredibly tragic and worrisome; I’m saying that fear should be placed where it is most appropriate. Shakespeare’s dictum above needs heeding in this instance.
And now to farce, by which I mean Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s recent McCarthy-like ravings about the threat of covert radical Muslims secretly working for Hilary Clinton, serving in congress, etc. etc. etc., and the fear by some of my less informed fellow citizens about all Muslims.
The fears of ‘creeping Sharia’ and the construction of mosques – both of which terrify Bachmann and the rest of the tinfoil hat brigade - should be chalked up to ignorance, misinformation, or stupidity. But, let us just take the fear of dying at the hands of a Muslim extremist, or more properly labeled, an extremist. Combining the events of September 11th , all US casualties in Islamic countries in the last decade (countries we went into), and shootings of Americans by Muslims, we’ve lost about 8000 of our countrymen and women. This is a tragic figure to be sure, but is it one to cause such unbridled fear? In short, no. The US has a population of 311 million people. So the odds of being killed by a Muslim are about 1 in 36,000, but that must be weighed against the likelihood of you serving in a war zone. The odds of you being killed by a Muslim whilst in the US are about 1 in 80,000. The odds go way up if you are serving a tour in Iraq. That said, it is actually much more dangerous to be an Iraqi in Iraq, and the chances of being killed by a Christian are much higher in that country (and given that most murderers in this country are of the Christian faith – though they certainly don’t act like it – it is much more likely that you will be murdered by a Christian here as well). Iraq has a population of 33 million people. In the last decade, US led troops – predominately Christian in religious orientation – have killed between 66,000 and 120,000 CIVILIANS and another 60,000 to 250,000 combatants. Odds of an innocent Iraqi being killed by one of ours, using the most charitable figure: 1 in 500. But let’s look beyond the current ill-advised excursion in the sand. Whilst Michele might be trembling over that man walking to worship in his mosque, she should be much more concerned about her FABulous husband, Marcus (Note: I'm a vocal supporter for marriage equality, making Dr. Bachmann an especially deplorable character to me).
While the odds of being killed in a jihad are incredibly, astoundingly rare, the odds of being killed by a loved one are not. The odds of a murder being at the hands of a loved one: 1 in 6. The odds that you will be murdered: 1 in a hundred. So, there is a 1 in 600 chance that Marcus or another family member is going to do away with poor little Michele, and a 1 in 80,000 chance it will be at the hands of a Muslim extremist cruising through the backwaters of Minnesota or DC. This is the classic manifestation of Zweig’s quotation, a type of ignorant xenophobia masquerading as some sort of legitimate concern.
Be afraid, very afraid...just don’t let that fear lead you to preposterous, debilitating, retrobate conclusions.