OPINION – I clearly remember the first time in my life I experienced real fear. When I say “fear,” I don’t mean things like being frightened by thunder or having a bad dream.
I’m talking about the kind of traumatic experience that causes virtual paralysis in the moment and can leave years of lasting scars.
When I was 9 years old, a friend and I were riding our bikes around our elementary school grounds. As I rode near the long rock wall that ran parallel to the front of the school, I slowed for what I thought was a bee that was flying just in front of my bike.
What I didn’t realize was that I was slowing to a stop directly in front of the entrance to a nest of yellow jackets that had taken up residence in the rock wall. By the time I realized what was happening, I was trapped.
Within a matter of seconds I was being swarmed by hundreds of angry yellow jackets buzzing around me with the in-your-face intensity of Marine Corps drill instructors. My mind shifted from disbelief to white noise as the panic set in. I was too terrified to move.
I simply could not will my body to pedal the bike away from them. The longer I stood there astride the bicycle, the angrier the swarm became. My friend stood back at a safe distance encouraging me to start pedaling but I was beyond thinking rationally at this point.
Finally, one of the yellow jackets stung me on the hand and the stab of pain broke through my fear prompting me to bail off the bike and run for it. I left my prized Schwinn Stingray sitting there still getting swarmed and walked home and broke the news to my parents that my bike was gone.
In the end, my mom braved the swarm and retrieved my bicycle for me but an intense fear of stinging insects would follow me well into my adult life.
For many years afterward, I was plagued with nightmares of being swarmed by yellow jackets. If a hornet or honey bee came flying near me, I reflexively bolted in the other direction. It took the better part of 40 years for me to understand that stinging insects would not attack unless I was encroaching upon them.
Such is the power of irrational fear.
I share this story as we begin the week in which a number of our fears are about to be leveraged for maximum effect. Some of the fears associated with 9/11 are justified, but many of them are irrational. The question is, do we know the difference?
Right now, virtually every facet of mass media is abuzz with rumors about impending ISIS terror attacks from across the Mexican border, or missing Libyan jetliners, or suspicions that sleeper cells of jihadists are waiting to behead us soon.
Because of the very real trauma that we experienced 13 years ago this week, it’s tempting to give in to our fears and to fall into lockstep with the policymakers who are exploiting them. The neoconservative cabal that infects both major political parties is clamoring for more war and the power it gives them.
They use the tried and true tactic of invoking the urgency of an enemy at the gate to justify official aggression and bloodshed done in the name of “security.” They are desperate to remind us why we need them to protect us and make us feel safe.
But what if their premise that true safety can only be found in a militaristic foreign policy abroad and an authoritarian police state here at home was wrong?
Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation wrote a remarkable fable in December of 2001 that provides insight into how our policymakers are misled.
It’s called “The Fable of the Hornets” and it may be the most timely thing you read this week.
Hornberger tells of a prosperous, harmonious village which hires a policeman named Oscar to provide protection against marauders. When Oscar gets bored and starts poking hornet nests in the nearby woods, it’s the villagers that get stung.
The villagers demand retaliation against the hornets and Oscar and his deputies go forth in armor to destroy hornets anywhere they find them. Over time, they find that, for every hornet nest they destroy, there are dozens of new, smaller nests being built.
As long as Oscar and his deputies are poking the hornets’ nests, the villagers are the ones who pay the price. Finally, a young boy points out that when Oscar stuck to protecting the village from thieves and marauders instead of poking hornet nests, the villagers weren’t getting stung.
Remember this story throughout this week when you sense others are asking you to let their fears live in your head rent-free.
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