What Exactly is America Afraid Of?January 24, 2017 by Thomas Tatum
For white middle-class Americans, the answer might be inner-city gangs of black or Latino youths. For blacks or Latinos, it might be the police. For working-class whites, the threat seems to emanate from immigrants waiting to snatch their jobs away from them. For the police and many others, irrespective of race or skin color, it might be that segment of the population which is armed to the teeth.
America’s reputation for tolerance is in jeopardy. In earlier times, American society often demanded that a pecking order be adhered to but, in stark contrast to many other societies, was willing to overlook some degree of eccentricity or craziness–perhaps a carryover from colonial times as even today’s Britain, from an American perspective, sometimes still appears to be peppered with a colorful variety of eccentrics. This astonishing and laudable tolerance of others, assuming fundamental boundaries were not overstepped, has lately given way to a culture of indifference, of simply saying “…just minding my own business.” The difference is significant because of the resulting near absence of social connection apparent in the latter mindset. Perhaps 2016’s wave of creepy clown sightings were a manifestation of this ambivalence as the anonymity of the people behind the masks heightened overall insecurities to an alarming degree. Fears were understandable, if not always justified: the creepy clowns weren’t just eerie, they were also beyond control if they chose to be so.
While creepy clowns are an extreme example, this illustrates exactly the dilemma at the root of our problem today and the fear it elicits. People marching to a different drummer is not, and has never been, what threatens Americans as a society. But allowing them to drift off into a parallel reality, whether due to indifference or because we are respecting their right to do so, bites back at us often enough to stoke fear or sometimes even hysteria because the realities occasionally overlap painfully. Viewing America from abroad, one might be tempted to assert that Americans have grown fond of assuming identities which have little relevance to the way they live or work. There are few places on the planet outside of America where you can walk through a major city and encounter adult men dressed up as superheroes. Avatars abound as does the masculine bond with loner vigilante Bronson and Eastwood types who recklessly and fearlessly buck slow or corrupt establishments to right the scales of justice–it is an image which many DJT voters easily identified.
Which at this point brings us to point out an often-used misunderstanding on the view from abroad toward US gun culture: for anyone on the outside looking in, the discussion about the 2nd Amendment and the right to bear arms is less fundamental than the simple common-sense notion that any society as a whole has a right to know who purchases and possesses weapons as well as the means to ensure that specific individuals, for very specific reasons, do not have access to guns. Nothing more but certainly nothing less, either. Call it bafflement if you please, but what is at issue is the government’s right to take a step toward ensuring a measure of public safety, not about making gun ownership illegal. Germany, too, has a relatively high proportion of gun-ownership in the population but only a small fraction of the violence. Do we really need to wonder why?
But back to the question at hand: maybe we’re afraid of the rules and rituals of others? Mainstream America understandably fears gangs and drug smuggling rings or terrorists and the havoc they wreak. But what about criminal organizations like the Mafia? Or how about the Ku Klux Klan? They too have rituals to reinforce the sense of belonging or to make their own circle exclusive. The threat these groups represent is no smaller and no less dire than the other threats mentioned. The difference is that it apparently didn’t matter to a lot of mainstream people that many of their fellow Americans were frightened. Today, the discussion is about closing borders to terrorists. Good plan except that it won’t stop terror. While the US has mercifully been spared the kinds of political terrorism with which Europe has often enough been confronted, one can also recall an awful lot of assassinations in recent and not-so-recent American history. And while most of the victims were liberal personalities, the perpetrators often enough claimed allegiance to conservative values. I’d venture the guess that few people who knew Timothy McVeigh considered him to be un-American before he set off the bomb in Oklahoma City in what was the 2nd deadliest terrorist attack the country has thus far known.
Flag-waving is fine, I supppose. But America’s true virtue lies in its promise to respect the rights of individuals, building on the strength of diversity toward a common good and in embracing democracy. Stoking fear is simple cowardice.