There is no escaping the fact.
We have become a nation of fearful men and women.
A year ago, armed deputies stood on the bridge to Gretna, Louisiana, and fired shots over scared, shivering refugees seeking food and shelter from the desolation of post-Katrina New Orleans. Then, when the refugees retreated to the overpasses on the freeways, they were driven off again.
A great outcry has arisen about the almost unimaginably overt racism of this act: New Orleans, and the crowd of refugees, was predominately black; Gretna is predominately white. Yes, racism was behind the deputies’ actions. But the driving force was fear: fear of chaos, fear of disorder. Fear of illusory mobs rampaging through the streets as they were erroneously reported to be rampaging through the streets of New Orleans.
It was a fearful act. It was a heinous act. It was a criminal act.
It was not an isolated act.
Fear has driven us as a nation to accept a president who openly flouts the law, and declares himself to be acting in the name of security. Fear has led us to countenance torture, in theory and in deed, both directly (Abu Ghraib — and that there are people who are willing to excuse that war crime is truly shocking) and indirectly (extraordinary rendition, by which we subcontract our torture). Fear has led us to look the other way as individuals, no, citizens are kept locked up for years with minimal due process.
Fear has led to more and more mandatory sentencing laws, including the three-strikes laws — which substitute bright line rules for judgment and justice, with sometimes arbitrary results. Fear has led us to look over our shoulder, even as year after year the violent crime rate in America has dropped. And in Ohio, fear has led to the passage of a law which flies in the face of not just the Constitution but centuries of Anglo-American jurisprudence.
The Ohio legislature passed a bill which would create a civil sex offender registry for offenders who have never been charged with a crime. The bill also created a twelve-year statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse victims to bring civil actions against their abusers, but when the statute runs out, the victims can bring a declaratory judgment against an alleged abuser. If found by “clear and convincing evidence” to have committed the acts, the individual would be placed on a sex-offender registry and subject to all the recording and residence requirements of a criminally convicted sex-offender.
No criminal charges. No jury trial. A trial by a judge, with a lesser standard of proof than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” And occurring more than twelve years after the alleged abuse, when it becomes harder to defend yourself. And in the end, a life disrupted, possibly ruined: sex offenders cannot work in certain jobs (and often lose other jobs), and cannot live in certain areas. After six years, the registeree can petition to be removed from the register if they can prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that they have not abused any other children. How is one to prove a negative, however?
This is fear speaking. People are willing to throw away rights for a segment of the population that they are sure they will never be in to achieve a small illusory margin of safety for themselves and their children. Ignoring the fact, of course, that most abuse of children comes from family members. And that sex offenders as a whole have a low incidence of recidivism.
All of these have the same root: I must protect my own. I must make sure that myself, my family, my tribe are all okay, and to hell with everyone else. Fear makes us dissolve the bonds that hold us, one to another.
It makes some of us stand on the bridge to Gretna, guns in our hands; it makes some of us defend the president simply because he promises he can make us safer, regardless the cost of that safety; it makes us willing to sell our Constitutional birthright for a mess of pottage wrapped up in pretty words.
It makes some of us unwilling to listen to the concerns of our fellow citizens because we are fearful and resentful towards them. It makes some of us hesitant to speak out, for fear our words will be used against us.
It destroys our country as it eats at our souls. Fear drives us apart, one from another, with disastrous consequences; it makes us less safe. The more money spent chasing phantoms, on programs to cure problems that don’t exist or which don’t create the threat they are made out to, the less money is available to spend on things that really can make us safer, our lives longer and healthier, such as clean air and water, or better and more food inspection.
In the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Amen. But unless we realize that, we may just frighten ourselves to death.