What Fear Has Done To America: ISIS, Trump And The Murder Of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile

concept of fearless
concept of fearless

The Currency of Fear in which Terrorists like ISIS, Trump, and Killer Cops Operate in

The moments in scripture that always grabbed me the most as a child were when individuals found themselves in the presence of God or in the presence of God's angles. Encounters with the Divine and the messengers of the Divine rightly filled these individuals with both awe at the power and majesty of The Most High and terror at their vulnerability and mortality. And the response to the holy awe-filling fear by the angels was always three words. Three words that we as a society need to especially hold onto at this juncture in history: Be Not Afraid.

Yet, rather than messages of hope and courage, the louder messages and predominant spirit of our age is one of fear. And in a deeply integrated cosmopolitan society, that fear easily corrodes into a dangerous cycle of hate-fueled violence (enacted both towards those whom we fear and unknowingly towards ourselves by unhealthy decisions). That cycle of fear and hate is spinning out of control.

We understandably feel fear after acts of terror (that are meant to terrorize and invite fear). And that fear of being victimized by the seemingly random and endless violence of groups like ISIL/ISIS makes all of us who are terrorized hate them and in the case of the most fearful and most ignorant, hate anyone we believe to be associated with them. This manifests as a terrorizing Islamophobia and hate crimes on all "Muslim-looking" people. A tragic cycle of fear, terror and hate. We feel terror and thus terrorize others and in so doing fail to heed the warning of Congresswoman Barbara Lee to "not become the evil that we deplore."

Perhaps just as dangerous, leaders and potential leaders exploit this fear felt by many others. No one is more guilty of this than presidential candidate Donald Trump. His preternatural cunning lies in his ability to operate within a currency of fear and tap into the deep insecurities that many Americans feel be they racial fears, financial fears, or fears for their physical safety.

This Trump exploited fear also devolves into an enacted hate as evidenced by violent rallies, faux internet courage, hate crimes, and spikes in hate group memberships. And another cycle has commenced during this way-too-long campaign with many "fearing this fear-monger" and "hating this curator of hate". In hating and fearing Trump we fall for the same trap that Marco Rubio and others have fallen into by following Trump into the fearful and hate-filled mud.

Or perhaps most painfully (because of the betrayal of a basic trust we learn as children) consider the role that fear and hate play in the police violence against and the police murdering of Black men and women. Years of accultureration (resulting from a lack of exposure, lack of diversity on police forces, lack of transparency and accountability within departments, and unhealthy and inaccurate media portrayals of African-Americans since this nation's founding) have instilled a fear and distrust of Black men and women into many police officers.

So many cops see Black citizens as potential threats in ways that they do not see most of our white and non-white counterparts (though many poor Latino, poor Asian, poor Native and poor white individuals feel this pain too). Cops see us as being wild and dangerous...like animals.

Add that to the unaddressed PTSD that a tragic number of officers suffer from and you get the deadly perfect storm of fear that permeates the air between cops and Black folks in this country. Police respond to that fear with over aggression, profiling, a perceived need for deadly deterrence and a quick resorting to deadly force. Cops resort to terror (terror induced by the simple presence of a gun and the potential use of it) to get people to respond behaviorally. Black folks feel terrorized and understandably despise cops. Two recent high profile police murders of Black Americans captured on video has fanned this flame of hurt and distrust. The cycle continues. And the story of fear and hate and violence gets told via an exploitative media that, like ISIS and Trump know that fear draws attention, viewers, and clicks.

We. Do. Not. Have. To. Live. In. Fear.

But it doesn't have to be like this. This doesn't not need to be the new normal. We don't need to be a generation of traumatized and fearful individuals afraid to go in public, afraid of potential politicians, and afraid of those who are "sworn to protect and serve us." We don't need to be afraid to log onto social media because of the what a deeply draining experience it is to see another hashtag inducing murder. We don't have to live in this deadly culture of fear that has been one of the most telling marks of American culture since our nations founding. We can change this.

Here are a few things that we can do in response to a culture of fear.

1. I first heard the term "critical refusal" at a conference on Herbert Marcuse. This phrase is a duel action verb which calls for individuals to not only critique those aspects of society that frustrate and oppress, but to dissent and refuse to be a part of that negative aspect of the culture. Further the critique and refusal are not simply a naming of the oppression and a (in the words of Walter Wink) naming of the powers, but it is an offering of an alternative vision. We activists must not only protest but we must offer a prophetic imagination of what could be. "L'imagination au pouvoir!" For example, imagine a country where police officers don't carry lethal force and don't kill citizens. Imagine a presidential candidate that offers hope and love instead of fear and a non-inclusive neo (white) nationalism.

2. Fear and hate are quelled not only by a refusal to participate in a currency of fear, but by the application of justice preferably a restorative justice (as opposed to a punitive deadly justice). A part of the terror of situations like the death of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (names we know because of the importance yet macabre of posthumous hashtag trending), is that those involved in their killing will not be held accountable. Internal investigations by their friends and colleagues make it hard to trust that justice will be served (external investigations by state and federal institutions at least offer a little bit of comfort). And yet seeing those who killed Freddie Gray in my hometown or those who killed any number of other unarmed Black men and women over the last few years not be held accountable (or in many cases not even see a trial) adds to the fear and hate. If police departments want to restore trust and have people not hate cops, they need to do more than offer big settlements. Again Louisiana and Minnesota have a choice to make, protect their brothers in blue amidst killings that did not have to happen -- or help to quell fears and restore trust. Break the cycle or perpetuate it.

3. Finally we as individuals have a choice. Do we plug into the culture and currency of fear or do we operate with an alternative worldview? Every time I hear more of the hate spewed by Donald Trump, I find myself tempted more and more to hate him and fear a Trump presidency. And with each deadly attack by someone connected to ISIL/ISIS I also begin to slip down the hill of insecurity and hatred. And after nearly 40 years of knowing the deadly underside of policing in Black spaces and now seeing it play out publicly, it is easy to fall into whirlpool of fear and hate that their fear and hate have created.

But we don't have to. What if instead of unfriending the Trump supporters that I'm connected to via social media, I instead engaged them trusting that they are not bigots, but instead just fearful people who want to be safe? We can debate and verbally wrestle with respect and civility. And if they descend to fear and hate, we can respond with love. Temporarily walking away for self care if need be, but never giving up on them.

What if instead of wishing the poor and desperate individuals who fall into the cult of ISIS would die, we prayed for them with broken hearts and hope rather than the same dehumanizing bloodlust they display?

And what if we reimagined what policing in America could look like. I see a nation where our police officers don't need to carry lethal force. Where when a temporarily paralyzing restraint is necessary other tools/weapons besides guns are employed?

The immediate challenge for me is to break the cycle of fear and hate in my social media interactions. I am angry. I am devastated. I am hurt. I am emotionally spent. I find myself torn between needing to educate my children about what's going on and wanting to hide it from them so that they don't have to carry this burden during the summer when they are supposed to be resting and playing. What do I/We do with what we feel?

I find protesting to be healthy (both for the catharsis and for the potential to bring about change). I find talking about it with friends and family to be important. I find engaging peers and neighbors about what's going on in the world to help.

But I feel the fear and hate dissipating most when I put love in the world. When I reach out to police officer friends. When I speak with the white men in my life. When I can show love to people around me. Love chases away fear. The light from angels - messengers of God - chases away the fear that the world too often brings. And the message from the light was true then as it is true now. Be Not Afraid.