“Panic isn’t pretty, but American political leaders have produced it in quantity since the attacks in Paris a week ago.” That’s how my Quartz daily email news brief began this morning.
I strive to avoid politics in the Mel’s Mouth blog. I hope make it a sanctuary for people searching for spiritual wholeness. But occasionally life interferes with the best of intentions. So I feel called today to write about terrorphobia. I thought I might have invented that word, but it’s listed in the online Urban Dictionary, where the definition is far too simple. Terrorphobia is hard to define because terror is so hard to define.
We know what phobia is. My dictionary app has a neat definition: “a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it.” But what is terror and when is fear of it irrational? When does it become a panic that isn’t pretty?
The kind of terror we’re talking about here is that bred by terrorism, and here’s my app’s first definition: “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.” That definition includes state-sponsored terrorism, like bombing raids, but often terrorism is the tactic used by the grossly outnumbered who have little realistic chance of prevailing in an all-out war. In either case, though, terrorism succeeds only by creating irrational fear, terrorphobia — the panic that isn’t pretty.
That’s what the Islamic State and Al Qaeda are trying to do with their recent violence. They think fear will win for them what their numbers cannot, and many Western politicians seem to have a vested interest in helping them succeed. But why am I calling the fear of terrorists irrational? Have I not seen the bloody images from Paris?
Of course images like that evoke emotion from me. That’s what they are designed to do, and I would not be human if I didn’t react. But both my temperament and my Buddhist training call on me to breathe and to be mindful, to see the world as it is. In the United States, so far in the 21st Century, fewer than 4,000 lives have been lost to terrorism. That’s 0.001% of the population killed over a 15-year period, or one out of every 79,500 of us.
Every day in the U.S., nine people drown. Over 15 years, that’s close to 50,000 people, or more than 12 times the deaths from terrorism. Few of us fear swimming. Flu kills about 36,000 people a year, or about 540,000 over 15 years, but fewer than half of us get flu shots. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 480,000 die annually in the U.S. from smoking, or more than 7 million over 15 years. That’s about 2% of Americans who died from smoking (including second-hand smoke) over a 15-year period. Maybe fear of smoking is rational. Fear of terrorism is not. It’s a panic that isn’t pretty and that is helpful to the terrorists.
If I were living in Homs, Syria, my fear of terrorism — from the government as well as the insurgents — might be justified, but I live in the United States, with its overzealous politicians.
What’s especially ugly about the panic is that many of the politicians fomenting it want to close America’s borders to the refugees fleeing the same terrorists we fear, and they are often the same politicians who think we’re a Christian nation. Even this Jewish Buddhist Contrarian Unitarian Universalist knows that the “goats” were told:
I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.
We may not all be able to nourish the hungry and thirsty, open our doors to the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. But we can all be mindful that fear helps only the terrorists. We can refuse to be fearful.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine