The monsters under our beds


Why are Americans so scared? In part it’s because there appear to be so many things to be scared about. Rapist Mexicans coming across the border, bringing crime and drugs; Muslims seeking to impose Sharia law on ordinary god-fearing Christian Americans; carnage in Chicago; the rising tide of crime nation-wide; Hillary Clinton’s child sex ring; microwaves being used as cameras; terrorism, voter fraud, CIA spying, the deep state, George Soros, Saul Alinsky…it’s enough to make you want to hide in your room and never come out.

I’ve noticed a sense of weariness from people of my political persuasion over the endless stream of bullshit emanating from the other side. Do we really have to protest every single weekend, for the next 4 years? Will the inane tweets and heartless legislation ever stop? (To be perfectly frank, probably not. Although the inane tweets are uniquely Trumpian, the heartless legislation belongs to all Republicans.)

But I think life on the other side must be equally exhausting, if not more. The litany of fears that I listed above is reinforced every time you turn on Fox News, or visit Breitbart, or listen to Rush Limbaugh. Each segment creates a quick hit of emotion, a spike of adrenaline and fear. There’s no better example than Donald Trump, who turns to his phone and fires off a hastily-written tweet seemingly every time Bill O’Reilly scares him shitless about America. But there’s also a longer-lasting and more corrosive emotional response. It’s a slight heightening of paranoia, an increase that’s barely perceptible on the scale of an individual “news” story but unmistakable after years and years of imbibing Republican propaganda. It manifests itself as a self-contradiction: a deep-seated fear of the other side but a complete lack of skepticism when it comes to one’s own. In other words, the people who believe that Obama and Clinton are deceiving us about their dark-state coup to undermine the White House have failed to apply their “talents” to detecting the lies coming out of their own TV.

Mother Jones had a disturbing article in their latest issue about Dave Grossman, “one of America’s most popular police trainers”. His pitch is simple: America is a scary place, filled with “gangbangers”, terrorists, and mass murderers, and America’s cops serve as her “front-line troops” against these enemies. And, in such a frightening world, you have to know not just how to wield a gun, but how to kill with it. He asks, “Are you prepared to kill somebody? If you cannot answer that question, you should not be carrying a gun.”

Grossman is part of the reason why cops today are so adept at escalating conflict instead of defusing it. He is to cops what Breitbart and Fox are to Donald Trump: they throw fuel on what is already a very combustible mixture of fear and anxiety and loathing. Grossman claims that “The number of dead cops has exploded like nothing we have ever seen”, that “mass shootings” should instead be called “massacres” and that “these crimes are everywhere”, and that “We have never been more likely to be nuked, and we have never been less prepared!”. The article closes with this quote from Grossman: “Folks, it is very, very bad out there!”, which might as well have come out of Trump’s mouth (e.g., “But … we have some big enemies out there in this country and we have some very big enemies – very big and, in some cases, strong enemies”).

Fear and paranoia propagate. What starts with Grossman does not end with him. He sculpts the mindsets of new police recruits by teaching them that every civilian they encounter is a potentially fatal threat. Grossman’s fear becomes the cop’s fear, and the cop’s fear becomes the civilian’s fear. The mutual mistrust is good for neither side. It means not only that more innocent people will die at the hands of cops, but also that fewer crimes will be solved by the cops, because people are reluctant to trust them. It also means that people will resort to their own form of justice to mete out the punishment that they cannot entrust with cops. (As Jill Leovy writes in her must-read book, Ghettoside, “Wherever law is absent or undeveloped—wherever it is shabby, ineffective, or disputed—some form of self-policing or communal justice usually emerges.)

The same is happening, at a macrocosmic scale, in Trump’s America. Breitbart’s most well-known sections are “Big Hollywood”, “Big Government”, “Big Journalism”, and “Black Crime”. These headings convey unadulterated and truly toxic fear (“Folks, it is very, very bad out there!”). And Breitbart’s fear becomes Fox’s fear, Fox’s fear becomes Trump’s fear, and, through the magic of Twitter, Trump’s fear becomes the Republicans’ fear. Just as a killing-first mentality in policing strains the bonds between police and those they serve, a fear-driven mentality in politics strains the bonds of society. It means that some (of course, not all) Trump supporters will view every foreign-looking person they encounter as a potential menace to America. And the consequences will occasionally be deadly, because they will resort to their own form of justice to mete out the punishment that cannot be entrusted to the (deep) state.

As someone who looks like they don’t belong in Trump’s America, I worry about what all of this means for me. Should I live my life with a heightened sense of fear, or a looming dread that every new interaction with a new person might go horribly wrong? Or, am I being hysterical? Am I afraid of Trump’s America in the same irrational way that Trump’s America is afraid of me? Am I overrating the threat by immersing myself in the media of my side? Am I trapped in a mirror image of the bubble that I claim the other side is stuck in?

I’m not sure, honestly. So much of our assessment of threats, and the corresponding fears they create, is based on anecdotes and intuition as opposed to statistics. Even I, a statistically literate person, find myself susceptible to blowing individual events out of proportion to their actual relevance. I’ve been following reports of Trumpist violence against brown people in America, but I’m not sure if these reports are more edifying or terrifying.

Perhaps it makes more sense to step off of the daily news rollercoaster and read (hopefully) more sober-minded secondary reporting and analysis. So, I read with some interest Amitava Kumar’s New Yorker essay, “Being Indian in Trump’s America”. Although it didn’t resolve my fears, it did clarify them. Here’s an important excerpt:

The racist’s calling card is ignorance: he cannot discriminate (if that is the right word) between nationalities and religions, between Indians and Saudis and Egyptians, Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs. One of the first hate crimes to take place in the days following 9/11 was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas-station owner in Mesa, Arizona. The killer probably thought that Sodhi, with his turban and beard, was Muslim; he had told his friends that he was “going to go out and shoot some towelheads.” This year’s attacks bear some of the same hallmarks. Purinton reportedly shouted “Get out of my country!” before firing on the men from India, who he believed were from Iran. And last Friday a white man in Florida set fire to an Indian-owned convenience store because, he told police, it didn’t carry his brand of orange juice and he wished to “run the Arabs out of our country.” We, the mistaken people.

The incitement sixteen years ago was 9/11. Today it is Donald Trump. The President’s nationalistic rhetoric and scapegoating of racial others, not to mention his habitual reliance on unverified information, have sown panic among immigrants. I’ve often asked myself lately whether I’ve been right to suspect that people were looking at me differently on the street, at airports, or in elevators. Whenever a stranger has been kind to me, I have almost wanted to weep in gratitude. Unlike when I first arrived here, distance no longer offers any reprieve from these feelings. The Internet delivers ugly fragments of report and rumor throughout the day, and with them a sense of nearly constant intimacy with violence.

The author calls Indians “We, the mistaken people”. But aren’t we all mistaken? The Muslims who are mistaken for terrorists, the Mexicans for rapists, the Hindus and Sikhs for un-Americans, the men stopped and frisked for criminals, the men shot by cops for deadly threats, and even, perhaps, the majority of Republicans for violent racists. It makes my heart sick. How much of our society and politics, how many of our daily interactions, are informed by these crude misunderstandings? How much more peacefully could both sides live if there weren’t so much profit in paranoia? And how much greater would America be if we didn’t reach for a weapon, whether Twitter or a gun, every time that we became unreasonably afraid?


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