I’m not a very quick thinker. That’s why I don’t post every day, several times a day, responding to the latest news as it’s breaking. I prefer to let stuff percolate for a little while before forming an opinion.
Here’s an example. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about white supremacists in the US, and someone left a comment asking why I was scared of them and not scared of Al Qaeda. Now, I was irritated at the snarky tone of the commenter and at a few stupid things he said (e.g. confusing Al Qaeda with the Taleban and then invoking Neville Chamberlain, that most tired of anti-pacifist jibes). So I wrote a snarky reply and thought no more about it.
Then recently I was looking at the post and its comments again and thought: in a way, he’s right. I should be scared of Al Qaeda. I lived in New York for six years and recently moved to London. I work in office buildings and take public transport. I’m a target. And yet I don’t feel any fear of Al Qaeda. When I think of the white supremacist guy looking at an eight-year-old boy cycling past his shop and saying “There’s a nigger there I’d like to hang”, it sends a chill down my spine. Clearly, based on a simple weighing of the dangers to me personally, this is irrational.
But isn’t that the nature of fear? It’s a deeply embedded impulse, an ancient survival instinct coming from somewhere deep inside us and bypassing the brain completely. Which kind of explains a lot of what’s been happening in the world for the past five years. A lot of fear, an awful lot of irrational impulses, the brains of millions of people being completely bypassed. Instinctive grasping for flags, yellow ribbons, platitudes. Lashing out blindly, spilling others’ blood to make us less fearful of seeing our own.
And our governments, rather than allaying our fears, have fostered them. Consider, for example, this video of the 2004 Republican convention, at about the height of the hysteria.
Fear has become a crux of foreign and domestic policy. Responding to an attack by a group of Saudi-funded, Saudi-led Saudis by invading Afghanistan and Iraq? Hello??? Keeping us safe from further attacks by checking our shoes and throwing out our hair gel? Arresting people for taking photographs of Tower Bridge? Torturing suspects? Bombing wedding parties? Sending the tanks in to Heathrow Airport? Devising bizarre colour-coded systems to tell us just how panicked we should be? Clamping down on Muslims, asylum-seekers or pretty much anyone foreign-looking? Using the word “security” to justify anything and everything?
Fear-based policies, all of them. Now I’m not saying the governments are afraid. They have very clear reasons for doing what they are doing. The trouble is, nobody outside Downing Street and the White House agrees with them. Keep us afraid, however, and our brains our bypassed. Fear kicks in. Irrationality takes hold. We’ll go along with anything, as long as they keep us safe.
So although I’m still not sure quite why I’m not scared of Al Qaeda, I’m glad that I’m not. Although my thinking is as biased and flawed as anyone else’s, at least I am doing some thinking. If I can think long enough, and not get distracted by too much bullshit along the way, maybe I can contribute something useful. But don’t hold your breath. As I said, I’m not that swift.