Updated: August 3, 2012 5:59PM
Soon after James Holmes sprayed a Colorado cinema audience with bullets, authorities announced that this deadly rampage did not appear to be an act of terrorism. The tone of the statement suggested that listeners should find this reassuring. If a foreign national or some subversive agent had killed a dozen movie-goers and wounded scores more, we would have reason to worry.
If, however, the perpetrator was merely another kook with a newly purchased arsenal, we needn’t get our knickers in a twist. These things happen occasionally. They’re no big deal. Indeed, Holmes will soon enough slip from our collective memory, as have Charles Whitman, Mitchell Johnson, Charles Roberts, Steven Kazmierczak and others who have carried out massacres in places once considered safe havens.
Terrorists purposefully work to imprison us in our own fears by scaring us into creating armed camps and high-tech paranoia centers where airports and government buildings once stood. The motivations that sometimes lead one of our seemingly ordinary neighbors to carry out a bloody slaughter often remain unknown or make little sense. Still, given the consequences of their actions, the terrorist label may apply to them as well.
The James Holmes characters of the world generate plenty of fear, although not necessarily the kind we may assume. We have not yet witnessed a fearful public putting significantly heightened pressure on leaders and legislators to take measures that might prevent such pointless loss of life. Instead, the most frightened among us seem to be those afraid that someone might actually try to do something about the periodic carnage. Gun dealers and ammunition suppliers have reported a surge of business in the immediate aftermath of the Colorado shootings, and most purchasers weren’t preparing for the next time a gunfight breaks out while they watch a movie. Instead, they meant to stock up just in case someone finally gets totally serious about trying to keep every nut with a burr under his saddle from taking out a dozen innocent people with an assault rifle and in the process complicating access to the arms supply.
Although we think of ourselves as the land of the free and home of the brave, apparently most of us live amid a network of unmarked, heavily armed bunkers where frightened souls await the coming of Armageddon in some form or another. Even inadvertent terrorism proves effective, it seems.
It may comfort us slightly to recall that most every generation has lived as fear’s captives. The 20th century’s world wars and Great Depression kept at least two generations in terror’s grip. The constant dread of Soviet missiles helped shape the worldview of those who grew up during the Cold War.
The Bible says one ought to fear God rather than human beings, but for many centuries those who set themselves up as God’s representatives turned God into a frightening monster from whose eternally lethal clutches only the rightly ordained clergy’s interventions could deliver one, whether king, queen or peasant.
Fear motivates and fear-mongering pays handsomely. Advertisers know they can sell us anything from dandruff shampoo to home security systems to senators and presidents by scaring us with some specter that only their product or candidate can help us escape.
Have we any antidote for fear’s poisons and their attendant delusions? An element in each of the world’s great religions would suggest that we can chip away at fear by getting to know our neighbors, especially the scary-looking ones, continually expanding the circle of those we can learn to love. If nothing else, that gives us lots more cell mates in the prisons we choose to inhabit.
Frederick Niedner is a professor of theology at Valparaiso University.