Still Fearing the Wrong Things?

“So, what do you make of this?,” asked the woman in the airplane seat next to me this week, as she pointed to an article about corporations cancelling meetings in Paris in response to last week’s terrorist attacks.

Eight guys with guns commit horrific evil and capture the world’s attention—leading to calls for revenge, proposals to ban Syrian refugees from the U.S., and fears of European travel. When terrorists kill people in bunches, they create readily available—and memorable—images that hijack our rational thinking.

Meanwhile, I replied, even more people—some 200—die of homicidal gun violence in the U.S. each week. But they mostly die one by one, eliciting little or no national outrage or resolve. Is this (without discounting the likelihood of future terrorist acts) yet another example of our human tendency to fear the wrong things (as I’ve explained here, here, and here)? If terrorists were to kill 1000 people in such attacks in the USA in the next year, Americans would have reason to fear--albeit 1/30th the fear of riding in a motor vehicle, where more than 30,000 people a year die.

The shared threat of terrorism further hijacks rationality, by triggering us/them thinking, inflaming stereotypes of the “other” among us, and creating scapegoats. Thus, although refugees have reportedly committed no terrorist acts—either in Paris or, since 2001, in the USA—more than half of U.S. governors are seeking to block Syrian refugees, and reported threats against Muslims and Mosques have increased. “We don’t know who [the Syrian refugees] are,” declared Donald Trump. “They could be ISIS. It could be the great Trojan Horse.”

A personal note: U.S. politicians’ calls to effectively shut out Syrian refugees, and even (a la Donald Trump) to register all Muslims in a database, evoke a déjà vu. In 1942, while I was in my mother’s womb, a fear-filled American government gave the Japanese-Americans living on my Bainbridge Island, Washington, home six days to pack a suitcase and be at the ferry dock for that March 20th day that began the internment of 120,000 of our fellow Americans. Among their tearful friends and neighbors at the dock was my father (who for many of them was their insurance agent, and who maintained their insurance over objections from insurance companies who viewed the internees properties as at-risk).

Sixty-two years later ground was broken for a national memorial at the historic site, with former internee and Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community president, Frank Kitamoto, declaring that “this memorial is also for Walt and Millie Woodward, for Ken Myers, for Genevive Williams . . . and the many others who supported us” and who challenged the forced removal at the risk of being called unpatriotic. The motto of the beautiful memorial, which I visit on nearly every trip home to Bainbridge: Nidoto Nai Yoni—Let It Not Happen Again.

As a Bainbridge resident, Washington’s current governor, Jay Inslee, knows that story well, and recalled it when standing apart from other governors wanting to exclude Syrian refugees:

We are a nation that has always taken the path of enforcing our freedom, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our humanity, our relationship with the rest of the world. And we've hewed to those values, even in troubled times. And when we haven't, we've regretted it. I'll give you an example. I live on Bainbridge Island, this little island just west of Seattle. And it was the first place where we succumbed to fear in 1941 after Pearl Harbor. And we locked up Washington and American citizens, and we sent them to camps—Japanese-Americans. . . . So my neighbors were locked up by the federal government and sent to camps for years while their sons fought in the Army in Italy and were decorated fighting for democracy. We regret that. We regret that we succumbed to fear. We regret that we lost moorage for who we were as a country. We shouldn't do that right now.