Fear

I haven’t wanted to talk about the brew-ha-ha over the boy with the suspicious-looking alarm clock in Irving, Texas.  Primarily because it is so patently an organized effort on the part of the media to make a big deal out of something that is not fundamentally a big deal.  Because 50 years after we legislated Civil Rights, people insist on viewing everything in terms of race – and often it’s those who claim to have moved beyond the whole race issue who turn everything into a race issue.  I haven’t wanted to talk about it because it’s so stupid on so many levels.  At best, the well-meaning foolishness of a young boy results in unfortunate events which, with a little forethought from him, his family, and at least one of his teachers, could have been avoided.  At worst, a carefully calculated effort from the boy and his family to flout student codes of conduct results in a media circus tactically calibrated to condemn the very safety that has become such a cultural mirage, at once desperately sought after and at the same time forever elusive and vanishing from our fingertips.

Google the stuff yourself.  You’ll see every sort of story running the gamut of ideological positions.  But here is the basic situation – the boy brought something to school he shouldn’t have.  The MacArthur High School Student Code of Conduct prohibits students from bringing to school any “look-alike weapon”.  If rolled up paper can be deemed a weapon by some people, certainly a small box full of wires and electronics might be expected to raise some suspicions.

Ahmed should have known this.  His parents should have known this.  Why?  Because they’re required to read and sign the Student Code of Conduct.  Ahmed’s electronics teacher knew better, and frankly should have reacted differently.  Rather than just telling Ahmed to keep the device hidden in his backpack all day, the teacher should have offered to keep it for Ahmed until after school.  Clearly this teacher understood that the device might cause some concern, that it wasn’t appropriate at school.  It isn’t Ahmed’s budding creative and innovative tendencies that are in question.  It’s a matter of where and how those tendencies are expressed, and whether we like it or not, our schools are no longer places where those things can be expressed.  We have made them that way in our effort to make them safe and risk free places.

Ahmed’s actions don’t make much sense.  That’s to be expected from a 14-year old boy.  But our reactions to his actions, and our reactions to our reactions, are the true goofiness, the true indication of just how great a frenzy the media has whipped us into in regards to fear.

Teachers and administrators and parents are terrified of school shootings and bombings and other acts of violence.  They’re also so scared of possible legal action that strong actions are taken against obviously minor infringements.  Our children have become unknown, dangerous strangers.  Certain people are terrified of anything that smacks of racial distinctions or overtones, and interpret everything in such a light, even when representatives of the race in question don’t see the situation as race-related.

How could all of this have been prevented?  Ahmed’s parents could have advised him that taking a small box full of wires and electronics to school was inappropriate.  They could have referred to the student code of conduct to validate their caution.  His teacher could have offered to keep the device with him instead of encouraging Ahmed to hide it.  All of which are small issues.  There isn’t really much in the way of blame to be levied here.  An enthusiastic boy.  Proud parents.  A teacher settling into the new year and trying to get to know and work with a freshman student.  Another teacher trying to enforce discipline and instead finding a strange looking device in a student backpack.  Administrators and law enforcement officials who are bound by law to take such issues seriously or face serious legal repercussions, both criminal and civil.

The media who wants to ignore all of these realities that the media itself has helped create should be held accountable for making this into a race issue.  The media could condemn Ahmed’s treatment as an unfortunate effect of the mini-prisons that schools have become, but to do so the media would need to acknowledge that the relentless coverage of school atrocities has contributed to this very mindset.  The media has taught us to live in fear of our children – or more accurately, other people’s children.  To blame teachers and administrators for reacting the way they have been taught and trained to is immensely disrespectful of our educators.  The same media, had it actually been a bomb, would have been equally quick to vilify any teacher or administrator who hadn’t followed the proper guidelines for such situations.

At a more fundamental level, the media simply reflects our own fear.  We devour the 24/7 coverage of the latest atrocity, and we might as well make some popcorn to go with it.  Instead we should be ashamed of ourselves for the fear we live in. A fear that allows no slip, no exception, that takes everything equally seriously when all things are obviously not equal.  A fear of our elected leaders.  A fear of strangers. A fear of loss.  A fear of enemies both real and imagined.  A fear of life itself, because our greatest fear is death, and the two are linked inextricably.

When you take God out of things, when all we’ve got left to hold things together is ourselves, fear is the only natural consequent.  If all I have is this life, then anything that threatens that life becomes terrifying.  Safety becomes the one thing we long for and yet can never have because nobody can guarantee it.  This is not a safe world.  I am not a safe person.  Neither are you.  And even if we were, someday we’re going to die.  Every last one of us.  Maybe from a terrorist bomb.  Maybe from old age.  Maybe from being aborted in the womb.  Maybe from a failed surgery.  Maybe, most terrifying of all, for no discernible reason.  Despite exercising and eating healthy and practicing mindfulness and whatever else you want to throw into the list, you’re going to die.  I’m going to die.  My children are going to die.

We need to come to grips with this first.  We need to come to grips with the fact that we don’t control this, by and large.  We pretend we do, but that is mostly an illusion.  If we get in a car we’re at the mercy of electronic systems that control the car and controls the traffic lights.  We’re at the mercy of the drunk or drugged or exhausted driver who slips up and slides over the center divider line or isn’t quick enough to stop for the red light.  We could stay in our house all day and still die from slipping and falling or a tainted batch of pickles or an airplane falling out of the sky or a satellite falling out of orbit.  Or simply from genetics and the wiring of our own brains and bodies.

What we fear most is death and the ultimate unknown and the logical extension of eliminating God from our cultural landscape – there is not only no explanation for anything, there is no purpose to anything and ultimately no value to anything.  Nothing other than this fleeting moment and what I’m able to do to secure the next fleeting moment.  Whoever promises to keep me safe and alive the longest gets my vote.  Take my kids from me earlier and earlier in exchange for the promise that they’ll be better educated, better socialized, better prepared for a good college and therefore a good life and good income and good life-expectancy and maybe they’ll look after me when I’m old?  Sure, go for it!  Force my children to be shot full of undisclosed chemicals in exchange for the promise that they won’t get the flu or an STD or smallpox or whatever else comes to mind?  Sure, go for it!  Force me to purchase insurance to keep me healthier?  All-righty then!  Force me to wear seat belts?  Motorcycle helmets?  Tax cigarettes more and more?  Sure, go right ahead if it keeps me alive a little longer, if it keeps me a little bit healthier.  Better to live a slave than to die free, right?  Isn’t that what the man said?

I don’t think it is.

And we as a culture need to collectively re-think our unfortunate reversal of this maxim.  If we don’t like what happened to Ahmed we only have ourselves to blame.  We have become slaves to our fear, and as such, it is only a matter of time before we become slaves to whomever promises to protect us from our fears.  History shows almost unilaterally that this is never a good exchange.

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2 Responses to “Fear”

  1. Kvizee Doug Says:

    According to the threat level assessment standards of mindless administrators whose priority is not safety but “can we be sued or be embarrassed on the news,” maintaining safety in the classroom is easy. The teacher can arm himself with a banana or a finger which will scare off an intruder because it looks like a gun, or if he has a good throwing arm, he can throw a clock and knock out the intruder, or diplomacy with charming words only will charm and calm any savage beast. A shouted euphemism will terrify a ruffian. Perhaps the misfit is hungry: Let him eat cake… Oh wait, that’s unhealthy… Um, well then, a carrot stick and kindness. Ooops, a carrot looks like a gun…

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      I agree that things are crazy. I don’t blame administrators for this – they are following directives. They have no choice if they wish to keep their jobs and avoid potential prison time or civil law suits. We can trace the directives to county educational supervisors or state supervisors or the Federal level, but ultimately, we have to accept that we allow these directives to exist. As parents we take a perverse pleasure in them (or are taught that we should be pleased with them) under the illusion that they make our children safer. We are mistaken.

      Rather than look at underlying issues we slap inadequate band-aids on arterial bleeding and think that somehow everything will be OK. It won’t. It isn’t. Most everyone knows it. Some who know it insist that with different or better legislation and education we can stop the bleeding. It won’t. Others recognize the foolishness and inadequacy of these measures but don’t know how to argue against them or push the discussion back to the roots where it belongs.

      The result is the insanity of the current situation. A situation that should have been handled in simpler manner now involves the President of the United States and technology moguls. A young boy learns the value of failing to heed the rules, while the very systems we allowed or demanded be put in place are castigated. We turn a private teaching moment into a political and racial circus.

      We have no one else to blame but ourselves if we aren’t willing to turn off the pundits and the 24/7 news coverage to actually start thinking for ourselves and exploring how to regain control of this wildly veering ship of state.

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