Thursday, April 18, 2013


Over the past week a phrase has been running through my mind.  It is a classic phrase from US political history.  It comes from the first inaugural address of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...

To a degree I think that is the phrase we need to say over and over again as the news media runs repeated stories about events like the bomb blasts in Boston.  We need to repeat it over and over as we hear about the fertilizer fire and explosion in Texas.  We need it to counter the strange choices the news and entertainment and social media make at such times.  (One Canadian channel was responding to the Texas story by asking folks in Canada who live close to a different fertilizer plant if they felt safe--trying to spread fear????)

But first here is a fuller quote:
I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
 FDR gave that speech in 1933, the throes of the Great Depression (like many others I always assumed it was from the war years, until I looked it up a while preparing a newspaper column a few years ago).  That was a threat to the American way of life.  That was a time when it was uncertain that recovery was possible.  Fear and panic were epidemic with bank runs and collapses not unknown.  And FDR told the nation that the only thing they had to fear was fear.  Really?

It is my belief that for the last several decades fear has been the prime motivator of public policy and most public discourse.  2 generations were raised on Cold War fears, with the threat of nuclear annihilation hovering over their heads.  Then the USSR dissolved/collapsed and a new threat needed to be found.  [Well sort of, there is still a strong "Communist menace" fear line visible in US political rhetoric]  And as it happened we ended up with a convenient threat.  Terrorism.

Do we know how to live without focusing on what we fear?  One internet conversation I was in this week (of Canadians primarily) had a person both insisting that for events like the Boston marathon in the future everybody attending the event or in the area of the event needs to be searched to prevent a similar thing happening.  NOw yes that response is un-Constitutional in either the US or Canada, and is impossible from a practical standpoint without fencing wide areas of public territory.  But I can easily see that such a response could build a following by building on the fear.  After all, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks both US and Canadian (and likely some European nations) legislators passed regulations and processes that would have been called undemocratic just years before--to respond to the fear. 

The only thing we have to fear....

Yes FDR could be accused of being overly simplistic in sharing that belief.  But we have not done that have we?  That phrase ranks near the top of well-known political quotes.  So why do we choose to live in the fear?

Asa a person of faith I remember that repeatedly in Scripture God says to God's people "Fear not".  As a person of faith I remember that we live in hope that, as Dame Julian said, "All will be well, all will be well, all manner of thing be well".  We could let events like the Newtown shooting or the Boston bombing or Ricin letters or anything else that people use to make us afraid win and live out of the fear.  We could let the fear lead us to do things that appear to make life more difficult and arguably less safe.  Or we could ask if there is another way.

Which path will we choose?  Will we listen to those who tell us to be afraid or to those who tell us to fear not?

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