On March 4, 1933 Franklin Roosevelt took office in the midst of a national emergency. The closest thing in recent times was the economic meltdown in the fall of 2008. The fear on Wall Street was palpable. But then, thanks to the reforms that FDR made that were not repealed by Bill Clinton, there was no run on the banks. Our financial system was saved through an infusion of capital from the federal government.
Ironically, the very people who continually preached that the government should just leave them alone came running to the government when their fear led to panic. And Uncle Sam bailed them out.
Fear is a curious thing. It makes rational people abandon reason. FDR knew that. In fact, he began his inaugural address like this:
President Hoover, Mr. Chief Justice, my friends: This is a day of national consecration. And I am certain that on this day 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 impels. 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.
FDR knew that if he could calm people’s fears, he could get them to act rationally. If he could take emotion out of the equation, people would use their brains and they would find solutions to the nation’s problems.
I bring all this up because just as 2008 was a distant echo of 1933, so too is the fear that ran rampant in the 1930s alive and infecting our nation in 2015 in myriad ways.
We fear terrorists, illegal immigrants, criminals. Democrats fear Republicans and Republicans fear Democrats. Our politics is rampant with fear. Let’s take just one simple example. According to the GunPolicy.org there are about 300 million guns in the United States. These guns killed 12,532 people in 2014. Estimates are that 1 in every 3 Americans owns a gun
Why do people have guns? Fear.
Talk to a Second Amendment enthusiast and you will find a very scared person. Gun ownership increases with fear. And fear defeats any rational attempt to legislate controls on guns. So is it any wonder why the more people are killed by guns, the more people want to own theirs?
Another more mundane example is SUVs. Despite high gas prices until very recently, SUV sales have remained high. Why? Because once you own an SUV you feel defenseless in a smaller car. What if you get hit by an SUV? Many people rationalize that you need to have a light truck in order to survive on the road today. And what’s that all about — fear. So people have flocked to buy these gas guzzlers and some even went so far as to buy Hummers, the assault rifle of SUVs.
Finally, there is the fear of “the other.” This is an ancient fear that rears its head at regular intervals. Currently, the “others” include Mexican immigrants, homosexuals and Muslims. Our political discourse, aided and abetted by the Supreme Court, adds to the problem by using fear as a political weapon. If you really were to pay attention to the political advertisements that are coming our way in the next two years you would be paralyzed with fear. What to do?
Americans have got to get a handle on their fears. Now I know that for many people that is a tall order. But surely the 74% of Americans who believe in life after death can bring themselves to suppress their fear of death enough to act rationally on issues like gun control.
One positive effect of having had cancer twice is that I no longer fear death as much as I used to. So for me the feeling that a gun in my house may hurt someone I love trumps the fear that might lead me to buy a gun for “protection.” The rationality of my decision is bolstered by the recent sad story from Idaho where a 2-year-old playing with a gun he found in his mother’s purse shot and killed his mother in a Walmart. Think it was a freak accident? Think again. The very same tragedy happened a month earlier in Oklahoma. There, the three-year-old child picked up the gun while his mother was changing a one-year-old’s diaper. Why does the mother of a small child who probably has safety plugs on the electrical sockets at home carry a gun?
That four-letter word, FEAR — fear that always results in bad judgment and often leads to tragedy. I could go on and on about the ways in which fear infests our nation. I haven’t even mentioned the overblown reaction to 9/11 that puts military in our bus and train terminals and make us take our shoes off at airports. But my wish for 2015 is that Americans get a grip on their fears and contemplate Franklin Roosevelt’s wise admonition — “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Only then can we begin to rationally solve our nation’s problems.