Stoking fear often leads to action

By : 
Reflections from my Notebook

Conversation turned to the disappearance of Jayme Closs, whose parents were brutally murdered in rural Wisconsin Oct. 15, when a group of acquaintances were waiting for service at a restaurant a couple weeks ago, soon after the incident. One member of the group worked for the same corporation as the parents, and he seemed to have some inside information to the mystery of where the 13-year-old ended up.

He claimed, when we got together soon after the incident in Wisconsin, she was already chained in a cage on a container ship traveling across the ocean after being kidnapped by two Middle Eastern men. Their motive was sex trafficking, which, he said, meant she wouldn’t live long in the foreign country of her destination.

The image he painted was frightening and made us all think about the safety of our children, even in rural America. The fearful scenario caused us to think of ways to take action in response to this threat that all of a sudden seemed so real.

However, by the time our meal was consumed, the logical side of my brain kicked in with doubts about the story.

Sex trafficking is a secretive practice that often takes place without notice in most cases. People who murder to get victims wouldn’t last long in that business.

Also, law enforcement had been sifting through more than a thousand tips. They wouldn’t pretend to be doing that if they knew the fate of the teen. Soon after, a reward was offered.

I concluded the story was some wild conspiracy story that was based on an initial tip that someone who looked like Jayme had been spotted in Florida in a car with Wisconsin plates occupied by two Middle Eastern-looking men.

The person who told the story isn’t some kook who spins wild stories. He has a good job, many friends and a loving family. Perhaps he heard the story at work and assumed those who told it first had the inside knowledge we assumed he had.

I’m repeating his story not to disparage him or give a lesson about the dangers of gossip or conspiracy theories, but to reflect on how fear, even when it isn’t based on fact, can motivate us to action.

Politicians already know that, of course, which is why so many of the political messages today are based on fear. They are trying to make us afraid to vote for the other person because bad things will happen if we do.

We’re seeing a lot of that this year because we live in an area with many competitive races in Minnesota and Iowa. The messages we get are often unbelievable, which they are because they aren’t based on fact, but appeal to our emotions to get us to fear certain people who may be associated with a candidate.

One advertisement even requests people to “vote no” to a certain candidate without ever mentioning who to support with our vote. His opponent associates the other candidate with some fringe elements, concluding he isn’t for “us,” furthering that us vs. them narrative that is dividing the country.

Others are much worse as they distort views on issues, accuse guilt by association and flat out lie in an effort to make you fear their opponents.

The thing is, if these messages of fear are thought to be so effective in getting us to take action and vote one way, perhaps they are also affecting unstable people to take action and do more than vote, even take up violence.

It’s a question worth asking as there have been several incidents within the last year, including an Illinois man who opened fire on Republican members of Congress in October 2017 and a Florida man who sent pipe bombs to mostly Democratic-leaning citizens and former officials this month. In the worst incident last weekend, a man opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh to attack Jewish people.

The common denominator in these incidents is hatred, but that anger and hatred appears to be driven by fear — whether it is fear of a political party or individual politician favoring policy that is objectionable or a group of people who are thought to be undermining a supposed pure culture.

That fear isn’t going to turn stable people into mass murderers, but it does appear to be taking a toll on our culture. The toxic political climate — in which people are neatly categorized into enemies and friends, vermin and decent people, invaders and citizens, them and us — makes it easier to believe wild stories about foreigners kidnapping a teen or politicians conspiring to undermine our country.

Next time you hear a claim or story that stokes fear, make sure to consult your rational side before taking action. In most cases, you may find it is nothing more than the acronym that has become popular in some circles. FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real.