A Nation of Fear

Why?

That’s the question that’s really on everyone’s mind. Even those who think they know the answer (and there are a lot of those).

Why? Why did George Zimmerman shoot Trayvon Martin to death?

No one is denying he did it. Hell, George Zimmerman isn’t denying he did it. He openly admits he shot and killed Trayvon Martin.

So why did he do it? Was he threatened? Was he a racist? Was he under attack? Was he a vigilante?

Why?

The answer, I think is pretty simple: He was afraid.

Afraid? I must be joking, right? He trailed the kid — stalked him by some accounts. He got out of his vehicle and confronted Martin . . . after the police told him not to. These don’t sound like the actions of someone who is afraid. It takes big cojones to do what Zimmerman did.

But whether you believe Zimmerman is an innocent man just rying to defend his neighborhood or a bigot looking for a fight, regardless of whether either of those positions is the truth or if it’s something in between, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin because he was afraid.

Zimmerman is a neighborhood watchman. Neighborhood watches are not formed out of a sense of security. Neighbors organize them, because they are afraid of crime, they are afraid of the unknown, they are afraid of someone taking what is theirs.

Zimmerman saw something he wasn’t used to seeing in his neighborhood: a black kid in a hoodie. Seeing something unfamiliar triggered all Zimmerman’s fears. Even if all he had done is called the police and then stayed in his car like he was told to, Zimmerman’s motivation would have been the same — he was afraid of what Trayvon Martin represented. In George Zimmerman’s mind, a black kid in a hoodie was bad news, and bad news had just walked into his neighborhood — the one he had volunteered to protect.

It doesn’t matter if Zimmerman was a racist or just a concerned neighbor. He was consumed with xenophobia — the fear of something different.

In this way, he is a pretty typical American.

We are a nation of xenophobes. One need only look at our politics to see it. Liberals villainize conservatives for defending those with a lot of money. They try to make anyone who supports billionaires different and wrong. Conservatives demonize liberals for advancing social programs that give money to the poor and for advocating equal rights for minority groups. They try to portray liberals as elitists out of touch with “real Americans.” No specter is too horrifying or too brazen or too tasteless for a politician with a campaign to win to drag and foist on the American consciousness.

It’s hard to say when this began. We’ve been stewing in the politics of fear since 9/11. We’ve tarred and feathered Muslims and Arabs since then to fuel military campaigns and public policy.

But it’s older than that. President Clinton signed the “Defense of Marriage Act” into law to prevent gay marriage from being nationally recognized. As though same-sex marriage somehow attacked the marriages of heterosexuals.

In 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush cautioned the nation against liberalism by telling the Republican National Convention, “Don’t say the ‘L-word.'” As though being liberal made one profane.

President Reagan in the 50’s and President Truman in the 40’s and 50’s incited paranoid fear of the Soviet Union. As though any sort of Communist movement could really get any foothold in the biggest bastion of capitalism on Earth.

Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, Americans happily wallow in fear. We have all forgotten what President Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” We’ve gone the other direction. The only thing we don’t fear is fear.

Racism is fear. It is the fear of someone different than you.

Neighborhood watches are fear made manifest. They are taking up arms in the name of fear.

That’s why George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death. That’s why a kid who just wanted some candy and a drink is dead.

Why?

Because the United States is a nation of fear.

Trayvon Martin was sacrificed on the altar of that fear. If he is convicted for shooting him, George Zimmerman will be too. Two lives lost and countless others ruined, because, in the United States, we are too busy running scared to notice that we’re destroying ourselves.

And the worst part is Trayvon Martin’s death has made us all more afraid. Parents are afraid their kid will be the next victim if he or she wears the wrong clothes or attracts the attention of the wrong person. Crime victims are afraid to defend themselves for fear they might be accused of racism if their assailant is a different race than they. Casual observers are afraid the fallout of this event will cause laws to be enacted they don’t like.

Who’s next? Feed the fear.

It’s time to stop being afraid. It’s time to remember that fear itself is the deadliest enemy. As Frank Herbert put it in DUNE, “Fear is the mind-killer.” It’s time to stop seeing “suspicious characters” everywhere. It’s time to look around and see that we are all Americans, all human beings, who essentially want the same thing: to lead happy, fulfilling lives.

Trayvon Martin shouldn’t be dead, and George Zimmerman shouldn’t be facing second-degree murder charges. But they are, because we as a nation are afraid.

It’s time to have the courage not only to admit that but also to do something about it.

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