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Fearful World (political junkie 2)
13 Dec

It was unnervingly beautiful today. The middle of December is just not supposed to be so warm. However, it made for a Winter day when friends could take advantage to enjoy being outside together.

One friend (a political junkie) asked me, out of the blue, how I felt about seeing people in burkas, eyes being the only clue to human presence inside it, walking in public? Could I imagine a circumstance where I’d be afraid? The questions startled me because there should be nothing wrong with it. I’ve often seen them in the streets of my hometown and felt no concern. Of course people can wear what they like! I would never want to outlaw an article of clothing. And still, I volunteered what I felt was true, knowing he would want to hear it; there are times when I (a liberal member of our group) could imagine feeling ill at ease at the sight. What did I just say? What was I admitting to?

The question lingered with me for hours. Shame and disappointment ricocheted through my mind, robbing me of some pleasure at every moment. But I couldn’t deny my own words or the feeling that prompted them.

It nagged at me until I realized that my imagined fear was familiar. It felt like wondering how someone might react if I pointed out that their garbage toss had missed the trashcan and was now soiling the sidewalk. It felt like wondering if it’s okay to yell at someone who is leaning on their car horn, as though no one else in traffic would think of accelerating forward without their blaring reminder. It felt, I realized, as I do whenever I encounter a person with some friction built into the situation, and wonder if they are carrying a gun.

I am fearful whenever I am subject to someone else’s good graces and think they have the power to easily change or end my life. I once worked with a man who was cheating his way towards a promotion. But I never said anything to our bosses because I also knew that my co-worker often carried a gun. I feel there is a diminishment of my freedom when I consider that other people could be carrying. It makes me a weaker person than I would otherwise choose to be.

Gun rights advocates might tell me that I just need to get used to it, or tell me that I’m actually safer when more people carry guns because I’m less likely to get attacked. But I don’t see it that way. It might be true that I would then be less likely to get mugged. But it’s also more likely that an innocent confrontation could turn deadly. The odds of either happening are quite low, I realize. But I’d rather be able to be the person I want to be and endure the chance of getting mugged at random, than be a person who must choose to ignore certain moments in life for the sake of remaining in a stranger’s good graces. Sometimes it is one’s business to speak to a stranger. Prevalent guns turn it into a risky proposition. And by the way, add to the chances that other peoples’ confrontations can accidentally claim completely innocent victims who happen to wander into the pathway of a stray bullet.

The fear of what might be concealed is what brings this to burkas. It is not the cloth itself that instills fear. The scare comes from what we imagine it conceals. I don’t want to be around anyone who might be the story on the evening news. And I’m saying this is spite of the fact that every Muslim I’ve ever known, be it by friendship or by being neighbors, has been a very fine person.

The problem with burkas is that what they conceal extends to the person herself. One can see the face and posture of a Western clothed person. I can at least imagine I can see thoughts in the persona of a Western clothed bully, imagine if they are carrying a gun, and choose how I should be responding, if at all. When there is a burka though, I have to imagine the persona in its entirety. I can’t even pretend to guess what the person inside it might be thinking. At risk of shattering any liberal credibility I might have earned, all I’m saying is that the more room imagination has to play in an encounter, the more likely it is that fear will be able to rise to the forefront of it.

As a society, our question becomes one of what to do with our fears. Do we govern according to them, or in spite of them? Here I do not want to rely on what can be seen a part of the liberal creed: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I don’t want to ask anyone to unnaturally suppress their feelings. A person can act or feel as they choose. Society, however, must base its decisions in more objective realms. So it’s worth noting that on 9/11, none of the terrorists wore burkas. And since September 12, 2001 through the tragedy in San Bernardino, 45 Americans have been killed by radicalized people perverting Islam to commit terrorist acts, burka-wearing or not. About 500 Americans are hit by lightning, each and every year. Yet fear can make us think the risk of being involved in a politically charged subset of terrorism can be so much greater than that of being hit by lightning.

Our society acts as though citizens having more guns will diminish the impact of terrorism. Anecdotally, that notion may occasionally find some truth. But there are also serious, ancillary costs to our society from the increasing pervasiveness of guns. If we were to act rationally, we’d all spend more on special shoes and garments that could protect us from lightning than we do on guns for thwarting the possibility of terrorism. If we govern from fear, then fear gains credibility, and we will be destined to end up governing the irrational. The size of our fear is almost never in accord with the size of the threat.

So as for seeing burkas in our midst, what I wish I had said to my friend is, I think our society would be wise to listen to the rational of gun advocates; we should get used to it.

About the Author

Written by Stephen Taft

I live in New York City, work on Wall Street, and think about justice...all the time.

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