I’m fascinated by the way fear is used to promote agendas, gain attention, or make us compliant when someone is trying to sell us something – a home security system, a medication or personal hygiene product, a public policy. It’s one of the reasons I’m interested in crime fiction. It gives narrative shape to ambient social anxieties while providing a comforting sense of release. We can enjoy the anxiety so long as we know things will be resolved in the final pages. This narrative reassurance is one of the reasons the FBI so often announces they’ve apprehended bad actors who were induced to make threats of violence by paid informants. We need our drama, and we need our happy endings.
But when asking questions, when following one’s curiosity, or when studying a subject like terrorism can become evidence to be used against you, things have gotten way out of hand.
A case in point: in the U.K., a university official, acting on government instructions to look for and intervene in the radicalization of Muslim students, discovered a student who was reading a book about counter-terrorism in the library and questioned him about his beliefs about his religion, Al Qaida, ISIS, and homosexuality. This is a student enrolled in the university’s master’s program in terrorism, crime, and global security. He was studying an assigned textbook. Had he been more Anglo-Saxon in appearance, it’s unlikely a “member of staff” (I fervently hope it wasn't library staff) would have alerted authorities about suspicious reading activity. University and school officials complain that the directives from government are confusing and hard to apply. Beyond that administrative difficulty, this is a stupid way to address young people who might become alienated from British society. No surprise it isn’t working and, some say, is actually counterproductive in the schools. In institutions of higher education, where it is now required, this blunt and alienating instrument is likely to fail, too.
We don’t have any such government regulation here in the U.S. Our state interventions in the name of preventing terrorism are more subtle and hidden. We do have school officials ready to call the police when a student brings a homemade clock to school, and we have police willing to put a kid in cuffs not because he posed a threat (the bomb squad wasn’t called, no measures were taken to protect other students) but because he should know better than to bring things with wires attached to school, at least not when he looks so scary. This kind of bigotry happens to kids often, though it rarely becomes a news event.
Fear is almost always cited as a contributing factor to police shootings, including the disproportionate number of unarmed black people. Some people are now blaming the Black Lives Matter movement for police deaths on the job by playing up trends that don’t actually exist.
You know what might help help us solve these vexing social issues? Less fear. More education. More access to libraries and the ideas they contain. More discussion and debate. More respect for the value of exploring controversial ideas openly and of using evidence to make up our minds. A focus on preventing crime rather than preventing ideas.
Librarians refused to be cowed by a security letter and gag order that demanded access to patron records - and they won. Trustees at a public library recently rejected fearmongering by the Department of Homeland Security and voted to maintain a Tor exit relay, believing privacy is so important to intellectual freedom that they would provide it in spite of vague threats of possible bad actors.
Librarians need to take our commitment to intellectual freedom to heart and fight back when fear is used as a weapon against the right to inquire and explore. Reading must never be considered evidence of a crime. And (a critical information literacy concept) we need to be alert to the uses of fear in controlling and shaping public issues.
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