During my Fulbright a few years ago, I went to Paris to give a talk. While there, I took a ride on the metro, and a few seats over from me I saw a woman dressed in a niqab. Fear consumed me upon seeing her, sitting in her seat as the train sped along the tracks. When the fear hit me, I immediately knew the cause. The fear I felt didn’t stem from the woman. She had done nothing to me. She had done nothing to make me feel afraid. The fear arose from the inundation, over the past twenty years following 9–11, of anti-Islamic stories that circulated within the media and elsewhere. That fear arose individuals, who before I went to Paris, expressed concern and told me, basically, to be cautious. This was a few years after the November attacks in Paris and a couple of years after the attack in Nice. They, like me, had imbibed the narrative of terror, specifically Islamic terror that the woman sitting near me embodied, through no fault of her own.
Instantly, I caught myself. I knew I had no logical reason to fear the woman. I knew that my fear originated not from my own experiences but from stories that others told me. I knew that those stories contained truth because they spoke about attacks and actual events, but I also knew that those stories sensationalized and presented overblown rhetoric demonizing individuals. Fear is a powerful weapon. It’s used to control and to sway individuals, specifically in politics. Politicians deploy it non-stop in the hopes of getting us to vote for them, and pundits peddle it as well, stoking the fires constantly in so that they can maintain power and control.
The use of fear as a weapon of power and control appears in almost every text we are reading for my “Monsters, Race, and Comics” course this semester. Sometimes, as in Is’Nana the Were-Spider, discussions of fear surround the ways it controls people and how we should look out for it. In other instances, such as Killadelphia, fear serves as the tip of the spear for the acquisition and maintaining of power. Abigail Adams wields it in her attempt to take over society. As she prepares to unleash her horde of vampiric followers upon Philadelphia, Abigail tells her inner circle that if people were wise they’d ban together and revolt against those in power; however, they have been so psychologically downtrodden that any such action never crosses their mind. To help them along, she’ll invoke fear amongst the masses, using it to pull people to her side.
As some of her followers prepare to attack the governor, she talks about what she wants to populace to see. She says, “The images coming from their televisions will freeze them in fear. And a fearful mind is a vulnerable one.” Fear causes individuals to become susceptible to manipulation, no matter what that manipulation entails. Fear causes people to feel confused. It causes them, ultimately, to lose all sense of reason because instead of thinking rationally about a situation they let fear overcome them, leading them to act in violent ways. Fear fuels propaganda because when it spreads it expands. It grows. It intensifies.
We see this fuel constantly during election cycles. Recently, I received a mailer from the NRA trying to persuade me to vote for Herschel Walker for US Senate. The mailer plays on the fear of violence and the fear of some gun owners that the government wants to take their guns away. The fear of violence stood out to me because the first two sentences read, “Personal safety and your right to self-defense are on the ballot this November. Joe Biden and Raphael Warnock’s soft-on-crime policies have resulted in a spike of violent crimes across the country — the most recent FBI data shows a nearly 55% increase in homicides in Georgia.” The bolding of the FBI data is meant to grab my attention and to cause fear within me that homicides have increased and runs rampant in Georgia under Biden and Warnock.
Upon reading the mailer, I decided to do a quick Google search, specifically for the assertion that according to the FBI homicides in Georgia have increased almost 55% over the past couple of years. I found a source immediately, and discovered that the core of this claim is true. The recent FBI report does say that there has been a 55% jump in homicides in Georgia. However, what the mailer intentionally leaves out is that the FBI report details the number of homicides and violent crimes in 2020, so two years ago. Thus, the assertion that Biden and Warnock’s policies led to the spike falls flat because the spike occurred during the previous administration. That does not mean that the current policies work. What it means is that the NRA mailer presents factual information in a misleading manner to stoke fear for the candidate that they want to win the election.
About the same time I received the mailer, I came across a segment on Fox News discussing the fact that homicides on the New York City subway system have drastically increased and are at their highest level in 25 years. Using a New York Post article as the basis, they shared the following graph with viewers as they discussed the increase. The graph caught my attention because while it does show an increase in homicides over the past two years, the commentators did not note that the number of murders on the subway system each year does not even reach double digits. Any murder is bad and horrendous, and any number is terrible. However, by failing to mention the actual numbers, letting the red of the past three years stare at the viewer, and by correctly claiming that the number of murders have increased by almost 200% to 300% over the past few years and that the homicides between 2020 and 2022 account for more than the combined homicides between 2008 and 2019, the commentators strategically chose language and numbers to stoke fear.
Ridership on the subway is down from 2019 when 142 million people rode the system each month. This year, a little over 81 million people ride the subway each month. Thus, a larger percentage of passengers face the threat of murder on the subway system. There have been 7 homicides on the system this year. If we calculate 81 million riders through September, that means 729 million riders have passed through the subway system through that month. The percentage of murders on the system through September, in relation to the number of riders, is 0.000000009% of the riders, way below even 1%. Again, I am not saying that we should not pay attention to these homicides. What I am saying is that the commentator purposefully misrepresented the information to drive a narrative of violence and crime, to stoke fear.
Fear is powerful. Lillian Smith said, “The Devil knows that if you want to destroy a man, all you need to do is fill him with false hopes and false fears. These will blind him to his new direction and he will inevitably turn away from the future and destroy those close to him.” Fear blinds. It causes confusion. It spreads. Ultimately, it can lead the nation and its people down to hell. To combat fear, we must be able to discern when individuals deploy it. We must question. We must investigate. We must not swallow anything whole. We must realize the ploy and short circuit it.