Reflection 163: Fear and Anger

December 10, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Simply put, we generally find what we look for in life. We expect more of what we are sensitive to. We are particularly sensitive to fear aroused by threatening situations. If we have no time to ponder the circumstances, our unconscious minds convert fear into anger, rousing us either to do battle or run for cover. Consciousness is too slow to be of much use in dangerous situations that arise quickly. It is more suited, once things calm down, to planning how not to let the same thing happen again. In the press of the moment, things we find scary or threatening get us moving without thinking, either toward or away from the fray. As seekers of happiness, like the proverbial donkey, we are driven from behind with greater urgency by the stick of fear and discomfort than we are drawn by the carrot enticing us forward.

As an example, I offer this exchange of letters to the editor of The Ellsworth American, a weekly Maine newspaper to which I subscribe. Concerned (fearful) that Major Nidal Malik Hasan was being tried in the media before all facts were known about the shootings at Fort Hood, I wrote the first letter:

To the Editor:

What if Ft. Hood’s notorious Major Hassan [sic.] were a perfectly sane and sensitive man acting as many Mainers might act under contagiously stressful conditions such as therapists undergo in treating returning service men and women suffering post-traumatic stress disorder? Even those who face an enemy once removed by piloting Predator drones from cubicles in Utah are vulnerable to PTSD. Like Major Hassan, many in the armed forces are stressed beyond endurance. They deserve public sympathy and support more than condemnation. In the Ft. Hood incident, war itself is the villain that reached ahead of itself to kill those soon to deploy.

Steve Perrin, Bar Harbor

I put my views as succinctly as possible so not to take up undue space on the most popular page in the paper. Two weeks later, this somewhat longer reply appeared under the heading, Save the Sympathy:

To the Editor:

In the Nov. 19 American, Mr. Steve Perrin of Bar Harbor wrote in asking if perhaps Maj. Nidal Hassan was suffering from vicariously induced PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which drove him to commit his heinous acts of cold-blooded murder at Fort Hood.

He further asked if many Mainers might act in a similar fashion under such circumstances. Mr. Perrin’s comments were unquestionably the most imbecilic drivel I have ever read in The American. His attempt to excuse Maj. Hassan’s acts is incredibly insulting to those of us who have served our country. My Army Reserve unit was activated in late 2003 and we deployed to Iraq for a yearlong tour of duty in early 2004. There were certainly some very stressful moments during our deployment (as a transportation unit we did have several convoys ambushed, but with only minor injuries inflicted). However, we dealt with our stress in a constructive manner. Some of us prayed, some of [us] worked out, but we all dealt with it without harming ourselves or our fellow soldiers.

Mr. Perrin’s attempt to offer his “sympathy” to those of us who have served is a further insult. We are not victims. I, like every American soldier to have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, made a conscious decision to enlist. Not a single one of us was drafted. Our country, which has been a beacon of hope and justice since its founding, called us to duty on foreign soil to free oppressed people and to safeguard our nation. We answered that call and we did our duty. I personally am immensely proud of my service to my country and I in no way need anyone’s misguided sympathy for it. I seek only to live my life as I see fit and raise my family in the greatest nation on Earth. It is through the service of my fellow veterans and myself that I am free to do just that.

The victims of the Fort Hood massacre and their families have earned Mr. Perrin’s sympathy. Maj. Hassan doesn’t deserve it and I don’t want it.

Terry L. Bishop, CPA, Ellsworth

I could feel the blood rushing to my ears as I read that letter in the paper. Had I truly insulted the writer or offered him sympathy? Clearly, he took it that I had. And took pains to rebuff an offer I had not made. Next day, I sat down and wrote a follow-up letter:

To the Editor:

I appreciate the effort Terry Bishop made in responding to my letter about the Major Hasan affair at Fort Hood. In that incident, the victims were soldiers, the killer was a soldier who provided treatment for soldiers, and the location was a military base. It struck me that this was another front in a war we think of as being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is now being waged closer to home by our own troops.

We all hope this is an anomaly, a onetime event. Yet with soldier suicides on the rise, the need to provide effective care for physically and mentally wounded veterans, and uncertain prospects for how long these wars will go on, it is evident the cost to the American people is far greater than merely footing the bill. Lives of thousands of civilians and military personnel on both sides are being shattered—to what end?

Before we leap to judgment in the case of Major Hasan, I think we owe it to all of our troops in these wars to take a long, hard look at the conditions we ask them to perform under, and the consequences we expect them to risk and endure.

I say the true culprit is war itself, which every day is reaching deeper into our country, creating havoc and chaos when what we need is healing and compassion in these troubled times.

I regret that Terry Bishop regards these concerns as “imbecilic drivel.” He evidently has a deeper understanding of the military mind than I do, and is right to take pride in serving without harming himself or his fellow soldiers. Yet I include myself among “those of us who have served our country,” which I feel gives me a certain authority in stating my case. Mr. Bishop is one of the lucky ones. I think his views and mine are not incompatible. My sympathy was intended for the fallen and the broken—among whom I count Major Hasan, his victims, and their families.

Steve Perrin, Bar Harbor

For my part, I saw Terry Bishop as standard bearer for those my first letter was meant to reach. For his part, he committed to engage on the issue I raised. I couldn’t have asked for a more heartfelt response, backed by deep personal experience (beefed up with a good dose of military boilerplate). It struck me that he was engaged on a very meaningful level. His tactic was to blow me from the face of the Earth. Why such a strong reaction? His lashing out suggested the dynamic I outlined at the start of this post. My views seemed to warrant such an attack because they tripped a very sensitive nerve.

Evidently he took it I had fired the first shot in writing, “Like Major Hassan, many in the armed forces are stressed beyond endurance. They deserve public sympathy and support more than condemnation.” Why “many” rather than simply realize, because he had successfully dealt with his stress, that my offer did not extend to him? I think perhaps his military experience was more stressful than he chose to admit. Why else all the boilerplate meant to deny that possibility?

Fear motivated me to write the first letter: I was afraid Major Hasan was going to be made an example of to cover up what training and war can do to civilians in turning them into hardened killers. There is no off switch for such a mindset. Mr. Bishop apparently was afraid I was speaking directly to him. Which I was, but he didn’t want to hear it. Nor did the branch of the military that so carefully trained him. Leaving him to wrestle on his own with whatever fear and anger my letter stirred up.

I do not mean to single out Mr. Bishop for this kind of treatment. I recognize the same struggle in myself—and in humanity at large. Fear is a big part of life, which shows up in a broad spectrum of angry behaviors. Fear starts it off, then anger gets us moving. Together, they are a big part of our biological heritage for dealing with threatening events and situations. Or, more accurately, events and situations which we take to be threatening. Once, when I stepped on a twig while watching beavers in a pond, a Weimaraner plunged through the bushes and gave me what for, the owners calling out, “He won’t hurt you,” but I looked in his eyes and saw he was considering doing just that. My fear turned to anger at the owners for having their dog off-leash in a national park.

For more than eight years now, I have wondered what the nineteen terrorists who felled the Twin Towers were afraid of—what drove their anger. They didn’t know any of the occupants of the buildings—so it couldn’t have been them. The structures themselves were symbols of America’s widespread presence in the world, so it might have been that presence they feared, especially as evidenced in their homeland, Saudi Arabia. I think now the terrorists’ actions on September 11, 2001, were their desperate way of shouting, Yankee go home, we don’t want you here—you threaten our deepest beliefs and way of life! Osama bin Laden said as much at the time. But we were interested in the actions themselves as a show of deadly hostility, not the reasoning behind them. Our reaction was kindled by our fear, not theirs, which is how conflicts arise. Had we bothered to inquire at the time, and reflected on the reply we received, we might have spared the world a couple of wars and thousands upon thousands of deaths. But we committed ourselves to a bold and decisive course of action for the sake of its effect on the world, a course fueled by fear and anger, not any desire to hear and understand.

Through the agency of our upbringing, our culture often warns us it’s not nice to be fearful or angry. So we stuff such powerful feelings deep inside, denying they exist. I-am-not-angry! we shout; I-did-not-flinch! Yet this deadly duo surfaces every day of our lives, craving recognition as driving forces behind much of human behavior. Until we learn to deal effectively with road rage, cutting remarks, feeling left out or wrongly included, trashing the opposition, being cruel, and the countless every-day episodes rooted in anger and fear—until that day comes, we do not yet use the gift of consciousness to full advantage. We are still apprentices at being human, falling short of our full maturity—both individually as persons and collectively as a people.

Black-and-yellow field spider

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