Your Fear Doesn’t Matter

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“The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real,” Stephen King writes in the foreword to his first short story collection Night Shift. “I know that,” he continues. “And I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.”

The boogeyman of my childhood wasn’t a monster under my bed, but it was almost as fictional. My mom — like so many suburban moms — worried about me getting kidnapped, and that worry was passed along to me. Every stranger was a threat. Unsubstantiated rumors of ominous white vans — which reemerged in 2019 — made this common car an object of terror. Every night, I eyed my closed bedroom window, nervous someone would break it and snatch me from my bed.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned the rarity of so-called “stereotypical kidnappings.” The vast majority of kidnappings are carried out by non-custodial parents or someone else the child knows. Myths of human trafficking mask a reality that most children who disappear run away from abusive homes and/or are manipulated by older boyfriends. The closest reality to our cultural perception of human trafficking does not occur for upper middle class suburban white kids, but to people with limited options due to violent immigration policy and the people who abuse the vulnerability that policy creates.

They say sex sells, but nothing sells better than fear. Whether it’s the nightly news that scared my mom during my childhood or false Facebook posts that scare the young moms of today, a culture of fear is great for ad sales.

It’s also great for upholding the institutions that enact the most harm.

Our misperceptions around topics like missing children create a society that fails to address its most pressing issues — like abuse, like failed immigration policy. Instead, people yearning for a feeling of safety develop a mistrust in each other and a false trust in law enforcement.

Since learning more about police and prison abolition in 2014 during the Ferguson protests, I’ve had many conversations with white friends and family who struggle to disentangle themselves from our justice system. Their personal experiences with police range from annoyance to incompetence — a speeding ticket for going ten over the limit, a busy signal when calling 911, dismissive cops in the face of robbery, stalking, or sexual assault. They admit the police have failed them in the past but can’t let go of their idea of a heroic police force taught to them by film and television.

People ask: What about serial killers? Who will catch them? What will we do with them?

Only 15% of the U.S. state prison population is incarcerated for homicide. Only 3.3% of the U.S. federal prison population is incarcerated for the oddly expansive category of “homicide, aggravated assault, and kidnapping.” Take into account that less than 10% of homicides are believed to be committed by strangers to the victims, and it’s fair to say serial killers are a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of those in prison.

Serial killers are a compelling narrative, but they almost certainly aren’t going to kill you or your children. The leading cause of death for people age 44 and under is by far unintentional injury. Of all his many monsters, killer cars are Stephen King’s most accurate villains. (It’s too bad traffic cops don’t actually make our roads safer.) Every time you get in a vehicle or walk on the street or step in the shower, you’re at a far greater risk of death by accident than you’ll ever be from death by serial killer or human trafficker or, of course, terrorists.

As more people buy security cameras and use apps like Next Door, I’ve become convinced that fear — specifically reducing people’s irrational fears — is the most urgent political issue of our time. That has become even clearer since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel led to a resurgence of Islamophobia and a genocidal response from the Israeli government.

As a Jew who grew up in a largely Jewish suburb, I spent my childhood thinking antisemitism was a thing of the past. When my parents told me they moved away from Orange County due to antisemitism, I rolled my eyes in disbelief. (The same O.C. where Seth Cohen celebrated Chrismukkah? Come on!) It wasn’t until the Charlottesville marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” that I realized antisemitism was not one of my parents’ irrational fears.

Throughout the Trump administration — and again as he runs for reelection — the comments made by the former president and his associates have horrified me. He chose not to take a side in response to the Charlottesville marchers and has played into the most basic tropes of Jews as all-powerful and money-grubbing.

When the killing of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue occurred in October 2018, it felt like an inevitable horror in the wake of rising antisemitism.

But since October 7 of this year, accusations of antisemitism have been more prevalent than antisemitism itself. Social media posts warned of a “Global Day of Jihad” set to occur on the 13th — a racist, Islamophobic, and easily debunked rumor that nevertheless gained mainstream attention.

As I was talking to my family about the occupation of Palestine, they not only fought with me but also warned me to not go outside. They were convinced Jews around the world were going to be killed on this day. When this did not occurr, their fear did not dissipate. Rather, like a cult that has wrongly predicted the end of the world, they picked a new day. On the 14th, one family member still insisted she was afraid to go outside. While my family and others anticipate mass violence against American Jews, there has already been a rise in hate crimes against Muslims driven by rhetoric like their own.

Comedian Iliza Schlesinger was given space this week in The Hollywood Reporter to lament the lack of support for Jewish people in the face of antisemitism. Her piece claims people aren’t taking a rise in antisemitism seriously, but she fails to cite any actual occurrences of antisemitism beyond those committed by Mel Gibson and Kanye West. All of her post-October 7 examples are not descriptions of antisemitic sentiments but anti-Israel sentiments. To be against Israel is not antisemitic. To be merely critical of Israel is definitely not antisemitic. It’s absurd to call protests against Israel inherently antisemitic when the largest demonstration in the U.S. was led by a Jewish organization and Israeli Jews themselves have begun to protest.

In fact, mere weeks before the October 7 attack, it was not controversial to criticize Trump for conflating Israel with all Jewish people. He has long talked to American Jews like Israel is our true country rather than the one he led and hopes to lead again. The far right in the U.S. overwhelmingly supports Israel despite — or, rather, because of — their rampant antisemitism. They want American Jews to embrace Israel as our home and let the U.S. be Christian — and then, for some, upon the rapture, the world.

The increased violence against Palestinians by the Israeli government has already and will continue to lead to an increase in antisemitism. It’s an inevitability if people ranging from comedians to President Joe Biden continue to conflate Israel and Judaism. Family members and politicians have insisted this is because Hamas does not want to destroy Israel but to “destroy all Jews.” Even if this were true, it would not justify imitating their reduction, but it’s even more inexcusable considering Hamas’ 2017 charter says the opposite.

If the narrative continues that to criticize Israel is to criticize Jews worldwide, this conflation will catch on further, and Jews everywhere will suffer for the Israeli government’s crimes.

Your fear does not matter simply because you are afraid. As a trans woman, I’ve had to learn the difference between hate that upsets me and may signal an increased violence in society vs. hate that puts my life in immediate danger. When I read a random comment online or even when someone shouts at me on public transportation, I’ve acquired the ability to measure my reaction. I would not function out in the world if every negative encounter left me fearing for my life. This isn’t to belittle the emotion of these experiences or the annoyance of, say, having to wait for the next bus in order to deescalate an encounter. Nor is it to suggest physical violence could never occur. I’ve just found that engaging with the reality of the harm done leaves me far better equipped to deal with it.

While reading an antisemitic comment on the internet or seeing an antisemitic poster at a largely Jewish-inclusive protest is upsetting, it is not equal to actual acts of violence. If this is the extent of the antisemitism someone has experienced in recent weeks, I’d urge them to reflect on whether they are engaging with the reality of that harm. Words matter, but they matter more from the president of the United States or even a comedian with a platform than they do from a random commenter or protester. When over 9,000 Palestinian people have been killed in Gaza since October 7 and acts of violence have been enacted against Muslim Americans, fear of what might happen to you and your family is selfish at best. At worst, it’s a cry for more violence.

We need to replace our fears with facts. We need to let go of our cultural boogeymen — serial killers, white vans, terrorists — and confront the real dangers in our society. The first step is accepting the fact that you will never have a guarantee of safety. No amount of money given to the police or the military will cure the world of its dangers. It will, however, make things worse. Our desire to cheat death cannot be used as an excuse to kill others.

Violence is cyclical. Police, prisons, the military, colonialism all create more violence that leads to more violence. So get rid of your Ring cameras, stop calling the police, stop viewing every stranger as a threat, and free yourself from fear.

If people calling for a ceasefire — a literal end to violence — feels like a threat against you and your family, the problem is not that call to action. The problem is your fear.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 536 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. This article is so excellent that I am having a hard time writing a comment that doesn’t feel incredibly trite. Thank you for weaving together so many deeply connected threads that are often seen as isolated phenomena.

    In my observation, fear is exactly why the right wing in this country always seems to have the edge over the left…it’s so, so easy to tap into our collective fears as a rallying point. It’s so much harder to get critical mass around solutions that require us to live into our higher selves rather than our basest instincts.

    I really appreciate you naming that central problem and calling us to be better.

  2. Thank you for this! I’ve been driven crazy by the desire of so many people over the past decade to categorize things as “violence” simply because they don’t like them. Words are not violence. They can INSPIRE violence, but they are not, themselves, violence. Calling everything violence cheapens the experience and testimony of those who experience actual violence by falsely equating hurt feelings or fear with broken bones, blood spilled, and lives ended.

    • I think a lot of people are doing that because they don’t want to act like indirect harm is less destructive than direct harm. For example, a lot more gay people died during the AIDS crisis as a result of the government choosing not to do anything about AIDS than died as a result of people directly attacking them. I’ve also known a lot of people who were abused in both physical and psychological ways and found the psychological abuse more damaging. I don’t think insulting someone mildly is the equivalent of breaking their bones or anything, but there ARE a lot of ways to hurt people. A different word for indirect harm might be better, I don’t know. But it’s not necessarily less impactful.

      (Note: I am discussing this use of language in general while replying to another person who seems to me to be discussing this use of language in general, and do not particularly think this is applicable to Israel and Palestine.)

  3. The 2017 charter for Hamas explicitly rejecting antisemitism, given that their previous charter, written in 1988, not only openly embraced antisemitism, but also bizarrely accused the Lions Club and Rotary International as being part of a vast global Jewish conspiracy.

    I still wouldn’t consider myself a supporter of Hamas–at the end of the day, they still seem rather ambivalent about democracy, especially if it conflicts with their staunch Islamism, to say nothing of their disregard for civilian casualties–but they deserve credit for making such an organizational turnaround.

      • Excuse me, but “a disregard for civilian casualties”?

        Are you seriously saying that about the Hamas, that was responsible for murdering 1300 people in a single day? That didn’t hold elections since 2006? That told Palestinian civilians to no evacuate south? There is no excuse for how Israel treats Gaza but you know that both sides can be bad, right?

        I think the most lasting damage from American propaganda post 9/11 is the deep-seated conviction that there are two sides two every conflict, with one good and one bad. The actions of the good side can always be excused, ignored or framed as a deserved consequence, no matter how abhorrent. Leftists make the first step to realize that the USA aren’t the good guy, but seldom take the second step to understand that both sides can be bad. And in this case they definitely are.

  4. Yess! This is exactly it. As i see tons of influencers getting dragged for posting about their fear from the security of their homes (sometimes luxury homes) I struggled with the idea of telling someone their fear is hurting people

    But this is exactly the perfect way to put it- thank you!!!

    • I think it’s especially dangerous when you have 13 million followers, like a certain comedian, to then spread that fear and misinformation around to that many people. It has led to a daisy chain of other high profile people with millions of followers also spreading around that same fear and misinformation. This is not a good look for anybody and it certainly doesn’t help the vulnerable people embroiled in this conflict who are ACTUALLY loosing their lives, jobs, homes, etc.

  5. I really want to commend Autostraddle for your coverage of Israel/Palestine. Truly some of the best and most thoughtful writing out there right now and so important to come at it from a queer perspective. Thank you so much.

  6. thanks for this! i’ve long been concerned about the widespread use of nextdoor/citizen type apps, but to connect these to the current issue via Fear is !! huge. and productive both for critique & building solidarity across seemingly unrelated movements. not to mention how skillfully u bring these issues into focus thru ur personal experiences!

  7. I don’t think incarceration is the solution but the 3% applies to federal prisons, the majority of prisoners are in state facilities and violent crime makes up closer to 60% for those.

  8. Appreciate much of this, Drew, especially re: distinguishing fear of emotional or potential harm and fear of current and physical harm, and not trusting in a military or surveillance apparatus to make us safer.
    At the same time, felt like there were a number of things missing…for example, the ~1300 civilians Hamas did in fact torture & murder 7/10, which is notably different to the types of emotional harm and manufactured panic you describe your relatives experiencing. I understand that this piece is directed at a primarily American audience, where the extremity of the antisemitism in recent weeks has afaik been things like vandalism of vaguely Jewish-looking things & active and direct but online threats of violence, both of which are bad but also not immediate physical harm. Still doesn’t (Gd forbid!) mean Israel’s response & its own killing of 9000 Palestinians is morally correct, nothing justifies murder of civilians, just this is a layer of the conversation that this piece does not reach. Eg, when the fear of direct physical harm /is/ tangible and justified, whether in the case of Israeli civilians or eg the members of the Tunisian synagogue that was torched last week (and I’m not saying all these situations are equivalent, but it would feel wrong to leave out that of course Palestinians living under violent occupation are also asking these questions), what does or should self defense look like? Obviously am all for addressing the root causes of violence, esp as a form of channeling fear into truly productive action, but that isn’t an immediate enterprise–how does this work when the violence is actually present? What are responses to harm that both protect people bodily at risk and don’t spin the wheel of cyclical violence?
    Also not sure we need to be wondering about how much leeway to give Hamas, notably an undemocratic dictatorship which tortures dissenters and outlaws homosexuality…and yeah, while they updated their charter as you noted, they also refused to disavow their previous version ft the whole killing all the Jews business. There are so so so many Palestinian freedom fighters who are resisting, including in violent ways, that do not support these things or use tactics like torture and child murder! I really think it’s possible to resist the both Israeli state and overblown, Islamophobic myths without giving Hamas so much quarter, esp while the bodies are still being identified…
    Also, and this is a way less important point, but I do think you’re giving pro-Israel rhetoric a bit too much power here–conflation of all Jews with the State of Israel /is/ a problem, and it certainly does not make Jews /safer/, but it’s important to note that people who threaten Jews around the world ostensibly because of Israel are still…thinking people who are making a choice to do that. Similarly, people might claim to be committing Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian hate crimes “because of” the Hamas situation, but Hamas did not /cause/ them to do this, it’s merely a convenient (and false!) justification. Bad action on the part of one segment of a population, even if it claims to represent the rest, does not automatic violence make or justify.
    Anyway thanks for starting this conversation. Praying for liberation and peace…

  9. I’m sorry your family don’t want you to go outside Drew, but I think you really missed the mark here. Anti-semitic violence is real, in the wake of the October 7 attacks when 1400 people were killed, there have been bricks thrown at Jewish restaurants in London, a molotov cocktail thrown at a synagogue in Berlin, a stabbing in France and stars of David daubed on the walls of Jewish homes with the intent to threaten, to name just a few incidents. Did the long lists of very real violence we commemorate on most Jewish holidays pass you by? This is one of the most gaslight-y and unhelpful pieces I have read on here of late.
    I am afraid and my fear is valid. The fear and sadness of Palestinians and Arabs more generally is valid too and I don’t need to deny my own fears to empathise with theirs or pretend the whole world is California to support a ceasefire. Do better.

    • There are 7.6 million Jewish people in the US. We are overwhelmingly more likely to be harmed by any other thing (including mass violence that isn’t targeted at us) than anti-semitic violence. It’s legitimate to be upset and it’s legitimate to have feelings of fear, but what we do with those feelings matters.

      • It’s not just people in the US who read this website and given your country’s toxic love affair with guns, I would be even more worried about living there under the present circumstances. The Tree of Life Synagogue shootings were only a few years ago.

      • Yeah, well but the world, and this conflict is not mainly about the US.
        In Europe anti semitic went through the roof since early October, both by Hamas sympathizers and by nazis.
        A much higher number of muslims live in the EU than in the US, compared to the number of jews. The violence by islamist groups and nazis against jews or queer people is very real. I get threatened and attacked by both groups all my life as a visibly queer person. So yeah, it’s good that you are safe from islamist violence in the US, but that’s just not the case for other people who are a bit closer to the middle east

  10. I’ve been thinking a lot about the “silk ring theory”.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_theory_(psychology)

    I am trying to give support to those most affected, and turn for support to people who are the same or less affected than me.

    Oppression Olympics doesn’t help anyone but I feel like in general, support “in” goes to those in Palestine (including 48 Palestine aka Israel). The next layer is those who have family and friends there who have been harmed or are in danger. The third circle may have people who have identity based or other connections to the region which may include some American Jews.

    There’s no oppression Olympics and it’s important to honor everyone’s humanity but I hope we all center those who experiencing the most direct and dire harm as we direct our support.

  11. Thank you for this. As a queer cis woman who came out in the last century, I identify so much with this:

    “As a trans woman, I’ve had to learn the difference between hate that upsets me and may signal an increased violence in society vs. hate that puts my life in immediate danger. When I read a random comment online or even when someone shouts at me on public transportation, I’ve acquired the ability to measure my reaction. I would not function out in the world if every negative encounter left me fearing for my life. This isn’t to belittle the emotion of these experiences or the annoyance of, say, having to wait for the next bus in order to deescalate an encounter. Nor is it to suggest physical violence could never occur. I’ve just found that engaging with the reality of the harm done leaves me far better equipped to deal with it.”

  12. Recently I’ve lost a lot of respect for this website and this article largely illustrates why. Taking the position that the Jewish community’s fears don’t matter and are unrealistic is akin to saying antisemitism is not a threat. My cousin was held hostage in his synagogue at gun point, as just one example, so I think I understand this fear pretty well. Please be careful not to let legitimate activism to end violence in Palestine veer into millennia-long patterns of gaslighting Jews (who, I might point out, have been gassed in the millions within living memory and recently experienced the largest loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust.)

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