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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.