Living in a Culture of Fear

Safety is a regular topic I run across.  Aside from being told how brave I am for adopting as a single parent, much less leaving our old life behind to begin a journey as a full-time nomad with my son (who was 9 at the time), I am frequently asked about safety for traveling in areas like Latin America.  In the blogosphere and Twitterverse, I regularly see posts, questions, and comments about the safety of travel.  When we were preparing to leave and to travel to new areas, I was told many times how unsafe Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia were.  These well-meaning comments were usually accompanied with an admonition to “be safe.”  Yes, because life in the United States is oh so  much safer.

We live in a culture of fear.  Why?  I’m sure there are many reasons, and I would offer that the media holds a lot of blame, particularly in the States.  No, this isn’t a post bashing my home country.  But we have to admit something is wrong when I was living in the US and could find more about what was happening in my own country by reading the online news sites from foreign nations than from TV channels and sites at home.  The media is so hungry for a golden ticket that it will devote hours of energy to the activities of a presidential candidate when he was a high school student almost 50 years ago then to horrible ethnic cleansing happening on the African continent.

Okay, I got distracted there.  The fact is a culture of fear sells.  I remember being riveted to the TV and radio for days during the LA riots after the policemen who had beaten Rodney King were acquitted of their crimes.  And I will never forget that morning on September 11, 2001, when I came downstairs to hear that a plane had just crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York City.  I was watching the report as the second plane crashed thereby erasing any doubt that the US was “under attack.”  My home office was in another room, and I had a special card in my PC so that I could watch TV on it.  I had it open the whole day and emailed regular updates to my partner while they taught school.

I’m sorry sir, you’ll have to get off. . . your resemblance to the Oklahoma City Bomber is making the other passengers nervous

When I had to fly shortly after 9/11, I’ll admit I was nervous.  I’m a person who has tries to never judge someone by the color of their skin, their religion, or their socioeconomic status, but I found myself carefully eyeing any person who appeared Middle Eastern.  I remembered this years later when I came across the above cartoon while preparing a presentation on multiculturalism.  How often have you entered a federal or government building and been on the lookout for a Timothy McVeigh look alike?  After all, his act of domestic terrorism killed 168 people, injured more than 680, and destroyed or damaged 324 buildings!

Those attacks spurred a drastic change in America, and in many places throughout the world.  Because of that event 11 years ago, air travel originating or arriving in the States has drastically changed.  Liquids are strictly controlled, shoes must be x-rayed, and in many US airports a passenger may have to choose between having a whole-body scan (in which the person appears naked to the remote viewer) or having their genitalia groped by an officer.  I was especially surprised at the nude imaging and groping in a seemingly puritanical country where the natural act of breast-feeding is being touted as indecent exposure.  But this is different because “it will keep us safe.”

“Our safety as a nation” has fueled an equally unprecedented attack on civil liberties in the US, one which constantly rapes the rights that have been previously held as sacred by the nation, its citizen, and its courts.  This same reaction has led to budget-busting wars in foreign nations that have directly claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to get political, but here are some sobering numbers to consider:

The 9/11 attacks took the lives of 2977 people (not including the 19 perpetrators).  So far we are spending at least $100 billion a year on the ensuing wars alone, which doesn’t include money spent on domestic antiterrorism efforts, like the TSA, and other intelligence and counterterrorism efforts.  In contrast, car crashes claim the lives of 40,000 people in the US every year.  In the US it estimated that 577,190 people will die from cancer in 2012, yet the government spends a paltry $4.9 billion a year on cancer research.

I am not belittling the horror of those heinous acts by any means, but why are we spending 95% less money on attacking something that is responsible for killing 194 times more citizens in this year alone?  Why are we entreated to endless news coverage of the trial of the man who allegedly murdered 12 people during a showing of a popular movie, yet something positive, like the Olympics that highlights the dedication and efforts of various nations, can barely receive a few hours of programming a night?  Because fear and outrage sell.

As a society many people are afraid to leave their country because of situations like when the news reported 1 tourist was shot outside a hotel in a popular Mexican tourist destination (without telling us any of the back story).  Cruise ships even cancelled that port of call for the rest of the season! If one adds up all the time I’ve spent in Mexico over the years, I’ve lived here for over a year.  During that time I have felt safer here than I have in many places I’ve lived and visited in the US.

For eight months we lived on a small island in a country that has the unfortunate claim to having 3 of its cities listed on a “top 10 most dangerous cities of the world” list.  When Tigger got sick and vomited on his way to the store, three men escorted him back home and were prepared to find where I was on the island (thankfully I was in the house).  In our old home there was no way I’d let him walk to the store by himself, and we lived in a safe, yuppyish neighborhood!

The culture of fear has become so pervasive that earlier this year a woman in the US was facing jail time for having her 10-year-old son walk to school.  She was charged with endangerment because “The child could have been injured, abducted.”  When I was a child MANY years ago, we were cautioned extensively to never talk to strangers because they might kidnap us.  True, that could happen.  However, only 24% of child abductions are committed by strangers.  So really, if we’re going to be honest, we need to fear people we know much more.  Relatives are the worst (49%).  But for some reason we don’t admonish our children to watch out for Uncle Bob!  (My apologies if your Uncle Bob merits caution, however.)

For many years I was terrified to let the kids I was taking care of go inside a public bathroom by themselves because, you know, what if there are perverts in there.  Again, the vast majority of sexual abuses are perpetrated by family members or people known to the child.  If we consider the above statistics along with the fact that 93% of all reported cases of child molestation are committed by heterosexual, married men, your child is also statistically much safer with gay Scoutmaster Dave than with Uncle Bob (again, my apologies to Uncle Bob, or nonoffending, hetero Scoutmaster Dave).  In the States, I’m afraid to help or approach a crying child out of fear that I’ll be accused of having some nefarious purpose.

So, you’re saying live like there’s no danger?

I’m not saying don’t be cautious, but let’s not be so damn afraid either!  Frankly, I would love to see the era of the culture of fear die.  In our almost 1-1/2 years of family travel, and my many years of solo travel before that, I have encountered an amazing number of truly fabulous, giving, and amazing people.  On the steamy streets of Havana, a man guided us for blocks to help me find water for Tigger.  He stopped when he saw a man sitting outside his apartment and told him “the boy needs water.”  The kindly gentleman jumped up, went inside, and brought my son a glass of water and had a bottle in his hand to give him more if he wanted.  When buying food outside a family’s home, we were ushered into their humble living room so that Tigger could sit down to eat his meal.  The family told us to come back any time we needed anything.  Cuba has a unique culture when it comes to children.  Here, a 6-year-old girl (or even a 20-something) can walk alone down a seedy-looking street at 10 PM and have no fear.

There is a difference between living in fear and having common sense.  When we’re in a new area, Tigger is my shadow until I get a feel for things. I don’t carry my expensive camera into an area until I’ve had a chance to check it out first.  Instead, I keep a cheap point-and-shoot in my pocket.  I don’t carry around wads of cash, but I do trust my gut.  When I’m in an area that is less safe, I can feel it.  I know how to carry myself so that when I’m walking down the street I’m sending the message “Trust me, it ain’t worth it.”  Yeah, I’m a big guy, and I know how to use “the look,” but I think the biggest thing is I’m not afraid.  I’ve learned there is far more good in the world than bad, and I also know we attract what we give the most thought and effort.  So instead of walking around fearful that every corner hides a potential attacker, I choose to focus on how safe we are, how good people are, and what a beautiful night it is.

What can I do?

Start with the little things.  First, don’t help the fear peddlers with their sales.  Sure, be informed but don’t flood your life with anxiety-provoking information.  It is so easy to get overwhelmed.  If you tried to protect yourself from everything that can hurt or kill you, or even try to catalog all potential dangers, you’d never leave the house.  Although, did you know that most accidental deaths occur in one’s own home?  Statistically, you’re safer leaving the house, and going more than a few blocks.

Instead of focusing on all the evil in the world, consciously seek out all of its tremendous beauty and good.  Let little Suzie climb those boulders, and maybe Billy doesn’t have to be as padded as the Michelin Tires Man when he gets on his bicycle.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to take that dream vacation to the white sand beaches of the Mexican Caribbean, to see Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower after all, or to go white-water rafting in Honduras.

Break the chains of the culture of fear and enjoy life!

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  1. oh, so true. honestly, i really hope there’re more people who think the same way as you do. In the end, the real american dream – getting a good job, health insurance, get happily married, get enough money and be happy and live in a safe country - is possible to reach anywhere except america. and that’s kinda sad…

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    • Boy, you hit the proverbial nail on the head with that statement. So right you are! And its is incredibly sad.

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  2. Thanks for getting this out, Talon.  It needed to be said, and you’re living proof of all you speak.  You’re totally pushing all the right buttons for me on this one.


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  3. Beautifully expressed. Fear  exists solely in the mind. You remind us of all the horrific messages creating a culture of ‘fear’ to keep a culture under control. But it’s a choice isn’t it? Focus on the messages and allow your life be filled with fear, or focus on the adventure and allow your life to be filled with joy. I know what I am choosing. It’s so brilliant to read your choice too! 

    Love, love, LOVE you both!!!

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    • You are as eloquent as you are lovely. Thanks for your input. I really admire your point of view, which is why I linked to your article about fear. I really believe we can not only change our lives but the world for good simply by changing our focus. Love you both as well! XO

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  4. Excellent post. I know I’m not American but a lot of this applies to UK too. Americans are usually surprised when I tell them that I know Europeans who are too afraid to go to the US on vacation. 

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    • Who can blame them! And yes, I’m reading a lot of overreaction and similar destruction of civil liberties coming out of the UK. It’s very sad.

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      • Yeah, if I watched the news about people getting shot in schools, malls, movie theaters, etc., I think I’d be nervous as well!

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  5. I am a reformed fearaholic.  Well, mostly reformed. :)  It has been hard to get rid of some very deep mental thought patterns, but have really surprised myself in this year we’ve spent traveling.  Our whole family went for a walk, at night, in a neighborhood in Grenada, Nicaragua.  It was a bit scary because it was dark, but we were completely safe…and picked up some AMAZING tamales while we were out. 

    It is amazing to be in Mexico now and realize how fear controls so much of the US.  It really is sad, especially when fear is used to manipulate and control the population, like you said, in the name of “our safety as a nation”.  I’m afraid that is a path few people ever recover from.  I’m glad we’re giving our kids the chance to not have it engrained into their minds.

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    • What a great example! And I’m so happy for your children that they are getting to see this difference, especially in such formative years.

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  6. No truer words were ever written. I always laugh when I think about how wonderful my childhood was and how many things I enjoyed. For the record, my Sunday’s were spent in the Barrio Logan of San Diego. I was never bothered. My father taught us how that showing respect rather than fear was the way to get through life. I believe we can learn a lot from other cultures and the way they lead their lives. We need to spend more time as a family unit and explore, and live life to the fullest, and not worry about the things we cannot control. Excellent post.

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    • Thank you! And I totally agree with you.

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  7. I second what Lainie said: beautifully put! You know if I ever put one thing critical of government, specifically the US, and how control is being used in every sector of live and sold because we are ;unsafe’, I get harassed about it. But if I criticize North Korea, then it’s ok!! But if I say talk about the TSA and how they are molesting people ( and bye the way a woman was arrested for touching them back, as she was showing them ‘how does it feel if I do it to YOU?’) I am a conspiracy theorist and anti American, siding with the so called terrorists. You really isolated the ‘why’ when you said that fear sells. As David Icke says, it’s Problem, Reaction, Solution: people buy into a supposed solution to keep them safe even if it violates their rights, IF the problem is sold to them appropriately, ie ‘if we don’t have TSA feeling you up at airports ( and now at some proms and bus stops), you could be a victim of an attack’.

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    • You are definitely correct. And that is an interesting comment about places like North Korea. Very true, and it IS highly hypocritical. People will sometimes do anything to feel safe, and I believe the government takes advantage of that.

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  8. Excellent post :O) I really wish my OH would watch less news in our house because it is all sooooo negative and you can really forget how fantastic the world actually is. My 12 yo son is really worried about travelling to certain countries in the world because of what he sees on the telly and it’s quite scary how entrenched that feeling is in him (although he has always been the worrier of our household). I hope some actual experiences might help him think differently.

    In the UK, I also grew up with the ‘don’t speak to strangers’ thing and as a parent it was really strange to then actually not impress that on my kids. I want them to know that if I am around it’s absolutely fine to speak to people and not everyone is some monster waiting to take them away. All it takes is another bad thing to happen though and the world goes crazy and thinks it happens all the time.

    As always common sense goes a long way :O)

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    • Ahh, that elusive common sense. I fear we’re facing an epic drought in that area.

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  9. Wonderful post! The culture of fear is so oppressive in the US, that it is hard to know where to start to push it aside. I thunk one thing travel has done for us is to relax us a whole lot! My boys have so much more freedom to explore, learn, and make mistakes now that we are traveling. We have decided to not let fear over rule our lives and I am so glad to see you have done the same:)

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    • Most definitely! Tigger has enjoyed a level of independence, self-reliance, and freedom through our travels unparalleled to what he could have if we lived in the States.

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  10. Reminds me of a conversation that I had with a cousin of mine (a then Florida resident) decades ago: I asked “Christie, when are you coming to California?” to which she replied “I ain’t comin’ out there, Ya’ll have Earthquakes!” I then responded “Well ‘Ya’ll have Hurricanes!!” … She then said “Well at least we can see’em comin’!!” … Touche’

    I guess it’s all a matter of perspective… and such is life, indeed.

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    • Have to agree w/her about hurricanes vs earthquakes. LOL But yes, indeed. Definitely agree.

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  11. So eloquently written and well explained. I completely agree with your point of view on this. I’m always encouraged to see another person not ruled by fear but sees the beauty in this world and focuses on that.

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  12. Well written! I have also been writing a lot about fear recently… included your link in my latest blog. Fear is a feeling. “Security” is also a feeling. People often talk about a “sense” of security… or about “feeling” safe. I think the relentless pursuit of “security” and “safeness” is a wild goose chase – and it robs us of LIFE! We’re all going to die… some day… some how. Such a pity that so many people miss out on LIFE due to their misguided fears about death. You guys – of course – show the world that there is another way – a better way. Thanks for writing this! :-)

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  13. Wonderful!!!! I love to read these posts where you address situations that most vie away from. What a wonderfully thought out, well-written post! Thanks T.

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    • Thank you! Took me a while to decide I needed to speak up and say something. LOL

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  14. It makes me wonder if I’ll end up with jail time for allowing our possibly future kid enjoy a freerange childhood.

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    • Just do it in a small town in the Pacific Northwest or New England, or in a foreign country, and you’ll be fine. LOL

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  15. Is it really the case that children aren’t allowed to walk to school without parental supervision? And that is, in fact, a crime? That just sounds absurd!

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    • There isn’t a law, and I don’t know that the charge was held, but it is a scary indicator of how things are going there & even in the UK. More & more we’re seeing less common sense & more nanny state. One school where we lived even banned riding bicycles to school because of the risk.

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  16. Well said. I’d never talk a walk alone at night where I live (Greater Los Angeles), but had no problem walking around Taipei alone at night. Sometimes I think where I’m from and where I live is the least safe place I’ve been…

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    • I have definitely seen that myself!

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  17. Hi Talon,
    Excellent post! I think that this culture of fear is a result of our general attitude of denial: I don’t have to worry about STDs, people like me don’t get infected, or, my teenage son can take the car, its the children of other parents that drink and drive, or if it wasn’t for all those foreigners, we’d never have these problems, and so on. So people’s natural tendency is to believe that their backyard is the safest place on earth and nothing wrong can happen there. When one hear news stories, it simply reinforces one’s prejudices. Happens all over the world, but it’s worse in USA (in my opinion). Travelling really opens your mind and perhaps makes the reality more accessible. Thanks for the post! :)
    cheers, Priyank

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    • Definitely! And I do agree the US is worse about that. They make good money on selling that fear, and it gives them some control over a sheeplike citizenry.

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  18. This is terrific on many levels and while I’m not anti-American I certainly think our culture seems to have a mindset that we need an “enemy” or we don’t feel whole or like we’re doing our job. It’s almost like a sick need we have and now that the Cold War is over it’s a search to find the next powerful enemy to fight a war with ~ since there isn’t one it’s this war on “terror” crap so anyone and everyone can be the enemy.

    In another sense, as Lainie mentions, fear in the mind is a personal choice but it’s not always being controlled by others. Let’s not forget that for some it’s a convenient scapegoat so that they can stay in their comfort zones and have a nice built-in excuse (be it an excuse for others or for them) when questioned. Sure it sounds like a good “reason” when you see the overexposed news footage of the one blown out of proportion incident, but only those of us that venture out know that! ;) I’m not saying everyone does this, just that I’ve been known to let my mind run away with me so I’m betting it’s happened to others as well. ;)

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    • Definitely! Governments can do a lot when they manipulate the minds of their people. As Americans we like to believe we’re free from this in our country, but our government is just as guilty as many of the ones we eschew, such as China and Cuba. There is power for a government that can convince people they are not safe and that they will take care of them, protect them, keep them from harm.

      I have also seen what you’re saying about people using fear to conveniently stay within their comfort zones. That is so true!

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      • I’ve seen it already traveling and not just with the fear thing but with many things. Americans think everything we have is the best yet many things in Europe are awesome and Americans know nothing about them. Heaven forbid anybody be ahead of us in anything! Of course our own government would never tell us this either because it would show a lacking on their part, therefore confidence would fall and we’d all abandon ship and flee, right? Wrong, but they must think that, thus they feed us a line of crap and keep us in the dark.

        I love traveling ~ I feel much more enlightened suddenly. :)

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        • Luckily I experienced other cultures at a young enough age that I’ve never bought into the typical American ethnocentrism. So many countries have such an edge on us, and so many cultures are far more community and family minded that it’s rather funny to hear people say how America is the greatest country in the world. No, it really isn’t. Yes, it is a wonderful country and has many wonderful things about it, and I’m often quite grateful that I was born there, but there are MANY absolutely wonderful countries.

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          • Isn’t it funny how fear rules governments too? So many people and all so afraid? Imagine how different the world could be if people could just let go… gosh, I think John Lennon had a song kinda like that, didn’t he? ;)

          • You can really tell the difference when you’re in a culture that doesn’t live off fear. We noticed it in Mexico with the last hurricane. I’ve seen how people respond in America leaving stores with bare shelves, etc. Here it was such a nonevent. Even many of the American expats here were freaking out when it was just a warning (and the storm was DAYS away), while those of us who have been living in Latin America for a while just shrugged and said “We’ll see.”

          • Well it’s also a difference in cultures period. Americans are a very “me” culture. We clear out stores because we all want to get things for “our” family and no one else. We are not a society that is social we are democratic. Heaven forbid we care for each other! No way man! We watch out for “me!” Those who have will have and those who don’t will die. I can imagine you saw a huge difference.

          • Very sadly true. I was most amazed when I went to the Philippines. About 5 months prior they had a big typhoon which caused massive flooding. Mud was about 1.5 meters high in most buildings. There was absolutely no sign of it. They had come together, even people coming from other islands, to rebuild, clean, paint, etc. Yet in the US years later the areas hit by Katrina remain devastated.


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