Living with Fear

Two things. First, this piece is longer and more personal than what I normally post. There isn’t any Constitutional reasoning here, no policy positions, no advocacy. Second, while I don’t normally go in for “trigger warnings,” I think in this case that I should flag that what follows is going to be intense, and involve some very real, very violent, and very troubling things.

I.

Over the course of the past year and a half, I’ve gotten a lot of mail, from all sorts of people – civilians, both gun owners and non-, law enforcement officers, veterans. Some of the letters have been supportive, others have been critical; some have been uplifting, others, terrifying. An Op-Ed of mine that ran in the New York Daily News generated the most of the last category, including a series of emails from someone I believe is associated with a specific extremist group. This individual wanted to let me know that America was on an inevitable path towards a second Civil War and that, when it finally broke out, I would be a prime target for liquidation.

Understanding my NYDN piece as a call for a renewed Assault Weapon Ban (which in fact I don’t support), he told me that such a measure would represent “the complete and total rape” of his “human rights.” Claiming that my position, as he understood it, made me a “slave-owning scumbag” – a term which he insisted had nothing to do with race, not least because he despised what he termed America’s “large, perpetual race-grievance based dependent class” – this person went on to write that that “background checks are a gross violation of my human rights…ALL existing firearms laws are.” “Get this through your dumb fucking head,” he wrote, in his last, most agitated letter. “This isn’t “absolutist,” this isn’t “rhetoric.”  I will defend my rights with my life, and if you don’t understand what that implies, then I will state it plainly: I am willing to kill for my rights.”

He didn’t have to put that last bit in bold to make his point, although he did anyway. For my part, I got the message loud and clear: however idiosyncratic his understanding of what constituted rape or slavery, this man was not afraid to kill people.

II.

His militancy, and the response to the NYDN piece in general, rattled me. But while all that left me afraid – scared to go out, at least for a while, skittish leaving the library late at night, jumpy on the decks of dark parking lots – nothing hit me quite like another letter I received, in response to another piece, this time in The Daily Beast. My friend Jason and I had gone to an Atlanta-area gun show to take portrait pictures and interview the attendees. We were there with the permission of the organizers, and entirely open about what we were doing. For the most part, the folks we met were welcoming, chatty, and even warm, but the private sellers – people who were there looking to sell guns for cash and handshake, no questions asked – didn’t appreciate the exposure. One in particular got agitated by our presence, threw a fit, and forced us to leave. Paradoxically, it seemed that my notebook and Jason’s camera frightened him – even though he was the one walking around with a Colt AR slung across his back. “We leave,” that article concluded, “without ever getting a chance to ask everybody what they’re so afraid of.”

The letter I got about that piece wasn’t typed. It had been painstakingly handwritten on a few pages of looseleaf and then mailed to the coordinator of a prison outreach organization that had reprinted the piece in its newsletter; the coordinator had then scanned the letter and sent it on to Jason and me. I won’t share the author’s name, or the names of his victims – I have no desire to give him an extended platform, or to magnify the suffering of their relatives – but suffice it to say that he’s currently serving a life sentence in prison somewhere in the South for his role in a multi-day, multi-state crime spree that he undertook with his two brothers over a decade ago. He was eighteen at the time; his older brother was twenty-one; the youngest accomplice, fifteen. Their meth-fueled rampage culminated when, just a few days before Christmas, they arrived at the home of a woman in her mid-twenties whom they later told authorities they had intended to rape and rob. Her three-year old daughter answered the door. Hours later, the girl’s naked body was found on the house floor – she had been sexually assaulted, her throat slit multiple times. Her mother’s corpse was found handcuffed to a bed, covered with a cushion, shot once in the head.

This man did not write to apologize. By his own admission, his actions were beyond atonement. Nor still did he write to place the blame for his crime on guns – although he did note that despite the fact that his older brother had been previously institutionalized for behavioral problems and a suicide attempt, he had encountered no problems acquiring “a sizeable little arsenal.” Those weapons included “a Colt AR-15, 12ga Mossberg, 9mm S&W SA, 9mm Ruger P95, .38 Charter Arms, .44 Colt Anaconda, .380 Bryco and a .22 Lorcin. I distinctly recall [being at one gun store],” this prisoner wrote, “[where] the cashier eyed us nervously and said ‘Y’all don’t kill nothing that don’t need killin.’” But the primary purpose of his letter wasn’t to talk about guns. Instead, he wrote to Jason and me about the last line of our article, which had “gotten” him.

This leaves me with the last line – “What are they so afraid of?” In a word, “Society.” I sincerely hope that what I am about to say isn’t misconstrued. I have no defense in what I was a part of and I got exactly what was coming to me. But it is of vital importance (I believe) that it be said that victims generally learn to fear, and that fear very easily translates into hatred. Such was my case in all this. I was an 18 year-old carrying guns, knives, tasers, you name it. All those things were my shield. I only felt secure when I could see myself being able to lash out. To a greater or lesser degree I think that’s precisely the fascination with guns today. The relationship between fear and hate I feel is closely mirrored in the difference between the responsible use of guns and the explosive violence they have gained notoriety for.

This man, who claimed to have re-converted to Catholicism in prison, concluded his letter with something that brought me up short. “There is no atonement for what I [was] part of. I will forever recall [the victims] as the greatest tragedy of my existence. But out of all of this I have learned something I never thought of. It is impossible to love with fear in your heart.”

Right after I got this man’s letter, I Googled his name, and clicked on the first link that came up. The first thing that flashed across the screen was a photo of that little girl, her eyes big and blue, her grin, toothy and wide. For weeks after getting her killer’s letter, I couldn’t stop seeing her face in my dreams. A doorbell rings, and she bounds to answer it, bright-eyed and smiling. She opens the door, and the brothers are there, standing on the porch.

The letter from that militia sympathizer may have given me panic during the day, and occasionally it still does if I think about it too much, but he doesn’t invade my sleep. The three year-old girl opening that door, though, is a nightmare I still can’t shake.

III.

Just last week, Byron Smith of Little Falls, Minnesota, received a sentence of life in prison for the premeditated murder of 17-year-old Nick Brady and 18-year-old Haile Kifer, a pair of cousins. Smith had grown exasperated with previous unsolved burglaries, and so, on Thanksgiving Day of 2012, he decided to set a trap for anyone foolish enough to enter his home. Smith moved his car to make it appear that he was not at home, and then waited in his basement in a chair he called his “deer stand,” equipped with energy bars, bottled water, and two guns. He also took an audio recording of the entire affair – you can listen to it here, if you want to.

On the tape, we hear glass breaking as Brady enters the basement, and then we hear Smith shoot Brady twice. Brady collapses and moans, and then Smith shoots him again, saying, with evident relish, “You’re dead!” after he fires the last round. Smith drags Brady’s corpse away on a tarp he’s laid out specifically for the purpose of not getting blood on his basement carpet, and then he adjusts his weapons while waiting for Kifer, who enters moments afterwards. He shoots her, and she falls down and gasps.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” he says to her, sweetly. Kifer begins to weep, “Oh my God!” Standing above her, Smith then fires twice more. “You’re dying!” he exults. And then one more round, followed by Smith sneering: “Bitch.”

After cleaning up the bodies, Smith delivers a breathy tirade into the still-running audio recorder. Among the other things he says, he offers the following:

“I refuse to live in fear. I am not a bleeding heart liberal. I felt like I was cleaning up a mess. Not like spilled food. Not like vomit. Not even like diarrhea, the worst mess possible. They weren’t human. I don’t see them as human. I see them as vermin. This bitch was going to go through her life spoiling things for other people. Stealing, robbing, drug abuse. It’s all fun, cool, exciting, and highly profitable, until someone kills you. Like I give a damn who she is? “Oh, sorry!” …. I try to be a good person. I try to do what I should, be friendly to other people, help them when I can, try to be a good citizen, not cheat people, be fair. And because I’m a good person, they think I’m a patsy, I’m a sucker. They think I’m there for them to take advantage of. Is that the reward for being a good person? And if I gather enough evidence, they might be prosecuted. If they’re prosecuted, it might go to court. If it goes to court, they might be found guilty. And if they’re found guilty, they might spend six months, two years in jail, and then they’re out, and they need money worse than ever, and they’re filled with revenge. I cannot live a life like that. I cannot have that chewing on me for the rest of life. I cannot, I refuse to live with that level of fear in my life.”

No one disputes that Kifer and Brady were attempting to burglarize Smith’s home. No one also disputes that, all told, Smith fired nine shots from two different weapons, most after the two teenagers lay wounded at his feet, and that both Kifer and Brady were unarmed.

IV.

"Information Desk" - by Jessica C. White

“Information Desk” – by Jessica C. White

Not too long ago I was visiting Asheville, North Carolina. In a gallery near French Broad, I found myself transfixed by a piece of art in a way that’s never happened before. The piece was by Jessica C. White, a brilliant artist who does woodcuts on a variety of themes, including a series of images that appear to be taken from surreal, faintly macabre children’s books. The one that caught my eye was called “Information Desk.”

The scene is somewhere in a thick, ominous forest. A girl in a cute little dress with an orange bow stands in front of a large office desk behind which sits a large brown bear, his paws stretched out neatly in front of him. She seems diffident and fragile, vulnerable, but also graceful and present and strong. Silhouettes of wolves lurk among the trees behind her, no less foreboding for being shadowy and spectral. The girl looks over her shoulder in their direction, at once seemingly worried but also somehow untroubled, as she asks the bear, “Can you tell me how to live without fear?”

Looking at the girl, reading her question, I stood transfixed, and then I started sobbing, crying in a way I hadn’t since I was a child. I thought about that girl in the photo, about the men at her door, about fear, about how there are wolves and bears, some imagined, some dreamed, and some so very, very real. I thought about all the letters, about the calls, about the threats, about the nightmares, and about how nothing made me want to go out and buy another gun and keep it under my pillow more than people telling me that they would relish watching me die for the outrage of using my First Amendment rights to ask them to reflect on how they understood our Second Amendment ones. I thought about how it’s impossible to love with fear in your heart, and I thought about how being unafraid to kill people doesn’t mean that you are actually free from fear – that in fact it can mean just the opposite. And I realized then and there that I was OK with being scared, that I was OK with being frightened, but that I wouldn’t ever, ever live dominated by fear.

Because there’s fear and then there’s fear. There’s a way to “refuse” fear by doubling down on living in it, and then there’s a way to live with it that’s not a disavowal, but a recognition. I think living in a democracy means accepting that we are ultimately fundamentally vulnerable to each other, like it or not. Of course, some days, I’m terrified by this fact, and I feel like I don’t have firm answers about anything; other days, I feel like I understand myself and my fellow Americans only less and less. But for all that, what I remain certain of is that we can’t afford to keep living in fear.

 

 

14 thoughts on “Living with Fear

  1. lwk2431

    “I feel like I understand myself and my fellow Americans only less and less.”

    As a general rule I think some of the odder and more violent minded folks you discuss are very much the exception, and not the rule. I have seen so called pacifists that under some circumstances acted violently.

    Most people, whether they own guns or not, won’t kill you because they disagree with you or hate what you believe. Read “On Killing” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman sometime. Not an entirely cheerful book, but it has one major point – most people can’t kill, even to save their own lives. Killing really doesn’t come natural to the majority.

    People do use guns a lot for self defense. But in the vast majority of cases they never fire the gun. Most often a person who thinks they are about to be a victim displays they have a gun and the aggressor goes elsewhere. Actually shooting a gun in self defense is pretty rare in the whole calculus of self defense.

    You have an interesting way of writing. Don’t obsess over fear. Most people are better than you think. 🙂

    regards,

    lwk

    Reply
    1. Pat Blanchfield Post author

      Thank you! I’m a big fan of a lot of Grossman’s work – I agree with his central point that it’s harder to make people kill each other than a pessimist might think. I also can’t underscore enough that the majority of people I’ve met – gun owners and non- – are decent folks, not trigger-happy psychopaths. That fact gives me a lot of hope, actually – it’s heartening, and also, I think, makes having difficult conversations worthwhile.

      Reply
  2. davidyamane

    Very interesting post here and throughout your blog. Very much looking forward to your book on guns in American culture, which is a recent interest of mine (see http://www.gunculture2point0.com). I think LWK is onto something with his comment above, BTW.

    Anyway, I’ve thought some about fear — reasonable fear, irrational fear — and so read closely your concluding comments about fear. I’m not sure if I follow completely, though. I thought I understood where you were going when you said you “wouldn’t ever, ever live dominated by fear.” This makes good sense. Instead of being dominated by fear, “there’s a way to live with it that’s not a disavowal, but a recognition.” But then you conclude by saying “what I remain certain of is that we can’t afford to keep living in fear.” What happened to living in fear that is a recognition?

    For many people I have spoken to, owning a gun is a way of not disavowing fear, but recognizing it. Does your position allow for that? Perhaps you are still working it out in your mind.

    Reply
    1. lwk2431

      There is certainly reasonable fear at times, but a lot of people are dominated by their fears and the media does much to aid and abet people living in fear (especially the way they sensationalize violence with guns). Some people think they are likely to be involved in some public mass shooting now when in fact the chance is less than being hit by lightning, twice in one year.

      In fact large parts of America are as safer as just about any place in Europe. There are highly localized pockets of violence in America that largely coincide with our inner cities (and a drug and gang war). In my little town in Texas we usually have 0 homicides per year. The national average is 4.7 but in New Orleans it has been over 50 for a number of years (I have been in war zones that are probably safer than the Ninth Ward in New Orleans). Those really high inner city numbers are what makes our national average high, but again, in most of America you are quite safe.

      That said there is a really good book called “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker I highly recommend. The problem with pathological or unfounded fear is that it may mask the times when you really _ought_ to be afraid.

      regards,

      lwk

      Reply
      1. Pat Blanchfield Post author

        Thanks so much for the de Becker recommendation – I’ve just picked up a copy and am eager to read. Regarding threat perceptions in particular, I’ve come across some psychology studies that seem to indicate that when people are armed, they’re more likely to think others are, too – for better and for worse. I suppose ideally this would make everybody more cautious (per the classic dictum that an armed society is a polite one) but I suspect it may make people more primed than ever to think that they’re just one step away from having to use lethal force to defend themselves. What makes this troubling for me is how other fears can come into play – particularly ones involving racialized fears – and that these fears can mutually reinforce. I’m writing some stuff about that and will post down the line – thanks for reading.

    2. Pat Blanchfield Post author

      Thanks, David, I’m checking out GunCulture 2.0 now – very interesting stuff.

      You raise a really vital question RE: living with fear in different modes, and when that means a confronting a reality that gives people legitimate cause to be fearful – to the point where they might well, and very reasonably, decide to arm themselves. I’m still thinking a lot about this, but truth be told I have a very hard time begrudging any individual human being their impulse to do what they need to do to protect themselves and their families. I think about some of the folks Alana Gura first assembled when framing what went on to become the DC v Heller case – the gay man who fended off a crowd of homophobes who in all likelihood would have beaten him to the death, the woman who lived in a terrible neighborhood and was constantly being threatened by drug dealers – and I find it impossible – and morally repugnant – to judge them for arming themselves, let alone to contemplate preventing them from doing so. Those are people who I think have good reason to be afraid, but not in a way that’s craven or malignant, but just real. For the book itself, I’m hoping to talk to such people in a sustained way, do some profiles (if you know folks who it might be good for me to contact, please, by all means, let me know).

      There’s a lot more to say about this, and my thoughts are still very much inchoate. Contemplating your question, I think about the distinction between individual decisions and systemic problems, about what it means to live in a deeply imperfect world – some might even call it a broken or fall one – about relating to the violence that plagues our culture while not perpetuating it, about participating in systems and institutions and consumer practices that are problematic overall but against which backdrop individuals can do very little, and in any event have to do what they have to do to get by, and more. I also find myself reaching for language that’s almost theological – trying to put things in terms of the problem of evil or the reality of suffering, take your pick, and it’s all really, really hard to dwell on. Let’s talk about it more, maybe?

      Reply
      1. lwk2431

        ” I’ve come across some psychology studies that seem to indicate that when people are armed, they’re more likely to think others are, too – for better and for worse. … I suspect it may make people more primed than ever to think that they’re just one step away from having to use lethal force to defend themselves.”

        I am not a psychologist and have done no studies. But I have carried a loaded handgun in public for years now and I think I have some idea how it makes some people feel. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but I have some experience discussing issues like this with other people who also legally carry.

        What carrying a gun does for me is make me a lot more careful of what I do, where I go, and especially what I say to others. It also tends to make me be more observant of my surroundings. Things like “road rage” or flipping the bird are simply not on the agenda when I am armed. Because I really, really do not want to be in a position to have to use lethal force if at all possible. I will go to great lengths to avoid it (but I draw the line at being a defenseless victim).

        Even if you survive an attack and shoot someone the chances your legal and financial problems will not be trivial. And who knows what psychological issues you might have. I _only_ carry because the alternative of not being able to protect those I love is just unacceptable to me.

        regards,

        lwk

      2. davidyamane

        Belated thanks for responding to my comment. I appreciate very much that you recognize you are thinking through these issues. IMHO too many people have already made up their minds about these things already and are just repeating what they already believe. I, like you, am working my way through my thoughts. I will definitely keep following your blog and feel free to be in touch with me — my contact info is not hard to find if you google my name. Like you, I “dabble” in religion also. We could co-author a piece: “On Guns: Thoughts for their Cultured Despisers.”

  3. Wayne

    Well written, objective pieces, thanks for sharing. I stumbled on your blog through your NYT op-ed. Living in the South (if you call Texas the South), guns have permeated my life, from those given to me at an early age at Christmas to those I use to hunt ducks each fall. And although I own many guns (rifles, shotguns, pistols), and have my concealed carry permit, I still struggle with just where we are as a nation regarding guns and their laws. I truly believe we have to do a better job keeping guns out of the wrong hands, and that some how, some where, there has to be a middle ground. In light of that statement, recently in the news there was a student that stabbed his teacher to death. Not much was made as to the make of the knife, or where he acquired it, how long was the blade, etc. We as a society have become obsessed with guns-both sides. On top of the division over guns we as a nation have never been as divided politically as we are today. So considering all that, when are saner minds going to prevail and some sort of compromise reached regarding a common sense approach to guns and their laws? I hate to say but more than likely never. In the meantime, what are we to do? Live in fear? The Bible says that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love cast out all fear.” Can we get there? I don’t know but it’s worth a try. Thanks again for your well written articles.

    Reply
    1. Pat Blanchfield Post author

      Thank you very much for this – I’m grateful to you for reading, and appreciate your replying. Very much agree with you RE: how our national divisions overall have intensified so deeply, and so fast, with guns in particular proving a uniquely divisive flashpoint. It’s not a good scene at all. I’m hoping the better angels of our nature will prevail, too – not just in policy terms, but also, I hope, in how we relate to each other as human beings. We certainly have to try.

      Reply
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