Researching this series has led to many disconcerting discoveries — that the firearms industry sells ammunition branded for “the Zombie apocalypse”; that the best-known identity theft company in the country isn’t accredited by the Better Business Bureau — really, it pains me to think what I’ve had to leave out of these columns. There is so much more I’d like to share, if only to confirm that I’m not hallucinating.
Earlier this year, while I was engrossed in a semi-formal study of “self-defense” books like War Machine: How to Transform Yourself Into A Vicious And Deadly Street Fighter and Unleash Hell: A Step-by-Step Guide to Devastating Widow Maker Combinations, I stumbled upon an endorsement by conservative radio host and self-proclaimed crazy person Glenn Beck, for a personal protection method called “Target Focus Training” Target Focus Training, according to its founder Tim Larkin, is “the only program in existence that covers the entire self-protection spectrum. . . including knowing how to kill your attacker.”
Now, some of the sectors of Fear, Inc. I’ve explored in these columns were new to me, but self-defense training is squarely in my wheelhouse. So I can say with some confidence that Target Focus Training, far from being unique, is no different from the War Machine method, or the Widow Maker technique, or any of a hundred other histrionic approaches to self-defense being hawked online. Its appeal rests on the premise that we live in the most perilous of environments, and that instant, violent action is a perfectly appropriate way to address everyday safety challenges. “How do you handle that angry kid who suddenly sticks a knife to your throat while at a concert with your wife?” Larkin asks. “What’s your response to the cold steel of a gun barrel buried into your skull when it’s late at night and you’re standing in a dark parking lot fumbling for your car keys?”
Though Larkin sounds a bit like a troop leader quizzing Boy Scouts ahead of their survival merit badge test, the violence he describes is not, in fact, something we all must Be Prepared for. It’s pretty uncommon, and the FBI says it’s growing rarer every year. Glenn Beck, however, believes heart and soul in the mounting dangers of modern life. In his pitch for Target Focus Training, he explains how “a horrifying evening” in New York City’s Bryant Park awakened him to the dystopia we inhabit, and showed him the necessity of Target Focus Training’s approach. “We all must accept that today it’s not enough to just survive,” he intones. “We must be committed to WIN… against even the most vicious predator imaginable.”
I know what you’re thinking: What the hell is going on in Bryant Park these days? Free movies, that’s what. A few summers ago, Beck took his family to see The 39 Steps and someone spilled a glass of wine on his wife. According to Beck, this amounted to a near-death experience at the hands of an angry mob, a mob he would have confronted at gunpoint had he been allowed to carry a firearm in Bryant Park. In his Target Force Training endorsement, Beck describes park patrons snapping photos of him as a threat on par with “the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.” He gibbers about “the physical and emotional repercussions of some deranged thug’s fantasy joy-ride.” He asks, “Are YOU prepared to handle an unavoidable life-or-death threat?”
To Beck’s credit, there aren’t many people who would so willingly, publicly piss their pants in order to earn a few bucks. But Beck’s really good at this crybaby hustle. He’s a pro at weeping. He’s an old hand at Doomsday predictions. He has a flair for bad math. Beck is so good at selling fear that he’s laid up earthly riches worth somewhere around $90 million; peddling Target Focus Training videos is a walk in the park for him — a hysterical, panic-filled, wine-drenched walk.
Glenn Beck is a perfect example of what the Apostle Paul warned us about.
I began this series with a quote from Paul’s second letter to Timothy: For God hath not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. It’s a reminder, as I said in that first column, that fear is foreign to our nature; that we have a right, even an obligation, to reject it.
As a temporary emotional state, fear has its uses. But as a constant mindset, as an emotional home, fear is inimical to the human spirit. Fear is a dark room we can go into when we need to block out, briefly, our higher cognitive functions, like reason and curiosity, so they don’t interfere with our immediate need for survival. Fear heightens our animal senses and quickens our reactions. It reduces distraction. It provides a sometimes welcome moral blindness: under its cover of darkness, we can commit atrocious acts and not feel ashamed.
The risk is this: If we spend all our lives in a dark room, we lose our sight.
I’m usually the last person to spout Bible quotes. Still, I want to end this series with another of Paul’s admonitions to Timothy, this one from his first pastoral letter. It’s a quote many people are familiar with: For the love of money is the root of all evil, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many sorrows.
Some of the tycoons of Fear, Inc. may honestly believe that what they’re selling keeps people safer. But my forays into each sector of the marketplace of fear have consistently uncovered bad faith — claims that ignore or run counter to fact; unapologetic appeals to racism and sexism; casual assumptions about the virtue and utility of violence. These are excellent strategies if you love money and lack scruples. They work. To paraphrase the science fiction writer Frank Herbert, fear is the wallet-emptier. The American security industry — manufacturers and vendors, service providers, dealers, distributors, installers, and others — is a $350 billion market.
But the rest of us, far from being enriched by the propaganda of Fear, Inc., are devastated by its effects; pierced with many sorrows. It’s not just the money we waste on products that don’t work or aren’t needed. It’s the 30,000 firearms deaths occurring annually. The 400,000 non-criminal immigrants detained by our government each year, at a cost of $2 billion. The “Stand Your Ground” laws that legalize murder, and the biased juries endorsing racially motivated violence. It’s the continual, hypnotizing message that all of this is normal and we just have to accept it.
This is not the way things should be in the home of the brave. And it’s a sad and shameful testament to the truth of Saint Paul’s words: This is not what humans were created to bring about. To put it in words other than Paul’s: folks, this is bullshit. We can do better. It’s hard to see how we could do worse.
In the first column of this series, I posed the question, “How much would you pay to feel truly safe?” As we’ve seen, Americans pay a great deal to capture the illusion of safety; we have, in fact, surrendered our birthright. But we can reclaim it. We’re still entitled to a spirit of power, love, and a sound mind. Here are a few ways we can recover that spirit, and stop supporting the merchants of fear:
1. Follow the money. Always. Every time safety is raised as a justification for a law, a policy, or a purchase, ask, “Who benefits from this?” Don’t stop with the superficial answers. Very little gets done in America without a profit being generated for someone.
2. Don’t take advice from people who invoke fear and danger as reasons to do something you wouldn’t otherwise do. In the first place, if someone is truly scared, their advice is probably not well-considered. If they’re pretending to be scared in order to persuade you, they aren’t trustworthy. And if they feel the need to bring a gun to Bryant Park to watch a movie, they need qualified medical help.
3. Examine your own biases and hold yourself accountable for them. Who do you fear, really? What do they look like? Where do they live? How much of your fear is due to objective evidence and experience, as opposed to media hype? Bonus benefit: When you begin to detect your own bias, you’ll be surprised how obvious other people’s is too.
4. Be curious. Ask questions. Look stuff up. The customer reviews for a security service may paint a very different picture than the company’s ads do. That pepper spray might not work quite the way you thought it would. The jury selection process in your state may shock you. Explore reality first-hand, and you’ll be better able to tell when someone is simply fantasizing about violence.
5. Reconcile with the concept of risk. It’s a normal part of life. Sometimes, our choices about safety are driven by a desire not merely to avoid risk, but to avoid even thinking about it. We pay our money so we can pretend we take no chances. But invulnerability is a luxury money cannot buy. If anyone tells you otherwise, see Suggestion Number One, above.
6. Get mad. We’d be a much safer nation if we had better information about risks like gun violence, and if we required our elected representatives to pass laws that conform to the reality reflected in reliable research. We’re not stupid, but we’re being forced to live as if we are. That’s insulting and dangerous and it has to change.
In a nation where unfettered capitalism is celebrated as the highest virtue (despite abundant evidence to the contrary), dismantling the fear economy won’t be easy. It requires renouncing our faith in easy answers. It will mean fighting against powerful moneyed interests. We will have to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that we are all, to some extent, vulnerable.
We can do all those things, if our spirit is willing.