It’s a great line in a superb documentary. James Nichols,

brother of Terry Nichols and friend of Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh, tells Michael Moore why he keeps a loaded pistol underneath his pillow. With the solemn air of one who knows, he says, “There are a lot of nuts out there.”

Nichols is a comic figure because of his utter imperviousness to irony, but he is also a tragic paradigm of the American obsession with crime. In his moronic elucidation of the subject in oore’s Bowling for Columbine, Nichols proves that even criminals themselves aren’t immune to the cult of fear. He’s the compulsive door locker writ large.

Fear takes many forms, and locking yourself into your dorm like it’s the Waco compound is only the beginning. We are fed anxiety as children and, in the hallowed name of safety, nourished on dread throughout our lives. It’s the quiet click of the automatic lock as our parents drive from the comfort of the suburbs to the streets of the inner city. It’s DPS “warning” us that there are people wandering around campus stealing laptops and bicycles. It’s the entrenched undergraduate assumption that walking alone at night is a veritable death wish. It all amounts to the conviction that the world is an insanely dangerous place, with sex-crazed criminal minds lurking in every dark alley.

This way of thinking is both shamelessly narcissistic (the whole world wants to rape me/ break into my townhouse/ steal my fake Kate Spade), and totally unsupported by statistics. If women in particular need someone to fear, they should be looking within their locked fortresses rather than without them. A midnight walk from Henle to New South isn’t nearly as likely to result in violence as a drunken stroll from the living room to the bedroom. ost rape victims know their attackers; many know them well. Those most likely to hurt us look much more like ourselves than the evening news would imply. This column isn’t about our lack of caution, but our excess of it. University of Southern California Sociology Professor Barry Glassner has filled an entire book with facts about the gaping chasm between how dangerous Americans assume their streets to be and how comparatively safe they actually are. The typical reaction to statistics like these is “better safe than sorry,” but I beg to differ. Excessive and irrational anxiety breeds an “us vs. them” mentality and spawns the oppression of the people we irrationally fear. How else does one explain the draconian drug laws that place the same penalty on 5 grams of crack (poor people drugs) as on 500 grams of cocaine (Roger Clinton/ Harry Connick Jr. Drugs)? It can only be the pervasive, irrational terror that the dark problems of the inner city will bleed into our whitewashed suburbs.

In its most extreme manifestation, fear of the criminal element has led to an arms buildup within American homes. It is as if Americans are fighting a cold war against themselves.

Beyond inspiring discriminatory legislation and the purchase of deadly weapons, fear of the outside world isolates people psychologically. The sense that disaster lurks behind every unlocked door leads people to fear the world and the people that fill it. Anyone remotely different looking becomes “suspicious,” anyone with a drug problem is “dangerous,” anyone without the same premonitions of doom is “naive.” In the language of fear, armoring oneself against human contact is called “vigilance.”

I’m not sure how much safer I would be if I followed the myriad of safety rules that the well meaning place on young women, but I doubt it would be very much. By contrast, the freedom of movement I’d be forced to relinquish seems crippling. Random violence happens, as do shipwrecks and flashfloods. It doesn’t mean we need to live in a landlocked, padlocked world, even in the sacred name of safety.

Kerry Howley is a senior in the college. Infinite Regress appears every other Tuesday.

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