Jennifer Rittner
3 min readMay 8, 2020

Civil Society’s Response to Instinct Over Reason

We need to get honest about fear. I know from personal experience how deeply ingrained fear is. How difficult to combat. I have suffered from my own particular phobias for many years. These irrational fears are anxiety-inducing but not based in reality. The threats I feel as a result of my phobias are not real but the fear-response is. That kind of fear can feel all-powerful and disabling.

I see fear in others: in every act of violence by armed individuals against unarmed victims — men, women and children of color who have inspired fear simply for existing, for standing still or running by, for knocking on a door or driving in a car, for being too loud or being too silent.

Confronted with my own phobias, my immediate reaction is panic — fight or flight mode sets in and I lose control of my ability to reason, to say, “these things are not intrinsically dangerous.” The panic is visceral: tunnel vision, heart racing, cold sweat, trembling, action. Thankfully, my fears don’t harm anyone but myself. They don’t activate a desire to hurt anyone else. They don’t find their resolution in someone else’s death.

Think about what you’ve heard from every video and every recounting of an armed individual shooting a black man, woman or child. What you see and hear is the reaction of a person expressing panic. The quick reaction that seems unbounded by reality. The trembling hands holding a gun at a bleeding, dying victim. The shrieks of fear set on repeat, “Keep your hands up! Keep your hands up!” “Don’t move! Don’t move!” Shrieks of fear to dying men, women and children who are powerless, who are incapacitated by bullets, who are already dead. To be clear, what you’re hearing is not a rational response, it is panic, tunnel-vision — the irrational response to phobia.

Unresolved, irrational fear took another victim recently: Mr. Ahmaud Arbery. Some are arguing that this was an act of hatred. But listen to the stories. That’s not hatred. It’s phobia; and its fatal result might have been mitigated if we could ever get honest with ourselves about where it comes from and why it persists.

Fear is Conditioned

This fear, it’s ingrained through centuries of cultural, social and political conditioning. The indoctrination of fear is well-established. It’s in centuries-old political speech, governing legislation, films, music and literature. It’s embedded in the structures of neighborhoods, in the lexicon of poverty and in the representations of our bodies across the media landscape.

I’ve learned something recently about my own fear. Accept it for what it is, a prison of my own making. With that, I have to work to resolve it. I have to take responsibility and mitigate it by unpacking what has been conditioned. That is an intentional act. It takes real work to unravel.

I want members of the legally-armed public to begin this work as well, by accepting their own fear, acknowledging its toxicity, accepting their responsibility and then working actively to resolve it. It is critical work because bodies living in fear do damage — to themselves, but most crucially as we see over and over, to those who are innocent and not deserving of their irrational, fear-induced violence.

This is not about taking away anyone’s guns. It’s not about making people friends. It’s not even about preaching love. This is about removing the prison of fear from people’s minds so that they cannot act out in violence against others. We need to call on those who understand the science of fear to help us all. We need them to guide us to resolution. But in the meantime, we need to sit down with ourselves and be honest and what we fear, and why.

Reject Those Who Stoke Fear

And as we do that work, we need to reject those who call on us to live in fear. Those calls are loud and compelling and all-consuming. People screaming at you from across the vast media landscape telling you to live in fear of your neighbors, of outsiders, of the unknown; people preying on your already deeply-felt fears — they are keeping you in a prison and selling you the notion that your fear is making you stronger. Your fear is making them stronger, perhaps, but it is rendering you weak. Don’t succumb to fear. Acknowledge it. Accept the humility of its power. Then resolve it.

By getting honest about fear, we can make certain it doesn’t kill another innocent.