it starts when you’re always afraid

We tend to think dogs that snap and bite are aggressive dogs. Mean dogs. Junkyard dogs. Dominant dogs.

Let me quote Gershwin: it ain’t necessarily so. In the dog world there’s a social behavior known as ‘fear-biting.’ It happens when a shy, timid, fearful dog is placed in an unfamiliar or anxiety-producing situation — a situation it doesn’t know how to handle. The dog responds (often even to friendly behavior) by baring its teeth, by lashing out, by biting. Not out of aggression, but out of fear. It’s a panic reaction.

fear biter

George Zimmerman is a fear-biter. I don’t think he followed Trayvon Martin and killed him simply because Martin was black. I think he followed Martin and killed him because Martin was black and Zimmerman was afraid. I think Zimmerman carried a firearm because he was afraid. I think his fear caused him to respond irrationally to a threat that didn’t exist. And I think there are a lot of George Zimmermans out there.

The United States has become a nation ruled by fear-biters. A lot of our social policies are grounded in fear, and much of that fear is totally unfounded. We’re afraid of terrorists, so we find ways to weasel around the law in order to round up the people we’re afraid of and lock them away forever where we can’t see them. ‘Indefinite detention’ and ‘enhanced interrogation’ are other forms of fear-biting.

gitmo inmate

We’re afraid of criminals, so we weaken the laws that protect the innocent in the hope we’ll find some security against the guilty. Mandatory minimum sentences and ‘three strikes’ laws and the undermining of Miranda warnings — all forms of fear-biting.

We’re afraid we’re going to be attacked by strangers, so we make it easier to buy guns and to carry guns and to use guns in self-defense without punishment. Concealed Carry laws and Stand Your Ground laws — it’s all fear-biting.

We’re afraid somebody is going to take our stuff, so we live in gated communities and install alarm systems and hire private security firms to patrol our neighborhoods and organize armed volunteers to wander around at night just in case a stranger in a hoodie happens to pass through — nothing but fear-biting.

thug life

Conservative politicians are afraid they’ll lose their power when white folks become a numerical minority in the U.S., so they pass laws that make it more difficult for minorities to vote and they create twisted, nightmare-shaped Congressional districts that effectively ghetto-ize minority voters. Voter ID laws and re-districting — just political fear-biting.

Men are afraid of independent women, so they pass arbitrary laws to regulate and limit a woman’s access to health-care and create an entertainment industry that relegates women to sexualized toys and support a culture that tells women to avoid being raped instead of telling men not to rape. Mandatory transvaginal ultrasound laws, ‘slut-shaming’ and hatred of feminists are forms of male fear-biting.


English as the official language — fear-biting. Marriage only between a man and a woman — fear-biting. Anger because somebody says ‘Happy holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas — fear-biting. Aggression against street photographers — fear-biting.

Not all fear is irrational, but irrational fear is the parent of cruelty. And the fact is the citizens of the United States aren’t very much at risk of a terrorist attack. The vast majority of us are in no danger of being victims of violent crimes at the hands of strangers. Having ethnic, racial, or religious minorities in Congress isn’t going to result in a backlash against white Christians. And women who have control over their own reproductive nature aren’t a threat to men.

We don’t have to be afraid of people who aren’t like us. We have nothing to fear from Muslims or gay folks or people who speak another language or black folks or people taking photos in public.

What we need to be afraid of is a society of fear-biters.

27 thoughts on “it starts when you’re always afraid

  1. I’m afraid the society of fear-biters is a direct consequence of the ‘war against terror’ and similar useless, pointless, and dangerous propaganda issued by the various US governments of the past few decades. The only ones who profit from it are the arms and security industries. And that’s what’s really frightening.
    Also: “The fundamental danger of an acquittal is not more riots, it’s more George Zimmermans.” Jay Smooth on Twitter


  2. As usual, Greg, you have hit the nail on its ugly head. As white conservatives lose more and more influence they will become even more ferocious in their efforts to cling to power. There are some interesting views expressed (including, unfortunately, by Obama himself) regarding the constitutional protections of individual rights and freedoms and state-federal balance of powers. One of the more prevalent is regarding the supreme court and references to “the decision of unelected judges to overturn the will of the people.” Sorry folks, they are just doing their job. Democracy isn’t two lions and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner. The courts are a counterbalance to the oft fickle “will of the people.” You have mentioned, as well, the various means by which the actual “will of the people” can be subverted at the ballot box by gerrymandered riding boundaries and voter suppression techniques.

    Hopefully some good will come from the Zimmerman case with a re-examination of “Stand your Ground” laws. Hypothetically, if you are packing and track and initiate a confrontation with someone who is unarmed and they proceed to put a whuppin’ on you, can you then draw and kill them? It seems, based on my interpretation of all the contradictory facts presented, that that is essentially what Zimmerman has gotten away with. It doesn’t matter that he was on top or bottom – he initiated the confrontation and bears ultimate responsibility. Perhaps Trayvon’s family can launch a wrongful death suit against Zimmerman as was successfully done against OJ Simpson. In such a case the legal test is “balance of probabilities” not “shadow of a doubt.” Zimmerman is not yet beyond punishment for his actions.


    • The thing is, Zimmerman didn’t even need to rely on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. The revised Self Defense law was sufficient for an acquittal. As to a possible wrongful death suit — it ain’t gonna happen. Under Florida law, if you’ve been found to have lawfully used lethal force in self defense, you’re immune from a civil suit.

      Fla. Stat. § 776.032. Immunity from criminal prosecution and civil action for justifiable use of force:
      (1) A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force


      • Thank you, Greg, I stand corrected. The essential difference between the trials was that Zimmerman used a positive defence (yes I killed him but it was justified force) verses OJ’s negative defence (I didn’t kill them).

        Regarding the OJ trial and the famous “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” defence statement. Look up “clot retraction” online. A blood-saturated glove will undergo significant shrinkage from a natural process of fibres of the clotting material, fibrin, shortening over a period of days. This is the mechanism which pulls together cuts and other wounds. The failure to appreciate this fact and offer it in rebuttal cost the prosecution the opportunity to counter the powerful visual of OJ trying on a glove that didn’t (or no longer) fit.

        In the Zimmerman case, it still comes back to my question – if you initiate a confrontation and start losing the fight – can you pull a gun and kill your opponent? That is so warped.


  3. When I was younger I used to place my car high on the list of my valuable possessions. It meant the freedom to go anywhere, anytime I wanted to. It was a living room on wheels and a social network before social networks went cyber. I used think that my car should be protected at all costs. As a result not only did I lock the doors every time I left it, I spent good money on an alarm system. I always parked it in places I thought would be safest. The car got broken into on countless occasions over the years before I came to the frustrated realization of just how wrong-headed my approach was. These days I never lock the doors. I never leave anything valuable in the car, and, when weather permits, I leave the windows rolled down. Since I’ve adopted this strategy, I’ve almost never had a problem. Occasionally I’ll have someone rifle through the car looking for spare change, but besides having to stuff the owner’s manual back in the glove box, there’s been no harm done. I’ve extending this mentality to my house as well. I’ve had multiple offers from multiple security companies to install various alarm systems and I’ve refused them all. I’ve had my place broken into twice in the 8 years I’ve lived here, and both times the items taken have been those that are easily replaceable in an insurance claim. I feel secure in the notion that I don’t have to think about whether or not I locked the door to my car or whether or not I forgot to set the alarm. I’m glad I don’t have an app that allows my to surveil the interior of my own house from great distances. I’m glad I’m not afraid anymore.

    Once, after a serious day of sundry shopping, my wife left three of the car doors and the hatchback wide open parked on the street. When I went out to have a cigarette I saw just how ridiculous it looked and was struck by the notion of disarming all the battery-draining features on the car (dome light, etc.) and leaving it parked like that as much as possible. I figured anyone armed with the intention of breaking into a car would stay far away from a vehicle that so blatantly looked like it had been recently ransacked. I even gave it a name, the Antithesis Car Safety Protocol.


    • I had my car window smashed and my radio stolen when I lived in DC. I put a small hand-written sign in the window “Radio is already stolen.” Never had another car break-in.


    • I love your approach. I don’t even have a car, but I certainly have to lock my bike, otherwise it’s gone. Here in the Netherlands they say if your lock is at least as expensive as your bike, you have a chance that it won’t get stolen. Luckily, I live in an apartment with ground-floor entrance to the basement, so I can just wheel it in, and on campus we have locked bike sheds. It’s only really an issue when I’m somewhere else, and then my bike lock has saved me from harm so far. I once came back to a broken spoke when I had parked it in a narrow bike stand, and recently someone broke off my front lamp (I was able to re-attach it with some twist ties). But these are more accidents than intentional wrongdoings.
      My apartment has an alarm, but I never turn it on. I feel rather safe, even though the mass media are full of gruesome horror stories about break-ins and stabbings in the street (guns are generally banned here). I don’t have a TV and don’t watch news (only read about stuff online), and I think it’s a healthy strategy to avoid getting hooked up on fear.


  4. Interesting points, and some valid. But calling everyone who owns a gun a fear-biter is a bit of a sweeping generalization … no? Also, people own firearms for many reasons. If by chance some stupid group of politicans take away all of Americans’ guns – The country would be open season. Please think about that.


    • I didn’t suggest everybody who buys or owns a firearm is a fear-bitter. I suggested the creation of laws that makes it easier to buy them and carry them are products of a fearful mentality. Most police officers, who confront violent people MUCH more often than private citizens, rarely fire their weapons…which is evidence of how rarely private citizens need to defend themselves with a firearm. The vast majority of people who own firearms for personal protection have no actual need for personal protection. Far more people will be harmed by the gun they own than will be harmed by a violent assault from a stranger.

      The problem isn’t guns. It’s easy access to them combined with exaggerated fear.


    • I find your claim, “take away all of Americans’ guns – The country would be open season” to be unsupported by the available data. I think we can all agree the country most similar in culture, language and history to the United States is Canada. Gun laws in Canada are far stricter than gun control laws in America. (Not owning a gun I am uncertain, but I believe there is a 30 day waiting period to obtain a hand gun and procession of any weapon, gun, knife, baseball bat for reasons of “self defence” in Canada is a violation of the criminal code with punishment of a pretty substantive jail time.

      Now consider, in the United States there were, according to the CDC 5.3 homicides in America per 100,000 in 2010. According to Statistics Canada there were a total of 554 homicides in the same period, as there are 34.1m Canadians 554/341 means there were 1.66 homicides per 100,000 in Canada in 2010. Thus a Canadian is about 3.2 times safer than an American, yet in all probability that Canadian does not own a gun, whereas the statistical data strongly suggests the American does own a gun. Now for some real irony. The chances that the Canadian will be killed by a gun bought legally in America then smuggled illegally across the border? My guess, based on the available data, probably one in five fire arms related deaths in Canada was from a gun so easily obtained in America and too easily shipped over the border. We send you guys oil (we are your largest supplier of foreign oil) you send us death. Thank you, we’d be better off if you weren’t our neighbour.



  5. I see most of the problem coming from sensationalism in the media coverage of the news. The stories that get top coverage are the ones dripping with sex and violence. It twists people’s world view. The fact that someone misbehaves hundreds or even thousands of miles away does not mean we are unsafe.


    • Yeah, I think that’s very astute. The news media have a saying: “If it bleeds, it leads.” And, of course, much of our entertainment media is about crime and violence and corruption, which leads television and movie viewers to wildly exaggerate the probability of being victimized.


  6. Thanks, Greg. Fear biting is a great analogy. I’ve really appreciated your posts and comments about this whole thing; it’s really helped me understand some of the legal aspects more clearly than I would have otherwise. Nothing takes away the sick feeling, but lets hope enough people feel sick from it to effect some positive changes longer term.


    • Beckett, I don’t mean to be discouraging, but I can’t foresee anything changing. I mean, there were 20 children gunned down in Newtown just a few short months ago…and that wasn’t enough to get people invested enough to create a change in the law. Because that’s a significant part of the problem — people are easily outraged and willing to devote 30 seconds to saying so on Facebook, but they’re not willing to give the issue enough time to, say, call their members of Congress or write a letter. So there’s really no impetus for change.


      • I was talking to a friend this morning about this, and he tried valiantly to point out that if something like this had happened 40 years ago, most likely nobody would have batted an eye. He was trying to point out that it might take more time yet, but we’ve made progress. I admit I’ve been more cynical, but I hope he’s right. And I agree that Facebook outrage does very little, but it and other online media do seem to be having an impact in at least getting some news better coverage than the traditional media. People are inherently full of inertia. It takes a whole lot to get people moving, but it can happen. This won’t be the tipping point, but it contributes. I can hope.


  7. “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

    -C.S. Lewis

    Unless people act beyond the click of a mouse to voice their displeasure, the “moral busybodies” will take the upper hand.


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  9. I have read your article a few times, and shared it with a number of friends a few times as well. I found the core of it truly incredible, as you hit upon several nerves that I really don’t like being hit. All of the readers comments are equally interesting and present some arguments and valid points and data. I think all of this awareness and comparisons, data and opinions are awesome, but it leaves one thing lacking. How, when, and who do you fear bite yourself? Not you specifically, but anyone: do you recognize it? I took your article to heart, because I recognized a lot of ways that I myself fear bite, and it scared me and upset me pretty well. Enough so that it makes be realize I fear bit, a lot. Not a fun thing, and strangely the motivation is some due to feeling I could regain control, but in truth I am just losing more control. I hope your readers can empathize and also acknowledge in themselves when they fear bite, and work to correct it.

    Thanks again for a great article.


    • I think you found the mark exactly. Fear biting (in humans, anyway) is a panicky response to an escalating loss of control, and it’s motivated by a desperate attempt to re-establish the illusion of control.

      I know I’ve done it before, and with people I love and care about. Not physically, but verbally. They say something I know to be true — something I don’t want to be true — and I snap back at them. It ain’t pretty.


  10. What’s the saying? When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail? I tend to think that when you have a gun, every stranger looks like a predator.

    Back in the 1970s, when a boyfriend had gone off on a business trip and left me in charge of stuff, including his .22, I very nearly shot a woman over a parking spot (think ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ with a gun). How fucking stupid is THAT? I’m no stranger to guns. I know how to handle them, how to shoot them…I was even awarded a Kentucky Marksman certificate back in the day. I know better. But having that gun in the car, and that bitch cut me off and stole my parking spot…It’s just stupid. But I think I know how Gollum must have felt about that stupid ring.

    Guns are like poison ivy. They make you itch to use them, and one day, you’re gonna find a reason to scratch.


    • That’s exactly it. We tend to focus on mass shootings when it comes to gun violence, but most of it stems from situations just like this. Moments when we’ve just fucking had ENOUGH and we lash out, unthinking.

      Liked by 1 person

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