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.
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.
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.
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.