Life and a freedom from fear

| July 2, 2020 1:00 AM

Around the Fourth of July, the word “freedom” is frequently spoken but seldom defined. We might consider two categories: “freedom to” and “freedom from.”

“Freedom to” means license, as in “It’s a free country, I can do what I want.” Many people think of freedom as the right to purchase or consume whatever they want, no matter the effect on society or the environment. This is a selfish and immature concept of freedom, as it ignores the interests of others.

“Freedom from” implies well-being and peace of mind. The two most important examples might be freedom from want and freedom from fear. “Freedom from” encourages social responsibility, as it takes cooperation and consideration to reduce want and fear in a community.

The more “freedom to” that you enjoy — also known as privilege — the more responsibility you have to respect the “freedom from” that others require. This is a universal human struggle, balancing individualism and social responsibility, both of which are essential.

To understand the conflict between “freedom to” and “freedom from,” simply drive down the highway. You may want to go 90 miles per hour, but a socially responsible driver takes into consideration the well-being of other drivers. Your freedom to speed would unduly violate others’ freedom from fear.

We might also consider two categories of fear: primal and psychological.

Primal fear is associated with a scary moment and acute stress response. Any hiker who has encountered a grizzly bear or coiled rattlesnake knows the feeling. The heart races, breathing quickens, and muscles tense as the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body to fight or flee or freeze. This is an involuntary survival mechanism, inherited from our ancient ancestors who regularly encountered dangerous animals.

Psychological fear is associated with a state of mind, ranging from mild worry to paranoia. It is typically a result of unprocessed trauma. Even when no immediate threat exists, the sympathetic nervous system remains overactive and the mind generates fearful thoughts. Frequent, self-generated fear is highly stressful and can make a person ill.

Fearful people invest much energy identifying threats and protecting themselves and their families. They are quick to believe frightful rumors and conspiracy theories. They mistake their defensiveness for courage. They are likely to isolate or lock themselves up for safety from others. As prisoners of psychological fear, they are not free.

The Inland Northwest seems to be attracting fearful people who equate safety with a rural, homogeneous, minimally regulated region. They want to live free but bring their anxieties with them, often including the fear of “outsiders” and government tyranny.

A few years ago, a group of heavily armed men descended on downtown Bonners Ferry. They were concerned, they said, that Syrian refugees were coming to destroy Christianity and establish Islamic law. This spring, a few fearful Idahoans have been insisting that the COVID-19 pandemic is a government conspiracy. Psychological fear drives irrational thinking.

In early June, false internet rumors of an “antifa” invasion inspired several dozen men, outfitted for deadly combat, to occupy the streets of Coeur d’Alene. Some of these amateur gunmen wore Hawaiian print shirts, suggesting they identify with the “Boogaloo” movement, which promotes violent uprising and, in some cases, white supremacism. When 50 young Sandpoint residents held a peaceful protest march across Long Bridge, they were trailed by 20 uninvited gunmen.

Do you want to live in a community where armed and nervous men, without identification and answerable to no one, patrol the streets? Do you trust these self-appointed guardians to make the best decisions about public safety? Are they good for community spirit and local businesses? Is such behavior even legal? Idaho law says that no private group “shall associate themselves together as a military company or organization, or parade in public with firearms.”

These armed vigilantes are not heroic. They claim to be protecting local residents and defending their freedoms, but the opposite is true: they reduce freedom by promoting fear. Some residents, hearing the vigilantes’ false warnings, might become fearful of nonexistent invaders. Even more residents fear the vigilantes themselves, with their assault weapons and macho posturing.

The way to reduce fear is to promote compassion. This has been known for centuries. Confucius taught, “If you look into your own heart, and find nothing wrong there, what is there to fear?” St. Francis de Sales wrote, “Those who love to be feared, fear to be loved, and they themselves are more afraid than anyone.” John the Evangelist, in the Bible, kept it simple: “Perfect love casts out all fear.”

The Boundary County Human Rights Task Force encourages all North Idaho residents to have compassion for fearful people — their stress is real — but not allow fearful thinking to warp our communities.

• • •

Timothy Braatz is a professor of history and nonviolence at Saddleback College. Previously, he taught at Southern Utah University and Arizona State University. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Arizona State, and is the author of several books, including “Peace Lessons” and “From Ghetto to Death Camp: A Memoir of Privilege and Luck.” Locally, he wrote and directed the dramatic scenes for Vicki Thompson’s recent productions, “A Common Beat” and “Stardust!”