Commentary

Armed and afraid: The high price of fear

As more senseless shootings claim lives, it’s time to turn away from apocalyptic rhetoric and focus on what actually makes us safer.

May 26, 2023 4:30 am

Photo by Aristide Economopoulos for New Jersey Monitor/States Newsroom.

A teenage boy rings the wrong doorbell and is shot in the face. A 20-year-old woman is fatally shot when she and her friends pull into the wrong driveway. Two cheerleaders are shot when one accidentally gets into the wrong car. And a 6-year-old is shot when kids chase a basketball into a neighbor’s yard.

These tragic events seem incomprehensible. But we got a glimpse of an underlying reason for at least one of them, the wrong-doorbell shooting of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl. According to his grandson, the 84-year-old shooter watched a steady diet of Fox News and OAN. He was immersed in a “24-hour news cycle of fear and paranoia.”

Sadly, far-right politicians and media figures have habitually stoked fear and manufactured moral panics as a political strategy to amp up their base. And it’s having an effect: For decades, Gallup polls have consistently found that Americans believe crime is going up, whether it is or not.

The cost of this paranoia-propaganda machine? Real human lives — and poor policy choices that continue to make America an unnecessarily dangerous place to live.

Fear boosts TV ratings for Fox News and clicks for right-wing websites. It elects “tough on crime” politicians, sells guns, and contributes to the proliferation of “stand your ground” and permissive concealed-carry laws. Violent media scares people into answering their doorbells with guns drawn.

None of these things enhances safety.

Contrary to what the gun lobby says, more guns do not keep people and communities safer. Nearly 30 studies rounded up by Scientific American have linked more guns to more crime — not less. Another recent study shows murder rates are much higher in “tough on crime” red states than “soft on crime” blue states. That’s been true every year since 2000.

Evidence keeps piling up that dire warnings and more guns don’t make Americans safer. What compounds the disaster is that this rhetoric continues to be weaponized against reforms that actually could save lives.

That’s one reason we’ve been unable to move quickly on police and criminal justice reform — even as civil rights advocates call for changes like deploying alternative first responders to reduce the risk of nonviolent 911 calls, like welfare checks or mental health crises, from turning deadly.

The same fear that makes people believe they need to arm themselves also makes them believe that cities need hugely inflated police budgets. There’s scaremongering aimed at reform-minded district attorneys, despite evidence that progressive reforms don’t increase crime in general or violent crime in particular. The same attacks are aimed at mayors and legislators who want to make changes to policing.

I know — I experienced this first-hand.

When I was mayor of Ithaca, New York, we got much tougher about screening police applicants. Our city council approved a complete overhaul of our police department to prioritize unarmed responses. And the city halted no-knock warrants for suspected drug crimes.

I was routinely called “anti-police” by the far-right wing. But we forged ahead with our forward-thinking approach to public safety and crime remained low — often dramatically lower than in other cities our size.

The recent rash of shootings are horrific at an individual level. At the social level, a critical lesson here is that a climate of fear — and those who benefit politically or financially from it — gives us bad laws, bad politics, and bad behavior that endanger us all.

It’s time for that to stop. It’s time to turn away from the fearmongers and toward solutions that work.

Svante Myrick is the president of People for the American Way and a former mayor of Ithaca, New York. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.

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Svante Myrick
Svante Myrick

Svante Myrick is the president of People for the American Way and a former mayor of Ithaca, New York. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.

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