Opinion: The fear itself is to be feared

This week’s writer is Michael Kiernan, M.D., a doctor in the Emergency Department at Porter Hospital in Middlebury.
One of the most challenging procedures I face as an Emergency Physician, believe it or not, is removing a simple shard of glass from the bottom of a person’s foot — actually not so much the removing, the difficult part is trying to anesthetize the area with a needle and syringe. The foot will not accept a needle without reflexively pulling away. It’s instinctive. We are wired so that when something sharp enters the skin on the bottom of our foot, the hip flexes. We pull our foot away.
“Sorry,” I say pulling the foot back down toward me, “I have to do it again.”
I steady the needle, grasp the foot, and say firmly, but with compassion:
“Try to hold still.”
It’s a reflex. It is subcortical, in that it occurs at a level below the thinking brain. A reflex cannot discriminate. It cannot fire part way. It is all or nothing.
I don’t think we’ve quite come to terms with our deep psychological responses to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. There are reasons, I believe, why that tragedy lingers. Certainly the scale of the loss of life has kept that attack from being eclipsed by the many horrific events that have occurred since. But the principal reason that those sad days are still echoing around inside us is the indelible visual images of that morning: an airplane slicing neatly into the envelope of an office building in the bright September light, like a knife entering between unguarded ribs.
It is also the language of the objects themselves. Visit Washington, D.C., and walk around the National Mall — those buildings have language. They speak of a young nation’s desire to be seen as enduring and to be connected to great civilizations of the past. The rising edifice of the World Trade Center was language. The building’s name was itself aspirational and symbolic. The Pentagon is language. The sleek modern airliner is language. The capacity of art to change our response to a stimulus and even to alter our moral compass is something we’re often scarcely aware of. This is part of what transacted on that fall morning: the ever-coarsening language of our global dialogue was taken to an artful, disgraceful new level.
And like many transformational works of art, the conceptualization was stunning.
The deliberate planning and coldhearted realization of the event strikes us at the fundament. “They” commandeered airplanes full of innocent people. “They” flew them into office buildings full of innocent people. “They” conceived this and executed this. We who trusted them among us, we who witnessed the event must recognize the absence of discrimination and proportion that can occur in our spasm of reaction to “them.”
Donald Trump recognizes this, I believe he has our capacity for reflexive responses foremost in his mind. Somewhere in our darker unexamined places, his code words probe like needles. We may be unaware that he is doing this, but I believe Mr. Trump is fully aware. He knows that he can indistinctly lump all of those forces that have threatened or have been perceived to threaten the entitled American white male in the past five decades and speak of them even indirectly and those who are fearful will get it. And it is not just white men.
Deep down, all who fear will get it.
It’s “them,” over and over again.
The events of a September morning 15 years ago seem unwilling to recede. And new fears that have vaguely similar outlines have appeared. We are far from healed. But heal we must, which means we need to develop a self-compassionate understanding of our responses to the events of 9/11. We need to understand with specificity who “they” are and to mindfully create discriminating and proportionate responses to the tragedies of the past and the threats of today. Most of all, we need to be awake and alert to those who would inflame and conflate our fears for their own purposes and have a finely attuned awareness whether we are responding out of fear or from one of our more reliable sensibilities.
And we need to wear shoes more, or at the very least, when barefoot, be more watchful of broken glass.

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