Worshipping at the Idol of Safety

This weeks UPI column - riffing off my WTC message

So There I was...

Flying into a war zone. Bujumbura, Burundi, Central Africa during the summer of 2003 was in trouble. Various rebel groups were camped in the hills around the capitol city. They had mortar rounds and rocket propelled grenade launchers – and they were using them. The South Africa peacekeepers had helicopter gun ships – and they were using them. The United Nations had pulled all their people out. The embassies were working with skeleton staffs of people without dependents. The US embassy folk had a “safe zone” and a corridor to the airport. They were not allowed to travel anywhere else. I was flying in the help a local NGO set up training centers for trauma healing. My local connections thought they could keep me safe and promised to ship me out if they could not. I thought I was being very brave. But right away things were not what I expected. I had expected that once I was off of the international carriers in Nairobi and onto African air transport that it would be pretty much “Clutch Cargo Airways.” I guess I was expecting propellers and maybe chickens – the sleek 737 for the Nairobi – Kigali – Bujumbura leg was unexpected. I also didn’t expect the plane to be full – I mean, how many people would be flying into a war zone? I really didn’t expect to see children on board. In the seats next to me were two Arab children, with their mother and baby sister behind us. I asked the older boy if he had any English – he did. We had a nice conversation. They were on their way back to Buja from a visit to their grandparents in Dar Es Salaam. Dad was a businessman in Burundi, with a fine store, according to his son. Mother did not have as much English as her son, but he translated a question for me.
”How do you feel about taking your children into Burundi? – Does it feel safe to you?”

“ It is a wonderful city, a good place to do business, a good place to raise a family.” She said. She didn’t seem in the least bit worried. I wondered if I had gotten the news all wrong.

I hadn’t. But I spent three fairly safe months in Burundi. And I met a lot of children there, and most of them seemed happy. Business was thriving in the midst of chaos. Kind of like the old west. Dodge might not be Mayberry, but the Saloon business was treating Miss Kitty all right.

Apparently that mother had not listened to the fear-mongerers.

I have been thinking a lot in the last few years about fear and fear-mongering. It seems that our culture is taking a real turn towards being a culture of fear. If you listen to any media outlet you can quickly make a list of things that you are supposed to be afraid of, from dangerous bacteria that infest every corner of your house, to the threat a various forms of global annihilation. Places that are supposed to be bastions of safety are now terribly dangerous. The hospital is the last place that a sick person should be. That clergyperson talking to your son is highly suspect. The evening news that was once delivered to us devoid of emotion is now served with heaping portions of concern, caution, fear and outrage.

I do not think that this is a good trend.

Not that I am against practical safety. Airbags, Yeah! By all means change those batteries in your smoke detector, and please, do wash your hands when you leave the restroom. But the constant diet of fear and the persistent selling of products and behaviors to assuage the fears seems to have gotten all out of proportion.

This is an old business. As old as virgins being tossed into volcanoes to appease the Gods. And I think the comparison to idolatry is apt. To run the fear business you need a stick and a carrot - a supposedly noble or at least awesome deity, and fear of retribution.

We have begun to worship at the Idol of Safety in earnest. The fear of retribution if we do not, is very real.

You know that something has become an idol when its very name becomes a magic incantation that stops questions and debates and induces unnatural obedience. Remember Obiwan Kenobe, and his Jedi mind tricks? “These are not the droids you are looking for.” With the wave of his hand and hypnotic words he lulled weak minds into a stupor. Now, in the United States, all you have to do is say, “This is for you safety, sir.” and people nod their heads, take off their shoes and stand in line. They throw their personal possessions into sacrificial barrels, and avert their eyes as the Middle Eastern fellow behind them gets pulled out for “extra screening.”

The temples of Safety are everywhere. She has legions of acolytes. She drinks greater and greater portions of our national budget. And devotion to her is very exacting. You must be willing to give her your personal liberties. You will isolate into smaller and smaller groups, and in those groups you will think alike. You will not trust the other groups, whether they are across the street or across the world. Words will change. Isolation will become “Nesting.” Courage will become “foolhardiness.” Mr. Orwell will be very busy.

Because faith in Safety focuses more on feeling safe than actually being safe, there will be the never-ending task of risk management. As long as one person in the room still feels unsafe, we will all change our behavior until that person feels better. But having lowered the threshold, it will be only a matter of time before the unease grows in someone – who will raise again the cry “Unsafe!”

You got the smoke detector. Then you got the carbon monoxide detector. Then you got the radon detector…

You screened the little league coach for criminal behavior. Then you trained all the children to detect pedophiles. Then you made the rule that no child is ever to be alone with a single adult, ever…

It never ends.

For years after coming out of seminary with a degree in religion and counseling psychology I tried to envision and make church a safe place to be, emotionally, spiritually and physically. Eventually I found out that this was the trials of Sisyphus – futility itself - unless you kept out all the human beings. Then I decided that we were not created to be safe. We were created to be invincible.

Next Week: How I became invincible.

Now that is a cliffhanger.
After I'd lived in Central America for a year, I found it hard to adjust to life back in North America. It felt as if I was wrapped in cotton batton--insulated from life. Life down there was so raw and immediate, you could feel it in every breath you took. Here, you have to surface to find cool air.

I hear you about the fearmongering. What makes me uneasy is that insecurity is the fuel of fundamentalism and extremism. There is already far too much of that already! Inner peace supports outer peace.

Now... how does that story end???
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