Running Scared

When I was a boy, I delivered what was thought of as the afternoon newspaper, but in December I made my rounds in the dark. Always, at this time of year, I choke on one particular memory -- the frightened thrill of dashing through the last part of my paper route.

I couldn't wait for my canvas bag to be nearly empty, so that I could really start to run. Flinging the last of the rolled up newspapers at the blurry doorways, I took off for home as fast as I could go. I hurdled hedges, cut across lawns, one act of trespass after another: What did I care?

It was not the dark I was afraid of so much as my own imagination. I steered clear, for example, of trees whose silhouettes made me think of ghouls, and I was always sure that slimy night crawlers were waiting in the grass to snare my legs, which I kept moving. The faster I went, the more certain I was that someone, something was gaining on me.

I had no way of knowing that such honed fear of what does not actually exist is an ingenious adaptation of the human species, what enables us to handle it when some unexpected monster does in fact show itself. Dread of the ghoul behind the darkened tree, that is, prepared our ancestors in the vast savannah to respond when a mundane but still deadly beast leapt out of the bush. Those humanoids who were cursed with a capacity to vividly conjure the nonexistent threat defined the arc of natural selection that lands, eons later, on us. Just because we have domesticated the beasts of prey does not mean we have eliminated the cruelties of contingency.

Now the monster leaping out of the shadows may be a pink slip at work or a patch of ice on the highway or an IRS audit. It may be a diagnosis or a phone call at 3 a.m. If we find it possible to respond with calm and the focus needed to cope, it is because we rehearsed for the shock by picturing it countless times before it came.

All of this is to the good. Staying with my own case, I have a life because I have been hustling through the dark all these years, heading home. But such motivating fear can be a bad thing, too. When response to the imagined threat moves beyond the adrenalin rush that usefully heightens perception, to an inhibiting construction of defenses or to actual attacks against the dark, then, considered individually, what the person has fallen prey to is clinical paranoia. Considered socially, what we have in such reaction is the politics of terror. Alert to one monster, we create another.

The United States is now undergoing a great reckoning. With collapsing confidence in the government, obsessive debate about the war, rising contempt for the president, shame in relation to the plight of our young soldiers, acrimony at holiday tables -- ''I told you so" versus ''What would you have us do?" -- the nation confronts the all-too-human fact that our frightened responses to Al Qaeda, at home and abroad, have done us far more damage than the nihilist terrorists ever could have. Our communal dread, instead of sharpening our responses, made them reckless.

But the damage has not only been to us. It is as if the frightened newsboy leapt away from an innocuous shadow into the path of an onrushing truck, causing a terrible accident. In America's case, it was not a truck, but a bus loaded with children.

At one moment, the newsboy is darting among shapes in the dark, and the next he is staggering in the road among the groaning victims of actual carnage he has caused. Add to that horror the facts that more buses loaded with children are rushing down the road toward the accident scene, soon to crash, and that there is no rescue squad to call, no ''security force."

The boy wants to split, but that seems wrong, given what he started. He rolls up his empty newspaper sack and offers it to one of the injured children as a pillow. But the next bus roars toward them. The boy sees nothing else to do than get out of the way. He steps off the road, into the shadows. He then starts running again, through the darkness.

Now the American boy knows something new, that the thing to be afraid of is himself.

© 2023 Boston Globe