Beware the Fear Industrial Complex

(Photo: Andrew Morrell/cc/flickr)

Beware the Fear Industrial Complex

Be Afraid. Be very afraid. That is the message to moms (and dads too, but they tend not to be as susceptible). Be afraid of strangers, as well as friends and family too. Be afraid of bugs and dirt outside, and snot and germs inside. Be afraid of cars and bikes and motorcycles and anything with wheels. Be afraid of stairs and cribs and co-sleeping and swaddles. Be afraid of plastic and lead and vaccines and un-vaccines and asbestos and bad things in the water, air and soil.

But rest easy, for every fear there is a corresponding product: something that you can buy to make you feel safer. There are wipes, cleaners, sensors, helmets, nanny cams, stranger danger seminars and locks for everything that can open. Security and peace of mind are available for a price. I knew that. But I didn't know how far it went until I was sent a product pitch for Piper Security. Their tagline is: "with Piper you are always at home." How horrible is that? It is a home monitoring system that will send you text messages or emails when people come and go, and it provides two-way audio and video monitoring -- meaning you can yell at your kids remotely. The system allows you to stay on top of what is happening in your home while you are away (or provides a high priced illusion of that experience). Notice, I am not linking to this product.

This is a fear industrial complex. I don't like it, but I get it. There are things that can harm our kids and people want to be prepared and safeguarded. But what I really don't understand is the flip side of the fear industrial complex: fun-fear, which is an industry unto itself.

'Tis the season of fear, haunted houses, ghosts, ghouls and goblins. Masks, makeup and mayhem are for sale. It is a major industry at this point. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spend nearly $7 billion on Halloween annually.

That fact alone is enough to make me swear off the season entirely. But, in truth, I grew up with a bit of a bah humbug about Halloween. My brother and I were not allowed to trick-or-treat as kids. Our parents and the other adults in our community saw Halloween as a teachable moment. We gave out candy, sure -- but one year we stapled notes with facts about world hunger to the mini candy bars. Most of it ended up in the gutter at the top of our block. Another year, we tried to collect money from the trick-or-treaters for UNICEF. The kids thought it was a trick and we got no money from them. Still, another year we gave out homemade popcorn and apples. We told the grown-ups no one would take it because that was the year of the razor-blade-in-the-apples warnings. Needless to say, we ate a lot of stale old popcorn that weekend.

This routine of disappointment for the kids in our neighborhood meant that after a while only the youngest or most intrepid and comprehensive trick-or-treaters hazarded a ring on our bell. It's surprising we never got egged for our troubles. By the time I was old enough to buck the family prohibition on trick or treating, I was eschewing all refined sugar and way too cool to dress up. So, I pretty much missed the boat on the holiday.

Halloween is a big deal around where I live, in New London, Conn. A lot of farms do corn mazes and pumpkin patches and all manner of wholesome seasonal activities. But then there is the fun-fear too. Our local newspaper just ran a feature on "room escape attractions." I thought it was a typo. Eventually, though, I figured out what they were talking about. You pay money -- like $60 per person -- to get locked in a room, handcuffed to another person. In order to get free, you need to solve riddles and find clues to get the key and escape within a time limit. Oh, and you get to wear a prison jumpsuit and get your picture taken afterwards.

In a nation with the world's largest prison population -- 2.3 million at last count -- most of whom are locked up for nonviolent, relatively minor infractions, this is an unconscionable disconnect. I would hazard a guess that thousands of those locked up right now could be free for less than $60 -- overdue child support, unpaid fines or court fees, stealing something worth less than what people pay for the fun of being locked up.

The New London Day promoted this fun-fear phenomenon in the midst of reporting on the death of a young black man in local police custody. Jail is campy fun if you are white, wealthy and quick with trivia, but not if you are Lashano Gilbert. A Bahamian visiting relatives in New London, this 31-year-old medical student was tased while being arrested. The police brought him to the hospital where he was medically cleared and then discharged him back into police custody. Police tased Gilbert again a few hours later, when he escaped from his cell and reportedly attacked an officer. He died on the way to the hospital.

So, this Halloween, I am afraid. But not of goblins, ghosts, the crazy cost of costumes, or the cavities my kids might get from eating too much candy. I'm afraid of the police -- not for myself as a white person of privilege -- but for the kids and young men in my neighborhood. And I'm afraid of the disconnect between white kids who pay to get locked in jail for kicks and black kids who can't walk down the street without getting kicked and harassed by police. My multi-racial, mixed-income neighborhood doesn't need my fear, though -- it needs my vigilance, my voice and my solidarity. So, I will work on that, as I enter this fun-fear season in my own way. We'll trick-or-treat on our block, welcome the gaggle of kids who scuff up our front porch, and we'll try to see it as a time to dismantle the enduring bogeymen of racism, violence and inequity -- one mini candy bar at a time.

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