Panic, the new national pastime


On Thursday, officials in two Hendricks County school systems cancelled classes.

Someone – or perhaps several people – had made a sweeping threat to harm a specific student, her friends, her classmates and, for good measure, all blacks and gays. The threat prompted school and law enforcement leaders in Plainfield and Danville to shut the school doors on the last day of final exams.

The Indiana school closings came two days after a similar school closing in Los Angeles. Someone had sent a threat to attack schools there and elsewhere – most notably in New York.

Officials in New York determined the threat was a hoax, but that didn’t stop Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie from lambasting President Barack Obama during the GOP debate that night for not reassuring parents that their children were safe. Just how this president – or any president, for that matter – was supposed to protect people from a danger that didn’t even exist Christie didn’t explain.

All this comes at a time when the leading Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has pledged to build a wall on our nation’s southern border to keep Mexicans out and impose an unconstitutional ban on Muslims entering the United States.

And more than 20 governors, including Indiana’s own Mike Pence, have attempted to impose bans – also unconstitutional – to prevent Syrian refugees from entering their states.

Welcome to America, 2015, a place where panic is now the national pastime.

It’s also a place where our leaders encourage us to cower at rumors and run from shadows. Somehow, these folks seem to think we’re going to solve our problems as a country by hiding under our beds and whimpering every time the floorboards creak.

The truth is that the world is a dangerous place.

It always has been a dangerous place.

It likely always will be a dangerous place.

But surrendering to fear, like so many of our leaders want us to do, isn’t likely to make the world any less dangerous. All our panic does is keep us from finding solutions to our problems.

The attacks on Paris and San Bernardino were horrible. But so were the nearly 160 school shootings that have occurred in this country since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School three years ago. And the more than 350 other mass shootings that have happened in the United States this year produced just as much grief and trauma for the victims and the people who love them as the murder spree in California did.

The panicky voices attempting to lead us now tell us that the way to meet the evil that confronts us is to look for (false) guarantees that we can keep all the bad people who wish to do us harm out of our country, our states, our communities, our schools.

Many of those same voices tell us that if these bad people do get here – or if they’re already here or if they are U.S. citizens – we should make it as easy as possible for them to possess deadly weapons they can use to attack us.

That, of course, is what panic does to people. It pushes them to think in extremes.

In our case, it’s made worse by the fact that on so many issues – guns, abortion, same-sex marriage, education, health care, too many others to name – the terms of our national discussion are set by people who stake out extreme positions on the right or left, as folks who prefer, even need, a fight over a solution like to do.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

A little more than 30 years ago, we had a president – a conservative Republican – who summoned us to a shining city on a hill and told us that we could meet any challenge before us. Nearly 50 years before that, we had another president – a liberal Democrat – who told us that, in confronting a hard and dangerous world, the only thing we needed to fear was fear itself.

Liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, we could use a little bit of that kind of leadership right now.