Our biggest fear is each other

by Helen Ubiñas

We’ve spent much of the last few years dreading the possibility of coming into close physical contact with one another. And then, preparing ourselves for the moment when we might in order to protect ourselves from harm. 

But our concerns about those threats — real or imagined — have suddenly come with increasingly deadly consequences. 

On April 13, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, who is Black, was shot twice after he rang the doorbell at the wrong Missouri home to pick up his younger brothers. The owner of the home, Andrew Lester, 84, shot him in the head, then shot him again on the ground where he fell. Yarl miraculously survived. Amid growing outrage, Lester, 84, who is white, was charged with assault and armed criminal action. 

Investigators said that they believe there was a racial component to the shooting. You think? It’s hard to imagine a white man being so quick to fire at someone who looked like him standing at his door. 

On April 15, a rural upstate New York homeowner shot into a car that mistakenly pulled into his driveway and was already turning around. The homeowner, 65-year-old Kevin Monahan, fired at least two shots, one of which struck a passenger in the car, 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis. Both Monahan and Gillis are white. 

The car drove away, and because of poor cell reception, Gillis’s friends weren’t able to contact 911 until reaching a nearby town. Gillis was pronounced dead at the scene. 

Last Tuesday, two cheerleaders in Texas were shot — one critically — after trying to get into the wrong car by mistake after practice. 

In some people’s minds, peril will eventually come knocking at the door — that’s apparently what at least two of these men feared happened — and those hyper-aware, self-protective instincts kicked into overdrive. 

Shoot first. Then shoot again. And again. And again. 

While watching a morning news show this week, a reporter discussing an unending line-up of disturbing stories exclaimed: “What is wrong with us!?”  

It might be more productive to ask, what isn’t wrong with us?  

And all of it — every bit of the rot — is rooted in fear. 

Underneath the ignorance — fear. 

Underneath the hate — fear. 

Underneath the fear — even more fear made only worse by something else that we acquired during the pandemic to theoretically protect us from harm: guns. 

Gun sales spiked during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic and have continued to increase in the U.S., as fear and bias have coalesced into these reflexively violent responses. The two biggest months for gun purchases during the pandemic were in June 2020 (the month after George Floyd’s killing) and January 2021 (the month after the insurrection). 

Fear can become final with a gun. 

In his first inaugural speech in 1933, during the depths of the Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said: “… The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  

One of the many things Roosevelt was trying to forecast in such dire times is that Americans needed to have faith in themselves and one another — something that’s in short supply these days. My God, we don’t even like each other. 

And so, too many of us choose instead to arm ourselves — not with truth or love or compassion, but with weapons in the name of a twisted kind of freedom that really boils down to fear. 

We’ve been in the depths of a different kind of depression for years now, haven’t we?  

A “dark hour of our national life” that Roosevelt said called for “a leadership of frankness and vigor” and “support of the people.”  

People like the demonstrators in Tennessee, who after three 9-year-olds and three adults were killed in a mass shooting at the private Christian school, called on lawmakers to do something to prevent further gun violence. So afraid were Republicans in control of the Tennessee House of Representatives that they expelled two Democratic legislators leading protesters in a call for stricter gun laws. They were later reinstated. 

People like the Missouri students who walked out of their high school in support of their classmate Yarl, demanding justice. 

Many rightly cheered these groups, applauding them for being unafraid. Fearless. 

But I don’t think that’s accurate. They were undoubtedly courageous. But I don’t think they were unafraid — after all, being courageous isn’t the same as being unafraid; it means doing something even when you are scared. And anyone who isn’t afraid these days isn’t paying attention. 

But we can’t let fear stop us, or worse, turn us — or our weapons — against one another. 

We have to be courageous and walk toward it, and through it. Because everything worth fighting for is on the other side. 

Helen Ubiñas is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.