Remember the color-coded terror threat alert system implemented by the Department of Homeland Security after September 11? Each color represented a different threat level; the greater the threat, the more vigilant citizens should be.
That scale was replaced in 2011 with the National Terrorism Advisory System, which offered more specific designations and steps communities, agencies, and private citizens can take to protect themselves or prevent an attack. According to Homeland Security, this newer system “recognizes that Americans all share responsibility for the nation's security, and should always be aware of the heightened risk of terrorist attack in the United States and what they should do.” In other words, it’s more realistic and more helpful to simply accept significant risk as reality.
The old alert system never went to green (low risk) or blue (guarded). It stayed at yellow (elevated risk) most of the time and occasionally moved to orange (high risk). Yellow became the color of everyday life. Yellow became easy to ignore as we learned to live in a new normal.
While such adaptation can turn into complacency, it’s also a healthy process—we are not designed to be chronically on guard. In fact, a long-term state of fear is detrimental to every system in our bodies, most notably to our brains. Fear is a good thing in its place; out of bounds it can literally rewire the brain and cause us to think and behave very differently. So learning to live with a new normal is good for us, but it doesn’t mean we’re safe.
In 2016, we continue to increase security measures and vigilance, usually in response to nothing more specific than a general sense of vulnerability. We find ourselves living in a culture taxed by fear. This is, of course, one of terrorism’s primary goals—and unfortunately it’s having its intended effect as we wisely restrict certain freedoms and unwisely allow fear to take over.
After November’s coordinated terror attacks in Paris, cities across the US increased security measures in anticipation of the same possibility. Officials emphasized they weren’t responding to any specific threats, merely acting “out of an abundance of caution.” Airports around the world heightened security, as did the NFL and other major sports leagues.
More recently, in response to the federal government’s designation, the Rose Parade employed far more serious safety measures than ever before. The holiday season saw beefed-up security measures in force at shopping malls, at Disney World and other Orlando theme parks, and even the North Dakota State Capitol building, which has a tradition of pride over its openness to the public. In all these cases, there wasn’t a specific threat, only the context of a threatening environment.
Even when we do face threats, the proper course of action is not always clear. Schools in many locations received notices in recent months—most visibly in Los Angeles and New York City, which received the same threat and had opposite responses, one closing schools and the other laughing off a hoax. “So which one did the right thing?” asks CNN’s Greg Botelho. Good question. Even hindsight isn’t 20/20 when it comes to threats of terrorism and violence against the masses. We can never be sure what might have happened.
Living in a culture of fear and fortification takes its toll not only on our privacy and freedom, but on our hearts and minds as well. The problem isn’t the impulse to protect ourselves; this impulse is natural and good. The problem is that sometimes the self-protective impulse is the only urge we follow at times when we also need to incorporate wisdom, compassion, unselfishness, and rational thought.
Our protective instinct becomes a curse when we cling to the belief that we can truly keep ourselves safe and when we allow fear to guide our orientation toward others, whether immigrants, refugees, Muslims, people of another race, or people who simply don’t like us. These missteps fuel an obsession with safety and a burden of fear that produce their own kind of terror. They can also lead us to become the oppressors in someone else’s nightmares—the discriminators, the silencers, the ones who build walls.
Like all people in all times, we must accept the reality that life is fragile and risky—even for people who can hide behind a powerful military. As followers of God Almighty, our trust is misplaced if it rests in “chariots and horses.” At the same time, we are deluding ourselves if we are convinced we cannot be harmed.
Fear holds a delicate place in our society, even for us as Christians. It is essentially a good thing, given to us by God to protect us and help us protect others. And it would be naive to suggest we have nothing to fear. In our world, it is perfectly appropriate, and even wise, to be afraid at times. But fear makes a horrible master. When it assumes a place in our hearts and minds, it causes us to behave in ways we would not intend to. Fear makes us more likely to elevate even a remote threat to us above the lives and dignity of many others. And ironically, many of these others, whom we dismiss because of our fear, may be facing immediate and clear threats that far outweigh the possibilities that scare us.
Living by fear is directly opposed to the spirit of Christ and the way we are called to live as Christians. As 1 John 4:7-21 discusses, love and fear are not compatible as approaches to God or as approaches to other people. As those who have received love and grace from God himself, we are not only obligated, but also equipped, to offer fearless love to those around us. That doesn’t mean we should be reckless or unwise, especially when we are responsible for the welfare of others, but we must recognize how a fearful approach to life brings destruction and make a different choice. Even as we take wise steps to protect ourselves and others, we must ask God to keep our hearts open, even at risk of our lives. For us, love must dominate.
Amy Simpson is the award-winning author of Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of WorryandTroubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (both InterVarsity Press). She’s also a certified life and leadership coach and a frequent speaker. You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.