In our Big Question—what's the worst that could happen?—the civil-rights lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, argues that it's fear without reason...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The line is often credited to Winston Churchill, the master of the rousing speech. In truth, Franklin Roosevelt (or rather his aide Raymond Moley) coined the phrase for his inaugural address in 1933, as America tried to drag itself out of depression: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The modern politician has forgotten Roosevelt’s words. He prefers to play on fear—fear that prevents sensible action, and never inspires it. In America, many say we need the death penalty to prevent crime, thereby distracting us from demanding restrictions on guns, a wise drug policy, or adequate education. We are taught to fear terrorism to such an extent that we end up forfeiting our liberties, even if the chance of it affecting our lives is infinitesimal. We are told to fear losing our jobs to immigrants, rather than to the powerful who destroy the economy.
Fear escalates in inverse proportion to experience. So white people in the white-flight suburbs of American cities fear crime far more than do black citizens in the city centres—because of, not despite, the fact that the suburban white is far less likely to be a victim.
We spend hours catastrophising horrors that will never come to pass. Meanwhile, we are frozen most solid by our fear that we won’t succeed. We are so averse to failure that we ensure before we begin that nothing will ever be achieved. One of many examples came at Guantánamo Bay. Over several years, I cannot recall a single strategy that really harmed our efforts to get the authorities to act within the law (even when one attorney dropped his trousers at a press conference in Yemen, in an ill-advised effort to illustrate how detainees were being humiliated). But some of the lawyers who joined our coalition were devoted to dithering, constantly worrying that a particular action would backfire. As a result, they achieved little and prevented others from accomplishing a great deal.
Ultimately, and most pointlessly, we fear that which we can neither understand nor amend. So our fear of death impedes us from fully living life.
What do you think is the worst that could happen? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Robert Guest on famine, Edward Carr on war, Irving Wardle on cultural erosion, Kah Walla on Africa unfulfilled and Ann Wroe on our imagination.
Clive Stafford Smith is a civil-rights lawyer and a director of the charity Reprieve. He has written a book about America's death penalty, "Injustice"
Picture: detail from Dürer's woodcut "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", 1498 (Scala)