A Changing Mask of Fear
I have taken myself back to the late seventies when, at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts, I delivered a lecture under the title “Climates of Art.” Introducing that lecture, I made the following admission:
The title is, of course, deliberate. It is meant to trigger off those associative devices . . . so that “climate of fear,” “climate of terror,” and so on, will surface in the mind without much conscious effort.
In the course of the lecture, variations of the title of this present series cropped up at least half a dozen times. My departure point, my main area of concern at the time, was the fate of the arts—and artists—under the burgeoning trade of dictatorship and governance through a forced diet of fear, most especially on the African continent—in common parlance, the fear of “the midnight knock.” Arbitrary detentions. Disappearances. Torture as the rule rather than the exception. Even cynical manipulations of the judicial process, whereby a political dissident found himself in what could be described as a revolving dock without an exit, a Kafkaesque nightmare that had no end except perhaps at the end of a rope, for a crime of which the accused might even be completely unaware. Decades after that lecture, the world took bitter note of the hanging of the Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his companions after a kangaroo trial—mostly because he was a writer, but also because his cause, that of ecological preservation, had become a global agenda.
At the time of that lecture, Nigeria, my immediate political constituency, was reeling under the execution, by firing squad, of three young men under a retroactive decree—in other words, the crime of which they were convicted, drug trafficking, did not carry a capital forfeit at the time of commission. That defiant act of murder had a purpose—to instill fear into the populace by deliberately flouting the most elementary principles of justice. And so on and on it went. The Nigerian event wrung two plays out of me—A Scourge of Hyacinths for radio, and From Zia with Love, its stage version—so persistently did that episode insist on lacerating my re-creative temper. I was not alone. The entire nation was deeply traumatized. Even the normally carnivalesque atmosphere that marked the main arena of public executions of armed robbers, dubbed the Bar Beach Show, was reported unusually subdued. So improbable was the outcome that the crowd had persuaded itself to believe a rumor that the military dictatorship intended only to mount a charade, instill some salutary fear into traffickers, and would reprieve the young men at the last moment. Instead of giving voice to the usual chorus of derision at the exit of hated felons, the crowd had come prepared to cheer the moment of reprieve. When the ritual of final priestly ministrations, blindfolding, and other motions made it quite clear that the sentence was moving remorselessly toward its decreed end, a shout of “No, no, no” went up from the crowd. After the deed was done, there followed moments of absolute silence, of utter disbelief; then the crowd more or less slunk away, downcast and shocked. The dictators had not expected such a reaction. Not long after, public executions were banned and, following the overthrow of that dictatorship by another, the edict was repealed.
While that regime lasted, however, there was no question about it: for the first time in the brief history of her independence, the Nigerian nation, near uniformly, was inducted into a palpable intimacy with fear. The question on every mind was simply this: what else were they capable of, those who could carry out an act that revolted even the most elastic sectors of the public conscience? It is a question to bear in mind in our attempts to understand what distinguishes from the past the new fabric of fear that we all seem to wear at this moment. As each assault on our localized or global sense of security is mounted or uncovered in the nick of time, the residual question is surely: What next? Where? How? Are limits or restraints any longer recognized?
What was happening on the African continent in those violent seventies and eighties was echoed, per- haps with even greater ferocity, in the Americas, where those danger words desaparecidos, right-wing murder squads, government-sponsored vigilantes, etc. gained international notoriety. Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Panama. Iran under the SAVAK. Apartheid South Africa under BOSS. Fear was almost uniformly a state-run production line, except of course where right-wing volunteer agents of repression lent a hand, as in Latin America. Between right-wing governments and the efficient state-run communist machinery there was, however, hardly any difference. Hungary, Albania, East Germany, Bulgaria, and so on. Émigrés from these would-be utopias, no different from survivors of apartheid South Africa—both the defeated and the yet combative and conspiratorial—crisscrossed the world seeking help and solidarity. Again and again, our paths—those of creative people—would meet, leading to that immediate question: how did creativity survive under such arbitrary exercise of power? How did Art survive in a climate of fear? Today, the constituency of fear has become much broader, far less selective.
We are all agreed, I like to believe, on what constitutes fear. If not, we can at least agree on the symptoms of fear, recognize when the conditioning of fear has afflicted or been imposed on an individual or a community. Certainly we have learned to associate the emotion of fear with the ascertainable measure of a loss in accustomed volition. The sense of freedom that is enjoyed or, more accurately, taken for granted in normal life becomes acutely contracted. Caution and calculation replace a norm of spontaneity or routine. Often, normal speech is reduced to a whisper, even within the intimacy of the home. Choices become limited. One is more guarded, less impulsive. A rapist is on the loose in society. A serial killer terrorizes an entire community—as happened recently in the state of Maryland in the United States, where two men, an adult and his protégé, placed an entire state under siege as they picked off victims at random.
Now, such a disruption induces a totally different sensation from that created by a war situation, where a town is placed under siege. Even if bombs and rockets are raining down on the populace without cessation, the very process of war permits a certain space of volition, and thus reduces the inner debilitation that comes with a sense of impotence. In the case of Maryland, the murdering pair succeeded in making fear the controlling factor for a population. This anonymous force shut down schools and institutions and destabilized normal existence. Parents took to escorting their children right into the schoolroom, with a look cast over the shoulder. Obviously, while the killing spree lasted, there was deep resentment of, even rage at, the unknown assailant, but the commonest product of that phase was simply undirected fear. A notable aspect of all-pervasive fear is that it induces a degree of loss of self-apprehension: a part of ones self has been appropriated, a level of consciousness, and this may even lead to a reduction in ones self- esteem—in short, a loss of inner dignity. Not always, admittedly, and those times when such a claim is invalid offer us the chance of making some crucial distinctions among the various contexts within which fear takes its especial quality.
It so happens that I recently underwent an experience that enables me to reinforce such a distinction, one that may explain why the experience of fear is actually more tolerable in some circumstances than in others—in other words, there does exist a kind of fear one can live with, shrug off, one that may actually be absorbed as a therapeutic incidence, while others are simply downright degrading. I refer to the recent fires that ravaged southern California and resulted in the devastation of one of the largest swaths of land, we are told, in the history of fires in the United States. I was one of those thousands of residents who found their homes in the path of the ravenous invader, unable to predict—literally—which way the wind would blow.
Well, let me describe what I observed in the comportment of neighbors. They were anxious, of course, and fearful. Watchful and insecure. But their humanity was not abused or degraded by the menace that bore down on them. On the contrary, they remained in combative form, constantly exchanging news as well as tactical suggestions for saving the neighborhood. Sleep was out of the question. At any moment, we had been warned, police sirens and fire-truck Klaxons could rip through the night, signaling the moment for compulsory evacuation. As the fires came closer, choices became reduced. Sprinklers lost power, garden hoses gave up the last trickle, and we began to wonder if electric power was now threatened. Indeed, a blackout soon followed. Our endangered community became apprehensive of the worst—but no one was truly intimidated, nor was there the slightest sign of a loss of dignity.
The relationship between that fire, a naked force of Nature—even though probably the work of arsonists—and the humanity that was menaced was very different from the exercise of the power of an individual over another, or that of a totalitarian state over its populace. There exists a vast abyss of sensibilities between the raw force that is Nature, on the one hand, and the exertion of force by one human being in relation to another. I suggest that this has to do with yet another human possession, an attribute that is as much a social acquisition as it is inherent in the human species—dignity. A number of philosophers—Hegel, Locke, and so on—even stretch this notion of self-esteem to the human need for recognition. This last is a concept of which I am not particularly enamored, and I find the bulk of expository literature on that extended impulse mostly unsatisfying—we shall touch again on this theme in our fourth lecture, “The Quest for Dignity.” For now, let us simply observe that the assault on human dignity is one of the prime goals of the visitation of fear, a prelude to the domination of the mind and the triumph of power.