Fear and Loathing in America

FDR famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Well, fear itself is here. What are we afraid of? Each other. This week, America’s fear and loathing played out on the F Train where a homeless man was killed by another passenger. NYT (Gift Article): A Subway Killing Stuns, and Divides, New Yorkers. “For many New Yorkers, the choking of the 30-year-old homeless man, Jordan Neely, was a heinous act of public violence to be swiftly prosecuted, and represented a failure by the city to care for people with serious mental illness. Many others who lamented the killing nonetheless saw it as a reaction to fears about public safety in New York and the subway system in particular.” How did it come to pass that New Yorkers would be conflicted about the killing of a man when, as the same article explains, “there is no indication that he was violent or that he made any direct threats.” As Elizabeth Bruenig in The Atlantic (Free article) explains, we have become A Country Governed by Fear. Those fears are both politically motivated and, because of rampant gun violence, somewhat understandable. “Many people feel uncomfortable when confronted with someone in an acute crisis. But certain factors can turn an uncomfortable situation into an intolerable one, such as living in a society where anybody could have a gun, where any agitation can boil over into mass murder. An irate neighbor slaying five people with an AR-15-style rifle after a noise complaint in Texas; an unstable Coast Guard veteran killing one and injuring four while attending an appointment with his mother in an Atlanta hospital. The stakes in any given episode of public agitation or distress or even psychosis aren’t typically all that high; the majority of people having crises at any time represent no risk to anyone (save, perhaps, themselves), but the incessant rat-a-tat of bloody headlines makes people feel—viscerally—that the risks they do encounter are unbearably dangerous.”

+ “Homelessness and erratic, nonviolent behavior, in this case, received a death sentence.” The New Yorker: Jordan Neely’s Death and a Critical Moment in the Homelessness Crisis.

+ One of the big problems with addressing homelessness and other urban problems is that they are politicized beyond recognition. San Francisco’s homelessness and economic woes have been turned into national political fodder—evidence of the ill effects of weak progressive policies (never mind that the city had the same progressive policies during a multidecade, world-leading, tech-powered economic boom.) What we’re actually experiencing here is not a rabid rise of violent crimes to be feared but rather a confluence of factors that have led to a moment of deep despair. Nordstrom just announced plans to close a massive downtown store, and its landlord cited “the deteriorating situation in Downtown San Francisco.” Indeed, the pandemic fallout, the work from home trends, the massive tech layoffs, and the rip-roaring economic divide created a deterioration. San Francisco got ghosted. A recent study tracking mobile device usage found that downtown activity in SF is just 32% of what it was before the pandemic. The problems in San Francisco and other urban areas are real and need to be addressed. But they can’t be overcome with violence, fear, and hate. What we need is a little empathy.

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