County Is Paralyzed Sense Of Fear

COMMENT

August 01, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Perhaps it is the uncertain times in which we live, but a number of recent events indicate that a sense of fear and foreboding prevades certain circles in Carroll County, and it is clouding people's judgments.

Even after a young girl recanted her story about being abducted by a man with a gun last month, a number of Eldersburg residents maintained that a man was driving a white van looking for children to kidnap.

In an unrelated matter, a vocal group of Hampstead residents was outraged that two dozen special education students will attend classes this fall in the old Hampstead Elementary School. Even though they had never met these children or talked to school officials, these people behaved as if the students were hardened criminals who would run wild through surrounding neighborhoods.

Similarly, despite every effort to show that the school system's proposed "Exit Outcomes" program does not have any hidden agenda, a vocal minority continues to believe that the revised curriculum is a cover for some insidious program to promote (take your pick) a) the education of non-questioning adults for large corporate employers, b) homosexuality and other "alternative" lifestyles, or c) federal government intrusion into local classrooms.

The common thread in all these examples is a belief that dark conspiracies are afoot that threaten life, limb and property values.

While communism -- the silent menace that lurked in the $H shadows when I was young -- has died, a significant part of the population still feels besieged by external powers beyond its control. In many ways, the fear of crime has replaced the fear of communism. Crime is certainly real, but the person-to-person crimes we all fear most -- assaults, rapes, armed robberies and murder -- are not taking place in Carroll in great number.

Last year, the county had one homicide. This year, it has had two. There have been fewer than a half-dozen armed robberies. Carroll has one of the lowest per-capita levels of crime in the Baltimore region. Nevertheless, many residents believe their homes are besieged by crime.

This sense of vulnerability may explain why people readily accepted the story that a middle-aged man abducted a 10-year old girl. Such an incident, unfortunately, is not out of the realm of possibility. But it is hard to explain why people would persist in believing the incident took place when there is no objective evidence to support that belief.

Perhaps the relentless coverage of crime in television news and entertainment programs has so blurred the lines between reality and fantasy that we have lost the ability to step back and critically evaluate how vulnerable we actually are.

Afraid of crime, we erect physical and psychological walls. As people withdraw into the safety of their homes, normal social exchange becomes more difficult. A sense of community is lost. Since man, by nature, is a social animal, this solitary kind of life is much less satisfying than one where there is easy interchange with fellow humans.

Certainly this fear of crime was behind much of the fuss over locating two dozen special education students in Hampstead. These children are troubled, yes, but their problems don't have anything to do with crime. Just the fact that they are different or in need of close supervision shouldn't have been enough to arouse paroxysms of fear.

At the meeting in which school officials explained the program, some citizens spoke about these children as if they were menaces to society who should be locked up forever. This kind of reaction is the antithesis of the way a just and caring community should behave. Instead of fearing these children who are depressed, withdrawn or hyperactive, we should be giving them all of our compassion.

And, even though more than 700 people participated in drawing up the standards that the school board wants to use in its "Exit Outcomes," a determined minority can't be dissuaded that the real aims of the program haven't been disguised. This new program must be designed to inculcate alien values into the curriculum, the minority insists -- without much convincing evidence; it couldn't be a sincere attempt to develop better ways of educating children and preparing them for adult life.

The tragedy is that fear feeds on itself and inhibits people from addressing pressing problems.

Franklin Roosevelt's comment at his 1933 inauguration that "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" has been trivialized by overuse, but he hit the mark in describing fear's debilitating impact.

People of America have always been courageous. From the first settlers to the illegal Chinese immigrants of today, the country has been populated by people who are willing to take risks. They were willing to cross oceans and continents to find opportunity. They confronted all sorts of obstacles to create a better society.

If this community is to remain vibrant and engaged, we will have to overcome this immobilizing fear.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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