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Where Did Culture of Fear Come From?


The call to 911 was nearly surreal.

A calm male voice is heard telling the operator that he and a colleague have just been accosted by two masked and armed men outside a Scan furniture outlet in Columbia.

Oh, and by the way, their assailants had shot both of them.

A listener might have thought the caller was about to order a pizza with pepperoni.

It was the victim's nonchalant tone that keeps coming back to my mind as I think about the much-publicized robbery of a week ago.

Crime has become so commonplace; branded on our consciousness by ceaseless television reports and police logs. And if reality is not enough, movies and music bombard us further.

So routinely is violence played out in our lives, we've become numb and unemotional, like that wounded caller to 911. There is an eerie resonance to his voice precisely because it betrays no sense of shock or fear.

We, in turn, listen to it passively because we've heard these 911 calls before, on the news and in the crime re-enactment shows. They too have become so routine.

Now is the time for stunned outrage and indignant anger. And yet I sense that we can't muster it, won't dig deeply enough to either fight or retreat.

If you've lived in Columbia any length of time, as I have, you know it is not nirvana.

Its expensive homes and manicured lawns have a way of fooling the newcomer. To be sure, it is a relatively safe community.

But stay in Columbia a while and you begin to see some of the cracks. Perhaps not as pronounced as other cities, but they are undeniably there.

It is more than just sudden fear. It is the institutionalization of fear.

Our children must wonder why the world is this way. Since they were babies, we've indoctrinated them in a culture of fear. Don't talk with strangers. Never wander off alone. Always tell a parent where they're going.

When I was a child, my world seemed so much bigger than theirs. My parents wanted to know where I was, too, but there were blocks and blocks that I could travel without anyone's seeming concerned. In that world, I could explore who I was and act out my independence.

How do children accomplish that today?

That is what is so tragic about last Sunday's shooting. It's not only a violation of innocent people, it contributes to the theft of our childrens' sense of security?

Some other communities have fought back by becoming more insular. People have turned to gated neighborhoods and secure, fortress-like buildings, in the hopes of locking out a hostile world.

When founded by Jim Rouse a quarter-century ago, Columbia was supposed to be the antithesis of this.

Open to all.

Comfortable in its diversity.


Ironically, the vision may have blinded us to the work that needs to be done. In our relative affluence, too many Columbians have become complacent, so that the wolf outside, which seemed so distant before, knocks at the city's door and we are not prepared.

Last week's crime is emblematic of where we are at the moment. It was so senseless that it seemed to confirm our vulnerability. It followed a string of recent crimes, including armed robberies and purse snatchings. But unlike those seemingly more typical crimes, last Sunday's is like a puzzle that refuses to come together.

Furniture stores rarely have much cash on hand. According to dTC reports, the victims warned the robbers that an alarm would sound if they tried to open the store's safe. Yet when the alarm went off, the robbers appeared to panic and fired.

The signs suggest these were not experienced criminals, but they knew enough to hide their faces. Perhaps the answers will come in time and this crime, like so many others, can be put into some sort of context.

Strange, but we look for reassurance in the details. The randomness of it all is perhaps most frightening. We hope for an explanation that gives us relief from our feelings of helplessness.

The danger is, of course, what it has always been. That we will become so inured to the occurrence that we stop reacting.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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