13 October 2006

Victims of fear

It started out as a routine visit to the local shopping mall to buy a couple of new fall blouses. Then came the tap on the shoulder. "Ma'am, would you come with me, please?" It was a very large security guard. He hustled me out of the store and into the corridor.

Very Large Security Guard informed me that another shopper had filed a complaint about me. This other shopper believed that I had been taking photos of her young daughters with the camera in my cell phone.

No sooner had he finished informing me of the charges against me when a hysterical woman approached us, wagging her finger at me and accusing me of being a criminal, or a pervert, or both.

Guilty until proven innocent.

I was stumped. I had never, ever used the camera in that cell phone. I didn't even want a camera in my cell phone. I have a nice digital camera for when I want to take photos. But the camera phone was actually cheaper than the ones without a camera, so I chose to pay less to get a feature that I'd probably never use. That'll teach me.

I looked at Very Large Security Guard and Hysterical Mom and told them that this was obviously a mistake, because I didn't even know how to use the camera in my cell phone. I did recall looking something up in my phone’s contact list a few minutes earlier. Since I wasn't wearing my reading glasses, I likely held the phone out at arm's length to read the display, which may have given the impression that I was taking a picture. But that explanation wasn't good enough.

By this point, Hysterical Mom had been joined by another woman and three young girls, all looking at me as if I'd just killed their puppy. Hysterical Mom gave me a very icy look and said, "She's lying." So I handed the phone to Very Large Security Guard and invited him to see for himself that there were no photos inside.

After what seemed like hours, Very Large Security Guard conceded that he had searched all through my phone and that there were no photographs. But that still wasn't good enough for Hysterical Mom: "She must have sent the picture to somebody and then deleted it!"

So Very Large Security Guard looked at my call history and found that the last call I had made from that phone was several hours earlier, before the mall had even opened.

Still not good enough for Hysterical Mom, who was now asking to get the local police involved, since mall security didn't have the power to arrest me. But, finally, Very Large Security Guard took my name and address, checked my driver’s license, and let me go.

And it occurred to me that this kind of thing is bound to happen - and happen a lot - given the climate of fear that's become so pervasive in our society. Every day we're told to be afraid. George W. Bush keeps telling us that the terrorists want to kill us. The cable TV news channels keep obsessing over the missing white girl du jour. Fear is thrown at us day in and day out, to the point that we're so busy looking over our shoulders and expecting the worst, that we can't just relax and realize that most people are good - even those scary middle-aged ladies fumbling with their cell phones.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Perhaps he had a point. In this post-9/11 world, it is wise to be cautious. But when caution grows into knee-jerk paranoia, it's a sign that something is very, very wrong with our society.

And it's a sign that the terrorists have ultimately won.

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