Which Way Do We Run From Fear?

William J. vanden Heuvel (United States as Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Europe [Geneva] 1977-1979; Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, 1979-1981)

Cross-posted from Ambassador vanden Heuvel’s April 18, 2013 blog post on The Huffington Post.


Since the tragedy in Boston on Monday, columnists and commentators from the New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman to comedic actor Patton Oswalt have made the same, stirring observation: in the immediate aftermath of the bombing it is remarkable to see how many people ran toward the blast to help.

Fear would suggest that we run in the other direction. So what do we learn from this gesture? There’s instinct, to be sure — the activation of some recidivist fight-or-flight mechanism. But gestures can also be expressions of higher truth, and the athletes and spectators running into the chaos serve as a reminder that we are, all of us, in the humanity business together. Their brave trajectory tells us, to paraphrase Philip Larkin’s poem, that what survives of us is love.

Faced with tragic events we look to words of comfort; we look to great works of art and religious teachings; we work to place the horrific into some historic context.

It is perhaps worth noting that the terrible day in Boston occurred 68 years to the day after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s burial at Hyde Park, New York. In one of his most famous speeches, President Roosevelt proposed four fundamental freedoms that “people everywhere in the world” ought to be able to enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and, finally, freedom from fear.

President Roosevelt’s State of the Union address — delivered before Congress on December 8, 1941, 11 months before the U.S. entered World War II — was largely about national security and the threat faced by other democracies. Making a break with the U.S.’s longstanding non-interventionist policy, FDR outlined the new responsibility our nation had in helping its allies at war. FDR’s timeless message about freedom from fear — perhaps the freedom that is least tangible, the most abstract, and the hardest-won — is especially resonant today.

Fear — not fanaticism or religious extremism; guns or explosives — is the true currency in which terrorists traffic. And fear is an especially insidious weapon, since it shifts the field of battle to psychological terrain. (“No, I won’t travel to the Middle East…” “No, I’m scared to visit the Statue of Liberty…” “No, I’ve decided against running in the next marathon…”)

FDR spoke memorably of fear prior to the 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech. During his first inaugural address in 1933, President Roosevelt famously asserted his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

FDR knew firsthand about overcoming fear. Permanently paralyzed from the waist down by polio, President Roosevelt did not allow this disability to prevent him from seeking higher office or living life to the fullest, and laboriously taught himself to walk with the aid of crutches and braces. (It is perhaps not coincidental that in FDR’s most famous utterance about fear, the words “paralyzes,” “retreat,” and “advance” feature prominently.) How fitting these words — conceived to help bolster the national mood during the Great Depression — speak to our moment.

After the dead are memorialized, after the culprit is found and brought to justice, after the narrative of Boston is written and the tragedy takes its place in the pages of history, the question for us becomes how do we carry on? How do we do our best to honor the memory of the deceased? Faced with the unthinkable, which way do we run? The marathoners and spectators who raced to the aid of others provide one answer. A great president stricken with polio provides another. In the face of fear, stand your ground.