“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”

Here was the fear described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first inaugural address, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

From the other side of the coffee shop, close to the door, came shouted words of accusation.

A man was yelling at the shop’s young manager.  He accused her of being responsible for the theft of his lap top computer.  Apparently, hours before, he had left it unattended at one of the shop’s several tables and, he claimed, it had been stolen.

As he turned to shout at customers, I jumped from my seat and rushed to see if I could help.

The manager and I coaxed the man out the door, and I stood with him in the cold while the manager went to call the police.  The poor guy was wild-eyed, disheveled and smelled of alcohol.

I tried to calm him down and help him understand his own responsibility for the loss of the computer. But he challenged my involvement.

“What makes you think you can tell ME what to do?” he spluttered. “Who are YOU?”

“I’m just a regular guy,” I said. “Standing up for what is right.”

Thankfully, the police arrived quickly and I stepped away, back into the shop.

The manager, in tears, came to thank me for my intervention and to fill out an incident report.

Later, at home, I told my wife about the episode.

“What if he had a gun?” she cried.

Had not thought of that.

The next day I read about another wild-eyed drunk who menaced two Indian men in a Kansas bar.  The man had been ejected from the bar but came back with a gun, killed one of the Indian men, wounded the other and shot a young American who had tried to wrestle the gun away.

I marveled at the heroism of the young American, but trembled as I remembered the coffee shop incident of the day before and Idaho’s new “permitless” concealed carry law.

Here was the fear described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first inaugural address, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

fdr inauguration

Fear is again doing its best to take hold, competing with our better instincts to help others by causing indecision, hesitation and moral uncertainty.

Because of fear, belligerence is on the rise. Immigrants are being rounded up and roughed up by those with new authority.  Refugees, who desperately seek sanctuary, are being turned away by baseless travel bans.  Senseless acts of vandalism and violence against innocent Jews, Muslims and people of color have multiplied.

Do we have the courage to resist?  To confront verbal and physical violence?  To oppose politicians and policies that fuel fear with falsehoods and conspiracy theories?

For my part, I certainly hope so.  The costs of cowardice are too high.

“Get out there and fight for what you know is right!”

Our foundational values are now at risk of being overrun by a growing mob mentality of anger and fear.

As we left the house for school or to “hang” with friends, Mom would look piercingly into our eyes and say, “Remember who you are and what you represent!”  She said it louder and more often during our stupid, hormone-soaked teenage years.

She always reminded us of being part of something bigger than ourselves—family, community, country—and she reinforced principles taught at home, school and church.

40211223 - giving a helping hand to another

Among them, the “Golden Rule”—to treat others as we would want to be treated—a universal moral compass to point us toward the values of acceptance, respect and compassion.

This ancient wisdom has nourished the roots of civilization and united communities.  Sadly, it is now threatened by an angry and fearful mob mentality whipped to a frenzy by divisive and hateful political rhetoric.

Presidential palaver and policies, with the cowering silence of congressional leaders, have given official license to racism and xenophobia and consequent vandalism and violence.

The dark vision painted in the election and since has causal connection to the shocking desecrations of Jewish cemeteries; to multiplied vandalism and bomb threats at mosques, synagogues and community centers; and to the shooting of two innocent Indian men in Kansas by a drunken xenophobe, who believed they were Iranian and yelled “Get out of my country!” before he pulled the trigger.

This darkness will be hard to erase.  Belated, scripted words delivered to a crowd of genuflecting congressional cowards will not by themselves call back the hounds of fear and anger already unleased.  It will require much more—even from us.

Today, Mom would not just urgently whisper, “Remember who you are and what you represent.” She would push us out the door and shout: “Get out there and fight for what you know is right!”

“OK, Mom.  We’re on it!”