On Fear

The Starting Line, originally published in the November 2016 issue of the San Diego Jewish Journal

By Natalie Jacobs

I arrived early to Linda Vista for a workshop. It was just before 6 p.m. and dusk had begun to fall on the strip mall parking lot. A multicultural group of young boys were skateboarding near where I parked. The small businesses on the other side of the lot sported big, well-lit signs written in Vietnamese. I noticed an herbalist and a pho restaurant and wondered if I should have given myself time to get a bowl of soup or some tea.

Instead, I followed a large man wearing a black collared shirt, jeans and steel-toed boots into the building where the meeting was to be held. The stranger had greasy, shoulder length hair and the hunch of a man on a mission. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable walking behind him, but the short entryway didn’t allow time to slow my pace before I caught up with him just inside the door.

He looked lost, so I asked if he was going where I was going. He said yes with a bit of anxiety in his voice. Then, darting his eyes around the public library, he leaned down as if to whisper in my ear.

“Man am I glad I brought my gun,” he said, not quietly, with an uncomfortable laugh and a slight snarl to his lip. I noticed his face was red and pock-marked, his gray hair receding. He bore striking resemblance to Dog the Bounty Hunter.

I wonder what my face looked like. I had so many questions. And I was so mad.

Was this white man, towering at well over six feet with shoulders like a linebacker, really scared of the skateboarders in the parking lot or the signs written in a foreign language? Did the old cars and chipped paint truly make him fear for his safety? We were less than two miles up the road from Fashion Valley mall, where Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, Henri Bendel and tons more of the world’s most exclusive luxury brands have retail stores. Did he really have a gun? Is that allowed?

I think I managed to snort. We were still standing in the doorway. I couldn’t move.

“I’m from Carson, so it’s not like I’m not used to it,” he said by way of explanation, which did nothing to explain anything to me. The man went on to explain why he had permission to carry a gun, which solidified the fact that yes, he did have a gun. It was still unclear what he was afraid of or why he might have occasion to use the firearm though.

Where is my protection from people like him? People who hide their small minds behind corpulence or uniforms, who choose weapons over wisdom, whose actions fulfill their own unfounded prophesies – those are the people who scare me. But that doesn’t give me the right to shoot them, just because I’m frightened by their worldview.

In a late-September issue of Time, there’s a small blurb on a book called “When Strangers Meet.” The central thesis seems obvious enough: casual encounters with different kinds of people who don’t normally run in our daily circles make us more open, accepting and understanding of others. Even a small collection of random conversations with people who are outside our usual in-group can reduce the fear that comes from an oversaturation of negative perceptions about “the other,” whomever that may be.

This idea of meeting strangers who live differently than us seems more important than ever. As the wannabe vigilante at the public library demonstrated to me, the economy of fear is booming. While some people benefit from gross mischaracterizations, many more are destroyed.

In the Mailbag section of this magazine [for web readers, the Letter to the Editor is posted below], you will find an emotional letter written by the father of the Berkeley student who was killed in the terrorist attack in Nice, France. Amidst unimaginable grief, Conrad Leslie manages to declare “we cannot be afraid.” If he can live by those words, then I can too.

[POSTED from SDJJ Mailbag Nov. 2016:

Dear Editor:

Thank you much to Sharon Rosen Leib for sending me the beautiful article that she wrote [“Sending Kids Abroad” Sept. 2016]. She captured so eloquently how I feel about our son Nick and the need to remember what he stood for.

Nick was just like she described. He had a passion for life and really believed in a peaceful world. It’s a very, very dark time for us right now (it’s only been nine weekends since Nick was killed). Every day we wake up to the same nightmare, that we will never see his smile again, give him a hug, or talk to him. The pain is unbearable sometimes. I somehow found the strength to write this message because I was touched by [the article] and I agree with everything that was written.

Nick was a young, idealistic man with dreams of touching the world and creating a better place. As was written, his dreams and everything he stood for was martyred that day, but we cannot be afraid and will not allow these monsters to stop our children from dreaming of a better world. We cannot let them win.

UC Berkeley has set up a foundation for Nick. I did not know but the meaning of the name Nicolas means “victory of the people,” or “people’s victory.” The Victory of the People scholarship provides Cal undergrads with financial need with study abroad tuition and spending money. They launched the website on 9/11. People who are interested can go to give.berkeley.edu/victory for more information.

Thank you again.

Conrad Leslie

San Diego]