Of Sharks and Terrorists and the Loss of Innocence

I pretend to have an obsessive fear of sharks.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I am afraid. Ever since my mother took me to see Jaws when I was eleven years old, I have been afraid of sharks.

We were on a beach vacation that year, the first since my parents had divorced, and besides the shark movie, my mother treated my sisters and me to an R-rated film featuring gay sex—lots of gay sex—the variations of which were explored in exquisite detail on the screen and among many of the men who sat nearby in the theater. We were in Provincetown that year, not our usual destination, and my mother was, I suppose, trying to be cool, hipster, enlightened, I don’t know what. But even the ticket taker at the door to the theater warned us off—this isn’t a movie for children, he said—but she insisted, as if he were a relic from my grandfather’s generation. So all those rows of bloody teeth blown up large for the screen one night and then all of those intimate acts the next: I will admit. I was a bit overwhelmed.

I was contemptuous, too. The mildewy shack that we stayed in seemed like a significant step down from our usual vacation place. I can see now that taking us to Provincetown—a new place that wasn’t associated with my father—was an act of bravery on my mother’s part—or maybe it was just all she could afford. But I hated it, everything about it, especially my mother, because besides bringing us to inappropriate movies, she brought along our record player, the one that snapped shut like a small suitcase, and she played just one song from one record, over and over and over: Barbra Steisand’s “People Who Need People.”

If people who needed people were the luckiest people, it was clear that I was not one of them. I didn’t feel lucky (I was the one she chose to sleep on a sagging cot on the not-very-screened-in porch without AC), and I wasn’t a person who needed people: I just wanted to be left alone.

But back to the sharks. After the Summer of Jaws, I could never swim in the ocean again without that tingly feeling of being watched. I might even admit to having looked over my shoulder once or twice while I was in a swimming pool, but that was only because of that James Bond movie where the guy is thrown into the pool and then a secret hatch opens—uh, oh—letting in those smooth and silent sharks.

Aside from that, I feel that my fear of sharks fits into your normal range.

But over the years, my fear has become legendary in my immediate family. I copped to my shark phobia once, and besides the usual jokes about pigs killing more people per year than do sharks, an amazing phenomenon occurred.

I lived in Montana for fifteen years—pretty safe from a shark attack there!—but I managed to escalate my shark-fear rhetoric nonetheless. I was in the middle of a whole continent, and still I didn’t have to wait for Shark Week to find an excuse to slip in a funny comment about sharks followed by a full body shudder.

But it wasn’t the fear that was so delicious. I don’t like fear.

I have plenty of other things that I struggle with, that I am concerned about, that I am genuinely afraid of—so why exaggerate this one?

Because people believed me. I wasn’t dismissed as being “too sensitive.” I didn’t even have to trot out that sorry story about my loss of innocence in a theater in Provincetown. They believed that I was afraid. It required no explanation on my part.

A fear of sharks, while not statistically valid, is understandable to everyone.

And so I understand why terrorist attacks bring up such visceral fear. The horror and suffering is real.

But here is the thing: my family does not make decisions based upon my shark phobia. And neither should politicians make public policy based on their fear—or the public’s fear—of terrorists.

I overact my fear of sharks because…well, I suppose because of some unmet childhood need to be protected, to be heard, to be accepted. And because it is funny. But I don’t use it to manipulate anyone.

And that is what the terrorists are doing: manipulating.

Sharks kill and eat their prey without any intent other than to fill their stomachs. It isn’t personal.

Terrorists kill in order to control the behavior of the millions of people whom they can’t kill. They kill in order to manipulate the few people who do have control over the rest of us: politicians. They terrorize in order to destroy what they could not otherwise destroy. 

Terrorism isn’t war. It is political manipulation. Follow the puppet strings. Follow the money. Stand in solidarity with the victims, but remember that terrorism is NOT an existential threat.

Pigs really do kill more people than sharks do. And many more people will die of diabetes than from terrorist attacks. Women have been killed by their partners, young black men have been killed by police officers, people have been struck and killed by drunk drivers, and students have been shot in schools. But those threats don’t scare us—or they don’t scare all of us—the way terrorist attacks do.

The terror is real. You are not over-sensitive.

And the threat is real, too. It just isn’t the one that seems so immediately obvious.

The real threat is that we will react disproportionately, as the terrorists wish us to: with fear and, worse, hatred.





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