Fear Is Contagious. Fear Is Deadlier Than Coronavirus.

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Spanish flu of 1918 was unusual, amongst modern influenza outbreaks, because it killed young and otherwise healthy people.  One of the possible reasons for this is an immune reaction called “cytokine storm” in which overreaction of a bodily system leads to a cascade of other failures and eventually to death.  I’ll let my friends who are medical professionals correct me on the details, but that is the basic idea and sufficient explanation to set the stage for this blog post.

The Herd Reacts…

The psychology of human behavior, in particularly how it pertains to people in groups, is a fascinating study.  We are social creatures and because of this our own response to anything can be easily influenced by the reaction of group.  If one person or several, who are considered credible by the group, start to do something new, it won’t be very long before there are many others copying them.  That is how fads and fashions are born, that is why religious people conform, we want to share in the credibility of the credible by doing what they are doing.  We do this unconsciously, like the contagious yawn, and can help explain what happened last week.

All of the cancelations of the past few days may very well come down to the actions of one man.  Rudy Gobert, days before becoming the first NBA athlete to positive for the Covid-19 virus, decided it would be funny to deliberately touch all the mics and recording devices in a news conference.  This led to the NBA suspending their seasons and, like Mrs O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lantern starting the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, one man’s caviler attitude could very well have triggered the response of the NBA and the long list of other cancelations that soon followed.

It goes like this: The NBA canceled because 1) a few of their players tested positive, 2) they realized they were no longer in control of the situation, and 3) they could possibly be held liable if the death of someone’s grandpa could be traced back to one of their sporting events.  So, in the name of public safety and all things good and right, they decided to approach this unknown risk by abruptly ending their season.  This, in turn, very likely influenced other leagues to follow suit for fear of their own inaction, despite knowledge of risk, becoming a heyday for trial lawyers everywhere or simply a public relations disaster.

The more leagues and events that cancelled, the more others felt pressured to do the same.  Sure, this was something rationally justified, the idea of “flattening the curve” or slowing the spread of a disease by “social distancing” soon became common parlance, and yet the spread of this idea to start canceling events seems also to be very much like the simultaneous run on toilet paper.  Anxiety disorder is something I know a little about and, while I’ve never been tempted to hoard toilet paper, it certainly has gotten in the way of my better judgement. 

So is the reaction to Covid-19 wholly rational or was it post hoc rationalization and basically a collective panic attack?

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself…

I have a friend who was an Air Force medic during the First Gulf War.  He told me an anecdote you’ll never hear reported in the news, a behavior that doesn’t make any rational sense and yet is something he encountered a few times in the lead up to combat in Iraq. 

Apparently some of the young soldiers were so keyed up and anxious that they couldn’t take the pressure of the wait anymore, they would find a place where they had a little privacy (the porta-potties as I recall) and take their own life using the firearm issued to them.

It makes absolutely no sense.  Why would someone, facing the danger of death, be so anxious that they would actually kill themselves?

In times of crisis people want to do something, anything, to lose that feeling of powerlessness.  That is probably the reason why many people have recently started to stock up on things that really would not help them.  That is why young soldiers, concerned about losing their life, took their own life rather than continue to wait in fear.  Fear often leads to an irrational response.  And our most educated and elite, given responsibility to make decisions, are not immune to this kind of irrational “do something” impulse either.  Our leaders are capable of panic as much as any of us.

It reminds me of the story of Easy Company, told in the series “Band of Brothers,” where the Company Commander, 1st Lieutenant Norman S. Dike Jr. (or “Foxhole Norman”), was portrayed as being frozen by combat and unable to make a decision.  He had obviously been talented enough to rise up through the ranks and become an officer, but apparently he lacked the calm and collectedness to be an effective leader outside of a controlled predictable environment.  He had to be replaced by a more common and practical man, with the right instincts to get the job done:

During the assault on Foy, Dike had ordered a platoon to go on a flanking mission around the rear of the town. During their charge, he ordered them to take cover. His subordinates informed him they were going to get killed because they were sitting ducks.  At the same time, Captain Richard Winters, former commander of Easy Company and the Battalion executive officer, tried radioing him to tell him the same thing. Having no idea how to control the situation, Dike froze. Carwood Lipton, at that time the company’s first sergeant, later put it: “He fell apart.” He was relieved during fighting at Foy by First Lieutenant Ronald Speirs under orders from Captain Winters, then moved on to become an aide to Maxwell Taylor, 101st Airborne Division.”

Military Wiki, Norman Dike

Could it be those whom have power in our institutions are men (and women) of similar caliber to Dike?  Smart, capable of working their way up through the established system, and yet lacking the courage necessary to lead society through uncharted waters?  Some of them freeze in fear, others overreact in their anxieties, while others (seeing the bigger picture) are more more able to make good decisions and navigate the stressful circumstances of the present moment.  Running the NBA or being at the top of a government agency does not mean that a person is qualified to manage a crisis and in some cases those in those positions are probably going to make matters worse rather than better.

Self-sabatoge, Fear-based Overreaction and Titanic Failures…

It is really hard to know, actually, in a politically polarized time, when many are willing to cut off their nose to spite their face, what is a real crisis and what is merely an opportunity to try to undermine a political opponent.  In fact, there are some in this country who seem quite willing to destroy the economy in a desperate bid to get their power back and a few who even seemed to cheer the plunge in the markets.  When some see personal benefit in feeding hysteria and panic, it is hard to know who too trust when clearly not everyone is on the same team anymore.  

But that said, I would tend to see the fear as being real and the reaction a sincere effort to prevent the worst case scenario from happening.  It was easy, as Covid-19, ravaged China, to deny the severity of the situation.  For one, the Chinese government is not the most trustworthy source of information (add to the that they had every reason to minimize the outbreak as not to scare away investment dollars) and, two, it is very easy to dimiss China as a them rather one of us.  The real wakeup call was Italy, a country clearly on par with our own in terms of medicine, and how quickly a few isolated cases suddenly exploded.  And, unlike China, where the government kept a tight lid on information, the truth was allowed to escape.

What has happened since I see as being similar to when a driver dozes off, wakes up while crossing the rumble strips, and reactively jerks the wheel.  Their immediate reaction may spare them a trip into the trees, but it could also be an over-reaction that takes them head-on into an incoming tractor trailer.  It could be too little too late.  There are those right now who call the idea of “flattening the curve” a “deadly delusion” an that only complete containment strategy will make a difference.  But then I begin to wonder has the opportunity to save those most vulnerable been missed a month or so ago when we failed to close our borders when it was clear that China was dealing with something unprecedented in our own times?

They say had the HMS Titanic ran straight into the iceberg, rather than barely grazed it, some would’ve died from the violent collision and yet the ship would likely haved stayed afloat.  It is also strong possibility that they could have avoided a collision with the iceberg altogether if they had only used the rudder rather than try to reverse the engines.  The Titanic, unlike many ships of the period, had two outer propellers run off piston engines and one in the center that was powered by a turbine.  The outer propellers could be reversed quickly, the inner could not, and the result of their attempt to reverse being turbulence over the rudder which made the magnificent ship unresponsive.

Sometimes I wonder if it is too late to spare the lives that will be lost if we slam headlong into Covid-19 and let be what will be.  Yes, people will die.  But people will die regardless and crippling the economy may only add to the death count.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe cancelling unnecessary activities and avoiding large group gatherings is a precaution worth taking, as is practicing good hygiene, washing hands, wearing masks and self-quarantine.  However, I would also argue that wrecking the economy will only make matters far worse and must also be avoided at all necessary costs.

In my own mind there is a vast space between paralyzing fear or irrational over-reaction and blinding arrogance.  We can and should be getting prepared, but with deliberate calm.  We are at war, the strength of our enemy is not fully known, we must not recklessly expose our vulnerable flanks, we dare never freeze in fear.  It would be wise to buy some time, to allow better countermeasures to be deployed and that does mean social distancing, less travel, more cleanliness, and really what should be common sense.

What Is Coming?

Despite our best effort, war is coming. We can expect that in the coming weeks that case numbers will jump dramatically and, not only that, but ICU beds will begin to fill at an alarming rate.  We will likely see abandoned shopping centers and malls converted into makeshift hospitals.  We will probably see some “wartime medicine” or triage, where those most likely to survive are given access to treatment over those who have only a slim chance are basically left to die, so snap out of your dismissive stupor and conspiratorial denial now or you will not be prepared for the battle of the coming days.  

That is the truth. 

We are emotional beings, not wholly rational. 

We make poor decisions, both collectively and individually, that can turn a dire circumstance into an absolute disaster.

If you are seeing this only in terms of politics, who gets blamed or who benefits, you are the problem more than the virus.  If you have filled your cart with toilet paper because suddenly you feel vulnerable and don’t know what to do, stop thinking only about yourself and stop feeding into the anxieties of others.  It is time to buckle down, put aside partisan differences, selfish ambitions, and act together as one nation again.

In the end, remember, like the case of many who caught Spanish flu and died because of their strong (yet unhelpful) response, overreaction can be more deadly than the actual threat.  We cannot bring the economy to a grinding halt out of fear, instead we must thread the needle with a prudent and properly measured reaction.  There is no point in stopping the virus by killing the patient.  We should pray that our leaders are given extraordinarily wisdom and calm for this unprecedented event.

God bless!

Assaults, Allegations and Justice For All

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It was an open and shut case. A young woman reported that she had been drug into a stairwell at school and raped. The young man, seventeen, enters a guilty plea and is sentenced as an adult. He will serve five years behind bars, then five years of strict probation, and will need to register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life.

Justice served, right?

That’s the story of Brian Banks, a high school football star, accused of rape by his classmate, Wanetta Gibson, and threatened with forty years to life on the basis of her allegation. His legal counsel, despite Brian maintaining that he was innocent, feared a conviction and advised he go the route of a plea bargain—so that’s what the young man did.

He served his time. He had asked the California Innocence Project to take up his case, but they declined because there was a lack of evidence to prove his innocence. It seemed Brian would spend his entire life, denied opportunities, treated like a sexual predator, and unable to clear his name—all on the basis of her words. I mean who, besides his close friends and family, would believe him, that he had been falsely accused? Doesn’t every rapist claim to be innocent?

But then something extraordinary happened. His accuser, Wanetta, recanted her story (privately) and confessed that she had fabricated everything. Finally, Brian’s name was cleared. His accuser, who had won a 1.5 million dollar settlement against the school, was sued to recoup the money paided to her and has since failed to show for her court dates. Brian had a brief NFL career after this and is now an activist for those wrongly convinced.

The “only” who are falsely accused…

“The ruthless will vanish, the mockers will disappear, and all who have an eye for evil will be cut down— those who with a word make someone out to be guilty, who ensnare the defender in court and with false testimony deprive the innocent of justice.” (Isaiah 29:20‭-‬21 NIV)

There is an oft-repeated claim about the frequency of false accusations being “only” 2-10%. It is a number often used by those trying to downplay the possibility that a man is innocent.

But what is the basis for this number?

The number itself is an estimate. It is based on various studies, studies like one published in the Journal of Forensic Psychology from 2017, that compare numbers of claims deemed false or baseless after an investigation. They found that between the years 2006–2010, out of 87,000–90,000 accusations of rape a year, that around 4,400–5,100 of the reports were deemed false or baseless—that works out to roughly 5.55% of allegations being determined to be false.

However, what a study like that does not take into account is that some accusations of rape are entirely baseless despite an investigation that leads to a conviction. Brian’s case is a prime example, he was found guilty despite his innocence and only exonerated because the woman who accused him later recanted her tale. There could be many more men, convicted on the basis of a false accusation, who are never exonerated because their accuser never recants.

Brian’s story is extraordinary in that his accuser was caught in her lie. However, that’s not always the case. (Not to mention, he had already served five years.) There is really no way of knowing how many, convicted on the word of an accuser, may actually be innocent despite their entering a guilty plea and being convicted. So we really do not know how many accusations are false accusations based on convictions

But, more glaring than the possibility that the number of false accusations could be far higher, is the very reality that thousands of accusations per year are false.

That is, put another way, 4,400–5,100 lives (and potentially more) with their lives turned completely upside down by a false accusation. This could be your own father, brother, nephew or son. Thousands are accused, even imprisoned, and are actually completely innocent—that is an “only” that should slow us from rushing to judgment in the case of an allegation.

That said, not near all rapes and sexual assaults are reported.

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8‭-‬9 NIV)

It is important, at this point, to note that there are many who are victims of crimes that were never reported. I personally know multiple cases of men and women who were sexually molested and/or raped and never reported the assault to authorities. They were abused by family members, grabbed in the groin by a coworker, raped by their boyfriend and there was no police report of the incidents. That too is a sad reality, a traumatic experience that many live with, that should not be ignored.

According to the Department of Justice, in a 2014 report, an estimated 34.8% incidents of sexual assaults are reported to authorities. That is to say that only 3 or 4 out of ten sexual assaults are ever properly investigated and adjudicated.

Now, that this is NOT to say that there is an equal number of rapists to those unreported incidents.

According to a report about repeat rape among “undetected” offenders, repeat rapists “average 5.8 rapes each” and thus the number of undetected rapists is only a fraction of the number of victims. In other words, only a small number of men account for the majority of the incidents and this is precisely why people should report criminal incidents—reporting in a timely manner will protect other people from repeat offenders.

It should come as no surprise, then, that someone who was raped would not report it at the time it happened. Likewise, it should not be a surprise that many rapists continue their life free of consequence for their actions. This is an unfortunate reality of the world we live in, it is the reason why we should always take allegations seriously even if they come out years and years after the assault is said to have happened. There are many unreported assaults, people come forward at different times for different reasons, and this is something to always be aware of in our analysis of reports.

We can (and should) take a clear stand against all forms of abuse.

There is a false choice out there. There are some who deny allegations on the basis of false reports. There are others who dismiss claims of innocence and downplay false allegations as insignificant on the basis of under-reporting statistics.

But we should not choose one or the other. It does the real victims of sexual assault no good to presume the guilt of a man simply on the basis of accusations. It also is wrong to side against an accuser because there are false accusations or they haven’t reported the event immediately after it happened.

We should never disregard an allegation off hand. We should never decide someone’s guilt or innocence by a mere claim or statistics. We can both take sexual abuse allegations seriously and also be reasonably skeptical of the accusations. When pressured to take the side of an accuser or the accused we should take neither side and take the side of justice instead. Every case is different. Every court is different. We must be wise.

Know your own bias and adjust your judgment accordingly!

Still, we all tend to see things from a biased perspective. In the case of Brian Banks, the prosecutor and other authorities believed he was guilty on the basis of the testimony of the young woman. These were well-educated people, people aware of bias, and yet they failed him. In many other cases, there is undo skepticism of those coming forward with allegations and denial of justice to victims of abuse. Both of these things must be guarded against. A person making an allegation should be heard and their story believed. An accused person should be presumed innocent until proven guilty and not be denied due process.

Ultimately, if an allegation falls within the statute of limitations, it is the responsibility of the police to investigate and the job of the courts to decide based on the evidence that they have. I prefer that we side with the evidence, that a charge must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and that defendants not be tried in the court of public opinion, perp-walked or treated as if guilty unless there is evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt:

“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” (Sir William Blackstone)

Two wrongs never make a right. As much as we want justice for the victims of sexual abuse we should not neglect justice for those accused. It does the true victims no good to create another victim by locking up those falsely accused and truly innocent. We should not punish anyone for a crime that they did not commit and especially not as a result of our prejudice against their race, gender, religion or other a defining characteristic.

We need to be a voice for justice.

False accusations, from the Salem Witch Trials to Emmett Till and everything before or after, come because there is power in making them. An accusation can bring a confirmation hearing to a grinding halt, it can cause questions about a political rival’s character that didn’t exist before and mere words can destroy lives—therefore we must always stand for the rights of the accused.

That said, we must never deny the oppressed, we should have compassion for those abused and especially for abused who have remained silent for fear of not being believed or other reasons—therefore we must always be a voice for the abused.

May God give us wisdom!

Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

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Denial is our first line of defense.  Even the guiltiest person will plea “not guilty” in an effort to avoid judgment.  And when we read Matthew 23, it is easy to assume that the stinging words of Jesus apply to them but not us.

Denial is a natural response and therefore it was no surprise if we read Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and fail to make a connection between “us” and “them.”  Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys, you know, the ones with better understanding and more complete knowledge.  How could we be as wrong as those whom Jesus condemned?

And when we do have to admit our failures we tend to deflect and downplay them: Sure, we are imperfect, we make mistakes; but who doesn’t, right?

I should know.  I was once an ardent apologist for everything Mennonite.  I believed that by God’s grace, I was born into the church denomination that best applied the teachings of Jesus—which is a sentiment not uncommon among my Anabaptist peers who have not been sexually abused, the witness of a vicious church split, or excommunicated.

Unfortunately, this assumption of our having a corner on the truth is a position built on confirmation bias and arrogance.  Every religious zealot believes that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they are standing on it.  But, unless you believe that all paths lead to God, they can’t all be right.  Likewise, our own assumption that we are right, and our ability to defend it, doesn’t make us any better than them.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.

The Pharisees and religious experts believed that they were on the right path; they proudly considered themselves to be God’s chosen people and resisted his message.  It would be easy to try to distance ourselves from them, to think of them as extraordinarily bad people and deny our commonality with them.

However, if we do that, if we are too proud to consider that we could be on the wrong side of history, then we have the same exact mentality of those condemned by Jesus:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! (Matthew 23:29‭-‬32)

The teachers of the law and Pharisees, like us, identified with the good characters in history and distanced themselves from the bad.  They thought they were different from their ancestors who killed the prophets.  But Jesus turns their attempt to disassociate themselves around and uses it to create a link.  He taunts them, telling them to finish what their ancestors started.

The sad reality is that the proud religious fundamentalists of Jesus’s time did not see themselves as repeating history.  They imagined themselves to be the preservers of a pure religion passed down from the prophets before them and heroes of their own story.  To them, Jesus was a dangerous and false teacher, so they wanted him silenced and conspired to have him killed.

What was so wrong with the Pharisees?

“Pharisee” has become a pejorative word in our time, and yet in the time of Jesus it was a proud distinction.  They were the devoutly religious people; they held themselves to a high standard and kept the law better than their neighbors.

Jesus once told his audience:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

It might seem odd that Jesus uses the Pharisees as a benchmark and then lambastes them later as hypocritical.  Was Jesus inconsistent and changeable?  Moody or bipolar?  I doubt it.

Actually, I believe the Pharisees were the “good people” of their time and trying their best to live righteously.  And, as people respected by their religious peers, they were not accustomed to being called out and condemned.  But, despite their diligent efforts, they were missing something and it was because of that that Jesus poked and prodded them.

The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were extraordinarily bad people.  The problem was that their success in surpassing others had made them into entitled brats who thought themselves superior to others.  Sure, they were pristine on the outside, did the right things to be regarded well, even thanked God for all their advantages, but were they living in faith?

Or were they content to simply do better than others?

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47‭-‬48)

A faithful person is not content to simply do better than others; they realize that their advantages are a gift from God and not deserved.  There is no room for arrogance when this is understood.  The Pharisees may have feigned reverence for God, but a genuinely humble person does not try to create distance between themselves and people of a social lower order.

The Pharisees rejected faith.  They were so outwardly successful that they were able to delude themselves into thinking that they could actually impress God and save themselves.  In their zealous pursuit of knowledge and religious fundamentalism they forgot one thing, and that was faith.

Are we better than the Pharisees?

Probably not.

The Pharisees knew their Scripture extremely well and lived the law more carefully than most of us could even imagine.

That said, good Mennonites have much in common with the religiously educated and traditionally-focused Pharisees.  They were middle-class businessmen—not as political and compromising as the Sadducees, nor violent agitators like the Zealots… and not too different from us.

The disciples Jesus called to follow him were a motley crew by comparison: a mix of poor fishermen, a tax collector, and other losers of their time.  They would probably not even be second-tier Mennonites and certainly not the ones we would select to be missionaries and future leaders.

However, unlike the rich young ruler, who kept the law perfectly and placed his security in his wealth, the disciples put everything down to follow Jesus.

Perhaps it is because they had less to lose?

Whatever the case, nobody is beyond hope and that is why I write.  Many Pharisees did eventually come to faith in Jesus and many Mennonites do too, despite our religious and cultural baggage.  As long as we have breath in our lungs, I believe we can be saved.

But a journey of faith must start with repentance, and I’m not talking about the ritual repentance that wins the approval of parents and religious peers, either.  We need the true repentance of those who know that outside of God’s grace, we are no better than a Pharisee.

When Words Fail and Love Prevails

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I forget the exact circumstances.  I do, however, remember the feeling of humiliation and embarrassment. 

I had made a crossword puzzle for my 5th grade classmates.  I was moderately proud of my creation and, as copies were distributed to my peers, ready to savor the accomplishment.

But, I did not expect what came next…

 As the class began to solve the puzzle there started a bit of a ruckus.  There was laughter and an absurd allegation that I had misspelled one of my words.

Impossible! 

I thought as my face flushed. 

How could I have made a mistake so basic? 

They had to be wrong…

But, as I examined the evidence, my initial denial was soon replaced by dismay, and my heart sank weighted down by the reality: I had misspelled a word. The entire puzzle was irreconcilable for those who knew correct spelling and I was an imbecile.

It was something awful.  My lack of proper editing (still a weakness) had made me a laughingstock and I was absolutely devastated.  I wanted to crawl under a rock to get away from the cackling in the room.  But there was no escape and no recourse.

What I had hoped to be a moment of satisfaction was now a nightmarish reality of abject failure.  I couldn’t hold it in.  Emotions overcame me in the study hall period after and I began to cry.

Mr Berger, the shop teacher, was my comfort that day as I sobbed my pain and disappointment.  I’m not sure if he said much, but I know that I felt his empathy and understanding. 

My terrible mistake probably mattered very little to him.  The condemnation and ridicule faded in importance. His love remained.