It is easy, days like these, to look out the window or peer through the prism of our glowing screens and see a world that is full of monsters.
How else can anyone make sense of the allegations against Victor Pena, who police say turned a chance encounter with a vulnerable young woman into an abduction? Pena is now undergoing a mental competency evaluation and has pleaded not guilty. But the details of the case against him represent the world at its most frightening: a place where violence lurks around every corner, where every stranger on the street is out to get you.
That was my visceral first reaction, anyway, watching the overnight abduction and remarkable rescue play out last week. Maybe people have always harbored these feelings: moral panics, witch hunts, folk devils. “Hell is empty,” William Shakespeare wrote in “The Tempest” about, oh, 400 years ago. “And all the devils are here.”
But while fear of the people who populate the world around us is no new phenomenon, it feels today like something approaching an epidemic.
And who wouldn’t be fearful, if you follow the news at all? Like so many people accused of heinous crimes all over the country, Pena’s face was plastered on every television set, homepage, and front page this week, his bizarre social media presence offering no shortage of disturbing comments and strange selfies. This addled creep, whose long history of horrible behavior with women is well documented, was apparently just wandering around Boston on Saturday night.
So it is not just easy but tempting to think that there are terrifying figures lurking, waiting, unhinged and everywhere, like devils among us.
But there aren’t.
And it is in the moments when that temptation — when that fear — begins to feel particularly acute that we would do well to remember that. Whatever tiny kernel of reality there may be in the notion that the people we don’t recognize are inherently out to get us, the fiction we build around the grain of truth is a lot more dangerous. It breeds a fear that leads us inexorably toward our worst impulses.
Let that fear fester, and we begin to forget one of the foundational tenets of both Judeo-Christian religion and secular ethics: love for our neighbors. We stockpile weapons, imagining all the nightmare scenarios in which we might use them, though the reality is that they dramatically increase our own risk of injury or death. We call authorities on anyone who looks out of place — “better safe than sorry,” we tell ourselves, without stopping to consider whose safety we might be risking.
Focus on that fear long enough in our hearts, and we’ll begin to build walls in there. Eventually, those walls become literal, built on the persuasive power of horror stories about attacks or abductions, however rare, that ended far worse than this one did.
The idea of an America awash in evildoers has a certain twisted appeal. We will always grasp for explanations when terrible, inexplicable things happen.
Our current national preoccupation — $5.7 billion worth of steel slats or whatever — is being sold to the public not on the basis of facts, but fear. No serious analysis suggests it will do anything meaningful to keep America safe. And so proponents point to the kind of grisly cases that stoke fear: American carnage, as someone put it at the capitol a couple years ago now.
There is a simple and quite famous phrase that encapsulates all this. The words are indelible on our national consciousness; you already know them by heart. But somehow, in the nearly 86 years since Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address, his famous words’ meaning has been forgotten:
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
This is the fear that Victor Pena feeds. Not only did he allegedly hold a horrified young woman against her will, he left the rest of us cowering, too.
When he was finally hauled into court Wednesday, Pena wept — less frightening than afraid, less fearsome than forgettable.
But if we must remember Pena, let’s not picture some monster staring hollow-eyed and frightening into the lens of his cellphone camera. Let’s remember him sobbing.
Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.