If a “healthy peacetime life” captured President Roosevelt’s hope for the future, it did not reflect what loomed just over the horizon. In 1941, when he first envisioned the Four Freedoms, he understood that the United States faced a singular threat: world war.
France had recently surrendered to Nazi forces. Europe seemed poised to fall against the combined might of Germany, Italy, and ultimately Japan. Only a few weeks before introducing the Four Freedoms into the American lexicon, while discussing the prospect of the United States lending munitions and equipment to Great Britain, President Roosevelt offered the image of a “neighbor’s home catch[ing] fire.” 34 Europe was burning, and Roosevelt feared that fire would spread.
In this context, the freedom from fear has a very specific meaning. At the time, the idea was that no one should live in fear of military aggression from other countries—a peace which, ironically, might require military action to achieve. In the long term, Roosevelt imagined “a world-wide reduction of armaments” as part of his Four Freedoms message, and presumably envisioned a world where the instruments of global conflict would not exist on such a massive scale.
Fear and present dangers
When we consider the world today, it’s easy to see the varied threats to “healthy peacetime life,” and the advance of fear on many fronts. Some of these threats still fall into the military category, but others are environmental, ideological, or political. One is reminded of Norman Rockwell’s depiction of freedom from fear—two parents putting their children to sleep. There’s a newspaper in the father’s hand. Of the headline, you can just make out the words “Bombings” and “Horror.”
Scanning the headlines each morning, there are specters of danger on every page. Climate change and its impending consequences. The rise of nationalism in Europe and white nationalism in the United States. Political instability in South America and the Middle East. Famine in the horn of Africa. Mass shootings seem to be at least a monthly occurrence, while cyberattacks and terrorism remain an ever-present threat.
Of course, bombings and horror remain top of mind, as the possibility of nuclear conflict with North Korea is irresponsibly edged into the realm of probability and the proliferation of these weapons continues. Indeed, many things should keep us awake at night.
Fear is a product of—and sometimes a cause of—vulnerability. And inequality, in all its forms, makes us feel ever more vulnerable.
On an individual level, there’s fear about not being able to pay the bills or put food on the table. Every day, people fear how they will be treated based on their ability or skin color, their faith or sexual orientation, their gender identity or caste identity. There’s fear that you will be denied the right to determine your own future—to rise as high as your talent and hard work will take you.
How fear threatens our democratic values
It should not surprise us, then, that fear itself—to echo President Roosevelt—can be wielded as a weapon and even as a threat to democratic values.
Often, we associate weaponized fear with terrorism. Indeed, this is where terrorism gets its name, and how terrorists believe they will come to power or prominence. Either through fear during and after specific instances, or by creating a looming, constant threat, violent extremists try to manipulate a larger narrative and influence the action—or reaction—of others.
Terrorists are far from the only actors who have deployed fear to deliver a desired outcome. Fear has long been harnessed by those in power to suppress political participation and curb civic action. Consider the Alabama state troopers waiting on the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, waiting to assault Congressman Lewis and his fellow marchers as they began their journey from Selma to Montgomery. Recall the many ways in which protestors have been intimidated or suppressed in fighting for justice across history—including the mobs described in Frederick Douglass’s “A Plea for Free Speech in Boston.”
Then and now, fear of imprisonment or physical harm is intended to keep people from organizing and speaking out, from being themselves, from fighting for what’s right. And these threats continue to mount.
For example, in Honduras, more than 120 environmental activists have been killed over the past eight years as they attempt to fight for their rights and their land. 35 Meanwhile, around the world, authoritarian governments trample on essential human rights and democratic freedoms—whether by shutting down protestors or the press—and even some democracies have begun to follow their lead.
While fear constrains social movements, it also can paralyze well-intentioned leaders. Too often, it keeps those with power and privilege from doing what’s right when that means taking risks that might imperil their organizations or businesses or individual careers. Sometimes, it may tempt them to make rash decisions that, in the name of protecting democratic rights and freedoms for some of us, erode those same freedoms for all of us.
In these cases, fear is used to justify certain actions—such as the increase of government surveillance, or tough-on-crime policy reforms that serve mostly to criminalize people of color. Meanwhile, the underlying causes of that fear—be they racism, sexism, ableism, the effective use of propaganda, or a persistent cultural narrative—go without being examined, let alone addressed.
This is because fear seizes upon our differences and exaggerates them, and almost always compels society to divide along lines of “us” versus “them.” It entices the desperate or the frustrated or the furious. It empowers demagogues and strongmen who exploit the very real anxieties of ordinary people while amassing power for themselves and their cronies. It drives governments—even elected ones—to make decisions that seek to preserve “law and order” at the expense of freedom and dignity.
In other words, fear is toxic to our society because it discourages people from taking the actions that might help us feel safer, or make us freer, or allow us to heal—and instead it drives us apart.
Fear in action, or acting on fear
Even President Roosevelt, the man who sought freedom from fear for every person around the world, succumbed to its temptations. Only a year after Roosevelt introduced the Four Freedoms, he authorized the relocation of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent—over two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens—into concentration camps. 36
Thousands of human beings in this country—women, men, and children—were forced to leave their homes and submit to forced imprisonment, all because of their fellow citizens’ fear.
In the 1980s, the United States finally apologized for this atrocity and acknowledged the extent of its faults—an apology that sadly, as we know, is a rare occurrence. According to a congressional report by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians titled Personal Justice Denied,
The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it—detention, ending detention and ending exclusion—were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. Widespread ignorance of Japanese Americans contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan. A grave injustice was done to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II. 37
That President Roosevelt—and the American people—gave in to fear is a useful reminder of the power of fear to shift societies, even those that claim to be paragons of freedom. This reality forces us to acknowledge our difficult history, and to recognize that even these Four Freedoms—important ideals to be sure—are not without their blemishes or shortcomings.
And this struggle against fear, and its corrosive impact on freedom and democracy, is just as relevant now as it was in 1942. If only that were the last time an executive order based in “fear and anger” or tinged with “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership” made waves in our society.
That’s why, most important, this failure to protect freedom in the face of fear reminds us that our words in defense of freedom mean nothing—and will mean nothing—if we do not act.
The imperative of action
If one of the intended effects of fear is that it stifles action, then to oppose fear, we must be willing to act. This is particularly true when the action required is inconvenient or uncomfortable or risky—when taking action might be considered hazardous for our reputations or even dangerous for our careers.
More than just acting for ourselves, we must be willing to act on behalf of others—especially those who live in fear. Our actions can bolster those who might otherwise be vulnerable, and can provide cover to those often targeted because of their identity or affiliation.
Indeed, if a white person does not fear that police brutality or violent white supremacists will affect him—but knows how this fear affects his fellow human beings—then that white person can act on behalf of black lives and against fear. If a natural-born citizen does not fear the persecution of a so-called travel ban or feel the threat of deportation, her actions on behalf of those affected have an enormous impact. In these cases and others, we can stand with and support those who know fear and oppression, while standing up for our own freedom.
Of course, this responsibility to act does not require that we act irresponsibly. Our safety and self-care remain paramount, especially in these dangerous times. But if we have the privilege to act, or if our privilege grants us some respite from fear, we must do what we can to create for others those feelings of safety and of being seen.
The need for civil society
Throughout history, there has been no better guardian of the freedom from fear—no better defender of the vulnerable—than civil society: groups of compassionate, engaged citizens who continue to organize themselves and mobilize others to work on behalf of the community. They are the immune system of our democratic society against the plague of injustice.
Among the most troubling trends in the world today is the outright assault and ongoing onslaught against civil society. It is an epidemic. In the countries where the Ford Foundation works, we have seen laws that restrict NGO funding and freedom of assembly, and learned of activists and peaceful protestors being assaulted and worse.
Still, around the world, civil society organizations continue to act against fear, and fight to protect the rights and freedoms of those in need.
In the favelas of Brazil, where black men are routinely killed by police, organizations like Redes da Maré are bringing the community together to denounce the violence and raise their collective voice.
In the courtrooms of Zimbabwe, where unjustly incarcerated demonstrators face persecution and prosecution, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights is providing emergency legal support.
In the streets of Uganda, where the LGBT community has been oppressed by the government, organizations like Sexual Minorities Uganda have risen to challenge unjust laws and defend human rights, despite personal risk. It is the same with Planned Parenthood right here at home.
And after a year of increasing nuclear threats, and in the spirit of President Roosevelt’s original intention—the “world-wide reduction of armaments”—the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a group of more than one hundred civil society organizations acting against fear.
All these brave men and women speak truth to power. They forge relationships with local communities and understand their concerns. By taking action, they make people feel less vulnerable. Instead of succumbing to fear, they act in spite of it, and create the conditions so that others might be free from it.
Our choice: Action or the alternative
Without protection, our freedoms and rights will face contraction rather than expansion.
Of course, one problem with the erosion of our freedoms is that it happens gradually—or these days, almost constantly, in an unceasing, chaotic blur.
As certain democratic norms and values fall away, it becomes harder to motivate oneself to act. We get exhausted by, even acclimated to, the daily onslaught. There’s the oft-used image of the frog in the pot of boiling water, who doesn’t know to save itself because the problem—the temperature—increases slowly over time. The lethal moment comes both unexpectedly and inevitably, met not with active resistance but with passive acceptance.
That, as ever, is our choice: to act or to be passive. And to be passive in this moment is to invite catastrophes similarly unanticipated but no longer unthinkable.
In 1933, Martin Niemöller was happy to see Adolf Hitler rise to power. 38
As a Lutheran pastor and a national conservative, Niemöller believed that Hitler would help put an end to the growing atheist movement in Germany.
Under Hitler’s rule, Niemöller saw his country heading in a dark direction. But he believed he and the church were safe. Then, the Nazi government started issuing laws that directly concerned the church. Only after he came under personal threat did Niemöller decide to protest. He was quickly arrested and tried for crimes against the state.
His experience is encapsulated by his timeless poem:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did
not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.39
Niemöller spent eight years imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau. Afterward, he dedicated his life to warning future generations of our obligation to act, even and especially when we feel the matter does not concern us.
History reminds us that the only way to ensure all of our freedoms—our freedom to speak and believe, and to live a “healthy peacetime life”—is to take action on behalf of others. And to do that, we must have the moral courage to face not just our fears, but fear itself.