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The Fear Digest

The Police, People Who Hate the Police, and More Things Americans Were Scared of This Week

Our weekly rundown of terror and fear.
December 28, 2014, 3:47pm

One of the hundreds of theaters in the US that showed 'The Interview' on Christmas Day. Photo via Flickr user Travis Wise

Welcome back to the Fear Digest, our weekly Sunday rundown of the terrors running around the American media landscape. Read last week's column here.

10. North Korean Hackers
America gave itself a gift this Christmas, when the release of the controversial slapstick comedy The Interview allowed us to puff ourselves up and pretend we'd triumphed over some imaginary enemies. From a Fox News story on the decision by Sony Pictures to let the film come out on Christmas Day:


"We are taking a stand for freedom," said theater manager Lee Peterson of the Cinema Village East in Manhattan, where most of Thursday's seven screenings had sold out by early afternoon. "We want to show the world that Americans will not be told what we can or cannot watch. Personally, I am not afraid."

At Atlanta's Plaza Theater, a sellout crowd Thursday hailed the film's release, washing down popcorn with beer and cocktails and uniting for a boisterous sing-along of "God Bless America" before the opening credits.

The threat of a terrorist attack was never credible and it was always silly to imagine that a gang of (possibly North Korean–sponsored) hackers was going to bomb any theaters. Still, we managed to get in a whole week of handwringing about whether it was safe to show the movie and how not showing it meant that the terrorists had won and so on and so on. It's almost as if Hollywood has an inflated sense of its own importance or something.
Last week's rank: 1

9. Hackers in General
Triumph consumption of media aside, Americans remain fretful about cyberattacks, and we have some reason to be. The latest high-profile hack, by a group calling itself Lizard Squad, took down Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network right around Christmas, forcing thousands of console gamers to interact with their families.
Last week's rank: Unranked

8.The Islamic State
In other terrorism news, the worldwide fight against the Islamic State and its allies continues, with seven people being detained in Indonesia on Sunday for alleged ties to the extremist group. On the ground in IS-held territory, the self-proclaimed caliphate is reportedly having trouble providing basic services to residents—a development predicted by Chelsea Manning, among others. Filming beheadings is easy; making sure the trash is picked up on time is hard.
Last week's rank: 8


7. The NSA
Perhaps more terrifying than the hackers and extremists who are threatening us constantly is that the people working to keep us safe seem to fuck up and goof off an awful lot. On Christmas Eve the NSA released a bunch of documents as a result of an ACLU lawsuit that went into some specifics of those goof-offs and fuck-ups. From the Verge:

A series of annual and quarterly reports from 2001 through the second quarter of 2013 are now available for perusal, and they cover some of the NSA's greatest hits: stalking potential romantic partners, a practice apparently so common it's been nicknamed LOVEINT; erroneously targeting US citizens for spying; database queries that returned queries on US citizens who weren't targeted; storage of data on servers "not authorized" to hold it; and access by people without security clearance to—well, to something; the specifics were redacted.

Last week's rank: Unranked

6. The Existence of Racism
The Islamic State and North Korea are at least concrete foes. Racism is more abstract and confusing, which is maybe why attempts to talk about it dissolve quickly into dread-fueled freak-outs—at least on cable TV. This week Fox Newser Eric Bolling (guest hosting for Bill O'Reilly) asked guest Jasymne Cannick, "What are we doing wrong in America that's perpetuating racism?" a relatively straightforward, if antagonistic, question that she answered by calling the network she was appearing on racist, leading predictably to one of those shoutathons that does no one any good.
Last week's rank: 3


5. Talking About Rape
If there's a more electrified third rail in American discourse than race, it's rape. That was illustrated by a recent New Yorker essay by Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk claiming that professors are finding it difficult to teach laws relating to sexual violence because of their students' delicate sensibilities. Writes Suk:

Student organizations representing women's interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might "trigger" traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word "violate" in class—as in "Does this conduct violate the law?"—because the word was triggering.

This evidence of law students' squeamishness is anecdotal, but if someone really can't hear the word "violate" without squirming in his or her seat, maybe that person should take some time off from school on account of having a crippling anxiety problem or PTSD? Obviously professors should be careful when talking about rape—several said as much to Inside Higher Ed—but would-be lawyers have got to be able to handle some classroom discussions on traumatizing subjects.
Last week's rank: Unranked


4. Being Shot by a Random Person
Speaking of trigger warnings, this is an incredibly tasteless way to segue into a rundown of holiday gun violence. There were six shootings—including two involving the cops—on Christmas Eve in Washington, DC; that same day a shopper was killed at a Louisiana mall; on Christmas itself four people were hit by bullets in Chicago. Maybe our New Year's resolution as a country could be to stop killing each other for no reason at all?
Last week's rank: Unranked

3. The Weather
As if our fellow Americans aren't enough for us to worry about, this week we also had to contend with God Himself, who sent a horrific cold front into the southern US and is gearing up to launch another winter storm at the West.
Last week's rank: Unranked

Protesters at a December 13 demonstration against the NYPD after a grand jury declined to indict anyone for the death of Eric Garner. Photo via Flickr user Phil Roeder

2. The Cops
Stop me if you've heard this one before: The cops in a St. Louis suburb shot a young black man. The officers on the scene say the teenager was an armed threat; the victim's family doesn't believe them; the video captured of the event is inconclusive. Naturally, protesters have taken to the streets.
Last week's rank: 4

1. People Who Hate the Police
That above sort of story has become depressingly common—what's new is that the tension between the cops and civilians keep rising. Last week, after two NYPD cops were killed by a gun-wielding lunatic, a police union official said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had blood on his hands for not being sufficiently pro-cop; this week officers turned their backs on the mayor at a funeral for one of the slain cops. If you believe what you read in the papers, New Yorkers are on the verge of open warfare with the officers who are supposed to be serving and protecting them: In the past few days alone, a Queens man got arrested after someone overheard him talking about killing cops and the resolutely law-and-order New York Post ran an op-ed with the headline, "NYC's victory over lawlessness being reversed by anti-cop mayor." De Blasio has asked protesters to stop demonstrating against the NYPD, a request that was, of course, ignored. This sort of antagonism isn't unique to New York, either—an anti-police march in Oakland on Thursday led to some broken windows and a trashed Christmas tree.

At this point, individual reforms like body cameras seem almost beside the point. When the police are both being treated like and acting like an unfriendly occupying army, there's no magic gadget that will restore the public's trust in law enforcement—or convince disgruntled officers that many activists are no better than criminals. What is needed is a slow process by which cops and the communities they patrol can come to trust one another, and sadly Americans don't seem to have a surplus of trust at the moment.
Last week's rank: 2

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