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Rereading ‘The Gift of Fear’ in the age of mass shootings

Flowers line a fence at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the shooting at a King Soopers grocery store in March 2021 in Boulder, Colo. (Chet Strange/Getty Images)

It’s been 25 years since Gavin de Becker’s influential book “The Gift of Fear” was published, teaching readers how to tell the difference between “true fear” and “unwarranted fear” by trusting their intuition. De Becker opens the book with a story about a woman who was raped and nearly murdered after letting a man into her apartment, even after she felt uncomfortable by his presence. He recounts how this woman initially ignored warning signs to avoid seeming rude. But after the rape, when the man went to the kitchen to get a knife to kill her, she trusted the impulse that told her to flee, which saved her life.

“The Gift of Fear” skyrocketed de Becker to personal safety stardom. His bestseller landed him on Oprah Winfrey’s television show — twice — and he has since published three more books, provided personal safety services to celebrities, assessed threats against Supreme Court justices and become Jeff Bezos’s longtime security officer. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

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But what happens when violence is perpetrated using military-style rifles, killing dozens of people at a time? While some of de Becker’s advice still holds true, we often can’t avoid or predict mass violence now — it finds us in our grocery stores, nightclubs, churches, movie theaters, malls and public transit — and the uncertainty is causing constant fear. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that 79 percent of adults in the United States say the possibility of a mass shooting causes them stress; a third of these respondents say that fear of mass shootings prevents them from going to certain places. Young children report anxiety and fear over school shootings, leading to PTSD and depression.

The source of collective fear has changed over time — from child kidnappings in the 1980s to Satanic Panic in the ’90s and terrorism a decade later — and so has the media consumption that fuels that worry. Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at the University of California at Irvine, studies individual and collective long-term trauma. “Right now, we can be in the United States and we can learn about the massacre at a mosque in New Zealand instantaneously because it was live-streamed and it was posted and it was rapidly disseminated,” she said.

There are too many mass shootings for the U.S. media to cover

De Becker believes the crux of his argument still holds weight. It’s true that mass shootings often involve someone the victim knows. According to Everytown, an organization working to end gun violence, over half of mass shootings between 2009 and 2020 were related to domestic violence, a form of violence de Becker examines in “The Gift of Fear.” While mediums for violence have changed in the past 25 years, human behavior hasn’t, he told me. “Violence and predation have been part of human life for millions of years — and the changes of a mere 25 years are inconsequential,” he wrote in an email. “The best safety strategy remains exactly the same as it has been throughout human history: Avoid being in the presence of someone you feel might do you harm.”

It’s easier said than done. An analysis by the Marshall Project found that mass shootings are happening more frequently and have become far deadlier in recent years. (Americans are 25 times more likely to die from gun violence than citizens in other wealthy countries.) Gabe Friedman, a 28-year-old who works in nightlife in New York City, said the fear of a mass shooting is constant. “Anytime I go out to work or go out to celebrate, it’s always kind of in the back of my mind: What would I do if a shooting happened?” he said. Hillary Crigler, a 24-year-old student, told me that attending classes in big assembly halls at her university puts her on edge. She recalled almost leaving a lecture at one point because she was so unsettled by another student who walked in late, carrying a large black bag.

Mass violence takes toll on Americans’ psyches

This thought process isn’t abnormal: A few weeks ago, I asked my Instagram followers if the frequency of mass shootings affected their mental health or caused them to alter their routine. I received dozens of replies: The majority said they don’t go to movie theaters or concerts anymore, and if they do, they can’t enjoy themselves. A close friend said she has panic attacks in Costco. Another person replied that she has so much anxiety over mass shootings that it factors into each decision she makes when she leaves her apartment. The common thread was that young adults today are always on alert, always looking for an escape route, and the omnipresent threat of a mass shooting has altered their lives in myriad ways.

De Becker’s thesis on a mass shooter’s likely emotional state holds up: In his chapter on safety in the workplace, he says that nobody who goes on a shooting rampage “just snaps” — rather, the obvious warning signs are ignored. The “language of violence,” he writes, often includes rejection, entitlement, identity seeking and grandiosity. The problem then becomes who, if anyone, is paying attention. Sometimes, parents and peers say they never saw it coming. Other times, the warning signs are ignored. Chapter 7 of “The Gift of Fear” — “Promises to Kill” — presciently outlines the perpetrator’s intentions in the recent Safeway shooting in Bend, Ore., that killed two people and injured two others. All the warning signs of an imminent mass shooting were there: He wrote a manifesto that said he would “commit a national tragedy”; it emphasized his loneliness, detailed baseless covid-19 theories and showed aggression. According to classmates, he was prone to getting in fights and being “creepy” toward women, sending harassing messages on social media. But if no one reads the manifesto, if no one ensures that this man can’t access firearms, how does anyone protect themselves?

Fear over recent shootings has some avoiding crowds, businesses

And what do you do if, say, you’re at a movie theater and a lone man with a backpack comes in during the credits, raising your alarm bells? De Becker’s advice when I presented him with this example was to leave the theater, if that’s what your intuition encourages you to do.

“No animal in nature would do otherwise; no animal feeling fear would ignore it,” he wrote.

When de Becker interviews survivors of violence, many say they had a moment when they knew the perpetrator meant them harm. But we know that many victims of mass shootings never even have the chance to register a perpetrator’s presence. Route 91 Harvest festival concertgoers had no idea a man would open fire on them from a hotel window. The victims of the King Soopers shooting in Boulder, Colo., had no reason to believe a quick shopping trip would turn deadly. It’s empowering to “refuse to be a victim,” but America’s gun laws have ensured that anyone can be a victim, anytime, anywhere.

While parts of “The Gift of Fear” feel outdated — saying that a woman who is jogging with headphones on is ignoring one of “nature’s basic safety rules” reads like victim-blaming — the advice still applies to certain situations. And the overall message holds true: Being able to distinguish between true fear and unwarranted fear can be lifesaving. But our constant fears are warranted — when we’re not inundated with reports of gun violence, oftentimes random and on a mass scale, we’re surviving it, moving through life tense and traumatized.

Hope Corrigan is editorial initiatives manager at The Washington Post.

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