Paranoia strikes deep/Into your life it will creep/It starts when you are always afraid—Stephen Stills

Over in neighboring Yorktown a couple of weeks ago, the town board there had a plan before it to convert an old, abandoned railroad spur into a hiking/biking trail and connect it to the town’s many existing trails. Other than a necessitated wetlands permit, the plan seemed good-to-go; one of those no-brainers a town board occasionally has fall into its collective lap that can literally please everyone.

So, imagine my surprise—and chagrin—when I discovered that was not the case. The town had sent out notices to the homeowners who live adjacent to the proposed hiking trail to let them know what was happening. At a subsequent meeting that was supposed to be more about the wetlands permit than the veracity of the hiking trail itself, several of those homeowners showed up with the requisite torches and pitchforks.

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The trail was a bad idea, they said. Why? Because, they opined, it could attract an unsavory element—drifters and transients who could descend upon their peaceful homes, break in, rob them, and steal their children.

“Ninety-nine percent of the users that will be using the trail, I’m sure, have great intentions, but you can’t stop the one percent of the wrongdoers out there,” resident Anthony Pili told the board, “whether it is litter, vandalism, potential robbery or worse—child abduction.”

Plus, some of the protesters pointed out, teens go back there and drink beer!

Cue ominous music: Dant dant DA!

My first reaction was, who thinks like this? I began to feel bad for this poor guy—and I don’t mean that facetiously. What an awful world he must live in where bogeymen lurk under every bed and hide in every closet. It’s a tough way to go through life.

Some of the fearful residents who came to the meeting said they would be OK with the trail if the town was willing to build a wall between it and their property. Again, with the walls. Americans seem infatuated with walls these days.

But here’s what really got me about all this. When I moved to Mahopac two years ago, the house I moved into was literally 100 feet from a branch of the Putnam Trailway—a 12-mile paved bicycle/pedestrian path located primarily on right-of-way lands of the former Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad. When I first looked at the apartment, its proximity to the trail was offered up as a selling point by my landlord. He never mentioned there could be evil-doers lurking down there waiting to do me harm.

On a nice summer day, when I am in the backyard watering my tomatoes,  I can often hear the muted conversations and occasional laughter of those using the trail. They don’t sound like bloodthirsty marauders. But apparently, these days, one can’t be too careful.

Now, some of you might say, “Bob, you don’t have children. You don’t know what being a parent is like.”

Well…true. But contrary to popular belief, I once was a child. And I had parents who had children. In fact, I was raised in a whole neighborhood filled with parents who had children. So, I got to observe an eclectic array of parenting approaches and philosophies over the course of more than two decades. Most of them utilized not what I would necessarily call a “hands-off” approach with their kids, but more of a “call me if you need me, but it better be good” methodology. It all worked out. Other than a few cuts and bruises from spilled bicycles and a tree-climbing faux pas or two, nothing catastrophic befell us. No abductions. 

And this was the ‘70s when the chances of something like that happening were far greater than they are now. FBI statistics show overall crime is down considerably since those alleged good ol’ days.

According to fbi.gov, the violent crime total in 2015 was 0.7 percent lower than the 2011 level and 16.5 percent below the 2006 level. Notice the trend? Besides, child abductions are more likely to be the work of someone in the family, not some random hiker wandering in from the woods.

Yet, these days Americans grow increasingly fearful. I have many theories why that is—none of them particularly scientific—but that’s OK because, as a country, we also seem to be growing more fearful of science.

Part of the problem is cable news. I am not talking about the fake news, biased news, alternative facts debate. All I mean is there is a lot of channels with a boatload of airtime to fill and they will stick just about anything up there to avoid dead air. Nowadays, the world is just one giant neighborhood thanks to that. If there is a bank robbery in Wala Wala, Wash., you are going to know about it here in Mahopac before the robber is even out the door with his ill-gotten booty.

Exacerbating that problem even further is the internet, where social media overflows with scams and crimes—both real and imagined—and myriad sordid tales of people in their most ignoble moments. We are bombarded with all this 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

Today, fear pervades Americans’ lives—and American politics like a metastasizing malignancy. It’s always been used as a campaign tool: create an imaginary enemy; make people believe it endangers their lives and liberty; convince them that you and only you have the ways and means to protect them and end the threat. Our current commander-in-chief has turned it into an artform.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, it’s noted that President Trump is a master of fear, “invoking it in concrete and abstract ways, summoning and validating it.” He has his supporters convinced that illegal immigrants are pouring over our borders in record numbers with Dumpsters full of drugs hidden inside their taco trucks, ready to rape and pillage the first white women they see.

“Countless innocent American lives have been stolen because our politicians have failed in their duty to secure our borders,” he said in one speech during his campaign.

Later he said, with hyperbole set at DEFCON 1, “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country…Many have witnessed this violence personally; some have even been its victims.”

So I looked out my window but didn’t see a damn thing. Oh, wait. I think I hear a gang of Millennial hipster reprobates biking down the Trailway, chugging bottles of craft beer and blasting Macklemore from their iPhones.

Now, that’s scary. I’m locking my doors.