On cigarettes and hoodies and other perceived threats

When we used to live near Inner Harbor in South Baltimore, we considered Federal Hill Park, the National Aquarium, the Science Center, and all of Inner Harbor our backyard, and it was wonderful to run along the water and dodge in and out through the crowds. 

On this particular day, during this particular run, the Harbor was pretty crowded, but I was happily weaving my way in between the meandering people – It was like an obstacle course for me.  Before I realized what was happening, though, I jumped.  My body’s reflexes were much faster than my brain’s ability to understand why I should jump, but my rational analytical brain quickly got on board when the woman near my started shaking her arm at me, saying vehemently, “It isn’t even lit!” Image

Somewhere deep in the recesses of my reptilian brain, whose sole purpose is to scan the environment constantly for threat, registered the cigarette in this woman’s hand, so when I bumped into it, I jumped. She was a wee bit offended at me, probably thinking I was so over-reacting, when honestly, it didn’t feel like I had any control over my reflexes at all.  Isn’t that why they are called reflexes? 

And that’s the problem, or the shortcoming, of brains, brains wired to spot anything that could be perceived as threat, and brains wired to initially over-react, then analyze later.  Put a gun into the hands of such a brain, and you’ve got trouble.  Shoot first, ask questions later – It’s not a motto, it’s a statement of fact when you’ve got a brain on fear, under threat, deciding to fight or flight.  The one with the gun always wins.  So I can guess what happened inside George Zimmerman’s brain:  An initial sighting of someone he didn’t think should be there, in a threatening hoodie, Imagea desire to engage the perceived threat which comes with an adrenaline rush, then the escalation of threat, and the hair-trigger reptilian brain takes over.  Add in the “Stand your ground” law, and it’s a recipe for disaster. 

Our police officers and military go through rigorous training to assess threat and keep calm and analyze options, and even they get it wrong sometimes.  No such requirements for the casual gun-owner.  And frankly, our brains have not evolved to the point when I trust a gun in anyone’s hands.  Those reptiles lurking just beneath the surface of our rational thoughts are quick to pounce.  This is not to excuse, but an effort to explain, and to call all of us to practice staying calm.  Was George Zimmerman’s life threatened?  Probably not by any objective rational measure.  Did his reptilian brain perceive a threat?  Probably yes.  And now, no legal consequences for a dead teenager, but at least a calm public rationally discussing where to go from here.  Sometimes, the tiniest signs of an evolving spirituality are all we get..

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