The Rev. Nanette Roberts of Olathe could feel the anger rising inside her. Even she was surprised by its intensity.
The day: Wednesday, Dec. 2. Less than 24 hours before, she had felt satisfied with herself for having already scripted her Sunday sermon. She intended to preach about hope.
Then, watching television, she sat transfixed by what would soon be determined to be a terrorism-linked massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, who had vowed fealty to the Islamic State: 14 innocent people shot dead, 22 wounded.
Roberts, 53, tore up her sermon. She penned another. Last Sunday, she stood in the sanctuary of Grace United Methodist Church and conceded to feeling something she’d never felt after yet another rampage — San Bernardino followed nine killed in Oregon, 130 in Paris and three in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Roberts told her congregation that as the news unfolded, she thought, “I’m done. I’m done with this whole, ‘Oh, let’s be peaceful people.’ ‘Oh, let’s not do violence to each other.’ ”
She then admitted to feeling something else, even if just for a moment, before her pacifist nature took over.
“I wanted to stay angry,” she told those gathered. “I wanted to stay vengeful. I wanted to figure out how to go out and get a gun. I had never had one before. My dad just had them. I never learned how to use them, but I knew he had them. Everyone said it was easy to get one. So I wanted to go get one.”
Anger and fear have ways of moving people, and sometimes even nations, in unexpected ways.
Throughout the United States, both emotions have been running high since the Nov. 13 coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, followed by San Bernardino.
Polls, to be sure, change moment by moment. Just over a year ago in October, Americans pointed to Ebola as a major national worry, with a Harris Poll reporting that 25 percent of Americans viewed the disease as enough of a serious public health risk to consider changing their travel plans.
This past week, an MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist poll revealed that 36 percent of Americans consider a terrorist attack their biggest fear. An additional 31 percent say it’s gun violence; 17 percent say it’s being victimized by police brutality.
A New York Times/CBS News poll released Thursday, conducted after the San Bernardino shootings, showed 79 percent of respondents thought a terrorist attack in the U.S. is either very or somewhat likely in the coming weeks, a number essentially equal to the 78 percent who responded the same way in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and heavily damaged the Pentagon.
Law enforcement continues to be on guard.
Last week, multiple law enforcement offices in Missouri were alerted to the fact that cheap, prepaid cellphones, the type that could be used as detonation devices, were being bought in bulk at Wal-Mart stores across the central and eastern parts of the state. Then came word that small propane tanks were being stolen in the Kansas City area.
Authorities saw no link between the propane thefts and cellphone buys — other than that both played into a heightened public watchfulness.
Previous bulk purchases of cellphones have turned out to be unrelated to terrorism, FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton said Friday. But police were not taking chances.
“You have local law enforcement acting out of an abundance of caution,” Patton said.
Al Al-Ramadneh, 25, who was sitting recently at a Mediterranean cafe in Kansas City, said he, too, sees clear signs of rising fears, particularly in what he views as the growing mistrust of Muslims. Such Islamophobia, he believes, has only been inflamed by what he views as the fearmongering, anti-Muslim rhetoric of presidential candidate Donald Trump and others.
At Liberty University, a Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., university president Jerry Falwell Jr. urged students to arm themselves in the aftermath of the San Bernardino massacre.
“I always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they go out and kill,” he said to rousing applause. Later on Twitter, he said he was referring to Islamic terrorists.
Trump, meanwhile, called for banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Trump remains the front-runner in most polls for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
“Donald Trump is definitely not helping the situation,” Al-Ramadneh said of the atmosphere of fear. Al-Ramadneh, who was born in Jordan and is Muslim, grew up in Kansas City.
“I remember back in 2001, with the events of 9/11 , it was pretty bad,” he said. “Then things calmed down. Now, with all this with ISIS, it’s pretty bad. People are worried. People are scared.”
But Al-Ramadneh holds that fear of the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS, extending to all Muslims is not only unjust and unfounded, but also ill-informed because “ISIS does not represent Islam,” he said.
ISIS is literally what the KKK was to Christianity. You’re not going to judge the whole population of Christians based on what the KKK did, right? ISIS is a terrorist group. ISIS are mercenaries. That’s all they are.
Al Al-Ramadneh of Kansas City
“ISIS is literally what the KKK was to Christianity,” he said. “You’re not going to judge the whole population of Christians based on what the KKK did, right? ISIS is a terrorist group. ISIS are mercenaries. That’s all they are.”
He also noted that the Islamic State represents a “tiny, tiny, tiny fraction” of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, second only to the 2.2 billion Christians.
Jenny Mosley’s fears likewise have risen for her granddaughter, Aynslie Chavez, 15 months old. Mosley, 46, of Carthage, Mo., was pushing Aynslie in a stroller recently outside Crown Center. The girl’s father, Michael Chavez, 24, is in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood, Texas.
“I want her to have the kind of childhood I had,” Mosley said. “But it doesn’t work that way. With all the school shootings and bombings, it’s just sad.”
Mosley said that when she was young, “we worried about recess and what we’re having for lunch, not anything like, ‘Are we going to die today?’ ”
Gun buying spike
Fear of terrorist attacks has spurred a surge in national gun sales, with buyers saying they just want to be prepared.
In November, the FBI reported more than 2.2 million criminal background checks were conducted on prospective gun buyers across the country, the sixth highest monthly total since law enforcement began tracking checks in 1998. Black Friday and the Black Friday four-day weekend hit record levels.
The record month was December 2012, when almost 2.8 million checks were requested after other mass shootings and amid fear by some gun advocates that President Barack Obama’s re-election in November would usher in stricter gun control laws.
“When they start screaming for more gun control, people go out and buy more guns and ammunition,” said Alan M. Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation.
Because of variances in state laws, background checks do not represent the actual number of firearms sold. But experts said the number is the best indicator of sales by licensed firearm dealers across the country. November’s high gun sales are hardly expected to lessen.
“December looks like it’s going to be another record,” Gottlieb said.
On Thursday, some 20 students packed Scott Mosher’s concealed-carry weapons class at Frontier Justice, a gun emporium at 800 N.E. Jones Industrial Drive in Lee’s Summit that uses the tagline Faith, Family, Justice.
Bren Brown, who co-owns the store with her husband, said that typically eight to 10 people take the class. Since Paris and San Bernardino, she said, numbers in one class reached close to 40.
“When San Bernardino happened, I was in California,” said Megan Allen, 24, of Kansas City. She had been at a nursing conference. “When I found out it (the massacre) happened at a regular Christmas party, it opened my eyes to it can happen anywhere at any time.”
She and her husband, David Allen, who in 2013 finished up a four-year stint with the Marines, bought each other 9 mm handguns for their fifth wedding anniversary in November. Both Allens said the impetus was not so much fear as it was staving off fear by being prepared. They have two young children.
Never hurts to be ready. I just want to be able to protect my family.
David Allen said recent terrorism and other acts of violence solidified his decision to take the concealed-carry class.
“I’m pretty concerned that there might be another terrorist attack in a couple of years,” he said, just after he, his wife and his mother, Rachael Young, took turns shooting certifying rounds in the store’s firing range.
“And it doesn’t matter how long it might be until it happens, but I’d rather be ready for it. Never hurts to be ready. I just want to be able to protect my family.”
Inside the brain
To be sure, fear and anger are natural reactions to threats.
“Our basic survival mechanism as human beings is being able to process information quickly and immediately,” said Debra Hope, a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska who studies and treats anxiety disorders. “It’s important for our survival as individuals and as a species.”
But as neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, who at New York University studies the biochemical ways in which the brain responds to danger, pointed out earlier this year at an international conference, fear, itself, is far more complex than most people realize.
The common perception is that the control center for fear lies within two small, almond-shaped structures deep in the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system, which is involved in memories, decision-making and emotions.
But LeDoux has said the amygdala isn’t so much the center of fear as it is a structure that squeezes out neurochemical signals in response to a perceived threat. All living entities — from plants to bacteria to humans — respond to threats in their own ways.
Whether those threat signals actually lead to fear, no fear or some other emotion depends on how other areas of the brain come to interpret them.
“This is a cognitive process that depends on language, culture and self-awareness,” LeDoux said at the international conference.
Two other researchers — University of Akron social psychologist Karl Kaltenthaler and William Miller, a political scientist at Flagler College in Florida — argue that the level to which one fears acts of terrorism is directly related to an individual’s fundamental personality and how much one already does or does not trust others’ basic human nature.
Put simply: People who report being largely suspicious and mistrustful of others also report having greater fear of terrorist attacks than those who are more trustful.
“One thing a person who doesn’t trust other people thinks is that ‘other people will do me harm,’ ” Kaltenthaler said in a telephone interview. “These people tend to have almost predictable world views. They also tend to be xenophobic. They do not like immigrants.”
Much scholarly work has been done on the news media and their role in fostering public fear, especially with the advent of 24-hour news coverage and what’s seen as a ceaseless drumbeat of threats — cultural, geopolitical, environmental, health and more.
“The media have a strong effect on whether we become an angry country, or a fearful country, or a sad country,” said psychologist Jennifer S. Lerner, co-founder at Harvard University of its Decision Science Laboratory. “They frame the emotional narrative.”
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Lerner, then a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, in 2003 co-published a study that examined how anger and fear affected people’s sense of future terrorist attacks.
In the experiment, which involved close to 1,000 volunteers, Lerner and colleagues had people fill out surveys that focused on the events of 9/11 but that also were subtly designed to manipulate emotions. Whereas one survey focused on people’s fears regarding the day, the other focused on feelings of anger.
Volunteers also viewed news photos and listened to audio clips to evoke the emotions. One was on anthrax and mail carriers wearing protective masks. Another showed backers of terrorism celebrating on the heels of the attack.
Researchers then asked volunteers how likely it was that the U.S. would again be hit by a terrorist attack.
The measured results: People in a fearful state, not surprisingly, tended to think the U.S. was at high risk for other attacks. But people who were angry did not.
“Fear is defined by a sense of uncertainty and sense that we can’t predict what’s going to happen. Things that seem uncertain and seem out of individual control seem scarier and riskier,” Lerner said in a telephone interview. “But when we’re mad, we don’t wonder. We don’t question ourselves. Anger is a sense of certainty.”
The study showed gender differences. Women were more likely to experience fear, while men were more likely to experience anger.
Lerner thinks understanding these emotions and how they affect perception is important not just from a purely psychological standpoint but also for understanding ourselves in deciding public policy. Policies and strategies formed out of uncertainty or fear may be vastly different than those formed in anger, let alone calm.
Frank Furedi, a professor emeritus at Britain’s University of Kent and a noted sociologist for his work on fear, said that part of the heightened sense of fear and anxiety in the United States may come from the fact that the U.S., protected as it is by two oceans, has not generally been the target of terrorist attacks on its soil, as have other nations.
“Ever since the Brits burned down Washington back in the 19th century,” Furedi said, “the American homeland hasn’t really been targeted or faced any serious threats, except for Pearl Harbor, and 9/11 and some of these other recent incidents, that most European, most Asian, most African nations have had to live with for a very long time.”
In other words, the U.S. population’s nerves are at a pitch because citizens are unaccustomed to being targeted on their own soil. Furedi also offered a caution about “the reaction to the threats becoming more destructive than the threats themselves.”
Observers note that fear and anger in the past have led the U.S. on the path to policies and laws that include the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the prosecution and blacklisting of suspected communist sympathizers during the Cold War.
Signs of hope
For a moment, Roberts, the Olathe minister, allowed her anger to guide her thinking after the San Bernardino attack.
Then, on the news, the reporter began to read the names of those who were killed.
“I cried,” Roberts told her congregation. “I didn’t want a gun anymore.”
She said she thought of John the Baptist, who also lived in times of grave violence and persecution, but who in response urged kindness and generosity. She reflected on the life and lessons of Jesus, who preached love rather than anger and taught there was nothing to fear.
She ended her sermon with the story of Shannon Johnson, 45, a health inspector in San Bernardino. When shots rang out, Johnson and another co-worker, a young woman, took to the floor, crouching together behind a chair.
“And he put his body over hers,” Roberts preached. “And as the shots rang out, they came closer, and one came toward them. And, of course, because he was shielding her, it hit his body first. And he put his arms over her shoulders and said, “I’ve got you.’ ”
Johnson died protecting another. The young woman lived.
“What are the signs of hope?” Roberts asked. “What are the signs of hope? Perhaps it’s Jesus putting his arm around us, to shield us from our worst selves, and saying to us in the midst of the most difficult times that life can throw at us, ‘I’ve got you.’ ”
The Star’s Tony Rizzo and Joe Robertson contributed to this report.