Fear Itself

Sebastian Junger

From National Geographic Adventure magazine

Several years ago, in Sierra Leone, a rebel group calling itself the Revolutionary United Front launched an offensive that overran most of the country in a matter of days. The RUF was backed by Charles Taylor's rogue government in Liberia and funded by illegal diamond mining in the eastern part of the country—a story I'd been sent to cover for an American magazine.

At the time I was up-country in the government-held town of Kenema, with no way to get out. Fortunately, I was stranded with dozens of Lebanese expatriates who lived in Kenema but held U.K. passports, and the British government had no choice but to rescue us. Two Chinook helicopters filled with British paratroopers landed outside Kenema, gathered us all up and flew back to the capital, Freetown. I decided to skip an evacuation flight out of the country and stayed on in the capital to see what would happen next.

The last time the RUF had occupied Freetown, in 1999, they'd massacred thousands of civilians and set up checkpoints where they methodically chopped the arms off of everyone they chose not to kill. It looked like the horror show was about to happen again, and the population was in a panic.

I got a ride out to the front lines in a pickup truck filled with bare-chested native fighters called Kamajors. They had ammo belts draped across their chests, and many were strung with amulets and jungle fetishes and little leather packages that were meant to protect them from bullets. We arrived in the small town of Masiaka, which had fallen to a government counterattack hours earlier, and groups of Kamajors were rattling off clips into the watery-blue sky in celebration. After a while an argument broke out between two commanders, and every fighter in the plaza cocked his machine gun and backed up for a firefight that would have killed half of them. I dropped into a drainage ditch and waited for the shooting to start, but miraculously nothing happened.

It was clearly not a good place to be, and after a while I managed to hitch a ride in an army jeep that was headed back to Freetown for more ammo. I was so relieved to be out of there that I let my guard down and failed to notice a new checkpoint on the road ahead. A dozen rebels from an ultraviolent, unaffiliated group called the Westside Boys had emerged from the jungle and were waving us down with their guns. I've been stopped at plenty of checkpoints in my life, but for some reason this one seemed different. There was something sullen and ominous in the way the Westside Boys stood, in the way they held their guns. This time it's for real, I remember thinking. This time it's for keeps.

The driver stopped the jeep and the Westside Boys arrayed themselves in a semicircle around us. Their eyes were bloodshot with drugs and rage, and they sported a nightmarish hybrid of hip-hop clothing and African voodoo. I was with a couple of other journalists and three or four government soldiers, and all of us sat without moving or talking, waiting for what would happen next.

The driver of the jeep, a young soldier, was trying to explain our presence to the rebel commander, but whatever he was saying seemed to enrage the commander more. He shook his head and walked up to the driver with his hand on his pistol. No one moved. If he shot the driver, he was going to kill all of us, that much seemed clear. He screamed. We waited. All I remember is the dozen black holes at the end of the dozen gun barrels trained on us. Infinity was contained in those black holes and I couldn't bear to look at them. I found myself thinking that I'd had a pretty good life. I found myself worrying that this was going to hurt. I didn't want it to hurt, I didn't want to be there; I just wanted it all to go away.

One of my favorite photographs is of a fighter during Pancho Villa's uprising in northern Mexico. He is standing before a firing squad with a cigar clamped between his teeth and not smiling, exactly, but smirking. You can't touch me, that smirk seemed to say, You can kill me, but you can't touch me, and that's what will bring you down in the end. There are many others out there just as brave as I am. A moment after the photograph was taken, the man was dead.

I wish I could say that I faced the Westside Boys with similar bravado, but I didn't. Maybe I just lacked a revolution or a religion or an idea big enough to sacrifice myself for. Sometimes people ask me, What is the most scared I have ever been as a journalist?, and invariably I think of those ten minutes outside Freetown. I rarely talk about it, though; death is too personal—too embarrassing, in a way—to discuss with strangers. I've been very scared five or six times in my life, but the only time I've readied myself for death was at that checkpoint in Sierra Leone. It's a particular process, this readying of oneself; it's different from simple fear. When you're scared, you're still hanging on to life. When you're ready to die, you let it go. A sort of emptying out occurs, a giving up on the world that seems oddly familiar even if you've never done it before. I had the feeling that the life I was leaving was precious, but also burdensome and complicated, and that in some ways the burden and complexity would be a relief to give up. It wasn't much comfort in that awful moment, but it was better than nothing.

One of the other journalists, a middle-aged Brit who worked in television, dealt with the fear by acting exasperated. He kept rolling his eyes and huffing with annoyance. A photographer sitting next to me watched dully and said nothing. I sat immobile, trying to shape my face into a mask of disinterest. I'm sure it didn't work. I felt hollow. The world around me—the buzzing jungle, the asphalt road, the rebels and their ugly little guns—became a kind of abstraction, as if it all had been painted onto a canvas backdrop from which, very soon, I would be erased.

I recently read that there are four primary emotions—fear, sadness, happiness, and anger—and that the facial expressions produced by these emotions are universal in all societies of the world. In other words, they are hardwired into our brains, and the muscles of the face contract in ways that are involuntary and, in that sense, incapable of lying. Lower primates don't bother trying to mask those expressions; humans do. We're more likely to mask them when we're in groups, and we're more likely to mask them when doing otherwise will result in punishment of some kind. The punishment for showing anger, I suppose, is retribution by someone who has power over us. A boss has power over us. A cop has power over us. Drugged-up guerrilla fighters have power over us—the ultimate power: One contraction of a trigger finger and the screen goes blank.

Of the primary emotions, fear is the one that bears most directly on survival. Children show fear. Adults try not to, maybe because it's shameful, or, in some circumstances, dangerous. The fear response is automatic, though, and your body runs through its reflexes whether you want it to or not. Your shoulders pull back and up. Your eyebrows rise, your eyes widen. Your mouth opens and your lips draw into a grimace. Make that expression in front of a mirror and see not only how instantly recognizable it is but also how it seems to actually produce a sense of fear. It's as if the neural pathways flow in both directions, and the expression can trigger fear as well as be triggered by it. Your pulse quickens, you turn pale, and your pupils dilate. Inside your body, adrenal glands dump epinephrine into your system and blood gets shunted away from your skin to major muscle groups.

The mind, meanwhile, starts thinking in stark, black-and-white terms—lucid, even if utterly unrealistic. I remember putting my arms in front of me because that might somehow deflect what was coming. I remember wondering if the bodies of the men in the front seats might be able to stop the bullets before they reached me. I remember saying, "This isn't good," to the photographer next to me, as if he could do anything about it. He didn't answer, though—probably too preoccupied with his own struggle to pay attention to mine.

We didn't die, of course. Something in the situation shifted, guns got uncocked, and eventually the commander waved us on. Maybe we were never really in danger, though two weeks later another journalist, Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora, was killed by rebels a few miles down the road. Maybe I was the only guy in the jeep who was worried, I don't know. None of us said a word about it for the rest of the drive back to Freetown. When I got back to the hotel, I was a mess. Teun Voeten, the photographer with whom I was working, asked me how my day went. "Terrible," I said, and we headed off to the hotel bar to talk about it. Teun had once been in a similar situation—far worse, in fact—and he understood. The television at the bar was playing a rerun of some West African soap opera where a husband and wife were screaming at one another, and I found that I couldn't bear to listen to it. Everything associated with violence—loud voices, sudden noises—felt poisonous and threatening. I didn't want to be exposed to it, even on television.

After a few days the experience began to fade in my mind, and by the time I got back to New York City, I'd pretty much stopped thinking about it. Miguel's death jolted me for a few days, but that feeling passed as well. I went on to other foreign assignments, some of which frightened me tremendously. Once, I found myself curled in a fetal position while Taliban gunners pounded the hilltop I was on with Katyusha rockets. The Katyushas came in with a nasty descending shriek that was as terrifying as the detonations that followed. Another time I spent a week hiding from child soldiers in Liberia because their government decided I was an American spy. Each time I came home from one of those assignments, I experienced strange tides of fear that came and went without explanation. A week or two after returning from Afghanistan, I went into a blind panic on a ski gondola because I was convinced the cable was going to break. Intellectually I knew this wasn't going to happen, but my body wouldn't believe me; my system flooded with epinephrine and readied itself for the plunge. No amount of reasoning could convince it otherwise.

Fear is by far the worst emotional experience we can have, and we do almost anything we can to avoid it—except when we actively seek it out. It's an odd paradox of being human that a feeling we are neurologically wired to avoid at all costs is also one that we covet so highly. No other animal intentionally puts itself at risk for thrills. I don't think people would climb mountains or jump off bridges with parachutes or kayak Class V rapids if those things didn't offer the brief and horrible illusion of imminent death. They would just be complicated, time-consuming endeavors that we'd steer well clear of because they got in the way of real life. Instead, we have the feeling that they are real life, that everything else—the day-to-day routines that take up most of our time—are somehow less important. It's as if the value of an experience rises exponentially with the risk it poses to your life.

I don't point this out to glorify risk-taking or even apologize for it. In some ways, risk-taking is the ultimate act of self-indulgence, an obscene insult to the preciousness of life. And yet, how can one dismiss something that persists despite every reasonable theory that it shouldn't? I wish I could report that after my experience in Sierra Leone I had some kind of renewed appreciation for life—that I passed my days more fully, more vividly, with more feeling. But I didn't. If anything, I had the dismal realization that one can be robbed of life for almost no reason at all in situations that are mundane to the point of embarrassment.

All that I can offer is this: Something very peculiar happened to me at that checkpoint. I let go of life, of the world, of myself. It only happened for a few moments, but happen it did. Religious mystics might call it a "loss of self"; psychologists know it as "dissociation." It's a protective mechanism that produces an odd, and maybe comforting, sense of removal from reality. Every time I've faced something frightening, I can identify a paler version of that same dissociative process: I care and I care and I care and then at some point everything just shuts down and I don't care.

I used to work as a climber for tree companies, and many times I've topped-out enormous white pines with 20 feet (6 meters) of tree above me and another 80 feet (24 meters) of tree below. In a situation like that, your safety depends on making just the right cut so that the top of the tree falls forward and away rather than back on top of you. Obviously it's a high-anxiety situation that you can really psyche yourself out for, and I've waited five, ten minutes before starting the chain saw to make a cut like that. I wasn't waiting for courage. I was waiting for emptiness.

I imagine that every skydiver who steps out of an airplane, every bungee jumper who tips off a bridge span, undergoes a similar process. Maybe the allure of those sports isn't the much vaunted adrenaline rush they provide, but the brief and shocking confrontation with mortality. Somewhere in all of our futures is a checkpoint where the bastards are actually going to pull the trigger. It may be a hospital bed, it may be a car accident, it may be a fall from a ladder, but one way or another, death is going to catch up with us. We're the only animal that knows this, and we're the only animal that seems to need to practice for it.

Maybe that, then, is what we're all preparing ourselves for: One final, forced act of bravery in an adventurous lifetime quietly pursued by fear.