Fear is an emotion that arises when someone perceives a threat in the environment. People can try to flee from this threat. People, though, might also fight back in order to control the threat. Fear, therefore, can precipitate violence, and therefore crime.
One example of violent crime is, of course, murder. Murder can be understood as a form of control. For the murderer, the act can also represent a form of punishment. Thus, murder can be used a way to restore the order that the murderer perceives as having been violated. For example, four members of the Caffey family, a deeply religious family in Emory, Texas, were found murdered and the Caffey home was set on fire. The victims were two married adults, Terry and Penny Caffey, and their two young sons, Matthew and Tyler. The primary suspect of this crime was, shockingly, Erin Caffey, the seemingly innocent daughter of Terry and Penny, who was only sixteen and sang in the church choir.
The theory behind taking Erin Caffey into custody, and later determining that she was indeed the killer, was that Erin had been deeply upset by the fact that her parents had forced her to break up with her boyfriend, nineteen-year-old Charlie Wilkinson. Wilkinson was also charged in the murder of the Caffeys and their two boys. Here, it seems that Erin responded to the aggressive act of her parents with aggression of her own. She resisted her parents’ attempt to control her behavior by exercising the ultimate form of control herself. It is reasonable that Erin’s fear, which was clearly exaggerated, of her parents’ power over her decision was a motive in this crime. The murder of her two brothers may have also been driven by fear, since Erin may have been concerned that they would witness the murder of Erin’s parents and later provide testimony that led to Erin’s arrest.
Another crime that may be driven by fear is domestic violence. People who struggle with insecurity may manipulate their partner in order to ensure that the partner remains committed to them. They feel a need for the affection and affirmation coming from their partner, but their low self-esteem causes them to fear that their partner will withdraw this positive feedback. In order to secure this source of support, some people resort to violence. The violence can be verbal or physical. Sometimes people withhold money from their spouses or prevent them from advancing in their careers. Domestic violence can take such extreme forms as physical harm or rape.
Robbery may also be driven by fear. In this case, fear is not necessarily connected to a person, but to the prospect of financial ruin. Robbers sometimes steal just to continue to survive. This is why mass unemployment can sometimes create an increase in the incidence of robbery. Robbery also suggests that someone does not feel confident enough to obtain money in a legal manner, through gainful employment. So, it could come not only from fear of financial ruin, but also fear of failure.
Crimes involving racism can also come from fear. The KKK, for instance, formed because, in spite of the great wealth in America in the 1920s, not much of it was distributed in the Southern portion of the United States. The KKK targeted African-Americans, who had been liberated from slavery fairly recently, as scapegoats for their poor economic situation. There are other motives mixed into the KKK’s actions, but their violence stemmed at least in part from fear of other groups, which is a common human reaction and also fear of a lack of control of their situation. Blaming a certain group for problems can simplify a situation in a way that is comforting. The recently freed black represented the end of the antebellum South for Klansmen, which was a world in which they had been comfortable.
Fear can drive people to great lengths as they seek to restore order and security to their lives. Of course, violence born of fear is almost always maladaptive response to a problem. Erin Caffey, for instance, should have approached her parents diplomatically instead of murdering them. The problem is that one of the effects of fear is to impair our judgment, and this is one reason why it can lead to violent crime.