Fear Itself

UPDATE: December 28, 2015

FROM THE Associated Press on December 27th, under the headline “Terrorism Fears Bring Trip Cancellations”:

In response to the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 dead, some Connecticut school districts are canceling student trips abroad before parents lose their deposits. In Bolton, the school board last week voted unanimously to rescind approval for a student trip to London over spring break. South Windsor school officials have canceled a planned trip to Paris in April. Suffield schools also canceled a high school French language honors class trip to Paris in April. Student safety was a key reason for the decisions, school officials said.

Reading this made me palpably angry. Are we Americans really this daft? Are we really so easily frightened and boundlessly irrational that we can’t even allow our high school kids to visit Europe? Imagine for a minute that you’re a resident of Paris or London — just an average citizen living in one of those two huge capitals, doing your daily business — and you read in the paper how people from the United States are afraid to let their kids visit your city. How pathetic is that?

I’m trying to figure out why the Paris attacks in particular have struck such a nerve. We didn’t see this kind of reaction in 2004 when self-styled jihadis killed more than two-hundred people in Madrid. (A testament to our ever-decreasing attention span, most people don’t even remember that attack.) Are we becoming more and more skittish as time goes on? Or is it the day in, day out coverage of the Islamic State and the turmoil in Syria?

At least I’m not the only one frustrated by the thinking and behavior of some of my fellow citizens. I’ll point you now to an excellent editorial that appeared in the Boston Globe on the same day as the Connecticut story, written by Stephen Kinzer and titled “The United States of Fear and Panic.” I’m not supposed to do this without permission from the paper (my request is pending), but here is the piece:

FEAR IS BECOMING part of our daily lives. Yet it is not justified by reality. The true terror threat inside the United States is a fraction of what many Americans want to believe.

Feeling threatened gives life a certain edge. During the Cold War, Americans were told that we were liable to be incinerated by Soviet bombs at any moment. Ever since the Soviet Union had the bad manners to collapse a quarter-century ago, we have been suffering from enemy deprivation syndrome. Islamic terror has cured us. One recent survey suggests that half of all Americans now fear that they or a loved one will be victim of a terror attack.

A mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., set off this latest wave of fear. It was the second act of apparently religion-inspired terror in the United States during 2015. Together they took a total of 19 lives. Also during 2015, about 30,000 Americans died in road crashes. Ten thousand were shot to death. More than 40 died in accidents involving toasters.

Mass killings only stun us when they are connected to Islam or the Middle East. Others, like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, in which 20 children and six adults were shot to death, set off fleeting periods of mourning but have no lasting effect on politics or the national psyche. Attacks provoked by anger about events far away are different. They give us the feeling — terrible, but also a bit exciting — that we are living on the edge of danger because foreigners threaten our way of life.

Politics, social media, and the relentless news cycle contribute to this pathology. No candidate or media outlet has an incentive to reassure people. In fact the opposite is true: Voters, viewers, and readers are drawn to fear-mongering. There will be more Islamist-related terror attacks, and after each one, outrage will reach another peak. Whipping up emotion and conjuring threats is a winning strategy — except for our society as a whole.

The safest and most terror-free country I ever visited was Iraq under the secular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. If a fellow in a café casually asked a friend whether he thought Iraq should become more religious, he was likely to be quickly arrested. Disturbing public order was a capital crime. Al Qaeda never had a chance in Saddam’s Iraq.

That level of repression would work in any country. Most Americans, however, would not accept it. Choosing to live in an open society entails risk. No one can expect absolute safety in a country where people are allowed to walk the streets freely, without searches, identity checks, and constant police presence. That means resisting the temptation to exaggerate threats.

Fear has a corrosive and lamentable effect on our society, especially on our children. It also poses another danger. Unjustified panic can lead not only to crackdowns on freedom at home but also self-destructive foreign wars. If we persuade ourselves that our country is threatened by terrorists in the Middle East, we may be tempted to attack “at the source.” This could turn the threat we now imagine into something real.

“It has generally been acknowledged to be madness to go to war for an idea,” the British statesman Lord Salisbury observed more than a century ago, “but if anything, it is yet more unsatisfactory to go to war against a nightmare.” Americans seem ready to ignore this wisdom. We live a secure national life, but make ourselves believe it is nightmarish. Islamic terror does not seriously threaten the United States. We weaken ourselves by pretending otherwise.


December 21, 2015

AMERICANS, WE KEEP HEARING, are more anxious than ever over threats of terrorism. A string of recent incidents — the apparent bombing of a Russian jetliner over Egypt; the attacks in Paris and the mass shooting in California; and now a hoax bomb threat that caused an Air France 777 with over 460 people aboard to divert to Kenya — has left citizens on edge, to the point where many have canceled their holiday travel plans. Last week my hometown paper, the Boston Globe, ran a front-page story about whether or not it was wise for people to put off traveling abroad. The U.S. State Department hasn’t helped things by issuing a vaguely-worded travel alert covering pretty much the entire planet.

How much of this fear is genuine, however, and how much of is stoked by the cable channels? How much of it exists at all? For what it’s worth, since the Paris killings, including both work and leisure trips, I’ve been on planes to Ghana, Milan, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Dubai, and Mauritius (the same Indian Ocean island from which the diverted Air France plane had originated). For what it’s worth, there were plenty of Americans on those planes, and I don’t think I saw an empty seat aboard even one of them. I’m working a flight to Paris this Wednesday evening, and I took a look at the passenger load. It’s overbooked. My observations are merely that, but they’re encouraging if nothing else.

The likelihood that a U.S. traveler passenger will be victimized by a terror strike is always remote, but are the chances greater over the holidays, and especially if you’re traveling overseas? Today, I could note, marks the 27th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, which stood until September 11th as the deadliest-ever terror attack against U.S. civilians. On December 22nd, 2001, Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber, gave it a try aboard American Airlines flight 63 with his explosives-laden sneaker. Eight years later, on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, attempted to detonate his incendiary diapers aboard Northwest Airlines flight 253. All three of these flights were bound from Europe to the United States. (How weird and distressing is it that we live in an age when expressions like “shoe bomber” and “underwear bomber” can be said out loud, without irony?)

That’s three flights over a nearly 30 year-span, which in the big scheme of things is close to statistical nothingness. It’s the kind of thing, however, that makes people — squeamish Americans in particular — nervous. This anxiety is exacerbated by media-driven notion that the threats we face today are markedly different or potentially deadlier from those of the past. A headline that speaks of us living in “the age of terror,” for example. This is misleading, if not outright dishonest. Politically or religiously motivated terrorism is nothing new, of course, and commercial aviation has been a target of sabotage for many decades. Deadly hijackings and bombings occur much less frequently than they used to. Flip through the air crimes annals of the 1970s and 1980s some time. Indeed, one of the harmful things about our post-September 11th mindset has been the abandonment of historical context when it comes to airplanes and terrorism.

Air safety is only part of this discussion, it’s true. Across the world there have been high-profile terror attacks at hotels, nightclubs, railway stations, museums, and even at the beach (Tunisia). This is more about travel, broadly speaking, than about flying. But the two are closely linked, and the anxieties overlap. It’s everything together: at the airport, on the airplane, in the museum and on the subway. It’s the foreign-ness of it, the distance, the act of traveling. Which doesn’t make it any more rational or sensible, because whether you’re in Paris, Tokyo or Tashkent, you are more more liable to be killed by a car than to be victimized by terrorism.

Americans aren’t big travelers to start with. Throw in a few dastardly current events, get the media sizzling with terrorism talk, throw in some Donald Trump, and there you have it, an angst that is partly based in fact but ultimately polluted by hyperbole and xenophobia.

This is a sad point to be making on the anniversary of Lockerbie, but maybe it’s the smart one. People are safe, yet they’re increasingly scared. For both the individual and the society at large, this is an unhealthy paradox.


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22 Responses to “Fear Itself”
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  1. Sam says:

    I agree that it is foolish to get overly paranoid about terrorism, but it is a REAL threat that we should not completely dismiss. Especially if you’re the President of the United States!

  2. Jim says:

    With all the media outlets, so many talking heads with so much airtime to fill, how else to stand out from all the noise? In fact, more people die from falling coconuts.
    I’ve lived outside the US for 20 yrs, mostly in developing countries in Asia. Like many expats, we ride public transit and shop in local markets. I’m much more afraid of falling into an open manhole (or a loose coconut) than being killed by terrorists. Tragic as such attacks may be, the gun violence in the US does spook me. Whenever I hear something happening in a public place I start looking for the exit.

  3. WellMaybe says:

    Good article but speak for yourself. Thanks.

  4. Ian says:

    I have always been astounded by how insular and paranoid some Americans are. I remember being in Mexico City and being asked by an American if I was not afraid when walking out after dark. I refrained from asking her how afraid she should be walking after dark in many American cities.

  5. Paul Walcott says:

    As soon as the terrorists get us to change our behavior they’ve already won!

  6. Dave says:

    Terrorism is a very real threat for the USA

  7. Dan says:

    As one of those average people in Europe (My parents live under the flightpath of EMA (EGNX) and I currently live under the flight path of BHX (EGBB) ) you are much more likely to get shot at by a madman with a gun in the USA than in Europe! Especially if you don’t even leave your school! (the last school mass shooting of any size in the UK was Dunblane in 1996 that killed 16 children, and resulting in the almost total ban on the general pubic possessing hand guns) Since Sandy Hook 2 years ago there have been over a thousand people killed in the USA buy the typical madman with a gun!

  8. Msconduct says:

    Yes. This.

    The other thing I find weird is the American habit of rushing home from overseas. People fleeing *from* an incident is at least comprehensible, even if I wouldn’t do it myself,but apparently after 9/11, according to my usual safari guide all the Americans flocked home from Botswana too. What’s the point of going *towards* where the trouble is?

  9. mj says:

    You asked, “Are we Americans really this daft?” and the answer is some Americans are that daft. Considering Donald Trump is still the top candidate for the Republican nomination, there is a subset of people who are frightened, ignorant, and crazy. Obviously, this is a dangerous combination. It is something of a relief that various polls show Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both beating Trump in the general election, so most Americans are sane, or so it would seem. Let’s hope this really is the case.

  10. UncleStu says:

    It is the cowardly pandering by political candidates (you know who they are.) abetted by the media.

    Getting everyone scared helps the unscrupulous get elected, and enables them to manipulate the citizens they themselves terrified.

    When the US was attacked in 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did NOT say, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

    “That level of repression would work in any country. Most Americans, however, would not accept it.”

    I’m sorry to disagree.

    Remember the so-called Patriot Act? Americans welcomed it when it was enacted, and many still do. Now, every bit of our personal information – from both governmental and private sources – is stored in massive databases. The East Germans and the KGB would have cried with joy to have a fraction of that capability. Freedumb!

    But we are doing it to ourselves now, because a few Toyota driving barbarians in far away places are saying bad things about us while they kill each other.

    “get the media sizzling with terrorism talk, throw in some Donald Trump (and his ilk), and there you have it”

    Too true.
    A recent poll found that 30% of Republican primary voters support bombing Agrabah, the fictional city from Disney’s Aladdin. (You can’t make this isht up.) Why not? We invaded Iraq didn’t we? That worked out OK right?

    America – the home of the brave??

  11. Michael S. says:

    In this benighted country, one of our major political parties peddles fear as a means to win elections. Keep the populace very very afraid, especially of “the other” and “those people,” and they cling to their guns and bibles and vote Republican. This started with Nixon and the “southern strategy” and continues apace today. The fact that much of the populace revels in its ignorance of anything but the superficial makes it very easy to manipulate by constantly stoking and reinforcing fearfulness.

  12. Shawn says:

    And in other the news, the TSA has decided to seize the moment and make body scanners mandatory for “some passengers.”

    “…some passengers will still be required to undergo AIT [advanced imaging technology] screenings as warranted by security considerations in order to safeguard transportation security.” Mike England, TSA spokesman

  13. Don Beyer says:

    Though I am not fearful of this, a far greater concern I have about flying today is that the First Officer [co-pilot] of the Regional Jet I am on is paid less than the Emplyee Parking Shuttle Bus driver who brought the pilot to the terminal.

  14. MS72 says:

    Right or wrong, that’s how we live now. I was in a BJs wholesale club on Monday when an alarm sounded in part of the huge warehouse building. It was disconcerting to hear, and it went on for a long time before it was silenced. No one left (that I could see), but I did check for exits in case we needed one.

    Yep, still human. 🙂

  15. Andrew says:

    In contrast to your well written and reasoned analysis, the NY Post currently has a “news” teaser about the horrors of air travel that is the epitome of the sensationalism that so much of the media has become. We all know the NY Post is a paper whose journalistic standards have fallen significantly since its founding by Alexander Hamilton, but it is amazing to see that they are able to sink just a little lower time and time again…


  16. Daniel Ullman says:

    To an extent, all of these sort of surveys have more to do with who has a landline and who are willing to be self-selected when they get a request to be surveyed online.

    In the first case, it is legal for survey firms to autodial landlines but not legal for them to autodial cell phones. At one point of time this wasn’t an issue since folks tended to have either one or the other or both. That isn’t the case anymore.

    Self selected surveys have an obvious problem.

    It is more a problem of how to work with the data. No one has come up with a good solution yet.

    That said, CNN always welcomes anything they can be shrill about.

  17. Eirik says:

    I could not agree more, Patrick!

    It has been 4 years now, since I moved from Norway to Houston, and the only thing I dont like about the US so far, is the media.

    I wont claim that I pay attention to everything thats going on, but now and then I have CNN on and I also watch and read other media. The thing that strikes me is how much they keep talking about “threats”. There are threats everywhere and it can happen anytime, so you better watch out.

    As in Norway, and most other European countries, they might discuss it for a day or two and then its back to real life. Over here, they keep reminding us about all the dangers and that terrorists may be lurking around on every street corner. No wonder people get terrified.

    People are either radicalized when they arrive, or there is someone out there whos about to. They may show up at McD or Dennys and kill a bunch of people. Its just their imagination that puts an end to all the bad things that may happen to you if you are brave enough to leave your home.

    The worst thing is that the media is actually enjoying this and, I hate to say it, they like it when a disaster like Paris happen, so they have something to talk about and to feed all their other crazy theories.

  18. Tod Davis says:

    I’m in the early stages of planning a trip to the USA (from Australia) for later in 2016. At this stage the thought of being caught in a terror attack has never even crossed my mind.
    My main safety concern about the trip is the possibility of being mugged.

    • Corinne says:

      You’re very unlikely to be mugged. But you might get shot by a “good guy with a gun.” Seriously, prepare yourself for the sight of armed men carrying police-grade (or better) weapons on their hips, and in some cases, slung over their shoulder. That is the new reality in the U.S. Even more are carrying concealed weapons. In my home state, you don’t even need a license to open-carry. Terrifying.

  19. Paradoxes abound, Patrick, you are absolutely correct. Cars, for example have never been safer and yet driver distraction makes it the most dangerous time to be on the road. Everytime I watch people dosing themselves with hand sanitizer at the grocery store before filling their carts with piles of processed and other assorted unhealthy food, I think to myself, “The gap between what Americans fear and what will actually harm them is big enough to taxi an Airbus A380 through.”

    But as Tony Soprano was fond of saying, “What are you gonna do?”

  20. NH Traveler says:

    Thank you, Patrick, for your common sense and the debunking of the breathless claims of the cable shills. I have been to Amsterdam and Dublin in the last 5 weeks, and all flights were full. The entire family of eight is travelling domestically on Christmas day, and I do not have any concerns whatsoever. If we buy into the terror BS, they win. Please keep up the great work. Love your column.