WASHINGTON – On Aug. 24, 1940, as German planes were attacking London, Edward R. Murrow stood in Trafalgar Square with a microphone recording the sounds of the blitz. His listeners heard a siren wailing and antiaircraft guns firing, but the broadcast was remarkable for what was not heard. There was no sound of panicked Londoners running for cover.
“People are walking along very quietly,” Murrow reported. “We’re just at the entrance of an air raid shelter here, and I must move the cable over just a bit, so people can walk in.”
If Murrow had been reporting during the equivalent of our siren last week– the raising of the terrorist threat level from yellow to orange – he might have found some Americans calmly prepared to deal with an attack. But the main sounds probably would have been people complaining about the Homeland Security Department, despairing at unspeakable catastrophes or joking about duct tape. So far on the home front, this is not our finest hour.
President Bush did not help morale by warning in his speech Monday night that terrorists could kill “hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country” and wreak “destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth.” Terrorists might well wreak horror in America, but of all the things they could do, how likely is an unprecedented catastrophe on the scale envisioned by Mr. Bush?
To scholars who study risk, the president was guilty of the same sin committed by opponents of nuclear power who warn of tens of thousands of deaths from an accident. Dwelling on worst-case scenarios can be useful politically when you’re trying to justify a war or shut down a power plant, but it distracts you from preparing for the problems you’re most liable to face.
“Responsible risk assessors avoid worst-case scenarios because they create strong gut feelings that make the likelihood of the event seem way out of proportion,” said Paul Slovic, the president of Decision Research, a nonprofit institution in Eugene, Ore. “You can imagine all kinds of scenarios, like an unseen meteorite hitting Earth and destroying civilization before the war in Iraq is over, but the key in risk is probability.”
The probability of a terrorist attack occurring in the United States may be high, but the risk to any one person seems relatively low. Barry Glassner, the author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, notes that even in 2001, that singularly bad year, the worldwide death toll from terrorism was under 4,000, less than a tenth of the death toll from car accidents in the United States alone.
“These constant warnings about terrorism may be doing more harm than good,” said Dr. Glassner, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California . “They increase anxiety, which makes people susceptible to various accidents and a whole range of health problems.” He recommends that Americans concentrate on reducing other risks– like getting bicycle helmets for the children who don’t have them– before shopping for antiterrorism kits.
Some experts, though, say that hearing warnings and taking personal precautions against terrorism can be useful, especially for the many Americans– at least a third of respondents in most polls– who worry that someone in their family will be hurt by terrorism.
“Giving people something to do makes them feel less helpless,” said David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. “The more control we feel, the less we fear. The citizen preparedness campaign is a valuable new front in the war on terrorism, because they’re finally acknowledging that reducing fear is part of the battle.”
The public, however, has hardly welcomed the government’s campaign. The chief responses have been scorn and jokes, in part because of the way the campaign was introduced last month. The first suggestion most Americans heard was to buy duct tape, which sounded silly to the public and dubious to some experts. Veterans of disaster planning faulted some advice for being incomplete or irrelevant.
Still, much of the advice was sensible enough– flashlights and stockpiles of food and water could be useful for emergencies other than a terrorist attack. Why the disdain?
Those people who responded with contempt did so because of an “infantile yearning to be allowed to remain passive while the government takes care of us,” said Peter Sandman, a risk communication consultant based in Princeton N.J. We want Tom Ridge to make the problem go away instead of telling us to prepare, he explained, and it’s not because we’re afraid.
“The most powerful and most lasting response to 9/11 has been not fear but misery,” Dr. Sandman said. “Although people don’t expect to die in a terrorist attack, they do expect to have to live through a series of attacks, to watch them on CNN and explain them to their children. That expectation– which is accurate, not exaggerated– makes us miserable.”
Dr. Sandman’s prescription is what he calls the “routinization of terror,” the approach taken by Londoners in 1940 and Israelis today. Treat terrorism not as an unthinkable horror but as an occasional event you prepare for and live with, like a hurricane or an earthquake. Ivo H. Daalder, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, offers similar advice to the public, and to politicians and journalists prone to sensationalizing risk.
“Our goal should be to make Americans prepare for terrorism without paralyzing them with fear,” he said. “As it is, we’ve made terrorism into something awful that has the potential to paralyze the nation. Can you imagine the national panic that would have ensued if that recent fire at the Rhode Island nightclub had been caused by a terrorist bomb? We can’t give terrorists that much power over us.”
Copyright © 2003 by The New York Times