Risk Communication and
the War Against Terrorism:
High Hazard, High Outrage
Like just about everyone else I know, I have spent a lot of time in the weeks since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. wondering how I can help. As a specialist in risk communication – an expert on outrage management, no less – I felt like I should have some special insight to offer my countrymen and women … not on how to fight terrorism, but at least on how to think and talk about going on in the face of danger.
I found I didn’t have much to say at first. I have long described risk communication in terms of two paradigms: the high-hazard low-outrage paradigm, where people are insufficiently concerned about serious risks and the job is to heighten their concern; and the low-hazard high-outrage paradigm, where people are excessively concerned about modest risks and the job is to diminish their concern. When hazard and outrage are both high, I told my audiences, everything is working as it should.
The terrorism risk in the United States today is a high-hazard high-outrage risk – and yet I don’t think everything is working as it should. To start trying to understand what is wrong, I need concepts that aren’t as central in the two traditional paradigms, concepts like panic and denial, misery and helplessness, shame and guilt.
The thoughts that follow seem half-baked to me, obvious or questionable or both. But maybe it will help somehow to get them out there.
Be careful; what follows is likely to wind up sounding confident, even authoritative. That’s an occupational hazard of consultants. Even more than usual, this time I really don’t know what I’m talking about.
One other introductory comment. Only about half my consulting is in the United States. The other half is all over, and I have benefitted from that wider perspective. Unlike the other columns I have written, this one is about the U.S. I am aware that many other countries have long since faced up to their own terrorist threats. Now it’s our turn.
This is also a much longer column than the others. (I’m having trouble deciding which are the important points.)
1. This time everyone’s a stakeholder.
I make a distinction in my work between public relations and stakeholder relations. The underlying assumption in public relations is that you are talking to large numbers of apathetic but credulous people. They’re hardly paying attention at all, certainly not paying skeptical attention. It follows that reaching them will be difficult, but if you can reach them you can shove whatever message you want down their throats. Stakeholder relations, by contrast, assumes a much smaller audience that is attentive but skeptical. It is no longer hard to reach them; you have hours of attention instead of an eight-second sound bite to work with. But it may be very hard to persuade them; their guard is up.
Public relations uses the mass media and aims at spin control. Stakeholder relations uses direct contact and aims at outrage management.
Every once in a while something happens that turns the mass public into stakeholders. It can be a relatively unimportant event, like President Clinton’s adventures with Monica Lewinsky. Or it can be extremely important, like the September 11 attacks. Suddenly, spin control won’t work. People are listening too hard, learning too much. A kind of radical candor is needed. Understandably, politicians and other leaders can have trouble making the
2. The world is not newly dangerous.
The risk of terrorism on U.S. soil has been clear, and clearly growing, for more than a decade. Bureaucratic bookshelves are stacked high with previously unread reports on what we have learned to call “homeland security.” Scenarios even more horrific than what unfolded on September 11 have been staples of popular fiction; premonitory events like Oklahoma City have played out on CNN. If we didn’t know it could happen, we didn’t want to know.
Of course what happened on September 11 was orders of magnitude more destructive than the sorts of terrorism other countries have learned to endure. And other countries did notice the difference – the long-predicted but genuinely new marriage of international terrorism with weapons of mass destruction. Still, I think Americans were jolted more than most other countries would have been by a comparable loss. Most of the world tends to see terrorism more or less the way we see crime, as awful but inevitable (and most of the world can’t imagine tolerating a crime rate like ours without taking drastic action). Other countries are sympathetic to our loss, but perhaps a little exasperated that it has thrown us as much as it has.
Maybe the objective risk has increased in recent weeks as terrorists and copycats pursue a second strike; maybe the objective risk has declined as American defenses go into gear. What has soared isn’t the risk, but the apprehension of risk. Unarguably, it feels like everything changed on September 11. Understanding where the feeling comes from starts with understanding that it is mistaken.
3. The previous problem was denial, not apathy – and it still is.
In December 2000 I participated in a two-day government-sponsored workshop on risk communication and weapons of mass destruction (shortened to “WMD” by those who think about such things for a living). I addressed the tendency of most Americans to believe a “WMD event” – that is, a large-scale attack on the U.S., whether perpetrated by terrorists or by another state – was far less likely than the experts considered it to be. This was a serious problem for counter-terrorism and defense professionals, because it diminished public support for the various prevention and preparedness measures the professionals thought wise.
Many at the workshop assumed the problem was public apathy. I argued that it
wasn’t apathy, but rather denial. The difference is crucial. Apathy is insufficient concern. Denial, on the other hand, is concern so great it trips a psychic circuit-breaker. Picture a continuum with apathy and panic at the two extremes, and concern in the middle. The goal was and is to move the public to this desirable middle. But while apathy is the opposite of panic, denial is just panic in another form: repressed panic. Not surprisingly, the risk communication strategies appropriate for addressing apathy are radically different from those that work to address denial or panic.
One of the things I noted at the workshop is that Americans didn’t just underestimate the probability of a terrorist attack; we also overestimated its magnitude. Perhaps as a heritage of 1950s bomb shelter frenzies, we have tended to assume that any attack would inevitably be nuclear, chemical, or biological, and that it would be unsurvivable, tantamount to Armageddon. Of course this belief, hovering just beneath the surface, made preparedness seem pointless. And overestimation of the risk magnitude made underestimation of the risk probability a psychological
necessity. An outcome that cannot be survived dare not be contemplated. The attitude of the WMD professionals was a stark contrast: Even in the wake of a successful nuclear attack on a U.S. city, said the pros, the survivors would need to mourn and fight back, but they would also need to get on with their lives – and it was our job to be prepared to help them get on with their lives. Friends I described the workshop to found this attitude unspeakably macabre. (My gothic-type engraved invitation to a post-workshop WMD cocktail party still resides on my refrigerator door … as if there were something improper about counter-terrorism and defense experts breaking for a reception.)
Denial has at least two signatures. The first is selective attention. People in denial struggle to collect reassuring information and avoid alarming information; the apathetic are more neutral, blundering into whatever information comes their way. The second distinction between denial and apathy is the response to alarming information. Warnings make apathetic people less apathetic – but they push those in denial more deeply into denial.
I can’t prove that denial was responsible for Americans’ inattention to terrorism before September 11. True, the experts kept sounding the alarm, and few listened. But there are always hundreds of “experts” sounding the alarm about hundreds of risks. Many of them turn out wrong. How was the public to tell, before September 11, that the warnings about terrorism weren’t fanatic or self-serving, but dead-on? Maybe we just missed the boat this time. But I think it was denial.
What is the relevance of the apathy-versus-denial question now? Obviously no one any longer considers terrorism unlikely. But denial is still very much with us. We see it in the large number of people who report that they are “back to normal.” We see it more dangerously in the demand for unrealistic reassurance. And denial’s kissing cousin, panic, has predictably come onto the scene as well – reflected in the fear of flying and the demand for gas masks and antibiotics. Denial flips into panic much more easily than concern does. And panic settles back into denial rather more easily than it matures into concern.
Apathy is gone now (if it was apathy to start with), but we are as far from calm concern as ever. The psychological situation today isn’t as different as we might think from what it was before September 11.
Denial has a Siamese twin: projection/displacement. That is, when people are busy denying Risk X, pretending to themselves that they’re not especially worried about X, they usually manage to worry excessively about some Risk Y – or sometimes about a bunch of Ys. We do this precisely because Y is objectively less awful than X; better to worry about Y than to panic over X. This may account in part for the fear-of-the-week phenomenon that characterized American culture before September 11. Concern about pesticide residues, or murders inspired by rock lyrics, was in part a convenient (if not always convincing) displacement of general anxiety about unbearable risks.
Projection/displacement also helps account for today’s excessive preoccupation with anthrax. It is genuinely possible that terrorists will figure out how to make anthrax into a weapon of mass destruction. It’s even possible that what we’re watching now is a set of experiments toward that end. But at the moment, the hazard of anthrax for ordinary people is infinitesimal. I think we know that – which is what makes freaking out over anthrax psychologically safer than pondering, say, smallpox, or the prospect of a suitcase nuclear bomb.
4. Misery and injured self-esteem are as important as fear.
Everything I’ve written so far is about the fear dimension. Panic is excessive fear; apathy is insufficient fear; worry or concern is moderate (and appropriate) fear; denial is repressed fear.
But most of the people I talk to aren’t afraid so much as they are depressed and
miserable. (Me too.) We’re going about our business, many of us, at sixty or seventy
percent efficiency, despite the knot in our stomachs. We’re having trouble concentrating.
We have developed a profound approach/avoidance relationship with television news –
reluctant to go too long without checking, reluctant also to check.
When I ask friends and colleagues about their reluctance to travel, they don’t usually
say they’re fearful that hijackers may try to use their airplane as a missile. What they say is,
“I don’t want to be far from home when something else terrible happens.”
People don’t expect to get killed. They expect others to get killed; they expect they will
have to watch it again on CNN. That expectation makes them miserable. So they want to stay
near home, near friends and family, near those who may need their support, or whose support
they may need.
This is what I meant at the start of this column when I defined terrorism as a high-hazard
risk. The probability of the average American dying in a terrorist attack remains low. Presumably
the odds are worse than most of us thought they were before September 11 (and less certain as
well; a new data point widely divergent from previous data points has increased both the hazard
and the variability). But you’re still likelier to die of flu than of anthrax, of a car accident
or lung cancer than of any kind of terrorism. Individual risk from terrorism remains fairly low.
But societal risk has become high. The justified fear that more Americans will die in terrorist
attacks, while we watch, leads to misery.
Being miserable is in some ways more debilitating than being afraid. Perhaps that’s
another attraction of the current anthrax fear: distraction from misery.
Closely allied with misery are feelings of low efficacy – helplessness, hopelessness.
We don’t know what to do, how we can help, how we can protect ourselves and our
families. And we don’t know what our government can do either.
I am less sure about the self-esteem cluster of reactions than I am about the misery/depression cluster. But look at some of the ways September 11 has made us feel bad about ourselves:
- Survivor guilt – Paramount in people who were in harm’s way and managed to escape, this is real also for those of us who weren’t nearby … but might have been.
- Parental shame – Shamefully, we can’t even manage to protect our children from scarifying images of terrorism, much less from terrorism itself. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ll wager parents are fighting harder to get Cipro prescriptions for their kids than for themselves.
- Failures of preparedness – We weren’t ready. Whether we project the blame onto our leaders or shoulder it ourselves, we weren’t ready. We still aren’t.
- Hurt – Americans like to suppose that our values are universal, and therefore that we are universally loved … or at worst envied, but certainly not hated. This is the core of the much-discussed “loss of innocence” that followed September 11. We have been forced to notice that huge hunks of the world do indeed hate us.
Injured self-esteem plays a far bigger role in the psychology of Muslim fundamentalists, and of
terrorists. (See #10.) But it is not irrelevant to our own psychology.
Furthermore, we are going through these emotions together, as we went through September
11 together. Usually we experience misery, depression, guilt, shame, hurt, and the rest as
individuals. The people around us are not similarly affected. That may leave us feeling alone, but
if we’re lucky we can lean on others who are not suffering. This time we must lean on
fellow sufferers. The benefit is a feeling of national unity. The cost is that there is no one on the
outside to offer sympathy, stability, and context. Imagine everyone in the country awaiting the
results of a biopsy at the same time.
5. Outrage is justifiably but dangerously high.
The denial/projection/displacement syndrome is as important after September 11 as it was before
– complicated now by panic, misery, and injured self-esteem. Something else has
obviously changed as well: Now Americans are incredibly outraged.
You can see the extraordinarily high level of outrage in the outpouring of patriotism. In the
wake of September 11, Americans have come together – which is what outraged
communities normally do, united by the common enemy. The price of that togetherness has been
equally predictable: a reduced tolerance for dissent, for example.
There is perhaps an even more dangerous price: a reduced tolerance for careful, analytic
thought. There has been a palpable reluctance to “understand” our enemies’
grievances too sympathetically, or our own failures too critically – lest we be thought to
excuse the enemy or to blame ourselves. We shouldn’t pretend to a calm we cannot (and
at this point, perhaps, should not) attain. Rather, we should pay attention to our own outrage,
and the ways in which it may be distorting our judgment.
We’re so outraged that even an “outrage analysis” risks provoking
further outrage … as if explaining it might somehow trivialize it. On my conventional outrage
scale, the events of September 11 score a perfect 12 out of 12. Among the key factors:
- Memorability – Those television pictures are absolutely central to the outrage.
- Moral relevance – The slaughter of innocents is evil.
- Catastrophe – Thousands died all at once.
- Dread – Tall buildings, airplanes, and fires are all objects of phobia; repressed dread of terrorism is the core of the denial.
- Knowability – No one can tell us what will happen next; there are no real experts; our world has changed forever.
- Control – For the first time since the nuclear arms race (also an object of denial), the United States feels vulnerable to attack from outside.
The other six factors apply as well. The risk of terrorist attack is coerced, man-made, exotic,
and unfair; those imposing the risk are not trustworthy; the process is unresponsive.
I normally use the word “outrage” to mean much more than anger; it covers
everything – fear included – that leads people to take a risk to heart. But
let’s focus here on what people usually mean when they say they are outraged: righteous
anger. That certainly describes a major part of the American response to September 11.
Before the attacks I would have said that anger is a useful bulwark against panic, against
misery and injured self-esteem, even against denial. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t
be depressed and hopeless. Don’t feel hurt. Don’t go numb either. Get
Now I’m not so sure. As in battle, anger does seem to work against fear. And it
helps suppress most other emotions too: hurt, depression, etc. But what is the relationship
between outrage and denial? As I write this, about six weeks after the attacks, a majority of
Americans are predicting further terrorism on American soil. Though there is no evidence, most
perceive the anthrax outbreaks as another terrorist attack. A majority also report that they are
finding it difficult to focus on their everyday concerns in the face of what has happened and what
may happen. Yet nearly all are going about their lives, however half-heartedly, with little change.
Maybe this is what calm concern looks like. On the other hand, psychiatrists have a term for
the state of mind that acknowledges horrible facts but fails to feel the appropriate emotions. They
call it “isolation of affect.” It is a kind of partial denial – and it’s
related to what’s going on in myself, my household, my community, and my country right
Isolation of affect isn’t always bad. A friend of a friend was near Ground Zero in New
York, and watched people jumping to their deaths from the top of the World Trade Center, some
of them holding hands as they jumped. He talks about it, when he talks about it at all, without
emotion. It’s still too raw to process fully.
But the world we now find ourselves in justifies considerable fear, misery, and injured self-
esteem, as well as considerable anger. We will need to feel them all eventually.
6. Neither shock treatment nor over-reassurance is the right approach.
Before September 11, the misdiagnosis of apathy led some at the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” workshop to think the solution might be to shock people into attention. This option seemed especially attractive to the military participants. Interestingly, the peace movement made the same mistake in the 1980s. A staple of movement strategy, pioneered by Australian pediatrician Helen Caldicott, was the speech that narrated in graphic detail the devastation that would result if a small nuclear warhead exploded right here right now. The speech was supposed to galvanize audiences into anti-nuclear activism. More often, it deepened their psychic numbing, their unwillingness even to contemplate The Day After, much less to work to prevent it.
At least now that option is off the table. There is widespread agreement, which I share, that
it isn’t wise to watch those harrowing video images again and again, and it isn’t
helpful to show them again and again. We’re not in danger of forgetting them.
We’re in danger of tripping that psychic circuit-breaker, plunging ourselves into (or deeper
Even this is better understood in principle than in practice. When we encounter an
acquaintance who seems unaffected by the crisis, it is tempting to try to prod him or her into
shared anger, shared fear, shared misery, shared something. It is helpful to bear in mind that what
looks like apathy is almost certainly denial, and that prodding will only make it worse. I play
poker with a man who announced to the table a week ago, “I feel completely unaffected,
apathetic. There’s going to be a bloodbath.” These were adjacent sentences. You
can’t ask for a clearer case of isolation of affect. The last thing he needs is salt rubbed in
his psychic wounds.
The opposite mistake, over-reassurance, is very much on the table. For years I have advised
clients that the right answer to the question “Can you assure me that X is safe?” is
always no. You can estimate the size of the risk; you can tell us what you’re doing to
reduce it; you can tell us what we can do to reduce it. But if you have to dichotomize risks into
“safe” and “not safe,” then every X is not safe.
In normal times, the downside of over-reassurance is that it backfires – not just after
it proves false, but even before. In what I have called “the seesaw of risk communication,” ambivalent audiences typically take whichever seat on the risk-estimation seesaw the source leaves vacant. If you focus on how safe X is, we concentrate on how dangerous it is; if you warn us of its dangers, we see its safety. This is happening now, especially with respect to some of the hastier and sillier anti-terrorist precautions, like replacing metal tableware with plastic in airline meals. I flew from Newark to London on September 16. Passengers reacted with nervous irony to what felt like a show of false reassurance: long airport waits but still sketchy searches of carry-ons; no curbside check-in but no visible luggage inspection either; a cockpit crew that added nothing to the established patter; those plastic knives. Over-reassurance reliably triggers skepticism and anxiety. The authorities would be wiser to be visibly concerned, leaving the rest of us much freer to relax.
With panic and denial in the air, the temptation to over-reassure gets even greater. No
American official is telling the public that the crisis is over. To their credit, officials are
aggressively predicting further terrorist attempts. Yet there is over-reassurance in at least two
forms. First, despite predictions of more attempts, the authorities are reluctant to acknowledge
what all WMD experts privately acknowledge, that some of these attempts will inevitably
succeed. And second, many American officials are telling the public, implicitly and sometimes
explicitly, that homeland security – safety – is ultimately achievable. The
“war against terrorism” is being depicted as a war that can, in time, be won. Both
defensive measures and aggressive ones are being represented as steps toward making America
safe again – not just safer, but safe. But the public isn’t fooled; note the bitter
comparisons to the war on drugs, the war on poverty.
The leaders of government agencies, companies, and nonprofits have an obligation to tell
their publics that it is not possible to be entirely safe. We know this already; that’s why
over-reassurance triggers skepticism. But this time the emotional stakes are so high that many are
hoping against hope that we are wrong. And so in the short term we may reward leaders who
promise to take action to guarantee our safety. Some leaders, moreover, may believe that over-
reassurance is the necessary antidote to panic. It isn’t. In those who can’t swallow
the reassurance, it actually exacerbates the panic. In those who manage to swallow it, it leads
back to denial – and then to deeper panic or deeper denial when the reassurance proves
And in the meantime, over-reassurance encourages bad policies. If our leaders imply that
this next round of bombing runs or security precautions will make us safe, we are in no position to
assess the wisdom of each proposal. Instead, we either endorse it out of a desperate desire to feel
safe or reject it because we cannot imagine feeling safe. The truthful assertion that the measure
can only make us safer, not safe, is far more conducive to thinking through how much safer and at
how much cost (in dollars, in convenience, in civil liberties).
Or consider the over-reassurances about anthrax. From the first Florida cases, which the
government was far more inclined to see as “an isolated incident” than the public
was, health authorities have downplayed the anthrax risk. Perhaps the clearest example is their
insistence throughout the first three weeks of October that it would be foolish for Americans to
stockpile Cipro or other antibiotics. There is a good case to be made that we shouldn’t
actually start taking Cipro until we have reason to think we might have been exposed; the drug
has costs and side-effects, and it works less well if it’s used too much. But having some on
hand is a reasonable precaution. If there is a widespread attack, the fewer people lining up (or
rioting) for the government’s pills, the better. I understand the concern that people may
misuse the drug, or that private hoarding may diminish access where it turns out to be needed.
But telling people it’s not in their interest to have some in their back pockets is simply
false. And people know it’s false. Among the results: diminished trust, increased cynicism,
and as the seesaw predicts, increased concern about anthrax.
At the very least, authorities need to detail their logistical plans for distributing antibiotics
when and where they are needed, concede that the only strong argument against individual
stockpiles is the current shortage, and say when the shortage will be alleviated. Telling people
they are wrong to want their own supply is the sort of classic over-reassurance that invariably
Whether it’s anthrax risk or terrorism more generally, those in authority must never be
seen to under-react or over-reassure. If they can’t quite find the middle of the seesaw, they
should make sure they are safely on the other side: over-reacting, under-reassuring. Last week I
spoke to a group of hospital communications managers, gathered together by the Connecticut
Hospital Association. Anthrax was at the top of everyone’s agenda. Put the reassuring
information in subordinate clauses, I told them: “Even though the risk is very small,
nevertheless....” The main clause is how seriously you are taking the situation, how
aggressively you are responding to every false alarm. Make sure people have the data they need
to put the risk in context, to judge how unlikely they are to get anthrax – but never put
yourself in the position of minimizing the risk or urging them not to worry. When they are ready
to do so, they will urge you not to worry. You can’t hard-sell calm.
7. People need grounds for hope and things to do.
In January 1986, JoAnn M. Valenti and I published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on how to overcome psychic numbing and motivate anti-nuclear activism. Entitled “Scared Stiff – or Scared into Action,” the article proposed four strategies:
- Anger – An enemy to mobilize against.
- Love – Someone or something to fight for.
- Hope – Reason to think improvement is possible.
- Action Things to do that make a contribution.
Much that has gone right since September 11 fits nicely into these four categories. The first
and second, I think, are still doing well. More progress is needed on the third and fourth.
There is no conflict between my claim here that people need grounds for hope and my claim
in #6 that it is essential not to over-reassure. What we need now isn’t an unrealistic vision
of a terrorist-free America (like that drug-free America we have long been promised), but
concrete, measurable progress in the direction of that unachievable goal. An example that has
received surprisingly little media attention is the fact that since September 11 several terrorist
plots have been defeated, most or all of them against U.S. facilities overseas. The bad news
implicit in this, that there continue to be terrorist plots against the U.S., is something we already
know in our guts. The good news, that we are getting better at foiling them, isn’t. (We
probably can’t foil them all, and that needs to be said too.) Within the constraints of
security, I would want to see more specific information about what has been done and will soon
be done to make terrorism harder.
As for action, what’s important to understand is that action is the antidote to
helplessness. Doing something, even something symbolic, helps to bind people’s anxiety.
In the days immediately after the attacks, millions of people wanted to give blood. Tragically,
little blood was needed. Many gave money instead; many attended memorial services. And many
found less to do than they wanted to do. Six weeks later, there is still an unsatisfied hunger for
things to do. I don’t have a ready answer – something meaningful that huge
numbers of people can do, and keep doing, to help fight terrorism. The general request that we
“stay alert” doesn’t help much, nor does the invitation to shop more. London
during the blitz genuinely needed people to staff the shelters and enforce the blackouts. What do
Another sort of action that helps is action to protect oneself and one’s family. For any
hazard, potential victims are ideally offered three levels of self-protection. “At least do
A,” they are told; A is the minimum acceptable precaution. “We recommend
B,” which is more protective than A. “And if you’re especially vulnerable or
especially concerned, step up to C,” more protective still. Choosing among A, B, and C
gives people a measure of control over the risk. What are our A, B, and C for anthrax? For
flying in airplanes or going to sporting events?
8. People need encouragement to get on with their lives, and “permission” not to.
For most people, the “action” part of the solution means simply getting on with their
lives. It is a small act of courage and defiance today to board an airplane or ride to the top of a
tall building, to buy a stock or go to a football game. It is similarly courageous, and similarly
useful, to have a normal conversation with an Arab-looking young man on the bus (or if you are
an Arab-looking young man, to ride the bus). Getting on with our lives means returning to the
interests, habits, values, and courtesies we held dear before September 11. In fact, it means
insisting on them all the more strongly. I made a point of telling clients I wasn’t canceling
any trips. My wife, Jody Lanard, thought about putting a flag in her car window, but decided on
a copy of the Constitution instead.
But while getting on with our lives is the right goal, “return to normal” goes too
far and smacks of denial. September 11 was a genuine trauma, not just for those who lost family
and friends but for all of us. One gets through trauma, not over it. And, paradoxically, it is easier
for people to get through trauma if they give themselves permission to have been altered by it.
Those who aren’t ready yet to get back onto a plane need us to be patient with them, and
need to be patient with themselves. And though I realize the injustice of it, I believe the same is
true of those who aren’t ready yet to sit next to an Arab-looking young man. (Needless to
say, there must be no patience with those who wish to harass the Arab-looking young man.)
I am tempted to go even further. The inability to live a reasonably normal life in these
abnormal times equals panic, and a victory for the terrorists. The ability to live a totally normal
life, with emotions dulled into numbness or honed into angry patriotism, equals denial –
and poses a high risk of panic after the next attack. So what does calm concern look like? I think
it means taking the precautions that can be taken; feeling the fear, misery, etc., that the situation
justifies; following the crisis without obsessing over it; and still managing to live fairly normally.
Government’s handling of this issue has been mixed. President Bush has rightly urged
people to get on with their lives, but sometimes in a tone that implied it should be easy. New
York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has done better. Soon after the attacks, he was asked by a journalist
to estimate the number of dead in New York. His answer, “more than we can bear,”
was perfect. In the ensuing weeks he modeled what his constituents needed to achieve in their
own lives: He was calm but visibly miserable, doing what had to be done but not easily. Even in
recent weeks, as Giuliani has talked more about the prospects of New York’s baseball
teams and the bargains available in its restaurants, his face and voice are still somber, vulnerable,
almost haunted – making the return-to-normalcy message less chiding and more
appealing. (Giuliani’s take-charge style, by the way, was ideal for the crisis New York had
to weather, especially tempered as it was by his visible – and surprising –
compassion. Mayors elsewhere shouldn’t be misled. As terrorism risks become chronic
rather than acute, a more fallible, consultative style is likely to wear better.)
9. Increased scapegoating is on the horizon.
In mid-crisis, people almost always think well of their leaders. They don’t dare think
anything else while the emergency persists. Blame comes later, as the problem shifts from acute
We’re getting there. Scapegoating is further delayed by anger at the enemy –
wholly merited anger at the terrorists, partly merited anger at non-terrorist Muslim fundamentalists, and wholly unmerited anger at random Muslims and even Muslim look-alikes. But soon the blame will turn inward: Why weren’t we better prepared? Why aren’t we still? What did our intelligence agencies miss? Why has our response been so slow? What’s wrong with our foreign policy? I was too young to remember the battle over “Who lost China?” – but surely there is a battle coming over who lost the Muslim world … as if it were ours to lose.
The seesaw applies to blame as much as to reassurance. Institutions that take some blame on
themselves now are less likely to be scapegoated later. In the famous case of the Tylenol poisonings, several people died after someone added cyanide to random Tylenol capsules. The CEO of
Johnson & Johnson held a video news conference in which he took moral responsibility for the
poisonings, insisting that it was J&J’s job to have tamper-proof packaging. Millions of
people who watched the clip on the news that night undoubtedly said to themselves,
“It’s not his fault, it was some madman.” You can’t do better outrage
management than to have millions of people telling you it’s not your fault.
If you ride the side of the seesaw that focuses on your share of the blame, stakeholders ride
the side that focuses on others’ share. If you focus on others’ share, stakeholders
focus on your share. The paradoxical conclusion: We blame you less if you blame yourself more.
This applies only to stakeholders, not to publics, except in unusual circumstances like these, when
publics are acting like stakeholders. (See #1.) That’s why political leaders are likely to get it wrong.
10. It will help to understand the roots of “their” outrage – especially
its roots in injured self-esteem.
Much has been written – better late than never – about “why they hate
us.” And it is mostly useful. Understanding their grievances doesn’t mean excusing
their crimes. Understanding their grievances doesn’t even mean accepting their grievances.
However we respond, we must try to understand.
I realize that Muslim fundamentalist outrage at the United States has many roots, among
them U.S. support for tyrannical governments in Muslim countries, the U.S. position vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. I want to comment on two of these roots. In the next section I will discuss the conflict between western values and Muslim fundamentalist values. Here I want to comment on the assertion that envy of American wealth and freedom is behind the attacks of September 11.
At first I thought this a misleading and self-serving explanation: “They hate us because
we are rich and free.” But I have come to think it is extraordinarily important. I
don’t see it as envy, exactly, but as something very similar: damaged self-esteem
masquerading as outrage.
Outrage is often difficult to diagnose. Very often what is really outrage looks to my clients
like greed; the plaintiff in a toxic tort suit, for example, is likelier to be suing to “get
even” (outrage) than to “get rich” (greed). Just as often, what looks to my
clients like outrage is really projected guilt, shame, or self-loathing. Examples are plentiful:
- Neighbors of controversial industrial facilities typically feel guilty about having moved into the neighborhood without investigating the risks associated with the facility. Feeling like an irresponsible parent is hard to bear; the guilt is projected into outrage at the facility.
- Patients who had silicone breast implants were vulnerable to several varieties of shame – shame about their breasts (if the implants were cosmetic), about their cancers (if they weren’t cosmetic), about the implants themselves. All the shame was easily converted into the conviction that the implants made them ill.
- Residents of poor minority communities often see their oppression as evidence of their inadequacy. “What’s wrong with me, with us?” they wonder. Such feelings are intolerable. They fuel outrage – sometimes justified, sometimes not – at outside oppressors.
In parts of Africa and Asia, damaged self-esteem is arguably the most important motive behind
many governmental and nongovernmental actions. When I work with mining companies or oil
companies that are trying to negotiate contracts in such places, I urge them to keep in mind that
their negotiating partners are struggling to feel okay about themselves. Neighborhoods, ethnic
groups, even whole countries that have been oppressed, conquered, colonized, or enslaved are
going to emerge from the experience profoundly ashamed and incredibly low in self-esteem. It
may show up as a chip on the shoulder, but has to be seen for what it is.
Now look at the Muslim world, and in particular at the Arab world: Heirs to one of the
world’s truly great civilizations, now reduced to poverty; one of the world’s great
empires, now confined to the margins; one of the world’s great centers of innovation and
modernity, now stultified and reactionary. Starting with Nasser’s pan-Arabism, several
recent efforts at secular reform have failed – and each failure has nourished the rebirth of
fundamentalism. Self-criticism is painful; self-loathing is intolerable. Better to hate the west.
11. The enemy is terrorism; it isn’t opposition to Western values.
Here is where I get into water too deep for me. I desperately want this to be true. I’m not
absolutely certain it is.
American leaders have done very well in helping a traumatized public hold onto the
distinction between loyal Muslim citizens and those who abhor our way of life. They have done
less well in clarifying a more difficult distinction: between those who abhor our way of life but are
not part of any terrorist conspiracy and those who are. President Bush’s insistence that
foreign governments are either with us or against us makes sense if “with us” means
committed to stopping terrorism. It is exceedingly dangerous if “with us” means
supportive of American values. There can be little progress in the war against terrorism unless
Americans are willing to share the world with non-terrorist anti-Americans. A word comes to
mind that hasn’t got much use in the past decade: coexistence.
Let me illustrate this with a few less loaded examples.
From time to time I have worked with clients under attack by extremist activists whose
tactics included actions that were dangerous and illegal, arguably even terrorist. Oil and gas wells
were set afire; animal testing labs were bombed; etc. In each case I pointed out to my client that
public sympathy for the extremists’ goals was far stronger than sympathy for their
methods. If this is going to be a fight between people who think it’s okay to torture
animals and people who think it isn’t, I told my animal-testing client, you have a lot of
enemies. If it’s a fight between people who think it’s okay to bomb labs and people
who think it isn’t, you have a lot of allies.
The important risk communication principle here was that my client needed to express
respect for the bombers’ goals, and willingness to make concessions to those goals
– though no respect for or willingness to defer to the violent tactics. In practice this
meant sitting down with more moderate animal rights groups. Getting along with the moderates
wasn’t going to be easy; it required making compromises my client considered expensive
and unjustified, even wrongheaded. And frankly, were it not for the extremists my client probably
wouldn’t have been willing to deal with the moderates. (Think about the Black Panthers
and Martin Luther King, the Wobblies and the AFL/CIO.) But delegitimating and disempowering
the extremists absolutely required legitimating and empowering the moderates – perhaps
even inviting some of the extremists to forswear violence and join the moderates. The only
alternative was to go to war against moderates and extremists united.
When I spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2000, the
globalization effort that annual meeting symbolizes was just beginning to take on board the
concerns of its opponents. In 2001, Davos was one of many sites of increasingly violent anti-globalization activism, partially disrupting the meeting. Plans for Davos 2002 include major
presentations by non-violent critics of globalization. Movement extremists, of course, see all such
concessions as cooptation. If cooptation means compromising with the moderates and isolating
the extremists, then that is exactly what it is.
For several years I have been trying to help clients in the genetically modified seed industry.
My personal opinion is that GM foods pose huge potential benefits to society, and only modest potential risks. It is nonetheless clear that most European consumers want nothing to do with GM foods; virtually every restaurant menu in Europe carries an anti-GM message. Jose Bove, the French farmer who trashed a McDonald’s restaurant on behalf of the anti-GM movement, is a hero to millions of Europeans who would never trash a restaurant, but who greatly resent the arrogance of American companies willing to force their genetically modified products down European throats.
Bove is not a terrorist, and Europe is not allied with Muslim fundamentalism. I worry that
comparisons like these can confuse and anger more than they enlighten. But there is a point here
we Americans really do need to understand: When we refuse to take our moderate critics
seriously, we strengthen the hand of our extremist critics.
Americans need to understand that the values we aggressively export (free market capitalism,
contract law, representative democracy, gender equality, secularism, materialism, religious
freedom, transparency) are enormously attractive values, and therefore enormously threatening to
those with deep commitments to competing values. Not every fundamentalist Muslim endorses
terrorism – very few do – but every fundamentalist Muslim faces what genuinely
seems to be a life-or-death struggle (at least a zero-sum game) with western cultural expansionism. Choose your own symbol: McDonalds, Coke, thong bikinis, the Internet, the World Trade
Center. And many who are not fundamentalist Muslims, or fundamentalists of any sort, are
sympathetic to at least some of the critique of western values. In fact, many right here in the west
are sympathetic to some of that critique.
Furthermore, even if we stipulate that western values are the best values, it doesn’t
necessarily follow that their aggressive export is unobjectionable. The issue isn’t just
whether we are right. It is also whether we get to decide for the world. The phrase
“cultural imperialism” smacks of the sixties, and surely cultural imperialism is
preferable to military imperialism. Maybe it’s even preferable to isolationism. But as any
teenager will tell you, power imbalances breed resentment, even (perhaps especially) when the
powerful parent is in the right.
Defeating terrorism, in short, means dealing more respectfully with those who question
American values, even those who question them fundamentally. It means rethinking the globalization of American values. It means making a distinction between the terrorist opponents we seek
to destroy and the non-terrorist opponents we seek to coexist with. And it means recognizing
that our failure to coexist with non-terrorist opponents has contributed powerfully to the threat of
12. Or maybe the enemy really includes values we abhor, and people who abhor our
My experience as a risk communication consultant bears out my contention that one defeats extremists by making peace with moderates. But it is only by defining the terrorists as the extremists in this situation that I can get away with analogizing anti-western but non-terrorist Muslim fundamentalists to moderates. By most standards they are not moderate.
And so my position is vulnerable to attack on at least three grounds.
First is the left’s critique that America has never been and is not now an opponent of
terrorism, but only of terrorism against us. I don’t subscribe to the view that the U.S. is
the world’s major source of political evil – I didn’t even when I was writing
for peace movement publications in the 1980s – but I admit I cannot come up with a
coherent definition of terrorism that addresses satisfactorily the differences between what
happened on September 11 and, say, New York firefighters’ support for the IRA, or U.S. government support for the Contras in Nicaragua (not to mention the Northern Alliance). Introducing the concept of “harboring” terrorists or of “state-sponsored” terrorism just makes the task harder. (Our country underwrites violence against other countries’ civilians when it suits our purposes. As for harboring, we would never extradite anyone without seeing evidence of guilt, as we have demanded that the Taliban
do.) I don’t know how to resolve this intellectual muddle. I share the view that we are,
generally and this time, the good guys. But I have despaired of finding a definition of terrorism
that makes this clear.
The second attack comes more from the right. It argues that coexistence with fascism and
communism were moral mistakes, and coexistence with Muslim fundamentalism is too. Like
many Americans, I have somewhat mixed feelings about cultural relativism, having been taught
both that “our way” is the best and that it is rude to say so. Look again at the list of
some of the values we’re exporting: free market capitalism, contract law, representative
democracy, gender equality, secularism, materialism, religious freedom, transparency. I feel more
messianic about some of these than I do about others, but on balance this is surely a better
package than its opponents have been able to put together. Do I really want to endorse long-term
coexistence with fundamentalist Islamic societies that deny them all? I am not contemplating a
holy war, our crusade against their jihad. As a Jew, I would have no horse in that race.
It’s much more about secular pluralism versus fundamentalist intolerance than it is
Christianity versus Islam. The question in a nutshell: What values, if any, should we be willing to
go to war for? What do we have a moral right to impose on others? What do we have a moral
obligation to impose on others? And if we do this inconsistently, are we entitled to do it at all?
The third objection is pragmatic. It seems clear that Muslim fundamentalism is intrinsically
the enemy of the western values I have listed. At least this is true of some sorts of Muslim
fundamentalism. We may feel ambivalent about whether to coexist with them, but they are quite
explicit that coexisting with us is not an option. It seems to follow that fundamentalist Muslim
societies will inevitably be anti-western and anti-American. Does it follow also that such societies
will inevitably be seed beds of future terrorism? This is independent of whether they actually fund
or “harbor” terrorists; the question is whether they indoctrinate future terrorists. In
other words, does coexistence with such societies, even if they are not themselves terrorist, entail
acceptance of a chronically recurring war against terrorism? And if so, might it not be safer to do
something about the seed beds?
It is clear that we cannot and should not coexist with terrorists (at least with terrorists who
target us). And it is clear that we can and must coexist with Islam. For me the toughest question
is whether we try to coexist with non-terrorist fundamentalist anti-American Islamic sects or try
to defeat them.
If we do try to defeat them, I devoutly hope we can do it with words instead of guns. I have
no problem with a military response to terrorism, within limits. But the way to beat
fundamentalism, I think, is by outcompeting it for people’s hearts and minds. I’m
not sure if that means moving slower, so fundamentalist societies have time to adjust, or moving
faster, so the pain of adjustment isn’t unduly prolonged. I’m not sure if it means
getting involved in nation-building, and if so how to do that without reinventing colonialism.
I’m not sure if we can find ways to make common cause with Muslim fundamentalists on
some issues, perhaps even to seduce them into a more moderate stance. I’m not even sure
if we westerners can do any good at all on this issue, or if we can only try to do less harm, to
stand aside while Muslim moderates and Muslim fundamentalists do battle. I’m certainly
not sure how risk communication can help.
Then again, I am sure of very little in this column.
Copyright © 2001 by Peter M. Sandman