Entries Tagged "fear"

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Refuse to Be Terrorized

Paul Krugman has written a really good update of my 2006 essay.

Krugman:

So what can we say about how to respond to terrorism? Before the atrocities in Paris, the West’s general response involved a mix of policing, precaution, and military action. All involved difficult tradeoffs: surveillance versus privacy, protection versus freedom of movement, denying terrorists safe havens versus the costs and dangers of waging war abroad. And it was always obvious that sometimes a terrorist attack would slip through.

Paris may have changed that calculus a bit, especially when it comes to Europe’s handling of refugees, an agonizing issue that has now gotten even more fraught. And there will have to be a post-mortem on why such an elaborate plot wasn’t spotted. But do you remember all the pronouncements that 9/11 would change everything? Well, it didn’t — and neither will this atrocity.

Again, the goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. And the most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear.

Me:

But our job is to remain steadfast in the face of terror, to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to not panic every time two Muslims stand together checking their watches. There are approximately 1 billion Muslims in the world, a large percentage of them not Arab, and about 320 million Arabs in the Middle East, the overwhelming majority of them not terrorists. Our job is to think critically and rationally, and to ignore the cacophony of other interests trying to use terrorism to advance political careers or increase a television show’s viewership.

The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn’t make us any safer.

This crass and irreverent essay was written after January’s Paris terrorist attack, but is very relevant right now.

Posted on November 17, 2015 at 6:36 AMView Comments

Living in a Code Yellow World

In the 1980s, handgun expert Jeff Cooper invented something called the Color Code to describe what he called the “combat mind-set.” Here is his summary:

In White you are unprepared and unready to take lethal action. If you are attacked in White you will probably die unless your adversary is totally inept.

In Yellow you bring yourself to the understanding that your life may be in danger and that you may have to do something about it.

In Orange you have determined upon a specific adversary and are prepared to take action which may result in his death, but you are not in a lethal mode.

In Red you are in a lethal mode and will shoot if circumstances warrant.

Cooper talked about remaining in Code Yellow over time, but he didn’t write about its psychological toll. It’s significant. Our brains can’t be on that alert level constantly. We need downtime. We need to relax. This is why we have friends around whom we can let our guard down and homes where we can close our doors to outsiders. We only want to visit Yellowland occasionally.

Since 9/11, the US has increasingly become Yellowland, a place where we assume danger is imminent. It’s damaging to us individually and as a society.

I don’t mean to minimize actual danger. Some people really do live in a Code Yellow world, due to the failures of government in their home countries. Even there, we know how hard it is for them to maintain a constant level of alertness in the face of constant danger. Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about this, making safety a basic level in his hierarchy of needs. A lack of safety makes people anxious and tense, and the long term effects are debilitating.

The same effects occur when we believe we’re living in an unsafe situation even if we’re not. The psychological term for this is hypervigilance. Hypervigilance in the face of imagined danger causes stress and anxiety. This, in turn, alters how your hippocampus functions, and causes an excess of cortisol in your body. Now cortisol is great in small and infrequent doses, and helps you run away from tigers. But it destroys your brain and body if you marinate in it for extended periods of time.

Not only does trying to live in Yellowland harm you physically, it changes how you interact with your environment and it impairs your judgment. You forget what’s normal and start seeing the enemy everywhere. Terrorism actually relies on this kind of reaction to succeed.

Here’s an example from The Washington Post last year: “I was taking pictures of my daughters. A stranger thought I was exploiting them.” A father wrote about his run-in with an off-duty DHS agent, who interpreted an innocent family photoshoot as something nefarious and proceeded to harass and lecture the family. That the parents were white and the daughters Asian added a racist element to the encounter.

At the time, people wrote about this as an example of worst-case thinking, saying that as a DHS agent, “he’s paid to suspect the worst at all times and butt in.” While, yes, it was a “disturbing reminder of how the mantra of ‘see something, say something’ has muddied the waters of what constitutes suspicious activity,” I think there’s a deeper story here. The agent is trying to live his life in Yellowland, and it caused him to see predators where there weren’t any.

I call these “movie-plot threats,” scenarios that would make great action movies but that are implausible in real life. Yellowland is filled with them.

Last December former DHS director Tom Ridge wrote about the security risks of building a NFL stadium near the Los Angeles Airport. His report is full of movie-plot threats, including terrorists shooting down a plane and crashing it into a stadium. His conclusion, that it is simply too dangerous to build a sports stadium within a few miles of the airport, is absurd. He’s been living too long in Yellowland.

That our brains aren’t built to live in Yellowland makes sense, because actual attacks are rare. The person walking towards you on the street isn’t an attacker. The person doing something unexpected over there isn’t a terrorist. Crashing an airplane into a sports stadium is more suitable to a Die Hard movie than real life. And the white man taking pictures of two Asian teenagers on a ferry isn’t a sex slaver. (I mean, really?)

Most of us, that DHS agent included, are complete amateurs at knowing the difference between something benign and something that’s actually dangerous. Combine this with the rarity of attacks, and you end up with an overwhelming number of false alarms. This is the ultimate problem with programs like “see something, say something.” They waste an enormous amount of time and money.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in a Code White society are much better served acting like we do. This is something we need to learn at all levels, from our personal interactions to our national policy. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many of our counterterrorism policies have helped convince people they’re not safe, and that they need to be in a constant state of readiness. We need our leaders to lead us out of Yellowland, not to perpetuate it.

This essay previously appeared on Fusion.net.

EDITED TO ADD (9/25): UK student reading book on terrorism is accused of being a terrorist. He was reading the book for a class he was taking. I’ll let you guess his ethnicity.

Posted on September 24, 2015 at 11:39 AMView Comments

The Risk of Unfounded Ebola Fears

Good essay.

Worry about Ebola (or anything) manifests physically as what’s known as a fight, flight, or freeze response. Biological systems ramp up or down to focus the body’s resources on the threat at hand. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, immune function is suppressed (after an initial burst), brain chemistry changes, and the normal functioning of the digestive system is interrupted, among other effects. Like fear itself, these changes are protective in the short term. But when they persist, the changes prompted by chronic stress — defined as stress beyond the normal hassles of life, lasting at least one to two weeks — are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease (the leading cause of death in America); increased likelihood and severity of clinical depression (suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America); depressed memory formation and recall; impaired fertility; reduced bone growth; and gastrointestinal disorders.

Perhaps most insidious of all, by suppressing our immune systems, chronic stress makes us more likely to catch infectious diseases, or suffer more­ — or die­ — from diseases that a healthy immune system would be better able to control. The fear of Ebola may well have an impact on the breadth and severity of how many people get sick, or die, from influenza this flu season. (The CDC reports that, either directly or indirectly, influenza kills between 3,000 and 49,000 people per year.)

There is no question that America’s physical, economic, and social health is far more at risk from the fear of Ebola than from the virus itself.

Posted on January 13, 2015 at 7:10 AMView Comments

The Risk of Unfounded Ebola Fears

Good essay.

Worry about Ebola (or anything) manifests physically as what’s known as a fight, flight, or freeze response. Biological systems ramp up or down to focus the body’s resources on the threat at hand. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, immune function is suppressed (after an initial burst), brain chemistry changes, and the normal functioning of the digestive system is interrupted, among other effects. Like fear itself, these changes are protective in the short term. But when they persist, the changes prompted by chronic stress — defined as stress beyond the normal hassles of life, lasting at least one to two weeks — are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease (the leading cause of death in America); increased likelihood and severity of clinical depression (suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America); depressed memory formation and recall; impaired fertility; reduced bone growth; and gastrointestinal disorders.

Perhaps most insidious of all, by suppressing our immune systems, chronic stress makes us more likely to catch infectious diseases, or suffer more­ — or die­ — from diseases that a healthy immune system would be better able to control. The fear of Ebola may well have an impact on the breadth and severity of how many people get sick, or die, from influenza this flu season. (The CDC reports that, either directly or indirectly, influenza kills between 3,000 and 49,000 people per year.)

There is no question that America’s physical, economic, and social health is far more at risk from the fear of Ebola than from the virus itself.

EDITED TO ADD (10/30): The State of Louisiana is prohibiting researchers who have recently been to Ebola-infected countries from attending a conference on tropical medicine. So now we’re at a point where our fear of Ebola is inhibiting scientific research into treating and curing Ebola.

Posted on October 30, 2014 at 6:40 AMView Comments

Survey on What Americans Fear

Interesting data:

Turning to the crime section of the Chapman Survey on American Fears, the team discovered findings that not only surprised them, but also those who work in fields pertaining to crime.

“What we found when we asked a series of questions pertaining to fears of various crimes is that a majority of Americans not only fear crimes such as, child abduction, gang violence, sexual assaults and others; but they also believe these crimes (and others) have increased over the past 20 years,” said Dr. Edward Day who led this portion of the research and analysis. “When we looked at statistical data from police and FBI records, it showed crime has actually decreased in America in the past 20 years. Criminologists often get angry responses when we try to tell people the crime rate has gone down.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans do not feel like the United States is becoming a safer place. The Chapman Survey on American Fears asked how they think prevalence of several crimes today compare with 20 years ago. In all cases, the clear majority of respondents were pessimistic; and in all cases Americans believe crime has at least remained steady. Crimes specifically asked about were: child abduction, gang violence, human trafficking, mass riots, pedophilia, school shootings, serial killing and sexual assault.

EDITED TO ADD (11/13): Direct link to the data as well as the survey methodology.

Posted on October 28, 2014 at 1:03 PMView Comments

Irrational Fear of Risks Against Our Children

There’s a horrible story of a South Carolina mother arrested for letting her 9-year-old daughter play alone at a park while she was at work. The article linked to another article about a woman convicted of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” for leaving her 4-year-old son in the car for a few minutes. That article contains some excellent commentary by the very sensible Free Range Kids blogger Lenore Skenazy:

“Listen,” she said at one point. “Let’s put aside for the moment that by far, the most dangerous thing you did to your child that day was put him in a car and drive someplace with him. About 300 children are injured in traffic accidents every day — and about two die. That’s a real risk. So if you truly wanted to protect your kid, you’d never drive anywhere with him. But let’s put that aside. So you take him, and you get to the store where you need to run in for a minute and you’re faced with a decision. Now, people will say you committed a crime because you put your kid ‘at risk.’ But the truth is, there’s some risk to either decision you make.” She stopped at this point to emphasize, as she does in much of her analysis, how shockingly rare the abduction or injury of children in non-moving, non-overheated vehicles really is. For example, she insists that statistically speaking, it would likely take 750,000 years for a child left alone in a public space to be snatched by a stranger. “So there is some risk to leaving your kid in a car,” she argues. It might not be statistically meaningful but it’s not nonexistent. The problem is,”she goes on, “there’s some risk to every choice you make. So, say you take the kid inside with you. There’s some risk you’ll both be hit by a crazy driver in the parking lot. There’s some risk someone in the store will go on a shooting spree and shoot your kid. There’s some risk he’ll slip on the ice on the sidewalk outside the store and fracture his skull. There’s some risk no matter what you do. So why is one choice illegal and one is OK? Could it be because the one choice inconveniences you, makes your life a little harder, makes parenting a little harder, gives you a little less time or energy than you would have otherwise had?”

Later on in the conversation, Skenazy boils it down to this. “There’s been this huge cultural shift. We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”

Skenazy has some choice words about the South Carolina story as well:

But, “What if a man would’ve come and snatched her?” said a woman interviewed by the TV station.

To which I must ask: In broad daylight? In a crowded park? Just because something happened on Law & Order doesn’t mean it’s happening all the time in real life. Make “what if?” thinking the basis for an arrest and the cops can collar anyone. “You let your son play in the front yard? What if a man drove up and kidnapped him?” “You let your daughter sleep in her own room? What if a man climbed through the window?” etc.

These fears pop into our brains so easily, they seem almost real. But they’re not. Our crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon, according to The Christian Science Monitor. It may feel like kids are in constant danger, but they are as safe (if not safer) than we were when our parents let us enjoy the summer outside, on our own, without fear of being arrested.

Yes.

Posted on August 11, 2014 at 9:34 AMView Comments

Peter Watts on the Harms of Surveillance

Biologist Peter Watts makes some good points:

Mammals don’t respond well to surveillance. We consider it a threat. It makes us paranoid, and aggressive and vengeful.

[…]

“Natural selection favors the paranoid,” Watts said. Those who run away. In the earliest days of man on the savannah, when we roamed among the predatory, wild animals, someone realized pretty quickly that lions stalked their prey from behind the tall, untamed grass. And so anyone hoping to keep on breathing developed a healthy fear of the lions in the grass and listened for the rustling in the brush in order to avoid becoming lunch for an animal more powerful than themselves. It was instinct. If the rustling, the perceived surveillance, turns out to just be the wind? Well, no harm done.

“For a very long time, people who don’t see agency have a disproportionate tendency to get eaten,” Watts noted.

And so, we’ve developed those protective instincts. “We see faces in the clouds; we hear ghosts and monsters in the stairs at night,” Watts said. “The link between surveillance and fear is a lot deeper than the average privacy advocate is willing to admit.”

[…]

“A lot of critics say blanket surveillance treats us like criminals, but it’s deeper than that,” he said. “It makes us feel like prey. We’re seeing stalking behavior in the illogical sense,” he said.

This is interesting. People accept government surveillance out of fear: fear of the terrorists, fear of the criminals. If Watts is right, then there’s a conflict of fears. Because terrorists and criminals — kidnappers, child pornographers, drug dealers, whatever — is more evocative than the nebulous fear of being stalked, it wins.

EDITED TO ADD (5/23): His own post is better than the write-up.

EDITED TO ADD (5/24): Peter Watts has responded to this post, complaining about the misquotes in the article I quoted. He will post a transcript of his talk, so we can see what he actually said. My guess is that I will still agree with it.

He also recommended this post of his, which is well worth reading.

EDITED TO ADD (5/27): Here is the transcript.

Posted on May 23, 2014 at 6:42 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.