Just Finding the Right Words Won’t Solve Real Problems (Or, Leave Madison Avenue Out of This)

Dr. Burns’ essay, “The Path Well Taken” is a provocative and thoughtful survey of the academic literature examining the nexus between public fear and public communication. His recommendations, based on this research, therefore have a kind of surface plausibility that may make them attractive to some policy professionals. I am less sanguine. I recognize little of contemporary American politics or media in his discussion. His arguments seem to me to inhabit the abstract world of academe. His approach to dealing with fear caused by terrorism is akin to the old joke about the economist stuck on a deserted island with canned food by no means of opening it whose response is, “well, let’s just posit we have a can opener.” We don’t have a can opener.

In order to get a handle on the challenge we have to first define the structural limitations that define the policy arena.

First, terrorism has become a highly politically charged issue. This was inevitable in a way. Grieving family members, horrifying images, and public fear make an irresistible target for demagogues. But let’s not mince words. After 9/11, the Bush Administration deliberately sought to exploit the fear of terrorism for partisan political ends. They used the attacks to press for long-held policy preferences — such as the desire to overthrow Saddam Hussein — and worse, they took every opportunity to paint policy disagreements as treason by arguing that any resistance to administration plans constituted giving aid and comfort to the terrorist enemy. We simply cannot undo that history, and it is a legacy we will continue to deal with for a generation, much as we dealt with the political recriminations from Vietnam for a generation.

We just witnessed a national political campaign where some of the biggest issues were one candidate’s cocktail party at the home of an aging domestic radical and the other candidate’s choice of a vice presidential candidate whose greatest qualification was her state’s proximity to the Bering Straits. There were national television ads invoking Paris Hilton! And the campaigns debated whether it was better to support “change we can believe in” or “a leader we can believe in.” I don’t see how we go from this level of discourse to the kind of thoughtful, disciplined communication Dr. Burns suggests.

Second, even if the U.S. government could speak with one voice — and it can’t; it is simply too large and too undisciplined to do so — the public does not hear one voice. This is one of the surprisingly common mistakes made by scholars and practitioners of public communication. Messaging is all well and good, but we live in a world where individuals have a plethora of channels of information — some reliable, others not; some official, other informal; some well informed, others wholly ignorant; some grounded in science, others in faith or fear; some marked by dispassionate balance, and others defined by their essential outrageousness. Unfortunately, there is no correlation between those channels that embody the “positive” attributes and their actual popularity or influence. Anyone perusing a list of the most popular political blogs or radio personalities will surely see my point. There is no way to control where people will get their information. Engage the “neighbors, first responders, local educators, and community leaders” all you want. People will still tune in to Bill O’Reilly and Michelle Malkin.

Third, there may be a real disconnect between what is good at helping alleviate fear and what is good policy. Jeffrey Goldberg’s brilliant essay in the Atlantic The Things He Carried” highlights this issue nicely. Much of what we do for security falls into the realm of “security theater” designed to give the appearance of doing something, but not really accomplishing much. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security — a bureaucratic disaster that will either be ultimately disassembled or rendered superfluous by the creation of working parallel structures — is an example of “security theater” at the level of government reorganization. The problem is not just wasted effort, it is actively counter-productive effort. By pursuing these reassurance strategies — large, visible, and designed to counter the last attack rather than the next one — we may be undermining our ability to deal with the threat as it emerges and changes. And yet, that is where a policy focused on public reassurance will inevitably lead given the difficulties of cutting through the noise of our daily lives and trying to reach people. As much as I like Dr. Burns’ carefully calibrated notion of community-based discourse grounded in highly differentiated message segmenting based on intended recipient, the fact is that public communication is a blunt, blunt instrument and prone to blow-back. Inevitably, if you want to move the meter on the public’s threat perception, you will gravitate into these “security theater” kinds of programs.

There are two ways of dealing with this policy landscape while acknowledging Professor Burns’ concern that doing nothing risks overreaction and undisciplined response. The first is the response of the cynic, the second of the pragmatist.

A cynical response is simply to say, that while it is true that we are likely to engage in much wasted effort, few of our responses to the terrorist threat are really likely to undermine the fabric of the nation. As a practical matter, for all the concern about American civil liberties and despite the polls showing that American are willing to accept more government intrusions, there have been relatively few genuine impositions on our freedoms. Indeed, we remain much “freer” than even our freedom-loving, open-society Western European friends. We have no national ID card system. No domestic intelligence agency. No system of preventive detention. Our civil liberties benefit from a deeply powerful inertia bolstered by custom, law, and the separation of power between branches and levels of government.

Twenty years ago, at the height of the hysteria over the “war on drugs” there were similar concerns about civil liberties, also based on polls showing that people would accept significant restrictions on their freedoms to combat the scourge of drugs. While many people have suffered from the excesses of the “war on drugs” — mostly low-level dealers and users subjected to police harassment, prosecutorial intimidation, and draconian prison sentences — on the whole, there has not been a massive erosion of our civil liberties as a result. Fear takes a long time to fade. But it does over time, and ultimately, our system of laws is resilient enough to absorb the excesses and return to homeostasis. The “war on terror” is unlikely to make a bigger dent.

So, the cynical response focuses on continuing the sorts of grand, empty gestures we have already pursued since 9/11. We can continue to pack our shampoo in 3 oz bottles and ignore the color coded signs and tolerate the petty annoyances. Over time, fear will fade and it is unlikely that this unfocused motion will result in grievous consequences.

The pragmatic response, on the other hand, accepts the limitations of public communication, but nonetheless aims for a more productive policy orientation. There are three key elements of sound public communication about the terrorist threat.

First, while there are many dangers in overstating the threat, it is also a mistake to understate it. The kind of radicalism that drives groups like al Qaeda is deep-seated and durable. We will continue to have to deal with it for a generation. But we need to refocus the threat so that people understand that it is not just a blind force, but rather part of a system of violent conflict that we ourselves have chosen to opt into. We were not attacked because of who we are, but rather because of our position in the world. Terrorist risk is, in part, a function of the choices we make in terms of our global role, reliance on foreign energy, commitment to human rights, and embrace of economic and cultural globalization. Professor Burns is absolutely correct on this point.

Understanding the terrorist threat can be part of a broader project that American leaders need to undertake — reminding the public that there is no such a thing as a free lunch. You can’t have more services and less taxes. And you can’t have a massive dependence on Middle Eastern oil or a permanent military presence on Arab soil without exposing yourself to the political currents that roil that region. Terrorism is a price that we may have to pay for our choices. This is not a call for withdrawal necessarily, but rather an insistence that our public debates are mature about the tradeoffs we face. Being conscious of the connections between our actions and the risks we face will render those risks comprehensible and as a result more tolerable.

Second, well-respected public figures and institutions will need to take on a larger role in condemning the abuse of the terrorist threat as a tool of partisan politics. What broke the back of the McCarthyist hysteria was an increasingly public rebuke of the Senator by President Eisenhower and by the U.S. Army. Encouraging stern non-partisan condemnation of the politicization of the terrorist threat will ultimately reduce the incentives for demagoguery.

Third, the best way to reduce fear is going to be to reduce the actual threat over time. There is not enough space in this response to detail a comprehensive counter-terrorism approach. However, some of the key elements will need to include a better system for domestic intelligence with appropriate safeguards and oversight, efforts to reduce our exposure to radicalism in the Muslim world, effective counter-proliferation initiatives focused particularly on nuclear weapons and fissile material, and a serious commitment of resources to consequence management. Many of these efforts will need to be quiet, even secret, and will only impact the fear dynamic indirectly through policy success. Yet in the end, this approach will pay greater dividends than any messaging strategy.

In the final analysis, one of the most dangerous fears we face is also the fear of fear. Just as we ought not overstate the terrorist threat itself, we ought not overstate the threat to our national institutions of a bit of hysteria. In the past 70 years, we have panicked about Japanese saboteurs, Communist infiltrators, Soviet Missiles, violent crime, drugs, and now terrorism. Heck, we’ve even managed to get into a tizzy over rock ‘n roll and Janet Jackson’s breasts. In the end, none of our overreactions to those challenges had the dire consequences most feared by civil libertarians and other pundits.

At the margins we can begin to reform the public dialogue by stressing choices and tradeoffs we face as a nation. We can also actively seek to hammer down those who deliberately seek to profit from the fanning of fears. And finally, we can encourage and support serious professionals as they quietly work behind the scenes to address the challenge. But addressing the public’s fears directly is at best treating a symptom rather than the disease. We are overly obsessed with messaging — whether in the form of trying to convince Americans not to fear terrorism or trying to convince Muslims not to hate us — as if finding just the right words and the right medium will make real problems disappear. It won’t.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Path Well Taken: Making the Right Decisions about Risks from Terrorism by William Burns

    In his lead essay, William Burns argues that national discussion of terrorism can take one of two forms: It may be reflexive and fear-driven, or scientific and confident. He expresses hope that the new administration will choose the latter: In recent years, abundant research has been conducted on the social psychology of risk, and that of terrorist risk in particular. Moreover, the transition to a new administration offers an opportunity to change the official tone of public discourse about terrorism, and to employ many of the insights now being produced in social psychology. Burns outlines some of the major findings and describes how they might be applied to public counterterrorism policy.

Response Essays

  • Fearing Fear by John Mueller

    In his response essay, John Mueller assigns some (astonishingly small) numbers to the likelihood of being killed by terrorists. He also notes that the dangers of overreaction and fear are indeed quite great, often greater than the dangers that prompted the fear in the first place. Irrational fears lead to lost civil liberties, useless or near-useless government agencies and programs, and a variety of anxiety-related public health problems. Each of these may well be worse, in terms of hurting our quality of life, than whatever terrorism they were designed to stop.

  • The Death and Rebirth of Common Sense by Camille Pecastaing

    Camille Pecastaing argues that although the United States had faced terrorism before September 11, something about that particular attack clearly induced more widespread fear. Was it the magnitude of the attack? The foreignness of the attackers? The response of the Bush administration? A combination of all of these? Our answers, about which there is no consensus, may prove important in responding to future attacks.

    He also observes two particularities about the response to September 11: First, there was overwhelming momentum toward hysteria. And second, that momentum dissipated very quickly. Although we are still paying the price for this overreaction today, we at least inhabit a political world where the costs can be assessed soberly and where we can attempt to craft better counterterrorism strategies for the future.

The Conversation