Fearing Fear

In discussing risk communication, William Burns quotes Franklin Roosevelt’s famous pronouncement early in the Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It would be interesting to find out what effect, if any, that call had at the time.

Roosevelt was presumably hoping he could charm or browbeat the American people out of the economic terrors that were, he felt, the essential reason ‑‑ indeed, the only reason ‑‑ for perpetuating the economic downslide. The idea was that his call would jolt them out of their fearful mindset and, since fear was the only problem, this transformation would bring the Depression to a speedy end. I am not an economic historian, but it is my distinct impression that this didn’t happen.

There is a darker possibility. Even someone who took Roosevelt at his word might find, when checking with “neighbors, first responders, local educators, and community leaders” as recommended by Burns, that there was still a whole lot of fear out there. If Roosevelt had the mechanism right ‑‑ that fear is the problem ‑‑ one would then be justified in becoming even more afraid. That is, by scaring people about fear, Roosevelt may have made things worse. If fear is the problem and if everybody is afraid, then I am justified in really being afraid.

For people attempting to reduce fears about terrorism, or at least to put the concern in some context, there are two additional problems. The first is that people might react to the efforts by accusing them of being insensitive to their feelings, and the second is that, if another terrorist event takes place, the well‑meaning risk communicator will be deemed a fool.

Therefore, in the case of terrorism, politicians and bureaucrats in particular have special reasons to fear fear itself. And the safest route for them is to empathize with the public’s emotions (I feel your pain), to suggest the public is right to think the danger is just terrible, and to warn of future attacks (if they don’t happen, nobody will remember the prediction, and if they do, everybody will). To those for whom “courage” is a four‑letter word, the wisest course is to play along, to exacerbate, to stoke, and eventually to internalize the fears ‑‑ thereby playing nicely into the hands of the terrorists.

Surely this is the lesson of the post‑9/11 rhetoric. It was in 2002 ‑‑ that is, seven years ago ‑‑ that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice proclaimed, “today America faces an existential threat to our security ‑‑ a threat as great as any we faced during the Civil War, the so‑called ‘Good War,’ or the Cold War.” And in that same year, CIA Director George Tenet assured us that al‑Qaeda was “reconstituted,” planning in “multiple theaters of operation,” and “coming after us.”

And we have, of course, heard this kind of thing endlessly ever since. Only last year the man in charge of our domestic security, U.S. homeland security czar Michael Chertoff, proclaimed the “struggle” against terrorism to be a “significant existential” one ‑‑ carefully differentiating it, apparently, from all those insignificant existential struggles we have waged in the past. (Burns sensibly calls for a “nuanced” dialog on the subject, and Chertoff has clearly risen to that challenge.) And it was in 2007 that our czar disclosed that his “gut” was telling him there would be a terrorist attack that summer ‑‑ that is, he was willfully exacerbating fear based by his own admission on nothing.

As Burns stresses, fear “serves a critical function when it causes us to flee from danger or exercise caution.” However, excessive fear ‑‑ “unreasoning, unjustified terror” in Roosevelt’s phrase ‑‑ has negative consequences.

It can cause health problems, for example. Extensive studies of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown find that the largest health consequences came not from the accident itself (fewer than 50 people died directly from radiation exposure), but from the impact on the mental health of people traumatized by completely imaginary, if officially stoked, fears that they would soon die of cancer. And Americans fearful of terrorism after 9/11 have been three to five times more likely than others to be diagnosed with new cardiovascular ailments.

Another negative consequence of fear itself is that it often inspires or facilitates overreactive policies. If one has really come to deem the threat to be “existential,” all sorts of policies become attractive, even obligatory, such as reducing civil liberties and plunging the country into costly wars in the Middle East.

Given these negative consequences, policy makers and the media, to the degree they want to be responsible, ought to be making an effort to reduce those fears that are, in Roosevelt’s words, unreasoning and unjustified. But in part because of the fear fear inspires in them, they scarcely ever even try.

It is not entirely clear how they might go about reducing fear. In a recent article, The Onion claims to have attended a press conference in which Chertoff made a stab at it. He reportedly urged Americans not to be alarmed and suggested they simply “continue living their lives as they have for the last seven years ‑‑ with the crippling fear that at any moment they, or someone they love, could die in a fiery inferno.”

I have a couple of additional suggestions.

As Burns points out, the probability of being harmed by a terrorist is “extraordinarily small,” and one possibility for the risk communicator would be to put some numbers on that observation. At present rates, in fact, the chance anyone living outside a war zone will be killed by an international terrorist comes in at about 1 in 75,000 ‑‑ that’s not per year, but over an 80‑year period. The chance of dying in an automobile accident over the same interval, in distinct contrast, is about 1 in 80.

That assumes another 9/11 every several years; if there are no terrorist attacks of that magnitude, the chance of death by terror slumps to about 1 in 130,000.

Exposing this arresting detail may not actually work to reduce fear, given the problem of “probability neglect” that Burns notes. However, after all the yammering about terrorism we’ve endured for eight years, the number ought at least to be out there somewhere in the public consciousness. But in fact it almost never comes up ‑‑ either from the Republicans, who have had a political incentive to exacerbate fear, as Bernard Finel points out, or from the Democrats, who for the most part haven’t. And it shows up almost never in the press.

One might also instructively tally up the number of people killed by al‑Qaeda and its clones, lookalikes, and wannabes outside of war zones since 9/11. That comes to maybe 200 to 300 per year.

That’s 200 to 300 per year too many of course, but it hardly suggests the country is under an existential threat ‑‑ or perhaps even under something that deserves to be called a “threat” at all. Maybe with this information under their belt, at least some of the terror‑intimidated will get a life.

In the end, however, Finel is probably right to suggest that “fear takes a long time to fade” ‑‑ at least a fear that has become so thoroughly internalized. Moreover, the constructs and institutions that the terrorism fear has inspired or even made necessary will probably live on after the instigating fear itself fades ‑‑ they have become, in venerable Washington parlance, self‑licking ice cream cones.

The FBI continued to squander resources chasing members of the pathetic domestic Communist Party long after the public had ceased to be concerned about the issue. The drug war shows signs of outlasting not only urgent interest, but also God.

And, after spending enough money on nuclear weapons to buy everything in the country except for the land in order to defend it against a directly aggressive military threat that did not happen to exist, the nuclear arsenal, albeit reduced in numbers, continues to be polished, nurtured, and admired even though there is nothing to point it at.

Fear itself not merely “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” as Roosevelt intoned. It can perpetuate and ossify the retreat.

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

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

    In his response to William Burns, Bernard Finel argues that “the fear of fear” can also be exaggerated: Panics come and go, and U.S. institutions that support liberty and limited government are more robust than we often tend to think. Finel also expresses skepticism about the power of messaging, which he terms a “blunt instrument.” Although terrorism has been used, regrettably, as a tool of partisan politics, the right response is simply to condemn this approach and leave it behind. A better message about terrorism won’t do much to combat public fear, in part because the U.S. government is just one voice among many, and fearmongers are still out there regardless of what it might say. Finel argues that a better strategy for actually ending terrorism might include U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, nuclear nonproliferation, and energy independence, among other measures, and that these, too, are likely to ease public fears.

  • 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