The Death and Rebirth of Common Sense

There is not much to disagree with, except maybe on the choice of word, in Dr. Burns’ argument that educating the people about risk is indispensable to prevent the kind of fear-induced overreaction that followed the attacks of September 11. Clinically, anxiety would be a better descriptor than “fear.” And anxiety is not the only possible reaction to a terrorist attack. Outrage is a much more common emotion, especially when there is little to actually fear from terrorists. But whether anxiety or outrage, the emotions that seized the American public in late 2001 kindled a collective hysteria about a possible Jihadist threat — and it is the consequences of that hysteria, more than the attacks, that will be of historical significance.


A few years before those events, in 1995, a bomb destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City — and that came just two years after another bomb had failed to take down the World Trade Center. It is remarkable how different the public response was then to what would come in 2001. The Oklahoma bombing had the potential to be a similar national trauma: It was the first large attack against civilians in a country with little experience of terrorism, and was a homegrown threat that should have been more anxiogenic than an external threat like al-Qaeda — yet it is more natural, therefore less stressful, to fear turbaned Muslims than the blond, Scots-Irish next door.


During the same period, the Columbine killings — another act of terrorism, if of the apolitical kind — barely stirred a debate about gun control that was not going to go anywhere. The 1990s came and went mostly unfazed by those attacks. The sale of fertilizers may have been monitored a little more closely, but no one even bothered thinking about locking cockpit doors on airliners or banning knives from cabins — mundane measures already in place on some foreign airlines. Outrage was fleeting, fear nonexistent. Risk, then, was part of American life.


Then came 9/11, and everything changed. What happened? Was a threshold crossed with the number of casualties? Was it the visual element of the towers collapsing live on television? Certainly, the New York attacks had a much greater impact than the Washington attack, which resulted in a more “normal” level of casualties and remained relatively “unseen.” Few people now actually recall this incident without prompting, whereas New York’s slowly falling towers are part of an active, living memory.


Or was it that the Bush Administration was a different animal than the Clinton Administration? The fear that Dr. Burns warns against, the collective hysteria that derails sound policy making, is an elusive feeling. It is also a constructed feeling. There was a conspiracy of the media and government after September 2001 to build it up. The conspiracy was neither organized, nor necessarily conscious, but all the dominant winds were suddenly blowing in the same direction, forcing everyone to fall in line, taking reason for a five-year ride.


Humans are susceptible to collective hysteria because they are, cognitively and emotionally, designed to do just that. This kind of response is evolutionarily adaptive, or at least it was in the circumstances in which the human brain evolved, when our species was roaming the African savanna. But what about present times? What are the costs and benefits of hysteria for a society that runs a $14 trillion economy, employs millions of people, and is endowed with nuclear warheads? Dr. Burns’ research on the diffusion and lingering effects of fear led him to sobering conclusions about the efficiency loss it causes.


Dr. Mueller and Dr. Finel, in their response to Dr. Burns, seem to have a greater tolerance for hysteria. We know there are precedents in American history, such as the self-destructive War on Drugs, the anti-Communist witch hunts, and the mass internment of Japanese-Americans. Before that was the anti-immigrant, anti-anarchist hysteria of the early 20th century — President William McKinley, it should be recalled, fell victim to a terrorist. In each case, resources were squandered and freedom was forced to hunker down, but things eventually returned to equilibrium. American folly, it seems, is recurrent but self-correcting.


Moreover, had there been a hint of hysteria in response to the Oklahoma bombing, had this event teased the imagination of security experts and prompted them to review airline safety guidelines, the 9/11 hijackings could have been easily prevented. Finally, and most importantly, if it is the nature of the people to feel this passionately about something, shouldn’t a democratic government acknowledge those feelings?… Or should it?


Murder, rape, and addiction to intoxicants are also part of human nature, yet democratic governments repress those severely. So there is no moral reason governments should indulge — let alone nourish — their citizen’s irrational emotions when the risk is so low — as Dr. Mueller indicates of terrorism — and the consequences so high. Anxiety can mean alertness, but it can also mean a devouring hysteria, especially when it is a mask for outrage. The 9/11 attacks were not a threat to American life but to American self-image.


The Clinton Administration should have been more alert, in particular with regard to basic safety procedures. The Bush Administration should have been less hysterical — even though, to its credit, it resisted steadfastly the anti-Muslim crusades some demanded. The difference between hysteria and alertness may come, as Dr. Burns suggests, from a sound education about risks and threats. But who should be educated? The American people? The media? The government itself? And, within government, should it be the elected officials or the technocratic staff?


Elected officials are in a unique position because of their direct relationship with the American people. They are both leaders and followers: they make the public discourse, but they also respond to it. The media have a similar relationship with the people: they are not sanctioned at the end of each electoral cycle, but daily, by audience ratings. In that relationship, who manipulates whom? Who educates whom?


The technocratic staff is in a different but not necessarily better place. On one hand, they are the most qualified — by training — to understand the nature of risk and probabilities. On the other hand, they are the most vulnerable — by mission — to the realization of said risk. Homeland security does not have a statistically acceptable casualty rate: it is an absolute, zero-risk paradigm. A fantasy policy objective — zero-risk — is institutionalized as the mission of thousands of public servants, many of whom will be accountable in some form if a failure occurs. For them, public hysteria has no cost: it only pads up their budget appropriations and help accomplish their single-minded mission, if at the expense of everything else.


This is the problem of representative democracy, which absolves citizens of responsibility outside of the symbolic and sometimes grotesque — Paris Hiltonesque, as Dr. Finel points out — electoral theater. The social contract is loaded with unrealistic, often contradictory promises — economic growth, full employment, cheaper energy, fewer taxes, more spending, more freedom, and total security from terrorism, or from anything for that matter — leaving elected representatives to play the crowds with “existential threats” or metaphysical “change” to keep people in line when reality no longer fits the fantasy.


Dr. Burns correctly demands that citizens receive a strong injection of realism, about terrorism and about risk in general. This is vital for the sound exercise of a democracy. But, as Dr. Finel and Dr. Mueller point out, who has a practical interest in doing so? While all agree the public should be better educated about risk, there is no practical indication of how to swim against the tide of the massive public “de-education” undertaken by populist media and politicians. Even the technocrats, who stand on the front lines of reality, have no incentives to share what they know about risk and instead work in a culture of secrecy and dissimulation, barricaded behind “security clearances.”


It is not in the nature of American democracy to organize public education about risks such as terrorism. But it is nonetheless in the nature of this democracy to let academics like Dr. Burns, along with Supreme Court judges, satirists, realists, pragmatists, and retired technocrats speak louder about the real nature of transnational terrorism — a nuisance, a by-product of American imperial reach — and denounce the fear mongers and the populists and the ignorant for what they are. And there are indications that this message has finally reached its audience.


Two dynamics stand out about the American response to the 2001 attacks. The first is the massive erring on the side of hysteria, with negative consequences in terms of civil liberty, international law, fiscal discipline, etc. The second is the remarkable speed and magnitude of the correction. By the time of the 2006 elections, the American people had woken up to a terrible hangover from excesses in the exercise of “counterterrorism.” And while the country is still paying the price today, with a recession induced by the economic neglect and fiscal profligacy of a terrorism-obsessed administration, the population has massively rejected the paradigms of hysteria that dominated the 2001-2006 period.


At the close of this first decade of the 21st century, the American people are getting a strong dose of realism from reality itself. Having been fooled by the National Association of Realtors, who told them house prices never went down, by the Federal Reserve and pension funds managers, who claimed to know what they were doing with the people’s money, and by a foreign policy apparatus who monomaniacally pursued a war on terrorism and missed the far more consequential rise of China and resurgence of Russian nationalism, they now face a choice between a deeper leap into blind faith, and common sense.


Despite the messianic character of the last presidential election, there is some hope that common sense is prevailing — at least with regard to terrorism. Part of the public seems to have realized that the very objective of terrorism is not to provoke fear but an overreaction, and that Bin Laden took the United States for a ride even more humiliating than the destruction of the towers. They have realized that erring on the side of hysteria and changing their lifestyle — from their legal system to the way they board aircraft — was playing in the hands of their enemies. It is not certain that these lessons will be durable — that they would resist a significant attack, such as the dirty bomb envisioned by Dr. Burns — but there is hope that the next time around, the challenge will be faced with more aplomb.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.