Encouraging a Resilient Public

On most issues, I think the gap between my perspective and Dr. Burns’ is quite small. I don’t think that policy success directly translates into changes in public perceptions. And I agree with his conclusion, “Take-away lesson: To be effective, reducing risk must be accompanied by identifying gaps in public understanding.” Where I am more skeptical is about the role of an explicit communication strategy in bringing about the changes we seek.

Aside from the problem of cutting through the noise that I mentioned earlier, I just don’t think there is any good evidence that nuanced discourse affects perceptions. Indeed, virtually every public policy debate in the United States tends to resolve itself down a set of unsophisticated sound-bites that gain traction through their appeal to broader, inchoate beliefs and norms. We don’t debate the actual merits of policy options. What we debate is whether a proposal looks vaguely like something we like or hate. The public tends to lodge policy debates into quite broad boxes… much to the frustration of policy wonks. But it is what it is.

And frankly, there is nothing really wrong with that. Communication with the public always has theatrical elements. It is often about images and symbols more than about details. Which is why, ultimately, I think that any public reassurance strategy will inevitably gravitate away from the sophisticated discourse envisaged by Dr. Burns and toward the blunt “security theater” approaches that we’ve already seen.

There is also another issue I’d like to raise: national culture. This is a slippery concept and I introduce it with some trepidation. But I can’t help but think it is relevant. Consider Britain, where as a matter of national culture there exists the concept of the “stiff upper lip” in response to threats. Whereas in the United States we value the use of decisive violence to eliminate threats once and for all. These broad orientations don’t define policy choices, but I do think that appeals to calm reflection on risks gain more traction in Britain than in the United States, where we don’t like to see problems fester but rather prefer to “solve” them. It may be that some of the approaches successfully implemented elsewhere just won’t work in the United States because they are contrary to our national expectations of decisive leadership.

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.