Be Slightly Afraid

Be Slightly Afraid

Be Slightly Afraid

Politics and policy.
Oct. 16 2001 6:57 PM

Be Slightly Afraid

Are you wrong to be afraid--of anthrax, the mail, airplanes, terrorists, or what may lie ahead? A measure of fear may promote vigilance against various terrorist threats. But beyond that, it isn't doing any of us any good. At an individual level, fear can make you unhappy by causing you to stay in, take elaborate precautions, and forgo ordinary pleasures and routines. It causes anxiety and nightmares. At a societal level, fear threatens to add to our more tangible problems. In wartime, a cowed, apprehensive nation may lack the cohesion and determination to prevail. That's the import of FDR's famous dictum about having nothing to fear but fear itself. Though Roosevelt was talking about the Depression, his words applied equally well to the Second World War--as they apply to the current war. If we obsess about the power of our enemies and our own vulnerabilities, we court defeat. At worst, widespread fear can escalate into a virulent form of panic, which causes people behave in collectively self-destructive ways.

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But try telling all that to my wife or to the millions of other people who are terrified about what could hypothetically happen to them and their families. To say that fear is unhealthy and unhelpful is like saying that poverty is bad. No one knows that better than the poor themselves--or in this case the frightened. But they can't just wish it away. I say this as someone who has been at the vortex of a good deal of fear lately. I live in downtown Manhattan, quite near the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center. I work in one of New York City's most famous skyscrapers. I, my wife, and a good number of our friends are in the business that has been on the receiving end of most of the anthrax assaults so far. And for good measure, I work for Microsoft, the one non-media company to have been hit.

For whatever reason, I haven't experienced a powerful level of fearfulness myself. But I've been surrounded by enough of it to realize the insufficiency of telling people who are petrified to be courageous. Clap your hands, and people in my neighborhood jump. Broadcast a bulletin like "Child of ABC worker tests positive for anthrax," and I jump too.

Nor do the anti-fear arguments that we've all been hearing a great deal of have much effect. There's a moral argument against being afraid and a logical argument. The moral argument is that being afraid means handing a victory to the terrorists, who are doing what they're doing in an effort to disrupt our lives. As President Bush put it, the battle is between fear and freedom. That's true and no one wants to do Osama Bin Laden's work for him. But while it's easy to say this, most people can't expel fright through force of will. If they could do that, they wouldn't be afraid in the first place. Fear is a glandular response, not a rational decision.

The logical argument is that the risks most of us face from terrorism are minuscule in absolute terms and tiny relative to the other, ordinary risks we unblinkingly face on a daily basis. You're not going to get anthrax and in the incredibly unlikely event you do, it can almost certainly be cured. Driving to the supermarket poses an immeasurably greater risk than bio-terrorism. And so on. I think of the people who make this kind of argument as irrationally rational. What they don't recognize is that humans aren't actuarial machines. For most of us, risks aren't terrifying in proportion to their actual probability. They also subject to such factors as one's pre-existing phobias, the vividness of one's imagination, and the previous failure of our imaginations to foresee terrible things coming. We already have a concept of how dangerous it is to drive without a seat belt, to smoke, or to ski. When it comes to bio-terrorism, we have little information and no frame of reference.

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Moreover, when people say they're worried about anthrax, or taking the subway, or working on the 71st floor, or drinking tap water, they're not necessarily telling us that they're upset just about those particular risks. That's the focus of their anxiety at a particular moment. But what most of them are probably also saying is that they're horrified by what happened on Sept. 11 and penitent for not being worried enough beforehand. They're also afraid of the unknowable future. We've just experienced two forms of deadly, domestic terrorism as complete novelties. What most people are not irrationally worried about is whatever horror might be around the next corner--be it biological, chemical, nuclear, or conventional. Fear is also, pace Roosevelt, the fear of fear. Even those who aren't worried about anthrax bacteria have good reason to be concerned about the economic and societal consequences of mass hysteria prompted by anthrax bacteria.

So if fear is destructive and the familiar arguments against aren't effective against it, what weapons do we have at our disposal? That is, how can we encourage the vast majority of people who are neither abnormally courageous nor irrationally rational to be less afraid? The first point, it seems to me, is to not treat fear as paranoid, childish, or ridiculous. Certain manifestation of fear--asking the doctor for Cipro, as someone in my family actually did, or buying a gas mask--may seem absurd. But the emotion that underlies such actions isn't. All that said, there are things we as a country and we as individuals can do to minimize and contain that fear.

The thing that matters most, it seems to me, is the right kind of political leadership. When Rudy Giuliani says "calm down," I calm down. Why? Because Rudy sets a good example--he's unafraid himself, he uses common sense, and he levels with the public. I think some federal authorities have done less well at dispelling undue fear, erring both in the direction of excessive alarm and excessive reassurance. An example of the former was the FBI's warning last weekend that more terrorist attacks were imminent. One sympathizes with a government agency reacting out of its own fear of making another terrible mistake. But that warning was so vague as to inspire more corrosive alarm than useful precautions. At the other extreme was Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, who said on 60 Minutes that "We're prepared to take care of any contingency, any consequence that develops for any kind of bio-terrorism attack." Statements like that engender a "boy who cried no wolf" effect. We know our government is not prepared for any bio-terror contingency. To claim otherwise casts other reassuring statements by government officials, statements that do happen to be true, into doubt.

Something else that militates against excessive fear is knowledge. When you learn more about a particular risk, you may come to feel that it's higher or lower than you did before. In the case of anthrax as a bio-weapon, you'll almost certainly feel that it's lower, as most of experts in this area do. But either way, you're likely to be less terrified because you know what you're dealing with. While we can't expect every citizen to have an informed view of the capabilities of terrorists and rogue nations, more information is an antidote available to everyone. What's more, it diffuses through society. An illustration of this is Israel, a country where citizens are at far greater risk from terrorism than we are ever likely to be in this country. Few people would describe Israel as a nation crippled by fear. Even if certain risks faced by Israelis are relatively high, they are generally known, comprehended, and of necessity accepted. In this way, fear is buttressed by a sense of realism. Of course, some of this process happens naturally over time and is already happening in the United States.

Finally, it helps us to fight back, both collectively and individually. If we had no idea who was responsible for destroying the World Trade Center, or if we hadn't started bombing the Taliban and Bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan yet, we'd feel a great deal more helpless. A factor promoting fear at the moment is that we don't know whether the anthrax attacks are coming from Bin Laden or from someone else. But fighting back doesn't just mean our national and military responses. It encompasses the countless acts and gestures of solidarity and assistance that have enveloped New York since Sept. 11. We can't just banish the fear that terrorism brings. But we may be able to channel some of it in a more productive direction.