What Constitutes Reasonable Caution and When Does The Culture of Fear Cross
The Line Into Hysteria?
The conventional wisdom about terrorism seemed to be so
overdrawn and the hysteria so under-justified. Extrapolating too much from
9/11seemed to be fairly foolish, or at any rate dangerous and unjustified.
Looking at the total amount of damage that terrorism does, it didn't seem to
justify the extraordinary attention and sometimes hysteria that it seemed to
— John Mueller, author of "Overblown: How Politicians and the
Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them"
This piece will present anecdotal evidence that the United States is in the
grips of fear caused by an over-reaction of the media, public safety groups and
others. The culture of fear existed prior to the events of September 11, 2001,
for example, even though the rate of murders went down in the U.S. after the O.J.
Simpson trial, media reporting of murders skyrocketed a whopping 600%
according to one research group. Fear sells air time and ups ratings. This resulted in a rise in purchases of home security devices
and firearms nationwide. However, the "face" of fear was ambiguous; those who
were feared were just "the bad guys."
The effect of 9/11 was to give fear a face: most often the face of a screaming, swarthy-skinned middle-easterner hell-bent
on wreaking havoc on U.S. residents and, eventually, destroying our lifestyle
and overthrowing the government and replacing it with an Islamic dictatorship.
Additionally, 9/11 made true what, during the cold war years, was just an
imagined atrocity: an act of war resulting in a significant number of
casualties, in this case, civilian casualties, committed on the soil of the
continental United States. Until that time, the attack on Pearl
Harbor, Hawaii was indeed on U.S. "turf," and caused many casualties, but
Americans remained convinced (until nuclear proliferation) that they were safe
from harm in their own homes.
Duck and Cover
After the first non-testing detonation of nuclear weapons over Hiroshima
and Nagasaki Japan, the world identified the mushroom cloud as a sign of
lethal, fiery destruction; trees, buildings and humans literally melted
to death at the epicenter of the blast. Then came the news that USSR, The Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan would later call it, had built a bomb a hundred
times as powerful as the first U.S. models, and a rocket capable of propelling
it onto U.S. soil with amazing speed and accuracy.
In the cities, the familiar yellow signs bearing an icon resembling a
three-bladed fan went up, directing the public to the nearest fallout shelters. In the country, bomb shelters with thick concrete
walls and supplies were being dug by the thousands. There is a home in
Ridgefield, Connecticut that still contains a basement lined with 3/4" lead,
where supposedly the family would survive the fallout from an attack on New York
City until it was safe for them to emerge.
In the schools during the 1950s and early 1960s, movies were shown to school
children young and old, admonishing them to get under their desks and put their
heads down when told. This was to protect them from the "bright flash of light"
that the Communists might inflict upon them. Nearly every parent had
to endure answering their child's question, "Are they going to blow us up?" No
possible answer would convince a child the answer to that question was "no"
after their own government had told them this was a possibility. Millions of
children suffered nightmares; so did their parents.
Fear and Overreaction in Modern Society
The United States Office of Homeland Security, local public safety agencies,
and not the least of all the media are responsible for causing Americans to
become overwhelmed with thoughts that they or their loved ones may fall prey to
serious physical harm or death. This achieves exactly what terrorist
organizations are desirous of achieving; the chipping away of America's
opposition to the terrorists' political agendas to the point where, they hope,
America will cave in to their demands.
This is a fallacy. Bruce Schneier, a noted writer on the culture of fear in
America pointed out brilliantly in his essay "Refuse to be Terrorized:"
The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a
political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists
kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up
planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just
The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of
us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The
real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the
And we're doing exactly what the terrorists want.
Schneier further articulates this concept with supporting evidence in his
essay "Correspondent Inference Theory and Terrorism:"
But like all cognitive biases, correspondent inference theory
fails sometimes. And one place it fails pretty spectacularly is in our
response to terrorism. Because terrorism often results in the horrific
deaths of innocents, we mistakenly infer that the horrific deaths of
innocents is the primary motivation of the terrorist, and not the means
to a different end.
I found this interesting analysis in a paper by Max Abrahms in
"International Security." "Why Terrorism Does Not Work" analyzes the
political motivations of 28 terrorist groups: the complete list of
"foreign terrorist organizations" designated by the U.S. Department of
State since 2001. He lists 42 policy objectives of those groups, and
found that they only achieved them 7 percent of the time.
Even the John Birch Society has been outspoken in publication and on the
web, criticizing the government and the media for fear-mongering and steering
foreign policy in the wrong direction. The accuse the current government of a
misguided foreign policy which likens terrorism as a threat to the U.S. to the
Nazi/Fascist/Imperial Japanese axis of World War II. The Birchers disagree. An
article on their website quotes Ted Galen Carpeter of the Cato Institute:
"The closest historical analogy for the radical Islamic terrorist
threat is neither the two world wars nor the Cold War," writes
Carpenter. "It is the violence perpetrated by anarchist forces during
the last third of the 19th century. Anarchists committed numerous
high-profile assassinations, including a Russian czar, an empress of
Austria-Hungary, and President William McKinley. They also fomented
numerous bomb plots and riots, including the notorious Haymarket riot in
the United States." Establishment politicians of that time, whom
Carpenter calls the "Newt Gingriches of that era," also
"overreacted and warned of a dire threat to Western civilization. In
reality, though, the anarchists were capable only of pinpricks, and life
The Media: Porn Sells, Terrorism Sells More - The Coining of the Concept of
Even ABC Newsman John Stossel wrote a piece that admits that the more
terrorism (or mere hint of terrorism) the media can find, the more they write
about or broadcast it. While the White House is coming up with dire warnings
such as this:
"Our country is still the target of terrorists who want to
kill many," said President Bush during his State of the Union
Address in 2005. "They're out to hurt us. They're out to hurt us badly."
The fact is, there's more chance that you'll drown in your own bathtub than
die in a non-war zone terrorist action. The chances, worldwide, of dying at the
hands of terrorists is 1 in 80,000.
Stossel gives the example of a family who lived near New York but relocated,
away from family and friends, to Florida. They refuse to fly to visit relatives
in New York. Now, in the three months following 9/11, a study found that 1,000
Americans died because they chose not to fly but drive to their destinations.
Terrorism is also lucrative. Economist Veronique de Rugy coined the phrase
"Terror Porn," and says that the Office of National Security is handing out
millions of dollars willy-nilly. Does a small town in rural Idaho really need
$300,000 so they can buy two trailers equipped with extra communications
equipment, ATVs, Hazmat Suits and other items they'll probably never use?
All of the writers quoted herein agree on one thing: random bag
checks, random patrols of critical sites which are now under scrutiny all
the time, and more use of common sense by the Office of Homeland Security on
all levels from policy-making down to the airport bag-checkers (who've been
known to perform thorough, time-consuming security checks on elderly fliers who
use walkers in order to get around).
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous adage, "we
have nothing to fear but fear itself" rings true. Fear is a strong emotion.
Changing one's lifestyle in order to accommodate fear of terrorism achieves the
goals of the terrorists. However, changing a culture of fear in America is going
to be a daunting task.
Sadly, many Americans are of the belief that "if it's on the television, it
must be so." How can we get the media to give up on making terror scares the
lead story on the seven o'clock news? How can we remain vigilant against
ostensible terrorist activities without evacuating entire office buildings
because of a strange satchel found in a hallway that was making noise (it was a
battery-operated toy that had fallen out of a worker's backpack).
Let's finish this piece with some real-world examples of how far things have
gone, and how rational people suddenly become irrational when the word
"terrorism" is uttered.
Sprinkling a Mysterious White Powder
The Hash House Harriers, or "HHH" or "H3" as they call themselves, have
chapters in myriad locations, including nearly every major city in the U.S., and
cities worldwide. Their motto is catchy, "A drinking club with a running
A Google* search for
"Hash House Harriers" returned approximately 205,000
results on this date. Pretty impressive.
The group made headlines Friday, August 24, 2007 after organizers of one of
their hare and hound runs were spotted pouring flour on the asphalt of the
enormous parking lot of the New Haven, Connecticut IKEA superstore. The
police were called by concerned onlookers, who thought that the harmless,
biodegradable flour "hash" route markers being laid were actually poisonous
dust, perhaps anthrax, being scattered about by terrorists.
New Haven ophthalmologist Daniel Salchow and his sister Dorothee (who was
visiting from Germany at the time) figured that sending runners on a chase
around the largest public parking lot in New Haven would be rather humorous.
They were the "hares" for this game of hares and hounds, the primary raison
d'etre of the H3 (their secondary purpose is to consume copious amounts of
Salchow had returned to his home, the site of the H3 chapter's after-party
(which coincidentally was also to celebrate Salchow's 36th birthday). His wife
called and said there was a problem and he ought to get down to the IKEA store
pronto. The police were there en masse, waiting for him. Despite a
lengthy explanation on his part, he and his sister were charged with
first-degree breach of peace, a felony. They were later released on a promise to
The IKEA store had been evacuated and did not re-open until the following
morning. Although the press mentioned nothing in the way of a statement from
IKEA. An Associated Press news release did mention that this particular time of
year is very busy for the store, the destination of choice for soon-to-return-to
school college students wanting to purchase furnishings and accessories for
their dorm rooms.
The New Haven Police and a spokesperson for the New Haven mayor's office made
it clear that they took this offense very seriously and that Salchow should not
have used flour, because he was aware it had caused problems for other chapters
of the group in the past. The mayor's advisors have yet to determine an amount
they will demand from Salchow by way of restitution.
A mall in Fayetteville, North Carolina was evacuated for two hours following
a discovery of flour in its parking lot in 2002. Before that, two runners were
arrested in Oxford, Mississippi were arrested after using a white powder to mark
their trails in the downtown of that city. Many of the clubs switched to using
chalk rather than flour to mark the "checks" used to leave a trail (as well as
false ones) for the "hounds" who follow the trailblazers, or "hares" after 9/11
concerns about bioterrorism nixed the idea of using powders of any kind. The New
Haven Club says it returned to using flour "because it is biodegradable."
(Say, that's true; but chalk is harmless and washes away in the rain.)
The Fayetteville incident and the Mississippi incident both took place during
the widespread public hysteria about anthrax distribution and other bioterrorism during late 2001 and
early 2002. The men arrested in Oxford Mississippi were actually overheard
saying something about anthrax, which resulted in a call not only to local
authorities but to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The online newspaper
of the University of Mississippi asked that their behavior be taken with a grain
of salt, because the outcome was swiftly determined to be harmless.
The New Haven chapter sent an email to many H3 chapters. The first paragraph
is a "horse's mouth" explanation of the situation:
Hashers-Thank you for all of your wonderful words and support during
this time. We sincerely regret that our run lead to such great confusion for
the city of New Haven. Like anyone trying to be good hares, Daniel and Doro
saw the great check potential of the IKEA parking lot as something
guaranteed to slow down and confuse the pack. Unfortunately a few
non-hashers (being non-hashers) were freaked out by their flour and chalk
laying behavior. It is too bad that the non-hashers did not use some common
sense (not all that common) and ask Daniel and Doro what they were doing as
this entire thing could have been avoided. Regardless, the situation
unfolded as it did and we cannot change it. We can only move forward by
saying On-On and continuing to cooperate with the authorities until this is
The email goes on to reveal the clubs' knowledge that flour just ain't the
right way to blaze a trail, given the potential for hysteria:
Since this incident occurred, we have read many comments from Hashers
around the country that had a similar run in with the police but were not
arrested and the misunderstanding was resolved on the scene. To our
knowledge, no hasher has ever been accused of a felony as a result of
setting a trail. If you have "hasher setting trail" police stories or if you
know someone who does, please reply to this address (omitted for
Rather than include the immense list of H3 chapter websites in the sources
below, I've cited only the ones used in preparation of this document. Overall,
though, the chapters seem to be coordinating quite an effort to either raise
funds for the Selchows' legal fees, or actually have members (who happen to be
attorneys, and it appears there are many) represent them.
Protecting Fire Hydrants From Terrorist Tampering
In the 1970s, a Georgia contractor named Tom Davidson invented a security
device designed to be attached to fire hydrants to keep kids from sticking rocks
and bottles into them. Nobody seemed interested in the device and, in fact, he
didn't even bother to patent it. Then came 9/11; Davidson patented his device,
and re-named it the "Davidson Anti-Terrorism Valve," or "ATV." The rationale
behind the valve is to keep foreign substances — anthrax, bubonic plague,
cyanide, tennis balls — from entering the water supply. And cities and towns all
over the Southeast have bitten, and are purchasing the valves at about $600
The City of Augusta, Georgia got a bargain price of $575 per device, because
they acted first. The City has hired two employees solely to install
the safety device on fire hydrants during a six-year period at a total cost of
approximately $3.2 million. Atlanta followed suit, installing the device in
certain areas of the city.
The ATV is being marketed by a company called Mainline Homeland Security
Products and Services, which claims: "Most citizens don't realize that one of the
most easily accessible and dangerous vulnerabilities that terrorists could
exploit remains largely unchecked — America's fire hydrants."
Mainline Homeland Security Products and Services has managed to overcome some
city officials' reticence about the viability of hiding a pumping device large
enough to actually overwhelm the pressure in a municipal mainline water system
by giving them demonstrations. However, demonstrations aren't available to the
Now, "flawed logic" is a mild term for what we have here, in fact, the idea
is absolutely ridiculous for several reasons:
- “The United States cannot afford monitoring or treatment technologies
that are solely focused on low-probability, high-consequence threats to our
water systems.” — Post-9/11 conclusion of Sandia National Laboratories, a
government research center run by Lockheed Martin Corporation.
- Are mid-sized cities in the Southwestern United States viable targets
for terrorists? Wouldn't they get more "bang for the buck" if they poisoned
the water in Chicago, New York, Miami, Dallas or Washington, D.C.?
- One hundred thirty tons of Sodium Cyanide would be necessary to spread a
lethal dose of the substance through the 125 million gallons of water in
Augusta's supply system. One hundred thirty tons.
- A pumping device capable of overwhelming the pressure in the system,
once the hydrant is turned on, would need to be parked near the hydrant, and
would no doubt be rather conspicuous (think Fire Department High-Flow Pumper
- There's nothing to keep potential terrorists from renting or purchasing
a residence, and installing pump equipment in the residence, to insinuate
the poison into the water supply a little more slowly, by utilizing
"backflow;" taking advantage of the fluctuations in water pressure, but
overpowering the normal pressure nonetheless.
- Even if poison were to be introduced into the system, a few
unfortunate individuals (nearest the "poison pump") would likely begin
suffering harmful or fatal symptoms long before the poison made its way
through the city's entire system. A very small number of sick people in the
same area would cause City health officials to notice a regional health
threat, and determine its source, giving ample warning to the rest of the
What used to be humor has become the equivalent of "Shouting Fire in a Crowded Theater"
Prior to 9/11 and the "War on Terror, bomb threats telephoned to large
buildings or areas of congregation, (particularly schools) were overwhelmingly
empty threats; meant merely to empty the buildings and perhaps strike a vague,
non-specific sense of fear in the hearts of persons involved. I'd hazard a guess
that school bomb threats were invariably the result of irresponsible students
who'd disturb the entire school day merely because they were avoiding a class in
which a project was due, or a test was scheduled.
The horrible events of 9/11 and the anthrax scares of 2001-2002 have
contributed more to the American culture of fear than all other incidents
No longer can we afford to perpetuate the culture of fear by discussing bomb
threats and the like in a lighthearted manner. Jokes about white powder, etc.
should be avoided at all costs. Anyone who has suffered the consequences of
joking about possessing contraband on an airliner while in a check-in line can
tell you the resultant full-body search and interrogation is no party.
However, it should be clear that when an air passenger points out to security
that he saw two Muslims in the airport checking their watches at the same time,
that becomes an act of racism.
One of the finest ways to fight the "war against terror" is to go about our
business, do what we want to do, and enjoy life. Because life's too short. I'm
not suggesting that we go on a tourist jaunt to Baghdad, but that through
communication and information, we allay our own fears that we will fall victim
to an act of terrorism.
*IKEA is a registered trademark of IKEA, Inc. Google is a registered
trademark of Google, Inc. "Just do it." and Nike are registered trademarks of the Nike Corp.
"Bin Laden's Next Target?" by Corey Pein, Metro Spirit, Augusta, Georgia,
"Terror Nation: Are Americans Allowing Terrorists to Rule Their
Lives?" by John Stossel and Gena Binkley, ABC News Website, 2/23/07
http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=2895849&page=1 (Accessed 8/30/07)
"Refuse to be Terrorized" by Bruce Schneier, Wired News 8/24/06
http://www.schneier.com/essay-124.html (Accessed 8/30/07)
"Felony Charges in Ikea Scare" by Cara Rubinsky, The Associated Press
List-Serv of the Atlanta Chapter of H3
New Haven, Connecticut H3 List-Serv
http://sports.groups.yahoo.com/group/poisonivyleague/ (Accessed 8/27/07)
"Jokes are a Serious Issue, but not a Criminal Offense," Op-Ed piece,
DmOnline, University of Mississippi (10/19/01)
www.dmonline.com (Accessed 8/27/07)
"Correspondent Inference Theory and Terrorism" by Bruce Schneier,
INFOCON Cyrpto-Gram, July, 2007
"Terrorism is a Deadly Nuisance - Not an Existential Threat" by William
Norman Grigg, John Birch Society News Feed 9/13/06
"Consequences for road traffic fatalities of the reduction in flying
following September 11, 2001" (Abstract) ___________. Transportation
Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour Volume 7, Issues 4-5,
July-September 2004, Pages 301-305
"Safe Bedside Table" James McAdam Portfolio Website
"America's Flimsy Fortress" by Bruce Schneier,
http://www.schneier.com/essay-038.html (Accessed 8/30/07)