”How do you defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized.” – Salman Rushdie
Thoughts on Fear, Facts, and Leaders
Two 60-plus-years-old, 30-year veteran firefighters worried about driving.
The odds of being killed in a crash in New Mexico hadn’t changed, but for both of us a switch had flipped in our brains that made it feel like we could be next.
In our normal day-to-day lives, we are not great at assessing probability. Add fear, sprinkle in a little shock and we truly suck at it. That simple fact has allowed demagogues to manipulate populations since the beginning of humankind.
A highly charged and terrifying scene had hijacked my mind.
Assessing the Odds
From an evolutionary point of view it makes sense that we don’t think probabilistically. We evolved to make quick decisions that kept us alive. While the rest of the tribe bolted for the hills, the early Homo sapiens who paused and wondered, “Huh, what is the probability of that noise being a leopard?” did not survive to pass on his or her Spock-like genes.
In our more complicated and nuanced world, the inability to understand risk not only leads to bad decisions – it makes us easily manipulated.
But driving home from that crash probability went out the window. Why? Because I was afraid. When we’re afraid, our already tenuous grasp on what is a threat and what is not evaporates. When we are afraid, we are the tribe bolting for the hills in fear of the leopard. When we are afraid, it makes sense to intern Japanese-Americans. When we are afraid, there are Communists in every classroom. When we are afraid, it’s easy to convince us that terrorists are lurking in malls.
And I confess that on that night, after observing that fatal, alcohol-induced crash, I was afraid. I saw those lights coming at me and I was sure it was another drunk driver on my side of the road.
On Fear and Manipulation
Their task today is made easier by media sources that 24/7 inundate us with images and stories that cause the same kind of anxiety I felt that night. They show the image of a woman killed by an illegal immigrant, powerful and tragic, and the message is that this could — no, probably will — happen to you. Or endless looping images of a terrorist bombing and shooting in France and the not-too-subtle message that this will soon be happening here. Nowhere in these stories is the contravening data: “The chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year while the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.” (Terror and Immigration: A Risk Analysis, Alex Nowrasteh The Cato Institute, 9/13/17. Issue #798)
Although I’m not sure that information streaming across a screen would help. Data and numbers (also known as facts) seem overwhelmed in the brain by images, be they of a terrible car crash or the aftermath of a terrorist bombing.
We Can Help Each Other Through Fear
As a country, we need leadership. But note that there are two kinds of leaders.
There are leaders who tell us to be afraid. And there are leaders who call on us be to brave.
Finally, there was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who spoke to Americans during another dark time, deep in the Great Depression, when unemployment was near 30 percent and there was terrible unrest domestically and in Europe. At his inauguration in 1933, he not only called out fear, he named it: “First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is — fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Nameless, unreasoning and unjustified terror.
We will always have moments that will terrify us. It is a cost of being human. But we must work hard to not let terror paralyze us, whether it is the fear of drunk drivers stopping us from driving or the fear of the stranger causing us to hate. We don’t have to live in fear and we must fight being governed by terror.