“What’s the bottom line?” people often ask me. “Will terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb? Spread smallpox? Release nerve gas? What’s the worst case scenario?”
You have probably known someone who experienced a trauma, and you may have seen that person later reliving the tragedy. There is also such thing as pre-living a tragedy. Exactly as we benefit from letting go of the past, millions of Americans will benefit from letting go of the worst-case future. Someone proposes a so-called worst-case scenario (as if there could be any objective view of what would constitute the worst case), and then the scenario gets discussed so much on television that it comes to seem like a likelihood.
A worst-case scenario is a theoretical sequence of events intentionally devised to be as bad as possible, the word scenario coming from scene, as in a scene in a play or movie. Worst-case scenarios are creative exercises, not predictions of likely events. If we had examples of the realities to explore, we’d be doing that, but in most of these instances, we have only the imagination to chew on. Remember, these things enter the stream of discussion specifically because they are not likely, specifically because they are at the far end of possibility, and specifically because they have not ever happened.
These things start through someone saying, “Geez, what if terrorists got hold of an inter-continental ballistic missile?” Then TV news personalities interview experts in some loosely related field, a scary graphic is developed (say, a mushroom cloud emerging from the top of a local playground), then they hound a government official with the question, “But isn’t it possible that someone could get hold of an inter-continental ballistic missile?” and he says how unlikely that is, but acknowledges that it is possible (i.e., within the realm of physics and imagination) – and we’re off and running.
The human mind pounces on this sort of thing because it can seem relevant to survival. We’re built to entertain every thought of danger that’s put in front of us, to turn it over, to look at it from every angle. The more enormous a lethal danger might be and the more people it might harm, the more fascinating. But for us to be fascinated by something, it has to be made accessible to our minds. For example, the Earth coming out of its orbit and spinning off into a collision with Jupiter is too hard for us to get our minds around, but the idea of someone using a makeshift nuclear bomb has been made to appear plausible simply because of so much discussion.
Though TV news carries theoretical discussions of doom further than other media, magazines and newspapers do their part. Journalists are writers, and they love creative stories, so we get detailed accounts of precisely how terrible a terrible outcome could be. Editors love a dramatic hook, and you’re the fish they’re trying to catch with it. Print may seem to give credibility to worst-case scenarios, but the truth is that only you decide what credibility to invest in any given doomsday tale.
You’ve probably heard that anyone can easily get information about how to build a nuclear bomb by just logging on to the Internet. Have you tried “just logging onto the Internet” and getting those simple step-by-step instructions? Do you know how to build a nuclear bomb? Whenever I hear about how easy it is, I am reminded of an old routine from the brilliant humorist, author, and filmmaker Steve Martin: He would promise to tell his audience the secret of how one could earn a million dollars and yet pay absolutely no taxes. “First,” he’d say as if this were the easy part, “earn a million dollars.” To all those who make nuclear bomb construction sound as simple as putting up Christmas lights, I’d say, ‘First, get some plutonium or highly enriched uranium.”
Someday some person or group may indeed detonate a small nuclear device somewhere on earth. It will be awful. It will harm some people. It will be recovered from. After we accept that it could happen, is it constructive to spend every day between now and then trying to experience the event in our minds?
The future is longer than the past, and because the future occurs on the foundation of the past, more will happen than has happened. This means that nearly everything we can imagine has some likelihood of happening sometime, particularly if you include far off times. In a truly intelligent worst-case scenario, one would theorize that some young Americans bent on grand mischief are far more dangerous than foreign terrorists. They are here, they are brilliant, some are reckless, some are homicidal and suicidal, and we must assume that the extraordinary knowledge being accumulated in our society and made available to young people will be misused. Many teenagers are capable of mounting ferocious attacks and many have the motivation to do so – as we have learned in tragedies like Columbine. What a 30-year old would find discouragingly difficult to accomplish, an 18-year old will keep trying at. What a 30-year old might find too reckless or dangerous, an 18-year old might find intriguing.
I make this point to bring some perspective during a time that Americans have focused almost entirely on Middle Eastern terrorists. When anthrax spores were sent through the mail after 9/11, we were fascinated to know if the crime was linked to the attack on the World Trade Center. This raises one of the most salient questions about risk: Does motive matter? It’s understandable that people are more afraid if anthrax spores are sent by Middle Eastern terrorists, even though there are far more American-bred attention-seekers who might do this kind of thing. Excessive fascination with motive and with the origins of risk can cloud our ability to make effective assessments of what is really likely and how to respond to events that actually occur. Whether sent by an American or a middle-easterner, the best management of the anthrax cases remains the same.
There are people whose jobs require some degree of worst-case thinking. I am one of them. Whole teams of threat assessment practitioners in my firm spend their time developing contingency plans and responses to cover a variety of unfavorable outcomes. For example, making arrangements for a controversial public figure to give a speech at a rally about an emotionally charged political issue calls for contingency plans about many kinds of things that could happen, but we put more effort into those possibilities that are most likely.
An assassin in the audience, at the vehicle arrival area, or along the foot-route from the car to the holding room, a sniper in the distance, a bomb that was placed a week before the event, someone trying to strike the public figure, even a pie attack – all these things and more are on our list during the days of planning leading up to such an appearance. I do not oppose contingency planning. I do oppose time-wasting, however, and in my firm, in my life, and in your life, everything we give energy to takes energy away from something else. Accordingly, we are wisest to put our resources where they’ll be most likely to return some benefit.
You already live your life according to that equation, deciding where to put your protective resources at home, for example. Though intruders could land a helicopter on your roof and core through the ceiling, you’ve decided that entry via the front door is more likely – and you’ve got a lock that requires a key. While a criminal could photograph your credit cards with a telephoto lens and then painstakingly duplicate them, you’ve determined that someone taking your purse is more likely – so you watch it carefully. If there’s an emergency phone list in your home, the names and numbers reflect your family’s assessment of likely hazards. Is the U.S. Department of Energy Nuclear Emergency Search Team on that list? Probably not, and you’re not likely to need that phone number. You also have a list in your head of things you want to avoid or prevent. You base the list on experience, logic, new information, and intuition. The list has limits – because it has to.
Conversely, worst-case scenarios have no limits. Wherever the imagination can travel, your mind can take you there. But the trip is voluntary – even when TV news producers are urging you to go, you don’t have to.
Three terrible possibilities in particular have dominated the national dialogue: chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks. Normally, it’s fair to assume that when everybody is discussing something, it’s likely to happen, but that equation is warped a bit by people on television news shows – who will discuss anything.
In 1997, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen appeared on an ABC News show and held up a 5‑pound bag of sugar, threatening that “This amount of Anthrax could be spread over a city — let’s say the size of Washington. It would destroy at least half the population of that city. If you had even more amounts…” Let me interrupt Mr. Cohen for a moment, and recall that he also said, “One small particle of Anthrax would produce death within five days.” With that kind of inaccurate ad-fear-tising, it’s no surprise that every scenario we used to hear about anthrax involved the death of hundreds of thousands or even “millions, millions” as Cohen was intoning when interviewer Cokie Roberts actually said to him, “Would you put that bag down please.” We have had several instructive examples of how worst-case scenarios fail to follow the creative scripts people write. For example, since the dread begun by Cohen’s bag-of-sugar threat, we’ve actually experienced some biological attacks – and they’ve been far different from the scenarios we were offered.
Before 2001, did you ever hear a scenario about anthrax that went like this:
Somebody will put anthrax spores in letters and send them around several East Coast cities. Fewer than 100 people will be exposed to the bacteria, and about 30 will get sick and be successfully treated. A few will die. There will be absolutely no impact on the health of 280 million other Americans, though the events will cause sadness and fear around the nation. In a city the size of Washington, D.C. fewer people will die from anthrax than from bites and bee stings.
So, anthrax has gone from a mass killer that would leave nobody alive to even write a news story about what happened – to something far less apocalyptic. I am not saying there is no potential for escalation, but in the months after September 11, the reality of anthrax looked more like the paragraph above and less like the popular scenarios.
In addition to sinister use of biological pathogens, chemical attacks have also actually happened, and the outcomes of those undertakings were also far different from what we’d been led to expect. Here’s what happened in the most famous case: A Japanese sect called Aum Shinrikyo undertook a chemical attack in the Tokyo subway system – an ideal environment for maximum fatalities because it is enclosed, has limited ventilation, and has tens of thousands of people unable to get away easily. Still, even with nearly perfect conditions for the attack, less than ten percent of the people in the subway were injured, all but a few of those who experienced any effects were better in a few hours, and only one percent of those injured died. Were the perpetrators just incompetent? Hardly; the group’s membership included highly trained bio-scientists and chemists. Were they underfunded? Hardly; they had millions of dollars to spend. Were they rushed? Not at all; they had lots of time for research and preparation. Did they fail? Utterly.
In what way did they fail? Well, first of all, they failed to harm and kill lots of people. Second, they failed to shut down the Japanese government. And mostly, they failed to make reality match imagination, and that’s going to happen a lot.
To be clear, my point here is not that bad things don’t happen – I am deeply involved in managing bad things that happen all the time. My point is not that there’s nothing to worry about – there’s plenty you can worry about. Rather, my point is that the popular worst-case scenarios are just that: popular – and they remain so as long as they offer drama, and, perhaps surprisingly, as long as they don’t happen. Once a terrible thing happens, it moves from our imaginations to our reality; it moves from being an interesting possible problem to something about which we must choose real and immediate solutions. We respond. We manage, even when faced with tidal waves, and nature’s stunning timebombs: volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. These are clear and powerful dangers, of course, though understandably, we are more afraid of the danger that is conscious, the danger that emerges from the malicious intent we face today.
So let’s explore some of the malicious possibilities that occupy our attention so that we can place them into the appropriate mental compartments. Once compartmentalized, the information will be available if needed, and not blinding us to the rest of life when not needed. As opposed to inviting these outcomes to be houseguests, we’ll look at them from a distance — because that’s where they actually are: at a distance.
Chemical weapons are toxic substances, normally in gas or liquid form, that someone seeks to get onto or into human beings. They act immediately on physiological systems to cause debilitation or death.
Biological weapons are bacteria and viruses that are intentionally introduced into human hosts. (This was previously called “germ warfare.”) Once inside, they propagate and cause disease. There is always a period of time, called an incubation period, between the time of first exposure and when disease symptoms appear.
These hazards together can be abbreviated as “biochem.”
In recent times, you have no doubt gained an unusual education about biochem agents by assembling fragments of information from reporters, scientists, and talking heads whose expertise ranges from dubious to impressive. While I do not intend what follows to be a comprehensive treatise about biochem weapons, I do want to provide an accurate foundation onto which you can continue to add new information. To help, I sought out two experts who might seem like polar opposites: an internationally known scientist, and a retired soldier.
Dr. Raymond Zilinskas is a consultant to my firm on biochem issues, selected because of his impeccable credentials as a United Nations weapons inspector. He is Senior Scientist at the Center for Nonproliferation Research at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Sergeant First Class Red Thomas is a retired weapons, munitions, and training expert from the U.S. Army. Since he was seven-years old, Red has had, as he puts it, “a penchant for learning about anything that goes bang, boom, or pop.”
Dr. Zilinskas, tired of seeing so much misinformation on the TV news, offers sober thinking, keen intellect, and exceptional communication skills to help his country understand the actual risks during these times. Red Thomas explains his contribution more simply: “I was watching these ninnies on the news, and I hurt for all the people I knew were afraid.”
Though Dr. Zilinskas is in the business of considering worst-case scenarios, he points out that “These are worrisome times, but let us not overestimate the hazard. For the average American citizen, the probability of being affected by a bioterrorist attack is vanishingly low.” Neither Dr. Zilinskas nor Red Thomas believe we will see the kinds of devastating attacks often portrayed in TV news stories, in which tens of thousands of people are harmed or killed.
Red Thomas recalls a 60 Minutes segment in which someone reported that one drop of nerve gas could kill a thousand people: “Well, he didn’t tell you the thousand dead people per drop was theoretical. Drill Sergeants exaggerate how terrible this stuff is to keep the recruits awake in class. I know this because I was a Drill Sergeant too. Forget everything you’ve ever seen on TV, in the movies, or read in a novel about this stuff; it was all a lie.”
Though media reports and politicians characterize chemical agents as “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” this appears to be the wrong category. The only weapons of mass destruction on earth are bombs (with nuclear bombs being the most dangerous). Red Thomas points out that chemical weapons are not made for mass destruction – they are made for “area denial” and terror. As he says, “When you leave the area, you almost always leave the risk. That’s the difference between you and a soldier: You can leave the area and the risk; soldiers may have to stay put and sit through it and that’s why they need all that spiffy gear.”
Dr. Zilinskas has made clear that many difficulties would have to be overcome before someone could inflict mass casualties with chemicals. Adds Red: “This stuff won’t work when it’s freezing, it doesn’t last when it’s hot, and wind spreads it too thin too fast. They’ve got to get this stuff on you, or, get you to inhale it for it to work. They also have to get the concentration of chemicals high enough to kill or wound someone. Too little and it’s nothing, too much and it’s wasted. A chemical weapons attack that kills a lot of people is incredibly hard to do even with military grade agents and equipment.“
While nerve agents may sound like science fiction, Red brings the truth home:
“You have nerve agents in your house; plain old bug killer (like Raid) is a nerve agent. All nerve agents work the same way: They are cholinesterase inhibitors that mess up the signals your nervous system uses to make your body function. They can harm you if you get it on your skin but it works best if they can get you to inhale it. If a person doesn’t die in the first minute and can leave the area, they’re probably going to live.”
“The military’s treatment response for all nerve agents is atropine and pralidoxime chloride [usually called 2‑pam chloride]. Neither one of these does anything to cure the nerve agent; what they do is send the body into overdrive to keep a person alive for five minutes – after that the agent is used up. The best protection is fresh air and staying calm.”
The symptoms for nerve agent contamination include everything you’d imagine: sudden headache, dimmed vision, runny nose, excessive saliva or drooling, difficulty breathing, tightness in chest, nausea, stomach cramps. (There can also be an odor of hay, green corn, something fruity, or camphor.) In the unlikely event you ever experienced these symptoms in public, Red Thomas suggests you ask yourself, “Did anything out of the ordinary just happen; a loud pop, did someone spray something on the crowd? Are other people getting sick too?”
Again, it’s so unlikely, but if the answer to these questions is Yes, then calmness is key, because panic leads to faster breathing, and accordingly, more inhalation of poison. Next, leave the area immediately; get outside. Fresh air is your best immediate treatment, what Red Thomas calls the “right now antidote.” If some thick liquid is actually on you, your natural inclination is the wisest: Get it off you, blotting or scraping it off with something disposable – and get away from it.
If you get away and you lessen your exposure, the risk drops. Red Thomas moves this fear from the paralyzing to the practical: “Remember, people trying to hurt you with nerve agents have to do all the work; they have to get the concentration up and keep it up for several minutes. All you have to do is quit getting it on you and quit breathing it by putting space between you and the attack.”
Another category of chemical weapons are called blood agents (cyanide or arsine that effect the blood’s ability to provide oxygen). The scenario for attack using these poisons would likely be the same as for nerve agent. The symptoms include blue lips, blue under the fingernails, rapid breathing. The military’s recommended treatment is amyl nitrite. As with nerve agents, the treatment is just to keep your body working for five minutes till the toxins are used up. As with nerve agents, immediate fresh air is important.
Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax, currently the biological pathogen causing the greatest concern, cannot be spread in many ways. The anthrax spore is dormant and dry. Merely touching it does not give you anthrax. If you have a cut on your finger, and you touch anthrax spores, you might come down with the skin form of anthrax – and you might not. The same is true of the two other kinds of anthrax infection: in the digestive tract usually gotten from eating infected meat or otherwise ingesting many spores, or in the lungs, which victims get from deeply inhaling anthrax spores that become airborne. Whatever type, anthrax is not contagious person to person – and many people who are exposed don’t ever develop the disease.
Dr. Zilinskas advises that terrorists trying to harm lots of people with airborne pathogens are likely to have relatively little success. This is because of the technical difficulty in formulating pathogens and toxins for wide range airborne dispersal. It would be difficult to develop and operate dispersal mechanisms successfully, and difficult to ensure proper meteorological conditions for effective dispersal. Air temperature, ground temperature, humidity, sunlight, precipitation, wind speed, and obstacles such as buildings and terrain all influence the success of any effort to disperse biochem agents.
Adds Red Thomas: “Saddam Hussein spent twenty years and millions of dollars, and he couldn’t get it right – so you can imagine how hard it would be for terrorists. The more you know about this stuff the more you realize how hard it is to use.”
Even without directly affecting large numbers of people, anthrax and other biological agents cause great fear, leading observers to forget that naturally occurring infectious diseases are far more dangerous – as proved throughout human history. Says Dr. Zilinskas: “In comparison to the real and enormous hazard of naturally occurring infectious diseases, the problem of deliberately caused disease is almost insignificant.” In other words, while we worry about a handful of people who are intent on doing something destructive with biological pathogens, literally billions of bacteria are working to get into your body and cause trouble. During the period in which one person died in a week from anthrax, recognize that about 400 times as many people died from flu-related ailments, and few of us bother to even get a flu shot.
You may also have been concerned about terrorist attacks where food is contaminated, and indeed, such attacks have occurred. Dr. Zalinskas notes: “Much like what has taken place in the past, these attacks are likely to harm people ranging in number from a few to hundreds – not thousands.” (As mentioned in Chapter One, ten restaurant salad bars and one supermarket were contaminated by members of the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon in 1984. There were 751 people affected. All recovered fully.)
You have likely also heard worst-case scenarios about Bubonic and Pneumonic plague. Bubonic plague is not communicable from human to human; pneumonic plague is communicable but all plague can be treated with commonly available antibiotics. You may also have heard speculation about Botulinum toxin; it is deadly if untreated, but it can be treated with an anti-toxin.
And finally, there’s smallpox, which is caused by a terrible virus that was declared eradicated worldwide in 1980. Though anything is possible, the smallpox virus officially exists in just two places on earth, at a U.S. research facility, and at a Russian research facility. There is an effective vaccine for smallpox, and the U.S. Government has millions of doses and millions more are currently being produced.
Dr. Zilinskas and I agree that smallpox is an unattractive biological weapon for a terrorist organization with political goals, particularly if the organization is state-sponsored (and governments are the most likely institutions to be able to get the Smallpox virus). The reason a government will likely discourage the terroristic use of Smallpox: The more successfully the virus is spread, the more likely the same virus will make its way back to the sponsoring country. In other words, were Iraq to sponsor the spreading of smallpox (as unlikely and difficult as that may be), if many people in a target country were infected, it becomes a near-certainty that people in Iraq would become infected as well. No nation on earth would be more able to deal with the public health emergency than the United States – so to the precise degree that a perpetrator succeeds, the sponsoring nation loses.
Accordingly, unless an individual or group has apocalyptic visions (the destruction of everything and everyone – and Middle Eastern terrorists have not been apocalyptic), the spreading of highly infectious diseases is counterproductive to virtually every political aim one could imagine.
While it’s clear there will always be vulnerability to biochem weapons (as we are vulnerable to naturally occurring viruses and bacteria), several important steps have been taken in the last few years. For example, the U.S. Armed Forces have organized and trained rapid-response teams to survey attack sites and initiate decontamination procedures. Many state and local agencies have received federal funding for equipment and training, and have participated in exercises that help anticipate and prepare for meeting our needs in a biochem emergency. That’s why hundreds of agencies have the protective clothing, other specialized equipment, and training you saw as they responded to suspicious powders and hoaxes all over America. I don’t mean to say every possibility has been fully anticipated or prepared for, because that’s not the case. However, during the weeks following 9/11 useful new knowledge about anthrax was evolving right before our eyes. You probably already know a lot about treatment plans and symptoms, and more information is available to you as it develops. (See Appendix #TK.)
Also, consider that our government agencies have lots of experience in responding to incidents of accidental chemical and biological contamination. Reassuringly, the response to a chemical gas attack would not be unlike the procedures currently used for responding to a situation in which a railroad tank car containing contaminants overturns. Several outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease (a biological hazard) were successfully handled by authorities around the nation.
Dr. Zilinskas advises that, when a disease outbreak is first detected, officials are not immediately in a position to know if the outbreak was intentional or natural. Thus, the initial public health and medical response to a disease outbreak is the same whatever its origin.
If a government agency detects a chemical or biological attack, they will likely issue specific civil defense warnings through the media. In most cases – unless you happen to be at the actual site of the chemical or biological agents – you are likely to have time to take the one precaution that applies to all biochem hazards: avoiding areas near the contamination.
NON-MILITARY NUCLEAR ATTACK:
A nuclear device used by terrorists would be low yield; it would not, contrary to our worst imaginings, level whole cities. Effects are likely to be limited to a half-mile circle (not that far off the area of damage at the World Trade Center). But when it’s done, it’s done. People within the affected area who live through the heat, blast, and initial burst of radiation are likely to continue living for as long as they would have in any event. As Red Thomas says, “Radiation will not create fifty-foot tall women, giant ants, or grasshoppers the size of tanks.”
There are many kinds of radiation, but three are most relevant to our topic: alpha, beta, and gamma. The others you have lived with for years. Red Thomas explains: “You need to worry about what is called Ionizing radiation. It’s the same as people getting radiation treatments for cancer, only a bigger area gets radiated. The good news is you don’t have to just sit there and take it, and there’s lots you can do rather than panic. First, your skin will stop alpha particles, a page of a news paper or your clothing will stop beta particles, you’ve just got to try and avoid inhaling dust that’s contaminated with atoms that are emitting these things and you’ll be generally safe.” Gamma rays are the most dangerous, but it also takes a lot of them to kill people.
Overall preparation for any terrorist attack that results in major damage is the same as one would wisely take for a big storm or earthquake. How has Red Thomas prepared?
“If you want a gas mask, fine, go get one. I know this stuff and I’m not getting one and I told my Mom not to bother with one either. How’s that for confidence? We have a week’s worth of cash, several days worth of canned goods, and plenty of soap and water.
These terrorists can’t conceive of a nation this big with this much resources. Biochem and small nuclear weapons are made to cause panic, terror, and to demoralize. The government is going nuts over this stuff because they have to protect every inch of America. You’ve only got to protect yourself, and by doing that, you help the country.”
Credible Threats, Warning Signs, and Kangaroos
Since we are the editors of what scenarios get in and which are invested with credibility, it’s important to evaluate our sources of information. I explained this during a presentation for hundreds of government threat assessors at the Central Intelligence Agency a few years ago, making my point by drawing on a very rare safety hazard: kangaroo attacks. I told the audience that about twenty people a year are killed by the normally friendly animals, and that kangaroos always display a specific set of indicators before they attack:
1. They will give what appears to be a wide and genial smile (but they are actually showing their teeth). 2. They will check their pouches compulsively several times to be sure they have no young with them (they never attack while carrying young). 3. They will look behind them (since they always retreat immediately after they kill).
After these three signals, they will lunge, brutally pummel their victim, and then gallop off.
I asked two audience members to stand up and repeat back the warning signs, and both flawlessly described the smile, the checking of the pouch for young, and the looking back for an escape route. In fact, everyone in that room (and now you) will remember those warning signs for life. Your brain is wired to value such information, and if you are ever face to face with a kangaroo, be it tomorrow or decades from now, those three pre-incident indicators will be in your head.
The problem, I told the audience at the CIA, is that I made up those signals. I did it to demonstrate the risks of inaccurate information. I actually know nothing about kangaroo behavior (so forget the three signals if you can – or stay away from hostile kangaroos).
In our lives, we are constantly bombarded with kangaroo facts masquerading as knowledge, and our intuition relies on us to decide what we will give credence to.
For example, in the months following 9/11, we were often warned about new major of acts of terrorism predicted to occur within days. Government officials and newsreaders spoke of “credible threats,” a phrase often confused with high likelihood, but let’s break it down: A threat is a statement of an intention to do harm, period. Credible means plausible, and it can sometimes mean believable. In the context of the world since 9/11, any threat spoken by extremists is believable.
Politicians and newsreaders often use the word threat as if it is interchangeable with hazard. Threats and hazards are two different things. Hazard means a chance of being injured or harmed. (The root of the word actually comes from a dice game.) A threat is something someone expresses. Accordingly when the U.S. Attorney General speaks of a credible threat, if he is using his terms correctly, he is telling us about something someone has expressed.
Threats are generally spoken specifically to cause fear and anxiety. That’s not my intent right now, so please pardon my saying this: I am going to kill you.
There, you have just received a death threat. I am a credible person who is capable and well versed in the ways of violence, so it’s a credible threat, too. This threat you just received is vastly more direct, clear, demonstrable, and well-documented than most of the terrorist threats you’ve heard about.
Press conferences that warn of terrorist strikes “within the next two days” understandably cause lots of uncertainty. For example, the Governor of California announced a “credible threat” against landmark bridges in California, and warned that the attacks would take place between November 1st and November 9th. Upon what in the world do they base these schedules? Is the underlying premise that some terrorist said, “If I haven’t done this by the 9th, I’ll get over it, and I wouldn’t dream of doing it on, say, the 14th. So your risk is just between the 1st and the 9th.”
In any event, after the Governor’s “credible threat” had caused concern to Californians for a few days, the FBI described it as “not credible.” Incredible, isn’t it?
A lot of the warnings we’ve received from public officials might as well be threats themselves, for they have the same effect. The row of serious men behind the podium and the choice of alarming words often obscure underlying information that is pretty thin. The drama of these presentations is tantamount to having your doctor call you in, sit you down, and put one hand on your shoulder as he thumbs through your charts with the other. He levels a serious look at you, and just before you pass out, he says: “Your test results are in, and in my opinion, you’re going to be fine.”
I am certain that most officials who announce threats mean well, but it sometimes seems that everybody wants to be Rudy Guiliani. Since only Rudy really is, others could help us more if they advised the public along these lines: “You may notice extra National Guardsmen at various bridges. This is a precaution in response to some threats and speculation we have assessed. As you’ve seen in recent weeks, no threats have been successfully acted upon, and we’ll do our part to ensure that these threats remain in that category. We’ll take special care protecting the bridges, and if you see anything that concerns you, please make a report.”
Ideally, a press conference about threats to the Golden Gate Bridge would be held on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Alarming words ‑whether spoken by some angry extremist or by our own public officials- cause people to react by going into a defensive posture, psychologically speaking. Though the words themselves can’t put us at any actual risk, uncertainty about risk causes alarm, and this causes a problem: When we are stunned or distracted we raise the very drawbridge ‑perception- that we must cross in order to make successful predictions.
In the last thirty years, I’ve read, heard, and seen the world’s most creative, gruesome, distasteful, effective, and well-performed threats. I’ve learned that it’s important to react calmly, because when in alarm we stop evaluating information mindfully and start doing it physically.
For example, a death threat communicated in a letter or phone call cannot possibly pose any immediate hazard, but the recipient might nonetheless start getting physically ready for danger with the increased breathing and heartbeat to support all the fear-response chemicals and systems. These responses are valuable when facing present danger, but for assessing future hazard, staying calm produces better results. A way to do this is to consciously ask and answer the question “Am I in immediate danger?” Your body wants you to get this question out of the way, and once you do, you’ll be free to keep perceiving what’s going on.
Though thoughts of harming you may be terrible, they are also inevitable. Many people around the world (and even in America) hate America, some enough to actually harm us, others enough to want to harm us, many enough to threaten harm, and many others enough to be glad when we are harmed. Until 9/11, most people in the world had never seen Americans as human, vulnerable, or part of the world community. Our aloofness and our success bred envy. It is particularly difficult for Americans to fully believe and accept that people hate us so fiercely, and there has been lots of denial about this truth. Individual Americans can feel that they are just going about their lives, but that in itself ‑without you doing another thing- has been fuel for aggression. It’s understandable that this aggression causes so much fear because it seems to many as if it came out of nowhere. It didn’t, but whatever the reasons, all these thoughts about harming us are themselves harming us.
Thoughts are not the problem, of course; the expression of thoughts is what causes us anxiety, and most of the time that’s the whole idea. Understanding this will help reduce unwarranted fear.
That someone would intrude on our peace of mind, that they would speak words so difficult to take back, that they would exploit our fear of flying, that they would care so little about us, that they would raise the stakes so high, that they would stoop so low – all of this alarms us, and by design.
Threatening words are dispatched like soldiers under strict orders: Cause anxiety that cannot be ignored. Surprisingly, their deployment isn’t entirely bad news. It’s bad, of course, that someone threatens violence, but the threat means that at least for now, the speaker has considered violence and decided against doing it. The threat means that at least for now, the speaker favors words that alarm over actions that harm.
For an instrument of communication used so frequently, the threat is little understood, until you think about it. The parent who threatens punishment, the lawyer who threatens unspecified “further action,” the head of state who threatens war, the terrorist group that threatens mass killing, the child who threatens to make a scene – all are using words with the exact same intent: to cause uncertainty.
Though you wouldn’t know it by the reaction they frequently earn, threats are rarely spoken from a position of power. Whatever power threats have is derived from the fear instilled in the victim, for fear is the currency of the threatener. How one responds to a threat determines whether it will be a valuable instrument or mere words. Thus, it is the listener and not the speaker ‑we and not the terrorists- who decides how powerful a threat will be.
In most instances of terrorist threat, the threat is the terrorist event. It is the end it itself. Speaking generally, those who threaten do not act, and those who act do not threaten.
What often happens, however, is that a threat refers to a previous terrorist act, thus attaching to the current threat the potency of the past tragedy. For example, after the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, any threat about blowing up a federal building conjured the original act and caused great anxiety. Hundreds of federal buildings were modified in response to an incident that happens, in effect, once every 230 years. Nobody would want Timothy McVeigh to be among this nation’s most influential architects, but that’s been one result of our overreaction.
A shooting from the sidewalk and we add bulletproof windows. Then a bomb in the lobby and we add X‑ray machines and explosives-sniffing dogs. Then a bomb outside the building, and we add vehicle barricades. Then a shooting from across the highway ‑as happened to CIA employees as they arrived at work one morning- and what do we do, add a fence around all the buildings? Some precautions aren’t reducing risk so much as moving it around.
The point to remember when we think about what terrorists might do next is this: By its very nature, terrorism surprises us. It’s true that there are sometimes trends in which several people or groups mimic a particular kind of act, but the overall history of terrorism is that it changes. Terrorists try to do unpredictable things. The terrorist’s imagination begins where the security expert’s imagination (and budget) ends. Precautions that are reactionary, such as concrete barriers around every federal building (as opposed to those that are clearly special targets) end up costing us a lot, without making much difference to terrorism.
Our social world relies on our investing some threats with credibility while discounting others. Our belief that they really will tow the car if we leave it here encourages us to look for a parking space unencumbered by that particular threat. The disbelief that our joking spouse will really kill us if we are late to dinner allows us to stay in the marriage. And finally, we are better able to go about our day-to day lives with the knowledge that most of the time, terrorists with the power to act, act, and those without the power to act, threaten.
Something often missing from worst-case scenarios is consideration of best case management and response. While it is difficult to fully prepare for every kind of emergency, it’s clear that the United States government has extraordinary disaster response capability. Throughout your life, you have seen our government respond with remarkable effectiveness to unusual and unpredictable occurrences (earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, fire, bombings, workplace violence incidents, outbreaks of disease, and even attacks with jetliners). Those of us present during the Los Angeles earthquake, a devastating natural disaster, recall the rapid resumption of all utilities, the effectiveness of law enforcement, and a faster return to normal life than other nations facing the same challenges could likely imagine. The resources of our federal government, and those of state and local agencies, far outdistance any in world history. If we have learned anything from the emergencies we have experienced in our lives, it is that our infrastructure is strong, resilient, and capable.
For example, following the attacks on the World Trade Center, New York City, the state of New York, and the Federal government brought together resources far beyond what most scenarios would have included. When I toured ground zero at the World Trade Center days after the attack, I was impressed to see emergency responders from all over the nation. I saw police officers from Sacramento, fire fighters from Miami, medical officials from Detroit, and police cars and ambulances from other faraway cities. I saw personnel from every Government agency one can think of. I even saw firefighters from Canada. Public and private resources worked together in astonishing ways, including the preparation of 30,000 meals a day served around the clock to emergency workers (under the heroic direction of a restaurateur named David Boulet, who, along with an army of dedicated volunteers made it his mission in life to feed emergency workers).
Having been closely involved in many emergencies and crises throughout my career, it reassures me to see the flexibility and industriousness of Americans (both in and out of government), particularly when things occur that we either could not or did not precisely predict. In fact, I find our ability to respond to the unpredicted calamities to be far more impressive than our ability to plan for the predictable ones. Prediction itself is uncertain science, while the ability of our government and our people to respond is quite certain. Remember, when any country on earth experiences some giant disaster, it is the United States most often looked to for help – because we’re the country in the best position to provide it.
We all feel some uncertainty these days, and indeed these are uncertain times – like all times. Even so, there are things about which we can be certain: We can be certain that life doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle – and that’s been proved by our management of every challenge we have faced together as a nation. And we can be certain that terrorist threats are not guarantees of action, and in fact, are usually in place of action. These certainties allow us to go about our daily lives; you remember, the daily lives that derive so much of their variety and vitality from uncertainty.