UPDATE: December 28, 2015
FROM THE Associated Press on December 27th, under the headline “Terrorism Fears Bring Trip Cancellations”:
In response to the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 dead, some Connecticut school districts are canceling student trips abroad before parents lose their deposits. In Bolton, the school board last week voted unanimously to rescind approval for a student trip to London over spring break. South Windsor school officials have canceled a planned trip to Paris in April. Suffield schools also canceled a high school French language honors class trip to Paris in April. Student safety was a key reason for the decisions, school officials said.
Reading this made me palpably angry. Are we Americans really this daft? Are we really so easily frightened and boundlessly irrational that we can’t even allow our high school kids to visit Europe? Imagine for a minute that you’re a resident of Paris or London — just an average citizen living in one of those two huge capitals, doing your daily business — and you read in the paper how people from the United States are afraid to let their kids visit your city. How pathetic is that?
I’m trying to figure out why the Paris attacks in particular have struck such a nerve. We didn’t see this kind of reaction in 2004 when self-styled jihadis killed more than two-hundred people in Madrid. (A testament to our ever-decreasing attention span, most people don’t even remember that attack.) Are we becoming more and more skittish as time goes on? Or is it the day in, day out coverage of the Islamic State and the turmoil in Syria?
At least I’m not the only one frustrated by the thinking and behavior of some of my fellow citizens. I’ll point you now to an excellent editorial that appeared in the Boston Globe on the same day as the Connecticut story, written by Stephen Kinzer and titled “The United States of Fear and Panic.” I’m not supposed to do this without permission from the paper (my request is pending), but here is the piece:
FEAR IS BECOMING part of our daily lives. Yet it is not justified by reality. The true terror threat inside the United States is a fraction of what many Americans want to believe.
Feeling threatened gives life a certain edge. During the Cold War, Americans were told that we were liable to be incinerated by Soviet bombs at any moment. Ever since the Soviet Union had the bad manners to collapse a quarter-century ago, we have been suffering from enemy deprivation syndrome. Islamic terror has cured us. One recent survey suggests that half of all Americans now fear that they or a loved one will be victim of a terror attack.
A mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., set off this latest wave of fear. It was the second act of apparently religion-inspired terror in the United States during 2015. Together they took a total of 19 lives. Also during 2015, about 30,000 Americans died in road crashes. Ten thousand were shot to death. More than 40 died in accidents involving toasters.
Mass killings only stun us when they are connected to Islam or the Middle East. Others, like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, in which 20 children and six adults were shot to death, set off fleeting periods of mourning but have no lasting effect on politics or the national psyche. Attacks provoked by anger about events far away are different. They give us the feeling — terrible, but also a bit exciting — that we are living on the edge of danger because foreigners threaten our way of life.
Politics, social media, and the relentless news cycle contribute to this pathology. No candidate or media outlet has an incentive to reassure people. In fact the opposite is true: Voters, viewers, and readers are drawn to fear-mongering. There will be more Islamist-related terror attacks, and after each one, outrage will reach another peak. Whipping up emotion and conjuring threats is a winning strategy — except for our society as a whole.
The safest and most terror-free country I ever visited was Iraq under the secular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. If a fellow in a café casually asked a friend whether he thought Iraq should become more religious, he was likely to be quickly arrested. Disturbing public order was a capital crime. Al Qaeda never had a chance in Saddam’s Iraq.
That level of repression would work in any country. Most Americans, however, would not accept it. Choosing to live in an open society entails risk. No one can expect absolute safety in a country where people are allowed to walk the streets freely, without searches, identity checks, and constant police presence. That means resisting the temptation to exaggerate threats.
Fear has a corrosive and lamentable effect on our society, especially on our children. It also poses another danger. Unjustified panic can lead not only to crackdowns on freedom at home but also self-destructive foreign wars. If we persuade ourselves that our country is threatened by terrorists in the Middle East, we may be tempted to attack “at the source.” This could turn the threat we now imagine into something real.
“It has generally been acknowledged to be madness to go to war for an idea,” the British statesman Lord Salisbury observed more than a century ago, “but if anything, it is yet more unsatisfactory to go to war against a nightmare.” Americans seem ready to ignore this wisdom. We live a secure national life, but make ourselves believe it is nightmarish. Islamic terror does not seriously threaten the United States. We weaken ourselves by pretending otherwise.
December 21, 2015
AMERICANS, WE KEEP HEARING, are more anxious than ever over threats of terrorism. A string of recent incidents — the apparent bombing of a Russian jetliner over Egypt; the attacks in Paris and the mass shooting in California; and now a hoax bomb threat that caused an Air France 777 with over 460 people aboard to divert to Kenya — has left citizens on edge, to the point where many have canceled their holiday travel plans. Last week my hometown paper, the Boston Globe, ran a front-page story about whether or not it was wise for people to put off traveling abroad. The U.S. State Department hasn’t helped things by issuing a vaguely-worded travel alert covering pretty much the entire planet.
How much of this fear is genuine, however, and how much of is stoked by the cable channels? How much of it exists at all? For what it’s worth, since the Paris killings, including both work and leisure trips, I’ve been on planes to Ghana, Milan, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Dubai, and Mauritius (the same Indian Ocean island from which the diverted Air France plane had originated). For what it’s worth, there were plenty of Americans on those planes, and I don’t think I saw an empty seat aboard even one of them. I’m working a flight to Paris this Wednesday evening, and I took a look at the passenger load. It’s overbooked. My observations are merely that, but they’re encouraging if nothing else.
The likelihood that a U.S. traveler passenger will be victimized by a terror strike is always remote, but are the chances greater over the holidays, and especially if you’re traveling overseas? Today, I could note, marks the 27th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, which stood until September 11th as the deadliest-ever terror attack against U.S. civilians. On December 22nd, 2001, Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber, gave it a try aboard American Airlines flight 63 with his explosives-laden sneaker. Eight years later, on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, attempted to detonate his incendiary diapers aboard Northwest Airlines flight 253. All three of these flights were bound from Europe to the United States. (How weird and distressing is it that we live in an age when expressions like “shoe bomber” and “underwear bomber” can be said out loud, without irony?)
That’s three flights over a nearly 30 year-span, which in the big scheme of things is close to statistical nothingness. It’s the kind of thing, however, that makes people — squeamish Americans in particular — nervous. This anxiety is exacerbated by media-driven notion that the threats we face today are markedly different or potentially deadlier from those of the past. A headline that speaks of us living in “the age of terror,” for example. This is misleading, if not outright dishonest. Politically or religiously motivated terrorism is nothing new, of course, and commercial aviation has been a target of sabotage for many decades. Deadly hijackings and bombings occur much less frequently than they used to. Flip through the air crimes annals of the 1970s and 1980s some time. Indeed, one of the harmful things about our post-September 11th mindset has been the abandonment of historical context when it comes to airplanes and terrorism.
Air safety is only part of this discussion, it’s true. Across the world there have been high-profile terror attacks at hotels, nightclubs, railway stations, museums, and even at the beach (Tunisia). This is more about travel, broadly speaking, than about flying. But the two are closely linked, and the anxieties overlap. It’s everything together: at the airport, on the airplane, in the museum and on the subway. It’s the foreign-ness of it, the distance, the act of traveling. Which doesn’t make it any more rational or sensible, because whether you’re in Paris, Tokyo or Tashkent, you are more more liable to be killed by a car than to be victimized by terrorism.
Americans aren’t big travelers to start with. Throw in a few dastardly current events, get the media sizzling with terrorism talk, throw in some Donald Trump, and there you have it, an angst that is partly based in fact but ultimately polluted by hyperbole and xenophobia.
This is a sad point to be making on the anniversary of Lockerbie, but maybe it’s the smart one. People are safe, yet they’re increasingly scared. For both the individual and the society at large, this is an unhealthy paradox.