Everyone knows the story. At 8: 46 in the morning, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the North Tower. America was in complete shock and confusion. Was this all an accident or was it part of a large scale attack? That question was answered with much clarity when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the United States defense headquarters – the Pentagon.
America fell under attack on its home soil for the first time since World War II. Thousands of lives were lost; others were left asking questions that had no answers yet. America was left facing uncertainties, left never to be the same. Or is it? Throughout the history of our country the American people have risen to the occasion in times of need.
During the World Wars, people went to the factories in order to supply troops with the proper materials needed for war. People gave up certain items of food different days of the week in order to send more to their troops. Towns and communities stopped their everyday activities, went to their local churches and prayed for the safe return of the soldiers at war. America saw the same uniting in the early nineties during Operation Desert Storm. When our country is in need the American people are faithful to stand in the gap. On the evening of September 11, President George W. Bush addressed the American people stating that Freedom itself had fallen under attack.
He also said, “Tonight I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for You are with me”. That Wednesday night, churches across the United States were literally overflowing with people coming to bring their petitions before God. The following Sunday was much the same.
Attendance in churches all across America more than doubled in most cases. It seemed as if our eyes had been opened as a country. The only way to truly find comfort, peace, and understanding was to fall on our face as a nation to seek God’s forgiveness. The task of defending our freedom was on the forefront of our minds for several months. America wanted to seek those who had attacked us and rightfully bring them to justice.
Not only had America been united like never before, but we were also asking God for the guidance of what to do in this new situation. Public officials would openly acknowledge the fact that only God could bring resolve. Finally it seemed as if America had once again turned to God for His guidance in our time of despair. As time passed church attendance began to decline from its unusually large crowds. The sense of urgency to seek God’s face slowly began to fade away. America began to drift into the comfort zone that we were living in before the tragic events.
It became less important to pray for our troops in battle and the leaders who sent them there. However, let us take a moment to examine reactions to the September 11, 2001, attacks in the context of other causes of premature deaths. An objective of terrorism is to multiply damage by inducing irrational fears in the broad pop population. One defense is to learn to evaluate such situations more objectively.
Human beings might be expected to value each life, and each death, equally. We each face numerous hazards — war, disease, homicide, accidents, natural disasters — before succumbing to “natural” death. Some premature deaths shock us far more than others. Contrasting with the 2,800 fatalities in the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001 (9/11), we barely remember the 20,000 Indian earthquake victims earlier in 2001. Here, we argue that the disproportionate reaction to 9/11 was as damaging as the direct destruction of lives and property.
Americans can mitigate future terrorism by learning to respond more objectively to future malicious acts. We do not question the visceral fears and responsible precautions taken during the hours and days following 9/11, when there might have been even worse attacks. But, as the first anniversary of 9/11 approaches, our nation’s priorities remain radically torqued toward homeland defense and fighting terrorism at the expense of objectively greater societal needs. As we obsessively and excessively beef up internal security and try to dismantle terrorist groups worldwide, Americans actually feed the terrorists’ purposes. Every month, including September 2001, the U.S. highway death toll exceeds fatalities in the WTC, Pentagon, and four downed airliners combined. Just like the New York City firefighters and restaurant workers, last September’s auto crash victims each had families, friends, critical job responsibilities, and valued positions in their churches and communities.
Their surviving children, also, were left without one parent, with shattered lives, and much poorer than the 9/11 victims’ families, who were showered with 1.5 million dollars, per fatality, from the federal government alone. The 9/11 victims died from malicious terrorism, arguably compounded by poor intelligence, sloppy airport security, and other failed procedures we imagined were protecting us. While few of September’s auto deaths resulted from malice, neither were they “natural” deaths: most also resulted from individual, corporate, and societal choices about road safety engineering, enforcement of driving-while-drunk laws, safe car design, and so on. Why does 9/11 remain our focus rather than the equally vast carnage on the nation’s highways or Indian earthquake victims? Some say, “Oh, it was a natural disaster and nothing could be done, while 9/11 was a malicious attack”. Yet better housing in India could have saved thousands.
As for malice, where is our concern for the 15,000 Americans who die annually by homicide? Apparently, the death toll doesn’t matter, not if people die all at once, not even if they die by malicious intent. We focus on 9/11, of course, because these attacks were terroristic and were indelibly imprinted on our consciousness by round-the-clock news coverage. Our apprehension was then amplified when just a half dozen people died by anthrax.
Citizens apparently support the nation’s sudden, massive shift in priorities since 9/11. Here, we ask “Why?” Suppose we had reacted to 9/11 as we did to last September’s auto deaths. That wouldn’t have lessened the destroyed property, lost lives and livelihoods, and personal bereavement of family and associates of the WTC victims. But no billions would have been needed to prop up airlines. Local charities wouldn’t have suffered as donations were redirected to New York City. Congress might have enacted prescription drug benefits, as it was poised to do before 9/11.
Battalions of National Guardsmen needn’t have left their jobs to provide a visible “presence” in airports. The nation might not have slipped into recession, with resulting losses to businesses, workers, and consumers alike. And the FBI might still be focusing on rampant white-collar crime (think Enron) rather than on terrorism. While some modest measures (e. g., strengthening cockpit doors) were easy to implement, may have inhibited some “copycat” crimes, and may even lessen future terrorism, we believe that much of the expensive effort is ineffective, too costly to sustain, or wholly irrelevant. Some leaders got it right when they implored Americans after 9/11 to return to their daily routines, for otherwise “the terrorists will win”. Unfortunately, such exhortations seemed aimed at rescuing the travel industry rather than articulating a broad vision of how to respond to terrorism.
We advocate that most of us more fully “return to normal life”. We suggest that the economic and emotional damage unleashed by 9/11, which touched the lives of all Americans, resulted mostly from our own reactions to 9/11 and the anthrax scare, rather than from the objective damage. We recognize that our assertion may seem inappropriate to some readers, and we are under no illusion that natural human reactions to the televised terrorism could have been wholly averted and redirected. We, too, gaped in horror at images of crashing airplanes and we contributed to WTC victims. But from within the skeptical community there could emerge a more objective, rational alternative to post-9/1 1. Citizens could learn to react more con struc tively to future terrorism and to balance the terrorist threat against other national priorities.
It could be as important to combat our emotional vulnerability to terrorism as to attack Al Qaeda. Terrorism, by design, evokes disproportionate responses to antisocial acts by a malicious few. By minimizing our negative reactions, we might contribute to undermining terrorists’ goals as effectively as by waging war on them or by mounting homeland defenses. We do not “blame the victims” for the terrorists’ actions. Rather, we seek that we citizens, the future targets of terrorism, be empowered. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.
We can help ensure that terrorists don’t win if we can minimize our fears and react more constructively to future terrorism. We don’t suggest that this option is easy or will suffice alone. It may not even be possible. But human beings often best succeed by being rational when their emotions, however tenacious and innate, have let them down. It is a maxim that one needless or untimely death is one too many. So 20,000 victims should be 20,000 times worse.
But our minds don’t work that way. Given the national outpouring of grief triggered by the estimated 6,500 WTC deaths, one might have expected celebration in late October when it was realized that fewer than half that many had died. But there were no headlines like “3,000 WTC Victims Are Alive After All!” The good news was virtually ignored. Weeks later, many — including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — continued to speak of “over 5,000 deaths” on 9/11. To researchers in risk perception, this is natural human behavior. We are evolved from primitive nomads and cave dwellers who never knew, personally, more than the few hundred people in their locales.
Until just a few generations ago, news from other lands arrived sporadically via sailors; most people lived and died within a few miles of where they were born. Tragedies invariably concerned a known, nearby person. With the globalization of communication, the world-not just our local valley-has entered our consciousness. But our brains haven’t evolved to relate, personally, to each of 6 billion people. Only when the media singles out someone — perhaps an “average layperson” or maybe a tragic exception like Jon Benet Ramsey — do our hearts and minds connect. When an airliner crashes, and reporters focus on a despairing victims’s po use or on the last cellular phone words of a doomed traveler, our brains don’t think statistically.
We imagine ourselves in that airplane seat, or driving to the airport counseling center when our loved one’s plane is reported missing. Actually, 30,000 U.S. commercial flights occur each day. In 2001, except for September 11th and November 12th (when an airliner crashed in Queens, New York, killing more passengers and crew than in the four 9/11 crashes combined), no scheduled, U.S. commercial air trips resulted in a single passenger fatality. Indeed, worldwide airline accidents in 2001 — including 9/11 — killed fewer passengers than during an average year.
But statistics can’t compete with images of emergency workers combing a crash site for body parts with red lights flashing. We are gripped by Fear as though the tragedy happened in our own neighborhood, and another might soon happen again. Some responses to 9/11 were rational. Soon after jumbo jets were used as flying bombs, workers in landmark skyscrapers might reasonably have feared that their building could be next.
With radical Muslims preaching that Americans must be killed, it might behoove us to avoid conspicuous or symbolic gatherings like Times Square on New Year’s Eve or the Super Bowl. Surely disaster managers must plug security loopholes that could permit thousands or millions mote to be killed. But when police chiefs of countless middle American communities beef up security for their anonymous buildings, and search fans entering hundreds of sports fields to watch games of little note, official reactions to terrorism have run amok. To imagine that Al Qaeda’s next target might be the stadium in, say, Ames, Iowa, is far-fetched indeed. Americans’ WTC fears only grew when six people died from mailed anthrax. Postal officials patiently explained that public risks were minimal.
But millions donned gloves to open their mail or gingerly threw out unopened mail; post offices rejected letters lacking return addresses; urgent mall was embargoed; and for weeks the national dialog centered on one of the least hazards we face. An NPR radio host asked the Postmaster General if the whole U.S. Postal System might be shut down, despite expert opinion that — in a world faced with diabetes, salmonella poisoning, and AIDS — anthrax will remain (even as a biological weapon) a bit player as a cause of death. Its sole potency is in the context of terrorism: if, by mulling lethal powder to someone, the news media choose to broadcast hysteria into every home so that the very future of our postal system is questioned, then the terrorist has deployed a powerful weapon indeed. But his power would be negated if we were to react to the anthrax in proportion to its modes t potential for harm. Research on risk perception has shown that our reactions to hazards don’t match the numerical odds. We fear events (like airliner crashes) that kill many at once much more than those that kill one at a time (car accidents).
We fear being harmed unknowingly (by carcinogens) far more than by things we feel we control ourselves (driving or smoking). We fear unfamiliar technologies (nuclear power) and terrorism far more than prosaic hazards (household falls). Such disproportionate attitudes shape our actions as public citizens. Accordingly governments spend vastly more per life saved to mitigate highly feared hazards (e. g., on aircraft safety) than on “everyday” risks (e. g., food poisoning). Risk analysts commonly accept, with neutral objectivity, the disparity between lay perceptions and expert risk statistics.
Sometimes it is justifiable to go beyond raw statistics. Depending on our values, we might be more concerned about unfair deaths beyond an individual’s control than self-inflicted harm. We might worry mo re about deaths of children than of elderly people with limited life expectancies. We might dread lingering, painful deaths more than sudden ones.
We might be more troubled about “needless” deaths, with no compensating offsets, than about fatalities in the name of a larger good (e. g., of soldiers or police). Or, in all these cases, we might not.