Keeping Panic at Bay

R. A. Hettinga
Sun, 21 Oct 2001 08:40:36 -0400

October 21, 2001

Keeping Panic at Bay


The essence of terrorism is to kill or injure opponents in ways
specifically designed to cause fear, and thus to disorganize the opposing
society to a degree far out of proportion to the number of victims. Whether
this strategy is used in wartime or against a nation at peace, the desired
effect is the same. The German V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets launched
against London in 1944 killed civilians in each attack, but their
psychological effect on the population was far greater than the number of
dead might suggest.

We Americans are now experiencing terrorism for the first time on American
soil, as well as forms of terrorism new in world history. But the
phenomenon of terrorism itself is ancient. What can we learn from the past
that could help us cope?

We often suppose that it was the 20th century that introduced terrorism as
a conscious tactic of war. It's true that bombing of civilians in World War
II to break their morale elevated military terrorism to new technological
heights. Yet low-tech military terrorism has been with us since the
recorded origins of war, as illustrated by 19th century Ethiopian armies'
castration of prisoners, Pizarro's conquistadores' chopping arms off Inca
soldiers and the Spartans' murder of their Plataean prisoners, described
2,400 years ago by Thucydides. Apart from such wartime terrorism, terrorist
raids by neighboring tribes were a chronic fact of traditional life for New
Guinea highlanders - much as terrorist attacks have persisted against
Israel for decades.

Among societies targeted by terrorists, some cracked under the stress but
others didn't. For instance, much to the surprise and disappointment of
those bombing them, Londoners and German and Japanese city-dwellers did not
crack during World War II. What explains that varying impact of terrorism?
I can discern at least three factors: novelty, sense of helplessness and
lack of warning.

New forms of terrorism are most frightening in their first use, when the
targeted society is unprepared psychologically as well as physically. This
was true for the first use of chlorine gas in World War I, the first use of
nerve gas in the Iraq-Iran war, and the introduction of smallpox into the
New World by Europeans and their American descendants - inadvertently to
the Aztecs and intentionally to some North American Indian tribes.

Targets of terrorism tend to become most demoralized when their society
appears to be helpless to protect them. Like terrorism itself,
countermeasures against it have a psychological value far out of proportion
to their effectiveness. For instance, on Sept. 10, 1940, when British
anti-aircraft guns were first fired against the German bombers that had
begun nightly raids on London on Sept. 7, their big roar gave an enormous
boost to the morale of Londoners even though they hit only a few German

Terrorist attacks that cannot be seen or heard coming are more damaging to
morale than those detectable before arrival. A lack of warning means that a
possible attack must be feared constantly.

Civilians in World War II did not crack under bombing attacks for several
reasons. Over time, the attacks lost their novelty. The bombers were seen
to be met by anti- aircraft fire and defending fighters. And bombs other
than German V-2 rockets were delivered noisily or visibly, allowing
civilians to prepare for attack.

What has just happened to us in recent weeks is awful beyond anything that
we have experienced previously. That makes it all the more important to
understand events since Sept. 11 in full context.

Before Sept. 11, we assumed that we were protected by the oceans and our
nuclear arsenal. Without warning, we were catapulted in a single day from
peace to a terrorist war, and then to bioterrorism within a month. The
telescoping of our experience in this war, with its forms of terrorism
unprecedented anywhere, is what makes the events of the past several weeks
so incomprehensible and nightmarish.

Other novel forms of terrorism probably await us, but a future attack can
no longer shock us: in fact, the possibility of attacks is now a main focus
of attention in the press and in conversation. While the first hijacked
suicide planes and anthrax envelopes arrived without warning, we have
already learned to see our world differently, scrutinizing unexpected
envelopes and airline passengers for potential weapons. Although the
effectiveness of these first countermeasures may be like that of London's
first anti-aircraft barrage (few hits but a lot of noise), their
sophistication and therefore effectiveness will increase with time. Though
we may feel vulnerable, the United States is better able to devise and
deploy countermeasures, whether against skyjacking or anthrax or any
still-to-be- deployed threat, than any other nation in history.

The current crop of terrorists, unlike the bombers of World War II, has no
chance of conquering us or (realistically) of killing a large fraction of
our population. They cannot destroy us; our biggest risk is our own panic.
What we face is terrorism in the most elementary sense: actions whose
hoped-for impact is paralysis of the target rather than direct damage from
the action itself. We cannot appease these terrorists or surrender to them,
any more than Londoners could give in under the Blitz. We will track them
down, because we are much stronger than they and we have no other choice.

Jared Diamond is a professor of physiology at the U.C.L.A. Medical School.
His book ``Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Socie ties'' won a
Pulitzer Prize.

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"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'