[FoRK] on fear

Stephen D. Williams sdw
Fri Aug 12 03:05:39 PDT 2005

To many people, NYC is too terrifying at every level, let alone 
terrorism worries.

People worry too much or too little all the time.  I am constantly 
confronted with mismatches between my calculations of relative 
actuarials and the impressions of people around me. 

For example: I've been sent with children to the bathroom, 20 ft. away, 
at the mall foodcourt in Ohio because "she" heard some wild story about 
pedophiles in bathrooms.  The probability of such a thing in that place 
and circumstance is so vanishingly small that it hardly warrants a 
passing thought whereas there are many other exposures all the time.  
There is a rant to repeat here about the media whipping up fears with no 
education of probability and risk evaluation.

Part of what I've studied is security, both technical and otherwise.  I 
can think of a nearly endless number of ways to wreck havoc, many of 
them with high likelihood of success.  I can also imagine all of the 
things that could go wrong; realizing there are a 100 ways to die or be 
maimed every day.  In NYC, I think one of the scarier dangers is getting 
caught, but not immediately killed, by the subway.  The number of people 
who are a simple stumble away from such a horror is mind boggling.  In 
terms of exposure to danger, crossing the street, taking the subway, and 
even eating are all far more likely, in my estimation, to kill you than 
an act of terrorism.  Certainly you have more direct control and 
responsibility for managing those risks than some external act.

What is it that allows people to avoid being fear driven?  I think you 
have to learn to confront, analyze, compare, and reason about risks and 
fears in a fairly deep way.  I really think you need to manage your 
fear; deciding when to squelch or amplify and direct fear rather than 
just letting it run amok and reacting to it.  Just the same as people 
have to learn to control their impulses, anger, and other natural 
responses, they have to learn how to face and control fear.

In my old age, I do a number of physically risky things.  The hike on 
the muddy, super scary volcanic ridges to the peak of the mountains on 
Oahu a week ago for instance, was filled with both exhaustion and crazy 
danger.  I fly airplanes (but I drive a lot less lately, a huge 
reduction in risk profile; I'm more likely to die falling asleep driving 
than anything else), scuba dive, inline skate in DC traffic, etc.  All 
of these are exercises in identifying, facing, and managing risk.

There has to be some good techniques for bringing people along that path 
of understanding yet being comfortable with the risks of everyday life.


Damien Morton wrote:

> Ive just spent the last two hours listening to my wife drunkenly 
> explain to me about the fear she feels living in New York.
> Recently, the DHS has installed an air-testing box outside our 
> apartment. Every day we leave the apartment, we are greeeted by a 
> freindly notice from the DHS explaing what their box is.
> This freaks my wife out - she wonders why now, 4 years after 9/11, 
> they have decided to start testing the air. I explain to her that its 
> an experiment so they can learn more about how gasses move around the 
> city.
> She asks me, what can they learn by from a box installed in the middle 
> of summer, when there is no wind to speak of, and its so hot and 
> humid. Shes asks, why now, what do they know that she doesnt know?. I 
> tell her that its mostly for show, so that they can be seen to be 
> doing something. I wish I could say something that would put her at ease.
> She goes on, asking me how what they learn can help her if some 
> terrorist releases gasses in times square. I cant bring myself to tell 
> her that its most likely so that they will know what areas to cordon 
> off, and who to isolate.
> When I go to work, I have to catch the subway. Down there, its 
> swarming with police. I know they are there to make me feel safer, but 
> somehow I dont.
> When I get to work, a dozen ex-marines guard the building, and there 
> are police armed and armoured like soldiers wandering around the 
> streets. Taking a smoko outside the building, I watch tourists get 
> yelled at for taking photos.
> One the day of the London bombings, an international oompany wide memo 
> was sent out expressing sympathy and sorrow, but also pride that for 
> this company, today was business as usual. But it was not.
> We caught the train out to Conneticut to visit some friends. On the 
> platform at Brewster, CT, (a tiny hamlet), were four armed soldiers.
> Myself, I have been in or near 5 terrorist attacks. Luxor, the Cairo 
> Museum, the Mahane Yehuda market, the Ben-Yehuda mall, and the twin 
> towers. Somehow, I deal with it. My wife just cries.
> When I see soldiers on the streets, and I see police dressed like 
> soldiers, I think to myself, this is not where I want to be. Their 
> presence is a sign of failure and danger.
> I dont see the situation improving. I dont see how its possible to 
> live  life without fear, in New York.
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