A terrorist threat—real, imagined or merely a hoax—cannot be easily dismissed in a world fraught with anxiety. We have not moved that far from the tragedies in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. And images and memories of these attacks must have loomed again this week when the nation’s two largest school systems received a threat.
In Los Angeles, the school system was closed down. In New York City, the schools remained open while the mayor and police commissioner announced that it was all a hoax. Whether to err on the side of caution was the decision in Los Angeles, and we have to factor in the time difference between New York and California and that the most recent incident occurred out there.
Even so, the fact that nothing happened this time does little to remove the fear factor, which means that so long as the terrorists keep us on edge and nervous, they gain a concession.
To be sure, what to do when a threat is delivered via email, telephone or other devices is a bane for decision makers. But even more disturbing is the reaction from ordinary citizens, particularly those who live near or have personally experienced a terrorist attack, as in Colorado Springs, Paris or San Bernardino. What do parents tell their children? How do we go on with things as usual when any day another threat will disrupt our routine?
One reaction we’re learning involves the increase in gun sales across the country. That is not a good sign. Keeping a gun handy means the propensity to use it if you have the opportunity. We have been informed by national agencies that most terrorist attacks are not announced but are suddenly in your face. Extreme vigilance and being perpetually on guard are no guarantees in thwarting an attack.
Is there an antidote to fear? Something we can do to stem the anxiety and tamp down the quiver each time we hear about an attack? This situation certainly is not arrested when we hear the Republican candidates with their blather and fear-mongering. What President Barack Obama said following the attack in San Bernardino—that we should not cave into fear but to try to go on with our lives—is perhaps the best message. To alter your life, to conduct you moves based on fear, is to concede a victory to the terrorists.
A few years ago we read an article by Terrell Arnold, a former senior foreign service officer at the State Department. At the conclusion of his thorough assessment of terrorism and the marketing of fear, he wrote: “We must accept that perfection is impossible, and that uncertainties of the types that commonly beset our lives every day are unavoidable. Terrorism at worst is one of those, but it is less likely than many others.”
In effect, Arnold posits this as an antidote to fear, and this may the best way to get along with our lives without capitulating to fear or fear mongers.