DAVID COGSWELL | NOVEMBER 18, 2015 8:39 AM ET
Beyond Paris and Beyond Fear
Naturally, in the wake of a horrifying and chillingly coordinated series of murderous attacks as we saw in Paris last week, a wave of panic and dread passes through the human community. Everyone with normal human reactions is going to experience an immediate impulse for self protection, to take cover, to shield yourself and get out of harm’s way.
And then there is the wave of anguish from watching the aftermath, seeing the suffering of all the people directly affected by the senseless tragedy.
Then, somewhere down the line, when the fear of immediate threat has subsided and some sense of normal life has returned, it is time to consider the implications of the events from as rational perspective as you can muster at that point.
The mass killings in Paris give us every reason to be frightened. But they give us even more reason not to give in to fear.
Claiming no expertise, but just as a shoot-from-the-hip layman’s analysis, it seems the moments just after an incident of terrorism are the least likely to be dangerous. At that point, everyone is hyper alert. Anyone planning a terror attack is likely to lie low at that time and wait for vigilance to subside.
If that supposition holds any water, one could then ask where we might rationally expect terrorists to attack next? Then you have bumped up against the great unknown.
Certainly there are criteria for educated guesses. Some places are more likely targets for terrorism than others, because of their visibility, their familiarity to people or the density of their populations. The World Trade Center for example.
There are intelligence agencies tracking movements of money and people who may be planning terrorist activity — but ultimately, it is impossible to perfectly predict the activity of these rogue elements of the population. It is impossible to completely eliminate risk.
Inside the United States, we have proved to be fairly effective at blocking terrorist activity from the Middle East, but we have proven ourselves unable to stop our own local breed of unpredictable, insane violence in the form of random mass shootings.
If I am sitting in New York, I have every rational reason for fearing that New York is a more likely target right now in the aftermath of the Paris attacks than is Paris.
So how do I stay safe? And if I am in Paris, or New York for that matter, what is and what isn’t a safe place to go?
As horrendous as the attacks were, the vast majority of people in the city only learned about the incidents from their TVs, as did other people around the world. Ultimately there is no logical, rational way to change your behavior in such a way that you are no longer at risk. You can lessen or increase your risk, for example by driving to the middle of Death Valley all by yourself where no one can get you (you hope). But you can never completely eliminate risk.
If you start trying to consider all the rational possibilities during the time you are in a state of fear, there is no end to them. The mind can just keep generating possibilities, because in the actual field of activity, the possibilities are endless.
Paranoia, by the way, is not a failure of logic, but a loss of faith. When one is under the spell of fear, the mind can generate plenty of paranoid plots that are based on fairly sound logic, but are still fantastic and unrealistic. When there is a loss of faith, there is nothing to ground our fantasies in. They can go wild.
Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times Monday, pointed out that the whole purpose of terrorism is to spread fear, and this incident has effectively done that. But the incident is not a sign that Western Civilization is about to collapse under the force of such terrorist attacks.
Krugman said the fact that the perpetrators are using this kind of tactic — bombings at public places — shows their weakness, not their strength. If you assign to them some massive power that is beyond what they are really capable of, you have given them too much power.
That is the purpose of terrorism, and that is the biggest reason we cannot give in to fear. That is the one thing that people on the scale of ISIS — who are looked upon with horror and loathing by almost all civilized people no matter what side of the conflicts in the Middle East they may be on — can achieve.
We have the power to deny them that. Each of us in our own lives can refuse to give them the power to destroy our lives.
Krugman says, and I agree with him, that “the biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire.”
I hate to bring up bad memories, but after 9/11, there was an attack on a country that demonstrably had nothing to do with the attacks and posed no threat to the U.S. The mess we made there helped set the stage for a band of lunatics like ISIS to gain a footing.
Letting ourselves be ruled by fear, hiding away, trying to avoid the risk one incurs by moving around, is to make ourselves prisoners. For us as individuals, it is important that we resist the tendency to get carried away in the wave of fear. By letting fear take over our thinking, we have the power to destroy our own quality of life right now.
The justification I hear for unplugging life support and letting people pass on is because the person has lost “quality of life.” And if those of us fortunate to still be of sound mind and body give into fear, we are giving up our own quality of life voluntarily.
Not me. I won’t do it.
Me neither, David. And thank you for this eloquent statement.