Prescient Thinking On Fear Of Terrorism
My friend, forensic psychologist Dr. Helen Smith, who specializes in the psychology of violence, sent me a link to a very smart piece she published on September 27, 2001. An excerpt:
People at airports seem to favor stringent enforcement of these policies. For example, after the World Trade Center tragedy, one passenger at United Airlines stated that she was glad the authorities were keeping lines long to check for coffee cups with sharp edges. (No, really.) "This makes me feel really safe,"she said. "I feel like they are doing something." Doing something is nice, but perhaps it would be better to do something effective. "Feelings" may not care about effectiveness, but terrorists do. We see a similar dynamic with zero tolerance weapons policies in schools. Sure, it makes sense to expel a kid who brings a real loaded gun to school, but most of the time, innocent kids are expelled for drawing a picture of a weapon (something boys have been doing since time immemorial) or for pointing a finger and going "bam, bam!" Has this averted one act of school violence? It's doubtful.
What these rules actually do is punish the average citizen who is not doing anything wrong. But that's actually part of the dynamic. There are far more law-abiding citizens: by punishing them the authorities reassure other law-abiding citizens that they are acting. If they only acted against people who were actually violent, most ordinary citizens (i.e., voters) wouldn't notice. Unfortunately, these policies also leave the rest of us with a false sense of security. At least, that is, until the next mass murder takes place and we are left shaking our heads, wondering why our symbolic solutions have done nothing to solve the problem. Of course, this is what these kinds of symbolic solutions are all about--the appearance of doing something. Whether or not that something works to reduce random acts of violence is not even the question.
This is not surprising. From primitive times to the present, people have engaged in magical thinking in times of terror. Magical thinking is the practice of associating a
particular action with a desired result even though there is no logical connection between the two. It's like ancient priests sacrificing babies to prevent an earthquake, or a modern student carrying a rabbit's foot in the hopes of passing a test. Studying would be better, but it's also work.