Fear Less

Gavin DeBecker

Part 1

Report Chapter


Real Truth About Risk, Safety, and Security in a Time of Terrorism.



SOON, ALL THE PLANNING would pay off and this odd double life would come to an end. A few people in the Florida cell had actually enjoyed living as Americans, but during refresher training in Europe, they were reminded that the United States was against everything they believed in.

The most committed among them found Americans objectionable, but it would be worth all the waiting and all the hating when news reached home that they had accomplished what was always believed to be impossible: striking America hard from within. Theirs was an enormous undertaking, far bigger than the sleeping giant would ever have dreamed, but the mission statement was simple: Start with several shocking blows at once, and then deliver grief in new ways for a long while.

Every day, their training proved its value: Know how to blend in, conceal your ident.i.ty, learn the culture, read American newspapers, study the transportation system. Stay focused, and what you do will change everything.

It did change everything, though the top people in the operation would not live to see it happen.

These facts have become famous since September 11, 2001, but the story you just read is about another terrorist operation, one you likely never heard of, one that was discovered and completely neutralized by the FBI.

At first, federal officials were hesitant to believe the sheer ambition of the plot, but as they learned more they undertook one of America's largest manhunts - in total secrecy. At times during the case, members of several linked cells were spread all around the country, and FBI agents were fighting the calendar to stop the violence that was scheduled to begin on the Fourth of July. Only three weeks before that date, the full extent of the terror plan was uncovered, though it almost wasn't.

A young woman named Farrar Teeple was taking an evening walk along the wide, empty beach near her father's home on New York's Long Island. Some motion in the dunes caught her eye, and although the light was low, she could make out a group of men. Were they burying something in the sand? She strained to see. The cool night air turned abruptly cold for Farrar when the men suddenly stopped what they were doing, stood up straight, and stared toward her. They did not speak or move and neither did she. For a moment she tested the welcome thought that they didn't see her, but she had to let it go when one of the men broke from the group without a word to the others and walked stiffly in her direction. He waved a few times, beckoning her toward him, but instead she backed up, then turned and ran quickly home. Panting as she entered the house, she told her father what she'd seen, thinking he would call the police. Instead, he rea.s.sured her that n.o.body doing anything suspicious would have waved at her and that it was nothing to bother the police about. Reluctantly, she accepted her father's judgment, but her intuition knew something was very wrong, and her intuition was very right.

Another person on the beach that night, John Cullen (an American hero you've never heard of), acted more decisively on his intuition. He smelled something unusual in the briny air, a strong smell that drew him down the beach toward those same men that Farrar had seen. He thought it might be something burning, but as he got closer he felt certain it was the smell of diesel fuel. That made him curious, and his curiosity led him to call officials at a nearby Coast Guard station. The next morning, FBI agents searching the beach found what those silent men had hurriedly buried in the sand: boxes containing explosives, guns, ammunition, timers, shortwave radios, fuses disguised as pen-and-pencil sets, and devices that carried sulfuric acid. It was clear the terrorists planned to come back for those things later, but as federal agents knelt on the beach anxiously taking notes, the ruthless conspirators were already on a train bound for New York City. That's where they intended to carry out the instructions they'd been given: Detonate bombs in Jewish-owned department stores, place bombs on bridges from Queens to the Bronx, and cause terror and panic in any way you can.

FBI investigators unraveled the plan completely, and even solved the mystery of that smell of diesel. It was caused by something nearly unimaginable given that it was 1942: the submarine that had traveled from n.a.z.i Germany to deposit those men on the beach. (Another n.a.z.i sub had dropped a second team of terrorists at Ponte Verde Beach, Florida.) Within weeks, the FBI had conducted a series of secret raids, eventually arresting 192 people in several cities. They had prevented state-sponsored terrorism at its most frightening, given the state that did the sponsoring.

Some might a.s.sume that the foiled n.a.z.i terrorist plan in the 1940s differs in fundamental ways from current terrorist operations, or that the world was a more innocent place then. Neither a.s.sumption is accurate.

I'll share the diabolical details of this thwarted terrorist operation - and others - in later chapters, but for now it can remind us that violent plots against America are not new and that even suicidal ones are not fated to succeed in every case.

After the terrible events of September 11, many people mistook our enemies for superhuman, when they were merely antihuman. Occasionally effective, to be sure, but our enemies are not powerful or ubiquitous. Those words more accurately describe us; we just forgot that for a while. It is sobering to acknowledge that we cannot protect all possible targets, but it is also true that our enemies cannot attack all possible targets. Conspiratorial behavior, scurrying in darkness, hiding behind false identification, pretending, relying upon surprise - these are the only strategies of battle for people who never, ever do actual battle. In that sense, it flatters them to call this a war. In another sense, though, it is a war, a war to be won through deploying more cleverness and intuition than our enemies.

Take, for example, the instructors at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minnesota. They had a Middle Eastern student who said he wanted to learn to fly a jet but didn't want to learn about landing or taking off- skills most aspiring pilots are highly motivated to master. Because a couple of people listened to their intuition and called the FBI in August of 2001 (a month before our imaginations were so painfully expanded), and because the FBI took Zacarias Moussaoui into custody, we didn't have to find out the hard way exactly what it was he had in mind. It's fair to a.s.sume now that he was just a few weeks away from doing something terrible.

That's a frightening thought, but just one of many frightening thoughts you've had to host, so of course you've felt fear about terrorism. How could you not? n.o.body could witness what you witnessed, even if through the small window of television, and not react with shock and fear. As I've reminded many victims of violence many times, your defense system is designed to send the fear signal when it perceives enormous danger - and your defense system had never before a.s.sessed anything quite like what happened on September 11, or what's been happening since.

Should you feel fear? The question is irrelevant, for there is no should about fear. Of course you will feel fear when there is reason to, like it or not. Fear is as fast as the jets, as hard as the buildings, as thick as the smoke, as undeniable as the rubble, and far more powerful than the hate and anger that brought them all together and tore them all apart right in front of your eyes.

Fear is, and is supposed to be. Start there, accept it, and give yourself some of the same compa.s.sion you've so willingly extended to others since September 11.

Yes, you had it better than many, but yours was still a profound personal experience of violence, and it would not be compa.s.sionate to expect anyone, including you, to have put events instantly into perspective. You had nothing to compare it to, and you couldn't get far enough away to see it in context. Even context itself was changed. Life could not be woven together that Tuesday with the same thread you had used on Monday. That alone is frightening, and can be enlightening - but not until after we've fully felt the fear.

We gave lots of attention to what we saw on television, but something was going on inside each of us as well. The human brain, nature's most miraculous accomplishment, is never more effective than when its host may be at risk. Then, all internal resources are marshaled: experience, imagination, industriousness, intellect, creativity, memory. The brilliant soldiers of intuition are given strict orders to guard the exits; n.o.body goes off duty until you get the answers to questions posed by every cell in your body: What does this event mean to safety? Am I going to be all right? Are we all going to be all right?

Of course you imagined a thousand terrors; that's where terrorism really happens: in the imagination. You placed yourself in those planes and in those buildings and imagined everything you could. You walked yourself through previously inconceivable emergencies. If you didn't do it consciously, you did it in your dreams. And even if you don't recall the dreams, they are in your cells nonetheless. For a while, the sound of an airplane overhead transported you to undesired destinations in the memory, and even the image of an airplane in an advertis.e.m.e.nt or the sight of one against a distant sky awakened unwelcome ghosts.

Skulking among the frightening outcomes you could conjure was one you'd never even considered: the weaponizing of jetliners. What do you do with that? While those afraid of flying can choose to stay off planes, it isn't possible for people to avoid all places on the ground that might be targeted. Terror that rains down unpredictably from the sky touches as delicate a place in our minds as terror that rises from the deep; to the psyche, jets become giant man-eating sharks racing toward us with sinister determination. You could try ordering these intruders out of your mind, but all the exits were closed. Terror got in, but none got out.

It is also profoundly disturbing to have a rageful, committed enemy that you cannot see advancing. A nation warring upon us would seem a luxury by comparison because a nation has a fixed place on the planet Earth, terrain and geography we can know, resources we can evaluate. And a nation - unlike suicidal individuals - has something to lose. In our present situation, no decisive or traditional victory is possible. In this war, there will be no captured beachhead upon which we can lay our fears to rest. So we are challenged to find safety and peace of mind in other ways.

Yet, peace of mind seems difficult given what's been occupying the national dialogue: viruses, chemicals, c.o.c.kpit doors, anthrax spores, decontamination teams, water supplies, FBI warnings, vaccinations, explosive devices, subways, fighter jets, gas masks, box cutters.

Just try to build a world that feels safe with these materials and it collapses under its own weight. When the thoughts you'd normally banish seem vital to your survival, you're reluctant to turn them off- and it's harder still when fear is sprayed at you like tear gas from every TV newsroom on every channel nearly every hour of every day. Next up, another terrible thing from someone else's imagination. Next up, another expert in some terrible science. Next up, another nightmare.

In order to get back to day-to-day life, you've had to place events and information into some vague framework. But so many questions linger just beneath consciousness, and so many answers you settled on tentatively call out for affirmation. Who is right - the rea.s.suring public official on the news or the alarming public official in the segment that follows?

It's too hard to be on duty without a break. It's too hard to keep up with every new risk. It's too hard to be anxious all the time. It's too d.a.m.n hard.

It's stressful to live like this, and it is natural for tension to seek resolution. Stretch a rubber band and it snaps back when you let go - but never all the way. Stress and tension change things. This isn't good or bad: it just is. Change always carries opportunities, and one we have today is the possibility of becoming less controlled by unwarranted fear than we used to be.

The television news business may not welcome that outcome - but I think you do. You don't want panic or terror or needless worry, but you do want truth - whatever that truth may be - so you can organize all that's happened and what you've learned, and get some rest.

Just as your imagination has placed you in frightening situations, it is now time to place yourself in empowering situations, time to see that you have a role to play, and contrary to so many TV news stories, it isn't just victim-in-waiting. Someone else may decide if you will be a target - but you decide whether or not you will be a victim.

The solution to worry is action, and it is time to address our fear fully so that it will stop nagging us. Your fear deserves to be answered, and you have the right to be safe, and to feel safe.

I don't mean a fraudulent feeling of safety made possible by denial, or a feeling promised by a politician or paid for with precautions that try to trick your defense system while doing nothing about actual danger. I mean a true, informed feeling of safety that comes from understanding violence, risk, intuition, fear, and security. Being safe and feeling safe are the destinations of this book, and I am committed to helping you get there. Then you'll help others get there too, for in the words of Nelson Mandela, "As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Being liberated from fears is a lofty goal. To get there I won't tell you there's nothing to be concerned about, or tell you not to worry. I am not a therapist. I am someone who has worked deep in the stuff of violence and fear every day for nearly three decades. My consulting firm's seventy a.s.sociates and I help answer some of the highest-stakes questions that individuals and nations face. We are called in after a madman shoots a group of federal employees arriving to work one morning, and we are called when a media figure opens a letter and finds threats, or blood, or powder, or things far more disturbing than any of those. We interview a.s.sa.s.sins in prisons, advise the family of a slain foreign president, and track down and arrest stalkers. We a.s.sess death threats from would-be terrorists, ma.s.s killers, stalkers, angry employees, and aspiring a.s.sa.s.sins. The clients we advise include presidents (of countries and corporations), governors, mayors, police departments, movie stars, athletes, and religious leaders. We developed a computer-a.s.sisted threat-a.s.sessment system called MOSAIC that is used to screen threats to justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as MOSAIC systems used by state police agencies protecting the governors of eleven states. We designed a MOSAIC system that's part of the process used to a.s.sess threats to members of Congress, and we've advised on the security of federal facilities, from the White House gates to the first building you see as you drive into CIA headquarters. We help clients evaluate risk, reduce hazard, prevent violence, and manage fear.

Because I have protected people against IRA bombs in London, Middle Eastern extremists in Israel, and terrorist actions in Africa, and because of my sustained look at violence, I am called an expert. Indeed, I have learned many lessons, but my basic premise in these pages is that you too can be an expert at understanding violent behavior and a.s.sessing risk. Like every creature on earth, you can know when you are in the presence of danger. You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations - a system that works best when accurately informed.

That's where I come in. For more than a year before the terrorist acts of September 11, I'd been working on a book about fear and risk in our society. It was to be my third on these topics, and though much of that book is relevant to our current situation, it was not due for many months. With the fear and the reality reaching the level of national emergency, I canceled, postponed, and set aside all I could to complete this book as quickly as possible. I am writing as a consultant, as if you walked into my office today with questions about violence, security, safety, precaution, prediction, risk, denial, and fear. Sometimes I'll have a lot to say; other times I might suggest you quit thinking so much. Above all, I commit to tell you the absolute truth as I see it, directly and fully, on topics about which people rarely tell the whole truth - and rarely want the whole truth.

For a long while, Americans had an illusion of complete safety from foreign enemies - and it's been shattered. We have replaced it with another illusion: that of complete vulnerability and powerlessness - and it too must be shattered.

Gas masks and canceled family trips, antidotes and survival gear, stockpiling food and staying at home - all choices I understand, but it's as if many Americans are preparing to be victims. America has bought into a false belief that there is little the average citizen can do about terrorism. Only government, many think, can detect and prevent terrorist acts, when in fact it is regular citizens who can do these things in ways that government on its own cannot.

Although a few Americans act as if they are preparing to be casualties of war, the truth is they are fully qualified to be part of the ant.i.terrorism effort. You don't have to do hand-to-hand combat to defeat people whose success depends entirely upon not being found out. Before the courageous FBI raid, before the arrest, long before the news conference, there is a regular American citizen who sees something that seems suspicious, listens to intuition, and has the character to risk being wrong or seeming foolish when making the call to authorities.

Conspiratorial planning and preparation do not often occur in the view of FBI agents. They occur most often in the view of regular citizens, and for every law-enforcement officer on the front lines, there can be a hundred citizens providing observations and information - if they understand enough about the planning and the pre-incident indicators of terrorism.

For example, at a flight school in Florida, two men from the Middle East paid a lot of money to use a commercial-jet simulator even though they had logged nowhere near enough training hours to actually fly commercial aircraft. It was not a joyride, for they were stern faced as they focused most of their time on steering. It might seem outrageous now that n.o.body called officials about Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, but in fairness, the folks at the Florida flight school were among thousands of Americans who had literally thousands of encounters with the men who committed the ma.s.s murders of September 11.

What are terrorists likely to do next? Something surprising, and then something mundane, then something predictable, and then something surprising again. Whatever it is, you and other Americans will be able to handle it, and in many cases, you'll be able to stop it from happening.

Heroism today is learning about how terrorism works. That's part of your contribution to the nation and to yourself. To do this well, our courage will have to be placed ahead of our denial.

With denial, the details we need for the best predictions float silently by us like life preservers, and though the man overboard may enjoy the comfortable belief that he is still in his stateroom, there is soon a price to pay for his daydream. Americans now know the price, and it is too high.

Though I won't flinch from reality, this book is not a compendium of every risk you might face. You've gotten enough of that, and my work is far too practical to partic.i.p.ate in melodrama. I won't try to talk you out of anything you feel or into anything someone might think you should feel. I want only what you want for yourself: enhanced safety and freedom from unwarranted fear.

While I'll look at both sides of some government decisions, I'll honor this truth: Our political leaders have been and will be faced with stunningly difficult choices. All Americans have strong feelings about security, civil liberties, war, and a thousand other ideological issues that divide us, but for my purposes here, there is no controversy. If I feel a popular security precaution is a waste of time, I'll tell you so. If something a government official says strikes me as just silly, I'll tell you so. If, in my view, there are things the airline industry could easily be doing to enhance safety, I'll tell you so. If I see people intentionally frightening you for their own profit, I'll tell you so.

I want merely to provide some tools you might not be aware of and to share my experience to help you answer these questions: Can air travel be safe?

Can the government detect and prevent future terrorist acts?

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Why didn't the FBI stop the 9/11 hijackers? What can the nation do to reduce risk?

You and I can be sources of reasoned information, insight, comfort, and courage. The more of us there are, the better. And though we may not be able to stop all terror-15m, we can stop a lot of the terror. So let's go further into the relevant topics than one can do in a sound bite, go into them without alarming bulletins and scary graphics, go into them without hype or politics, go into them just deeply enough to come out the other side.

Then you can see if you reach the same conclusions I have: that you can find your life in these times, that you can influence your own safety, that you can help protect your country, that you can manage fear, and that you are going to be all right.

Vitality shows not only in the ability to persist, but in the ability to start over.


THE EVENTS OF 9/11 were of mythic scale: so many lives lost, so many more lost for a time to grief, the utter destruction, the starkness of fierce hatred, the vulnerability of the government - even the supposedly all-protecting military wasn't safe. Much that we had chosen to believe was proven false all on the same day: that airports are secure, great buildings are strong and permanent, an airline captain is always in charge of his plane, a pilot's skill is special, the perpetrators of attention-capturing acts want to survive and experience their notoriety.

Since that day we've had to let go of plenty of old beliefs, so that in addition to everything else, we have experienced the death of denial.

Denial is the psychological defense mechanism we unconsciously deploy to make unpleasant truths go away, but on September 11 those defenses were breached, leaving millions of people overwhelmed by terrifying ideas and feelings. It was, right from the start, difficult to persuade yourself that each incident was isolated, or that the danger would pa.s.s. The usual search for answers was stalled; the trauma was so profound that your mind would not accept a simple solution. The story couldn't be wrapped up merely by the identifying of a villain, even a media-age supervillain like Osama bin Laden. Firing missiles could not right the sheer upside-down-ness of what happened, and was continuing to happen.

My goal in this chapter is to show that even when we thought things were right side up, there were plenty of dangers we had successfully compartmentalized. We are challenged to do that again now. To compartmentalize is not to deny; it is to acknowledge the reality of something, look right at it, and place it, literally, in a mental compartment, in a kind of quarantine, separated from our moment-to-moment thinking in such a way that we can manage life. The theory here is to change what we can change and accept what we cannot change. Violence is one of those things we cannot change; it is always present. What differs is the expression of violence, but violence itself has remained a constant throughout human history.

That may be a saddening or discouraging thought at first, but in the truth lies relief for those who anxiously wonder about whether there will be more violence. There is nothing to wonder about. We live in a nation with its own violence epidemic, remember? In the past two years alone, more Americans died from gunshot wounds than were killed during the entire Vietnam War - ten times the number who died at the World Trade Center. Many people in other countries believe ours to be the most frightening place to live, and some startling contrasts support their view.

For example, in all of j.a.pan, the number of young men shot to death in a year is equal to the number killed in New York City in a single busy weekend. By this time tomorrow, four hundred Americans will suffer a shooting injury, and more than a thousand will face a criminal with a gun. When four jumbo jets crashed on September 11 we were deeply shaken, but imagine that a jumbo jet full of pa.s.sengers crashed every single month, month in and month out. The number of people killed still wouldn't equal the number of American women murdered by their husbands and boyfriends each year. None of that is comforting, I know, but it does provide some frame of reference.

Just as violence has been a constant, so has fear. It's as if we keep a s.p.a.ce in our collective mind reserved for things that frighten us, and that s.p.a.ce must be kept occupied. If we are not fearing terrorism, it's mad cow disease, or killer bees, or gas-tank fires, or dangerous tires. Before September 11, we feared enemies within: AIDS, asbestos, the vengeful co-worker, the local serial killer, the home invasion robber, the rampaging high school student.

A USA Today poll about what Americans feared revealed a catalog of catastrophes right off the TV news: 20 percent of Americans reported a fear of being in an air crash; 18 percent were afraid of being a victim of ma.s.s violence. These fears collided on September 11, and though I know the percentages would be higher today, my point is that these fears are not new.

After worrying for so long about dreaded outcomes that never come, when a truly terrible thing happens, it can confirm our worst fears. Each frightening disaster rekindles the sense of insecurity and joins all the other frightening things in our memory. Because it gets attached to other traumas, the latest risk is always perceived as the greatest risk.

But is it the greatest risk?

It may be that most of us are in no more danger today than we were on September 10, 2001 - but we are focusing on different dangers now. We had found ways to live with the old familiar risks, often by denying them. Americans are, after all, experts at denial, a choir whose song could be t.i.tled "Things Like That Don't Happen in This Neighborhood."

Certainly denial can be seductive, but it has an insidious side effect. For all the peace of mind deniers think they get by saying it isn't so, the fall they take when faced with new violence is all the more unsettling. Denial is a save-now-pay-later scheme, a contract written entirely in small print, for in the long run the denying person knows the truth on some level, and it causes a constant low-grade anxiety. Millions of people who repressed that anxiety have now had the thin protective bubble popped, and they are among those who feel most vulnerable today. I do not propose a continuation of denial - for it never serves safety - but I do propose compartmentalization of those risks that appear frequently in our imaginations and only occasionally in our reality. See the risks, address those we can, and quarantine the rest.

Understand that one person's old familiar risk can be another person's absolute terror. Londoners visiting Los Angeles ask in disbelief about carjacking: "You mean he looks you in the eye, aims a handgun at your face, and says he'll kill you if you don't get out of the car?" And we say how rare it is, how most times they just take the car and that's it, how it happened to a friend and she's fine, and anyway, we add offhandedly, we're insured. Then we visit London and ask, "You mean you go out for a night on the town knowing full well that an IRA bomb could go off at any moment?" And they tell us that recent bombs haven't been very powerful anyway, and even with the really big ones, the main risk is the broken gla.s.s flying around and not the blast itself.

Do you know what Israelis do after a bomb explodes on a pa.s.senger bus bound for Tel Aviv? The next morning, people line up to get on the bus to Tel Aviv. That's a statement of courage they choose to make, a refusal to be terrorized - and yet there are risks you take for granted that would make those same people hesitate. For example, the rate of firearm deaths in the United States is five times higher than it is in Israel.

Given all that's happened, however, most Americans do feel less safe than they did growing up. But let's look at that safer world of our youth: For most of us, it was a world without air bags or mandatory seat belts, before the decrease in smoking, before early detection of cancer, before CAT scan, ultrasound, organ transplant, amniocentesis, and coronary bypa.s.s surgery, before 911 systems showed police and paramedics your address. You remember those oh-so-safe sixties, when angry world powers planned nuclear attack, and schoolchildren practiced regular air-raid drills. Sure, balled up under the desk at six years old, listening intently for the whistle of an incoming missile sent by a powerful enemy who hated us - ah, those were the safe days.

Still, many Americans understandably compare their fears of today to an idealized past, longing to get back the lives - and the risks - they were used to. For them, it might be helpful to recall that we didn't feel all that safe before 9/11.

We were searched for weapons before boarding a plane, visiting city hall, going to court, seeing a television show taping, attending a speech by the President, and even entering some high schools. Government buildings were already surrounded by barricades, and we wrestled through so-called tamperproof packaging to get a couple of aspirin. All of this was triggered by the deeds of fewer than ten dangerous men who got our attention by frightening us. What other quorum in American history, save those who wrote our Const.i.tution, could claim as much impact on our day-to-day lives? Now, as we add Mohamed Atta to the list, let's recall that we have already prevailed in the face of other huge, paradigm-shifting events: - Puerto Rican terrorists burst into Congress and shot five elected officials in 1954.

- The President was shot and killed in 1963, and within minutes, just about every person on the planet Earth knew about it. It was the media age's first example of how a trauma can be simultaneously shared by billions of people.

- In 1962 the United States detected nuclear missiles in Cuba and went toe-to-toe with the Soviet Union, and all the fears of the atomic age became real. Millions of families stockpiled food, dug makeshift bomb shelters in their backyards, and waited for nuclear war.

- In 1968 two loved leaders were a.s.sa.s.sinated, presidential front-runner Robert Kennedy and civil rights legend Martin Luther King, Jr. King's murder sparked riots that led millions of Americans to doubt whether the violence could be contained by police.

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