Fear Less

Gavin DeBecker

Part 2

Report Chapter


In the aftermath of September 11, you no doubt heard the many urgings of government officials to report anything suspicious to authorities. Most people, however, don't know precisely how to define suspicious.

Farrar Teeple, her father, and John Cullen all had the opportunity to become part of the national security - but only Cullen stayed the course and acted effectively. Teeple's father would surely have acted differently had he recognized what was right in front of him.

We deny because we're built to see what we want to see. In his book The Day the Universe Changed, historian James Burke points out that "It is the brain which sees, not the eye. Reality is in the brain before it is experienced, or else the signals we get from the eye -would make no sense."

This truth underscores the value of having the pieces of the terroristic violence puzzle in our heads before we need them - and this chapter is committed to identifying many of those pieces.

Though FBI agents may recognize suspicious behaviors a.s.sociated with conspiratorial violence, they are almost never in a position to see those behaviors. It is regular citizens who are watching the play as it unfolds, coming in contact with the characters, seeing pieces of the plot. Accordingly, the most effective way to detect and prevent terroristic conspiracies is for you and me to be part of an "All Eyes" approach to security.

As I explored in depth in The Gift of Fear, one of the most valuable elements of predicting and preventing violence is the pre-incident indicator, or PIN, as it's called in my firm. Pre-incident indicators occur prior to a final act of violence. As an example, let's look at the form of terrorism formerly most effective in America (often but not always committed by Americans): a.s.sa.s.sination. Imagine someone planning to a.s.sa.s.sinate a governor at a speech. Pre-incident indicators could include the a.s.sa.s.sin's jumping on stage with a gun - but that is too recent a PIN to be very useful (as it provides little time for intervention). The birth of the a.s.sa.s.sin is also a PIN, but it is too dated to be valuable. Even though both of these events are critical intersections on the map of this particular prediction, one hopes to be somewhere between the two, between the earliest detectable factor and those that occur an instant before the final act. Useful PINs for a.s.sa.s.sination might include the a.s.sa.s.sin's developing a plan, purchasing a weapon, keeping a diary, observing the governor in public, following him, trying to learn the governor's schedule, asking questions about his entry and exit points from a building, telling relatives "something big is coming," etc.

Preventing such attacks (which happens many times every year in America) requires understanding the process of this form of violence. Does an a.s.sa.s.sination attempt begin when the gun is fired at the target, or when the gun is drawn, or when it is carried secretly toward the stage, or when it is loaded, or when it is purchased, or when a.s.sa.s.sination is first thought of? We tend to focus too much on the end of incidents, and not enough on the process. Prediction moves from a science to an art when you realize that pre-incident indicators are actually part of the incident.

There are always PINs prior to violence, though they are not always recognized by those who see them.

In London, as a result of so many bombings by members of the IRA and others, residents are sensitive to PINs: An unattended suitcase leaning up against a building, a non-guest seen frequently in the lobby of a hotel, a pair of men climbing out from under a car belonging to a local politician - these things will quickly generate reports to law enforcement or security personnel. So it can be in America. If you intuit something questionable, ask questions - at least of yourself- and if the answers are unsatisfying, make a report to the police, the fire department, facility security, building management, or the FBI.

Since the willingness of regular citizens to report things they perceive as suspicious will be a decisive element in detecting terrorist planning and logistics, let's start there, with the story of a young New Yorker named Andrew.

On the day his willingness was tested, he boarded the Lexington number 6 subway at around 8:00 A.M. and headed toward the Wall Street district for work. The car was packed with people, but one commuter stood out.

To Andrew, the man looked like he'd been living on the streets for some time, though he was more fit and younger than one expected a homeless person to be. He appeared agitated, maybe even a bit crazy - within the acceptable range of craziness one gets used to on the subway. He was wearing what looked like brand-new tennis shoes, white and clean - an odd match for his torn sweatshirt and tattered jeans. It wasn't his appearance that held Andrew's attention. It was the bulky canvas bag the man had placed on the floor between his feet, the strap of which he held firmly in both hands. The bag had been methodically covered with white surgical tape, leaving only its two wooden handles exposed. The handles themselves were interesting, firmly attached with thick chain, improvised to carry something heavy. The man would have earned less scrutiny but for a single word written boldly in dark blue marker across both sides of the stark white bag. The word was BOMB.

Andrew was not the only person who noticed this. He saw a few other pa.s.sengers roll their eyes or exchange shrugs about the man and his unusual fashion statement. But n.o.body seemed too alarmed. People sat down next to the man, looked him over, and went back to reading their


papers. They got off at their stops, and new people got on, looked him over, and opened up their papers.

Andrew got off the subway at Fulton Street, and so did that man. The pull of gravity kept the bag from swinging as he walked. It is heavy, Andrew thought as he watched the man labor his way up the stairs toward the street. Andrew turned left at the top of the stairs; the man and his precious bag went right and disappeared into the morning crowd.

Walking to his office, Andrew considered calling the police, but concluded that since n.o.body else seemed to be alarmed, maybe he shouldn't be either. That would have been the end of the story, except that sitting at his desk two hours later, Andrew heard an enormous explosion.

Co-workers rushed to the windows trying to see what was going on. After a while, unable to figure out what had happened, somebody got the idea to turn on the television. Soon enough they heard the words "We interrupt this program ..."

Andrew focused intently on the video footage of people running away from what looked like a war zone. Some were bloodied, several were crying. Windows in all the surrounding buildings were blasted out. Smoke was everywhere. Ambulances and police cars sat in improvised parking s.p.a.ces all over the street. The newsreader said estimates placed the number of injured at 150, "so it must have been a large bomb." Bomb. Andrew had ridden to work with that word.

When he told a couple of co-workers what he'd seen, they thought at first he was kidding. Maybe he shouldn't report it, he thought; the police might have the same reaction. Then he persuaded himself that someone on the subway must have already made the report, if not many people. The police were probably besieged by reports about that man.

Still, he decided to make the call, and after reaching a busy signal time and again, he was finally able to reach one of the detectives working on the case: "I'm sure plenty of people have already told you about the man on the subway with the bag marked bomb, but I thought I might have some details you could use. He was about thirty years -" The officer interrupted: "No, I haven't heard anything about that man, but it doesn't matter anyway, because we've solved that case."

Already solved? Andrew was impressed. Wanting to know if the mysterious man had been involved in the explosion, he asked if the officer could share some details of the crime.

"Sure. It turned out to be an explosion of a Mister Softee ice cream truck, a freak accident. No bomb." The officer chuckled. "But thanks for calling."

Even though the explosion near Andrew's office had turned out to be innocent, one might have hoped for more police curiosity about a man on the subway clinging to a canvas bag marked bomb. One might have hoped that at least a few of the thousands of people who encountered a man carrying a bag marked bomb would have called the police. But this happened in 1978. Today the story would be different.

When Andrew even momentarily thought that the BEING AN ANTI-TERRORIST: THE MESSENGERS OF INTUITION.

man on the subway might be linked to the huge explosion he heard, he could feel ridiculous - but in fact, it would have been more ridiculous to think anything else. Had that odd bag contained a bomb, a seemingly tiny detail from just one caller like Andrew might have attached to other fragments of evidence and led police to the prevention of more bombings. Thus, the exact same phone call could be seen either as a humorous distraction for a busy civil servant or as an admirable act. In our lives today, such a report is admirable either way.

If you have an intuitive feeling that something you've observed might be relevant to a crime (past or future), even if you can't fully explain why you feel what you feel, any effective, professional law-enforcement officer will want to hear about it and will welcome your report. If you encounter one who does not, his or her supervisor likely will.

Imagine three men rent the apartment upstairs and are always looking through binoculars at the nearby federal building. It could be nothing, but you feel suspicious. This is the point at which many observers a.s.sume they need to see more evidence in support of their suspicion. But here's the reality: That may be all you get -just a line of dialogue, not the whole play. The nature of conspiracy is that the elements of planning and logistics happen out of view of each other. You see one element.

n.o.body shows up at the electronics store and asks for the bomb department, but you might encounter someone who asks for several bomb components in a row (timer, mercury switch, wire, battery, etc.). Your suspicion has to be enough, because if you wait to put what you've seen together with some decisive fact - such as the man buying explosives across town on the same day - you'll miss the opportunity intuition is telling you about.

You don't have to build the entire criminal conspiracy case. You need only honor what you feel, observe what you can, doc.u.ment information, and make the call.

Suspicion has gotten a bad name for some reason; people feel guilty about it. But when you feel suspicious, it's not something unkind that you're doing to someone; it's not something you choose - suspicion is something that chooses you. You don't feel guilty when curiosity arises, and suspicion, like curiosity, is just a messenger of intuition. Suspicion is curiosity with the added intuitive instruction to keep watching. In fact, the root of the word suspicion - suspicere - means "to watch."

If you make a report and it turns out there was no hazard, you have lost nothing and you've added a new distinction to your intuition, so that it might not sound the alarm again in the same situation. Intuition is always learning, and though it may occasionally send a signal that turns out to be less than urgent, everything it communicates to you has meaning. When you get an intuitive signal, most of the work is already done - your conscious job is to search for the meaning and, even if you don't initially find it, to believe it might be there nonetheless. Unlike worry, intuition will not waste your time; it is always in response to something, and always has your best interest at heart.

If you make a report, you cannot be wrong. In fact, in this context - and in this time - I'd propose a new definition of wrong: You can be wrong only if you deny your intuition and don't put a higher value on safety than you put on pride.


Intuition might send any of several messengers to get your attention, and because they differ according to urgency, it is good to know the ranking. The intuitive signal of the highest order is fear. The next level is apprehension, then suspicion, then hesitation, doubt, gut feelings, hunches, and curiosity. There are also nagging feelings, persistent thoughts, physical sensations, wonder, and anxiety. Generally speaking, these are less urgent.


Nagging feelings Persistent thoughts Humor Wonder Anxiety Curiosity Hunches Gut feelings Doubt Hesitation Suspicion Apprehension Fear You may be surprised to see humor as a signal of intuition.

In one story that offers an excellent example, all the information was there like a great unharvested crop left to dry in the sun. The receptionist was off that day, so Bob Taylor and others at the California Forestry a.s.sociation sorted through the mail. When they came upon the package, they looked it over and chatted about what to do with it. It was addressed to the former president of the a.s.sociation, and they debated whether to just forward it to him. When Gilbert Murray, the current president, arrived, they brought him in on their discussion. Murray said, "Let's open it."

Taylor got up and cracked a joke: "I'm going back to my office before the bomb goes off." He walked down the hall to his desk, but before he sat down, he heard the enormous explosion that killed his boss. Because of intuition, that bomb didn't kill Bob Taylor.

All the information he needed was there and dismissed by the others, but not before Taylor's intuition sent a signal to everyone in the clearest language: "I'm going back to my office before the bomb goes off."

Humor, particularly dark humor, is a common way to communicate concern without the risk of feeling silly afterward, and without overtly showing fear. But how does this type of remark evolve? One doesn't consciously direct the mind to search all files for something funny to say. Were that the case, Bob Taylor might have looked at this package addressed to a man who didn't work there anymore and cleverly said, "It's probably a fruitcake that's been lost in the mail since Christmas," or any of thousands of comments. Or he could have made no comment at all. But with this type of humor, an idea comes into consciousness that, in context, seems so outlandish as to be ridiculous. And that's precisely why it's funny. The point is, though, that the idea came into consciousness because all the information was there.

That package sent by the Unabomber to the California Forestry a.s.sociation was very heavy. It was covered with tape, had too much postage, and aroused enough interest that several people speculated on whether it might be a bomb. They had noted the Oakland firm named on the return address - had they called directory a.s.sistance, they'd have found it to be fict.i.tious. Still, it was opened.

A few weeks earlier, advertising executive Thomas Mosser received such a package at his New Jersey home. Just before he opened it, something made him curious (a messenger of intuition), and he asked his wife if she was expecting a parcel at the house. She said she was not. Mosser had asked a good question, but a moment later he ignored the answer he'd sought. He was killed when he opened the package (also sent by the Unabomber).

Postal inspector Dan Mihalko: "I've heard many times that people would make a comment, 'This looks like a bomb,' and still open it. That's one for the psychologists to answer. Perhaps they don't want to call the police and be embarra.s.sed if it turns out to be nothing."

The Unabomber himself mocked some of the twenty-three targets hurt by his bombs: "If you had any brains you would have realized that there are a lot of people out there who resent the way techno-nerds like you are changing the world and you wouldn't have been dumb enough to open an unexpected package from an unknown source. People with advanced degrees aren't as smart as they think they are."

In fairness to the victims discussed above, mail bombs are very rare and were not the type of hazard one was normally concerned about, but the point is that these victims were concerned enough to comment on it. Though you've likely never had reason to think about mail bombs, they are now on the menu of terroristic options - and now part of your intuition.

Intuition is knowing without knowing why, knowing even when you can't see the evidence. Denial is choosing not to know something even when the evidence is obvious. It's easy to see which of these two human abilities is more likely to protect us during challenging times.

But what about ordinary times? Here's Bill McKenna s story of an intuitive signal that tried to warn him of a burglary: "As I was dozing off I heard a noise downstairs which for some reason really scared me. It wasn't that it was loud, and I don't even recall exactly what it sounded like, but I absolutely couldn't shake it. So I got out of bed and went downstairs to be sure everything was all right. I made a quick walk around and then went back to bed. Half an hour later, I heard a sound so quiet that I still don't know how it woke me; it was the sound of someone else's breathing. I turned on the light, and there was this burglar standing in the middle of the room with our CD player under his arm."

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If Bill's mission on his walk downstairs was "to be sure everything was all right," as he put it, then he succeeded completely. If, though, it was to answer the survival signal - to accept the gift of fear - he failed. When he heard that noise downstairs, had he consciously linked the fear he felt to its possible dangerous outcomes - as his intuition had already done - he might have conducted his search with the goal of finding risk as opposed to the goal of finding nothing. Had he thought, in effect, "Since I feel fear, I know there is some reason, so what is it?" then he could have brought into consciousness what his intuition already knew and what he remembered and later told me: The living-room light had been on when he got home, the cat had somehow gotten outside and was waiting on the porch, an unusual old car was parked near his driveway, its engine clinking as it cooled.

After they checked out on September 9, a box-cutter knife was found in their room, and several things were found in the trash they left behind: ill.u.s.trated books on karate and jujitsu, FAA air-traffic maps, information on flying Boeing pa.s.senger jets, and fifty training textbooks. These items a.s.sume now a dark meaning to us that they did not have for Richard Surma back then, and yet he kept the items he found in their trash. When he and his wife heard Peter Jennings report that some of the terrorists had been in Florida and had taken flight lessons, intuition made all the connections, and the Surmas called the police.

What if there's nothing suspicious about any of the encounters people might have with future terrorist conspirators?

Well, sometimes there isn't much that's suspicious - but some of the time there will be, and it might be just one person from one encounter who makes one report that gets law enforcement to knock on one door to ask some questions. And it might be the right door. Imagine that sheriff's investigators had followed up on reports they'd received, and knocked on the door at Eric Harris's BEING AN ANTI-TERRORIST: THE ARCHITECTURE OF CONSPIRACY.

house in the days prior to his ma.s.s shooting at Columbine High School. Imagine that they'd asked, "Mind if we look around?" That question might have led to the discovery of some of the weapons and bombs.

Atta and his comrades were trying to live by the terrorist handbook that had served many of their predecessors well: "When you're in the outer world, you have to act like them, dress like them, behave like them." But they just couldn't pull it off.

For example, more than one librarian around the country reported later on members of the 9/11 conspiracy used public library computers in the weeks before the crime - presumably for e-mail and research. In Delray Beach, Florida, librarian Kathleen Hensman said three of the hijackers monitored her to make sure she couldn't see what they were doing online. She said to a colleague at the time, "What's their problem? I don't have a problem with them; why are they looking at me?" She remembers this because their behavior stood out.

When behaviors draw our attention, make us curious, lead us to wonder - that's intuition speaking. What you observe may turn out to be no problem at all, for many signals from intuition are merely requests that you keep perceiving to see if there's anything there worth being more concerned about. That's precisely what Kathleen Hensman was doing when the secretive visitors doubled their efforts to ensure she couldn't observe what they were up to.

Library staff see strangers all the time, so the issue here isn't strangers; the issue is strangeness.

The terrorist weapon that has proved most consistently reliable is the bomb, perhaps because it meets two important criteria of terror: destructiveness and provocation of fear. To apply some of what we've explored thus far, let's look at an imaginary case study: Three men have decided to build, deliver, and detonate a series of large bombs.

To accomplish that, they need technical skill or information, money, explosives components, a triggering mechanism, a private place to a.s.semble the deadly device, a way to get items from the car into the a.s.sembly area while remaining out of view, a way to secure the location when it's not attended (they can't afford a burglary attempt in which someone sees what they are doing), a truck for delivering their devices, a way to get completed bombs from the a.s.sembly location to the vehicle, and so on.

First of all, are they fated to succeed? Of course not.

John Kennedy promoted a myth in America when he remarked that a.s.sa.s.sins could not be stopped because "all anyone has to do is be willing to trade his life for the President's." Kennedy's oft-quoted opinion is glib, but entirely wrong. In fact, a.s.sa.s.sination not only can be prevented but is prevented far more often than is successful. And the same is true for other forms of terrorism. Bomb components are found and confiscated (as happened not long ago at a Philadelphia train station), informants come forward, police surveillance pays off and leads to arrests, intelligence a.n.a.lysts see patterns that lead to intervention, the National Security Agency overhears a conversation and uses the information to foil an a.s.sa.s.sination attempt (as happened when U.S. intelligence intercepted information about a plot to kill former President George Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker during their visit to Kuwait shortly after they left office), and terrorists building explosives have accidents that end plots permanently.

Indeed, people aspiring to bold, dramatic acts have some advantages over their victims, but there are many more factors working against them. Literally thousands of opportunities exist for them to fail, and only one slender opportunity exists for them to succeed. a.s.sa.s.sination, for example, is not the type of crime a person can practice - both literally and figuratively, an a.s.sa.s.sin has one shot at success.

Conspirators who want to be able to commit more than one act have the extra complication of needing to accomplish all this without being subsequently traceable. Let's make that the case with the three men planning to detonate bombs. Now, the truck and much of what they buy has to be obtained in an unconventional way. Finally, on the day of placement, bombs must be delivered in total secrecy, out of the view of potential witnesses and video cameras - not to mention security personnel and police.

While any of us might observe some element of this plot and then report useful information to law enforcement, people working in particular industries are more likely to get that opportunity.

For example, a business that sells farming supplies, including ammonium nitrate fertilizer and agricultural chemicals, is one of the places likely to encounter someone trying to obtain materials for building a bomb. (Ammonium nitrate is what Timothy McVeigh used so effectively to injure and kill hundreds of people at the Oklahoma City federal building.) Though only a few readers of this book will be in the farming-supplies business, this example contains useful information about the thought processes that lead to suspicion.

A proprietor of such a business knows the farmers in his area well; he knows the farms, the soil, the crops. So when a new customer arrives to purchase ammonium nitrate, there might be any number of things that trigger intuition: - a customer's resistance to consider any other product - lack of familiarity with farming (can't knowledgeably answer questions about acreage, crops, soil composition, etc.) - a desire to take the product right away, with no interest in delivery - payment in cash - impatient, nervous, uncommunicative behavior An encounter with someone like this could stimulate a proprietor to begin mentally noting the visitor's appearance, descriptive information about his vehicle, and other features of the situation. Is the customer alone? The encounter might also stimulate the proprietor to ask more questions. How long has he been in farming? Where's his property? Is he willing to be on the firm's mailing list? If suspicion survives this process, the proprietor could retain any paper or items the visitor touched (for fingerprints and other evidentiary use) and call the authorities (in this instance the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, at 1-800-800-3855, twenty-four hours a day).

Most of us a.s.sume that our own businesses would not likely encounter conspiratorial criminals, but plots can touch many people. For example, our hypothetical bombers would also need a remote rental property somewhere, a place where they can work and be absolutely certain that n.o.body could see what they're doing - so this would bring them into contact with Realtors, property owners, managers, nearby residents, other tenants. Their need for furniture would bring them to businesses that sell or rent it. Like any tenant, they'd need the utilities turned on, which would require some paperwork, a payment method, and an ident.i.ty. They may already have cellular phones, but if the property is remote, they might need regular phone service as well.

Why don't they just steal everything they need? They could, and some terrorist organizations in the world have subgroups with no mission other than to rob banks -just as a way to get cash. But theft greatly increases the likelihood of getting caught, and our group wants to be able to strike more than once. Further, a theft becomes an operation all its own - and uses up the resources of planning. It may save money, but it can cost invisibility.

Solely for the purposes of stimulating your thinking and with no expectation of producing a comprehensive list, here are a few of the service and product providers that our team of aspiring serial bombers or other terrorists might encounter, along with some of the reasons why: Property ownership, management, and representation Rentals at remote locations, warehouses, storage buildings, small industrial facilities Fertilizer manufacturing and/or sale Ingredients for bombs Library Research information, access to the Internet Electronics stores and catalogs Wire, timers, switches, mini-batteries, etc. (Radio Shack has been the store of choice for many clandestine device makers.) Banking Credit cards for purchases through the mail or over the Internet Department of Motor Vehicles Identification, false identification Hall of Records, Pa.s.sport Office Identification, false identification Utilities Electricity, gas, phone service Car sales or rental Vehicles Truck sales or rental Learning about trucks, choosing one, obtaining one Pool supply and chemical sales Chlorine Private airports Access to small aircraft, or adjacent major airports Air-conditioning repair Knowledge about ventilation systems, access to particular sites Security systems Knowledge about security systems, information on specific protected sites Security services Guard uniforms, credentials, access to records Transportation Tanker trucks, trucks already containing dangerous material Hardware store Tools Hobby shops and catalogs Radio remote-control equipment Mail and express carriers (UPS, FedEx) Sending hazardous packages, explosive devices, etc.

Gun store, gun shows Weapons, gunpowder, weapons components Fireworks sales Black powder, explosives materials Construction, commercial storage, military bases, mining operations Explosives Bookstores Research Conspiracy helps us see more clearly that violence is a process - and that's true regardless of whether it's committed by individuals, teams, organizations, or even nations. Though news reports often say about an act of American-style terrorism, such as an a.s.sa.s.sination or a multiple shooting, that the perpetrator "just snapped," it never, ever happens.

There is a process as observable, and often as predictable, as water coming to a boil. Though reports are quick to give some expression of violence a name, such as calling something an act of "school violence," it is really every type of violence, committed by every type of perpetrator, with many types of motives. A school shooting might be a revenge killing, when a student who feels humiliated or emasculated proves that he cannot be taken lightly. It might be relationship violence, when a student shoots his ex-girlfriend. It might be date stalking, when the young man who refuses to let go attacks his victim in her cla.s.sroom. It might be rage killing, when a student primed to do something big and bad chooses to do it at his school.

Fortunately, violence of any kind offers many predictive opportunities, and there are almost always several people in a position to observe the warning signs. We know that obvious warnings are frequently ignored, but we also know that it doesn't have to be that way.

To pull all the information in this chapter together, I'm offering several examples below. You might or might not encounter these specific behaviors, but they are the kind of observations often relevant to conspiratorial crimes. The concepts will remain forever in your intuition, just because you read them once.

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