Fear Less

Gavin DeBecker

Part 3

Report Chapter

- As you arrive at work one morning, two men in their late forties ask you how they might get onto the roof of a nearby warehouse. When you ask why, they explain that they want to take photographs of planes taking off and landing at the adjacent airport. They say it's for "a school project."

- You see a man at the mall hurry away after putting down a heavy-looking suitcase.

- A new neighbor arrives home late one night wearing a police uniform - and you don't recall his being a cop.

- You work at a gun store and two foreign nationals visit several times asking about high-powered rifles. One of them asks lots of questions about how to modify the rifle so that it's fully automatic. To make their purchase, they put down five hundred-dollar bills, but when you give them a form to fill out, they storm out of the store, complaining that you have too much paperwork.

- You work in the City Hall records room. You get a voice mail asking that you fax the caller copies of the building's architectural plans. Later, another man calls and makes the same request. When you advise him that an in-person request is necessary, he hangs up.

- You work the late shift at a power plant. One night you get a call from someone identifying himself as a police investigator. He wants to speak to you about "an important case" and asks that you arrange a pa.s.s for him at the gate, which you do. He never shows up and you don't hear from him again. You decide to call the security gate to see if someone entered using the pa.s.s you arranged. The answer turns out to be yes.

In the last two examples, there is evidence likely to be of value: the fax number given by the first caller asking for building plans, and the record (or maybe even videotape) of the vehicle that entered using the pa.s.s you arranged.

I've presented a lot of information and examples in this chapter. Retaining the specifics in your memory is not important, because your intuition will do most of the work.

Ultimately, no matter how well you do your part in listening to an intuition about suspicious behavior, you'll need to have faith that the police will do theirs. But you decide where to invest your faith, and you must invest some of it in yourself. That may mean being willing to act even when it's inconvenient, unpopular, or downright rude. For example, can you imagine insisting that a police officer take a report he seems reluctant to pursue? I hope you can. Can you imagine calling an officer's supervisor if you feel it's necessary? I hope you can.

You might also wonder if law-enforcement agencies and government are able to react to information from the public in ways that make a difference. After all, some would ask, "The FBI and the CIA got plenty of pre-incident indicators before September eleventh, and didn't they fail miserably?"

The short answer is no, they didn't fail miserably, particularly given the factors at play before September 11. I'll address the role of the FBI and the intelligence agencies in detail later on, but for now, be a.s.sured that a slight suspicion, a curiosity, a lingering thought, or a nagging feeling that you convert into further scrutiny can make - and every day does make - an enormous difference to our safety. Certainly there are improvements to be made in law enforcement and intelligence, and many are under way. One of the most effective is in your hands, however, and as more of us partic.i.p.ate, our collective anti-terrorist determination becomes a surveillance system with a hundred million unique views of America.


News reports and government officials have encouraged us to be "extra alert" or vigilant. I am not suggesting this at all, for I believe that when your defense system is properly informed, it is on duty whether or not you are alert. Alertly looking around while thinking, "Someone could jump out from behind that hedge; maybe there's someone hiding in that car," replaces perception of what is actually happening with imaginings of what could happen. This is limiting. We are far more open to all signals when we don't focus on the expectation of specific signals.

I do not propose that you look for terrorists. First of all, it's not true that "anybody might be a terrorist." Your daughter's drama teacher is not a terrorist; your best friend is not a terrorist; your tax accountant is not a terrorist. Second, the concept that "they" are everywhere not only is inaccurate but quickly loses credibility. Imagine being told, "The way to get rich is this: every place you go, look for a bag of diamonds." For a time, your brain would look for the diamonds, and then, never having found them, it would stop. Rather than looking for diamonds - which are rare - you could more constructively look for opportunities. In the context of terrorism, rather than looking for obvious terrorists - who are rare - be open to your own curiosity and suspicion, which are not so rare.

The warning to "remain alert!" is presumably said toward the goal of making it more difficult for terrorists to operate in America - but it may have the opposite effect. That's because it's not possible to remain at the highest level of alertness beyond a short period of time. Consider the people guarding the airports. They looked sharp and keen at the start of their new a.s.signments -- on the lookout - but less so every day. Now you see them chatting, laughing, leaning against things, etc.

That's because the much-antic.i.p.ated terrorist attack takes its time (intentionally), and after a while things you once felt were suspicious prove time and again to be normal, then routine, then even boring.

Alertness is one of nature's temporary triggered states; it is in response to something, and when that something fades, so does the alertness. To maintain it artificially is possible - Secret Service agents and people from my firm's Protective Security Division have to do it - but it is an acquired skill, not a natural ability. And it is a skill you don't need in order to accomplish the specific recommendation I offer: Get back to normal life, deny less, honor your intuition more, and be willing to make a report if life places something relevant to terrorism in your view.

If you and enough others agree with and embrace this recommendation, it will make ours a nation safer from all forms of crime and violence - not just terrorism, but also homicide, femicide, drug dealing, burglary, robbery, domestic violence, child abuse, and so many other behaviors that cause us pain and erode the quality of our lives. This is a process I believe has started and has already made America safer today for most citizens than it was on September 10.



What we're talking about is getting to know fear, becoming familiar with fear, looking it right in the eye - not as a way to solve problems, but as a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and thinking.

- PEMA CHODRON SHAMBHALA Author, When Things Fall Apart WHAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE?" people often ask me. "Will terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb? Spread smallpox? Release nerve gas? What's the worst-case scenario?"

You have probably known someone who experienced a trauma, then later seen that person reliving the tragedy. There is also such a thing as pre-living a tragedy. Exactly as we benefit from letting go of the past, millions of Americans will benefit from letting go of the worst-case future. Someone proposes a so-called worst-case scenario (as if there could be any objective view of what would const.i.tute the worst case), and then the scenario gets discussed so much on television that it comes to seem like it's about to happen.

A worst-case scenario is a theoretical sequence of events intentionally devised to be as bad as possible, the word scenario coming from scene, as in a scene in a play or movie. Worst-case scenarios are creative exercises, not predictions of likely events. If we had examples of the realities to explore, we'd be doing that, but in most instances, we have only the imagination to chew on. Remember, these things enter the stream of discussion specifically because they are not likely, specifically because they are at the far end of possibility, and specifically because they have not ever happened.

These things start with someone saying, "Geez, what if terrorists got hold of an intercontinental ballistic missile?" Then TV news personalities interview experts in some loosely related field, a scary graphic is developed (say, a mushroom cloud emerging from the top of a local playground), then they hound a government official with the question "But isn't it possible that someone could get hold of an intercontinental ballistic missile?" and he says how unlikely that is, but acknowledges that it is possible (i.e., within the realm of physics and imagination) - and we're off and running.

The human mind pounces on this sort of thing because it can seem relevant to survival. We're hard-wired to entertain every thought of danger that's put in front of us, to turn it over, to look at it from every angle. The more enormous a lethal danger might be and the more people it might harm, the more fascinating it is. But for us to be fascinated by something, it has to be made accessible to our minds. For example, Earth coming out of its...o...b..t and spinning off into a collision with Jupiter is too hard for us to get our minds around, but the idea of someone using a makeshift nuclear bomb has been made to appear plausible simply because of so much discussion.

Though TV news carries theoretical discussions of doom further than other media, magazines and newspapers do their part. Journalists are writers, and they love creative stories, so we get detailed accounts of precisely how terrible a terrible outcome could be. Editors love a dramatic hook, and you're the fish they're trying to catch with it. Print may seem to give credibility to worst-case scenarios, but the truth is that only you decide what credibility to invest in any given doomsday tale.

You've probably heard that anyone can easily get information about how to build a nuclear bomb by just logging on to the Internet. Have you tried "just logging on to the Internet" and getting those simple step-by-step instructions? Do you know how to build a nuclear bomb? Whenever I hear about how easy it is, I am reminded of an old routine from the brilliant humorist, author, and filmmaker Steve Martin: He would promise to tell his audience the secret of how one could earn a million dollars and yet pay absolutely no taxes. "First," he'd say as if this were the easy part, "earn a million dollars." To all those who make nuclear-bomb construction sound as simple as putting up Christmas lights, I'd say, "First, get some plutonium or highly enriched uranium."

Someday some person or group may indeed detonate a small nuclear device somewhere on earth. It will be awful. It will harm some people. It will be recovered from. After we accept that it could happen, is it constructive to spend every day between now and then trying to experience the event in our minds?

The future is longer than the past, and because the future occurs on the foundation of the past, more will happen than has happened. This means that nearly everything we can imagine has some likelihood of happening sometime, particularly if you include far-off times. In a truly intelligent worst-case scenario, one would theorize that some young Americans bent on grand mischief are far more dangerous than foreign terrorists. They are here, they are brilliant, some are reckless, some are homicidal and suicidal; and we must a.s.sume that the extraordinary knowledge being acc.u.mulated in our society and made available to young people will be misused. Many teenagers are capable of mounting ferocious attacks and many have the motivation to do so - as we have learned from tragedies like Columbine. What a thirty-year-old would find discouragingly difficult to accomplish, an eighteen-year-old will keep trying. What a thirty-year-old might find too reckless or dangerous, an eighteen-year-old might find intriguing.

I make this point to bring some perspective during a time when Americans have focused almost entirely on Middle Eastern terrorists. When anthrax spores were sent through the mail after 9/11, we were fascinated to know if the crime was linked to the attack on the World Trade Center. This raises one of the most salient questions about risk: Does motive matter? It's understandable that people are more afraid if anthrax spores are sent by Middle Eastern terrorists, even though there are far more American-bred attention-seekers who might do this kind of thing. Excessive fascination with motive and with the origins of risk can cloud our ability to make an effective a.s.sessment of what is really likely and how to respond to events that actually occur. Whether sent by an American or a Middle Easterner, the best management of the anthrax cases remains the same.

There are people whose jobs require some degree of worst-case thinking. I am one of them. Whole teams of threat-a.s.sessment pract.i.tioners in my firm spend their time developing contingency plans and responses to cover a variety of unfavorable outcomes. For example, making arrangements for a controversial public figure to give a speech at a rally about an emotionally charged political issue calls for contingency plans about many kinds of things that could happen, but we put more effort into those possibilities that are most likely.

An a.s.sa.s.sin in the audience, at the vehicle-arrival area, or along the foot route from the car to the holding room; a sniper in the distance; a bomb that was placed a week before the event; someone trying to strike the public figure; even a pie attack - all these things and more are on our list during the days of planning leading up to such an appearance. I do not oppose contingency planning. I do oppose time wasting, however, and in my firm, in my life, and in your life, everything we give energy to takes energy away from something else. Accordingly, we are wisest to put our resources where they'll be most likely to return some benefit.

You already live your life according to that equation, deciding where to put your protective resources at home, for example. Though intruders could land a helicopter on your roof and core through the ceiling, you've decided that entry via the front door is more likely - and you've got a lock that requires a key. A criminal could photograph your credit cards with a telephoto lens and then painstakingly duplicate them, but you've determined that someone taking your purse is more likely - so you watch it carefully. If there's an emergency phone list in your home, the names and numbers reflect your family's a.s.sessment of likely hazards. Is the U.S. Department of Energy Nuclear Emergency Search Team on that list? Probably not, and you're not likely to need that phone number. You also have a list in your head of things you want to avoid or prevent. You base the list on experience, logic, new information, and intuition. The list has limits - because it has to.

Conversely, worst-case scenarios have no limits. Wherever the imagination can travel, your mind can take you there. But the trip is voluntary - even when TV news producers are urging you to go, you don't have to.

Three terrible possibilities in particular have dominated the national dialogue: chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks. Normally, it's fair to a.s.sume that when everybody is discussing something, it's likely to happen, but that equation is warped a bit by people on television news shows - who will discuss anything.

In 1997, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen appeared on an ABC News show and held up a five-pound bag of sugar, threatening that "This amount of anthrax could be spread over a city - let's say the size of Washington. It would destroy at least half the population of that city. If you had even more amounts -" Let me interrupt Mr. Cohen for a moment and recall that he also said, "One small particle of anthrax would produce death within five days." With that kind of inaccurate ad-fear-tising, it's no surprise that every scenario we used to hear about anthrax involved the death of hundreds of thousands or even "millions, millions," as Cohen was intoning when interviewer c.o.kie Roberts actually said to him, "Would you put that bag down, please." We have had several instructive examples of how worst-case scenarios fail to follow the creative scripts people write. For example, since the dread begun by Cohen's bag-of-sugar threat, we've actually experienced some biological attacks - and they've been far different from the scenarios we were offered.

Before 2001, did you ever hear a scenario about anthrax that went like this?

Somebody will put anthrax spores in letters and send them around several East Coast cities. Fewer than one hundred people will be exposed to the bacteria, and about thirty will get sick and be successfully treated. A few will die. There will be absolutely no impact on the health of 280 million other Americans, though the events will cause sadness and fear around the nation. In a city the size of Washington, D.C., fewer people will die from anthrax than from bites and bee stings.

So, anthrax has gone from a ma.s.s killer that would leave n.o.body alive to even write a news story about what happened, to something serious but far less apocalyptic. I am not saying there is no potential for escalation, but in the months after September 11, the reality of anthrax looked more like the paragraph above and less like the popular scenarios.

In addition to sinister use of biological pathogens, chemical attacks have also actually happened, and the outcomes of those undertakings were also far different from what we'd been led to expect. Here's what happened in the most famous case: A j.a.panese sect called Aum Shinrikyo undertook a chemical attack in the Tokyo subway system - an ideal environment for maximum fatalities because it is enclosed, has limited ventilation, and has tens of thousands of people unable to get away easily. Still, even with nearly perfect conditions for the attack, less than 10 percent of the people in the subway were injured, all but a few of those who experienced any effects were better within a few hours, and only 1 percent of those injured died. Were the perpetrators just incompetent? Hardly; the group's membership included highly trained bioscientists and chemists. Were they underfunded? Hardly; they had millions of dollars to spend. Were they rushed? Not at all; they had lots of time for research and preparation. Did they fail? Utterly.

In what way did they fail? Well, first of all, they failed to harm and kill lots of people. Second, they failed to shut down the j.a.panese government. And mostly, they failed to make reality match imagination, and that's going to happen a lot.

To be clear, my point here is not that bad things don't happen - I am deeply involved in managing bad things that happen all the time. My point is not that there's nothing to worry about - there's plenty you can worry about. Rather, my point is that the popular worst-case scenarios are just that: popular - and they remain so as long as they offer drama and, perhaps surprisingly, as long as they don't happen. Once a terrible thing happens, it moves from our imaginations to our reality; it moves from being an interesting possible problem to something about which we must choose real and immediate solutions. We respond. We manage, even when faced with tidal waves and nature's stunning time bombs: volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. These are clear and powerful dangers; of course, though understandably, we are more afraid of the danger that is conscious, the danger that emerges from the malicious intent we face today.

So let's explore some of the malicious possibilities that occupy our attention so that we can place them into the appropriate mental compartments. Once compartmentalized, the information will be available if needed and will not blind us to the rest of life when not needed. As opposed to inviting these outcomes to be houseguests, we'll look at them from a distance: because that's where they actually are - at a distance.

Chemical weapons are toxic substances, normally in gas or liquid form, that someone seeks to get onto or into human beings. They act immediately on physiological systems to cause debilitation or death.

Biological weapons are bacteria and viruses that are intentionally introduced into human hosts. (This was previously called "germ warfare.") Once inside, they propagate and cause disease. There is always a period of time, called an incubation period, between the time of first exposure and when disease symptoms appear.

These hazards together can be abbreviated as "biochem."

In recent times you have no doubt gained an unusual education about biochem agents by a.s.sembling fragments of information from reporters, scientists, and talking heads whose expertise ranges from dubious to impressive. While I do not intend what follows to be a comprehensive treatise about biochem weapons, I do want to provide an accurate foundation onto which you can continue to add new information. To help, I sought out two experts who might seem like polar opposites: an internationally known scientist and a retired soldier.

Dr. Raymond Zilinskas is a consultant to my firm on biochem issues, selected because of his impeccable credentials as a United Nations weapons inspector and senior scientist at the Center for Nonproliferation Research at the Monterey Inst.i.tute of International Studies.

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Sergeant First Cla.s.s Red Thomas is a retired weapons, munitions, and training expert from the U.S. Army. Since he was seven years old, Red has had, as he puts it, "a penchant for learning about anything that goes bang, boom, or pop."

If government officials detect a chemical or biological attack, they will likely issue specific civil-defense warnings through the media. In most cases - unless you happen to be at the actual site of the chemical or biological agents - you are likely to have time to take the one precaution that applies to all biochem hazards: avoiding areas near the contamination.


A nuclear device used by terrorists would be low-yield; it would not, contrary to our worst imaginings, level whole cities. Effects would likely be limited to a half-mile circle (not that much different from the area of damage at the World Trade Center). But when it's done, it's done. People within the affected area who live through the heat, blast, and initial burst of radiation are likely to continue living for as long as they would have in any event. As Red Thomas says, "Radiation will not create fifty-foot-tall women, giant ants, or gra.s.shoppers the size of tanks."

There are many kinds of radiation, but three are most relevant to our topic: alpha, beta, and gamma. The others you have lived with for years. Red Thomas explains: "You need to worry about what is called ionizing radiation. It's the same as people getting radiation treatments for cancer, only a bigger area gets radiated. The good news is you don't have to just sit there and take it, and there's lots you can do rather than panic. First, your skin will stop alpha particles and a page of a newspaper or your clothing will stop beta particles; you've just got to try to avoid inhaling dust that's contaminated with atoms that are emitting these things and you'll be generally safe." Gamma rays are the most dangerous, but it also takes a lot of them to kill people.

Overall preparation for any terrorist attack that would result in major damage is the same as one would wisely take for a big storm or earthquake. How has Red Thomas prepared?

If you want a gas mask, fine, go get one. I know this stuff and I'm not getting one, and I told my mom not to bother with one, either. How's that for confidence? We have a week's worth of cash, several days' worth of canned goods, and plenty of soap and water.

These terrorists can't conceive of a nation this big with this many resources. Biochem and small nuclear weapons are made to cause panic and terror and to demoralize. The government is going nuts over this stuff because they have to protect every inch of America. You've only got to protect yourself, and by doing that, you help the country.


Since we are the editors of which scenarios get in and which are invested with credibility, it's important to evaluate our sources of information. I explained this during a presentation to hundreds of government threat a.s.sessors at the Central Intelligence Agency a few years ago, making my point by drawing on a very rare safety hazard: kangaroo attacks. I told the audience that about twenty people a year are killed by the normally friendly animals and that kangaroos always display a specific set of indicators before they attack: 1. They give what appears to be a wide and genial smile (but they are actually baring their teeth).

2. They check their pouches compulsively several times to be sure they have no young with them (they never attack while carrying young).

3. They look behind them (since they always retreat immediately after they kill).

After these three signals, they lunge, brutally pummel their victim, and then gallop off.

I asked two audience members to stand up and repeat back the warning signs, and both flawlessly described the smile, the checking of the pouch for young, and the looking back for an escape route. In fact, everyone in that room (and now you) will remember those warning signs for life. Your brain is wired to value such information, and if you are ever face-to-face with a kangaroo, be it tomorrow or decades from now, those three pre-incident indicators will be in your head.

The problem, I told the audience at the CIA, is that I made up those signals. I did it to demonstrate the risk of inaccurate information. I actually know nothing about kangaroo behavior (so forget the three signals if you can - or stay away from hostile kangaroos).

In our lives, we are constantly bombarded with kangaroo facts masquerading as knowledge, but what we will give credence to is up to us.

For example, in the months following 9/11, we were often warned about new major acts of terrorism predicted to occur within days. Government officials and newsreaders spoke of "credible threats," a phrase often confused with high likelihood, but let's break it down: A threat is a statement of an intention to do harm, period. Credible means plausible, and it can sometimes mean believable. In the context of the world since 9/11, any threat spoken by extremists is believable.

Politicians and newsreaders often use the word threat as if it is interchangeable with hazard. Threats and hazards are two different things. Hazard means a chance of being injured or harmed. (The root of the word actually comes from a dice game.) A threat is something someone expresses. Accordingly, when the U.S. attorney general speaks of a credible threat, if he is using his terms correctly, he is telling us about something someone has expressed.

Threats are generally spoken specifically to cause fear and anxiety. That's not my intent right now, so please pardon my saying this: I am going to kill you.

There, you have just received a death threat. I am a credible person who is capable and well versed in the ways of violence, so it's a credible threat, too. This threat you just received is vastly more direct, clear, demonstrable, and well doc.u.mented than most of the terrorist threats you've heard about.

Press conferences that warn of terrorist strikes "within the next two days" understandably cause lots of uncertainty. For example, the governor of California announced a "credible threat" against landmark bridges in California and warned that the attacks would take place between November 1 and November 9. Upon what in the world do they base these schedules? Is the underlying premise that some terrorist said, "If I haven't done this by the ninth, I'll get over it, and I wouldn't dream of doing it on, say, the fourteenth. So your risk is just between the first and the ninth."

In any event, after the governor's "credible threat" had caused concern to Californians for a few days, the FBI described it as "not credible." Incredible, isn't it?

A lot of the warnings we've received from public officials might as well be threats themselves, for they have the same effect. The row of serious men behind the podium and the choice of alarming words often obscure underlying information that is pretty thin. The drama of these presentations is tantamount to having your doctor call you in, sit you down, and put one hand on your shoulder as he thumbs through your charts with the other. He levels a serious look at you, and just before you pa.s.s out, he says: "Your test results are in, and in my opinion, you're going to be fine."

I am certain that most officials who announce threats mean well, but it sometimes seems that everybody wants to be Rudy Giuliani. Since only Rudy really is, others could help us more if they advised the public along these lines: "You may notice extra National Guardsmen at various bridges. This is a precaution in response to some threats and speculation we have a.s.sessed. As you've seen in recent weeks, no threats have been successfully acted upon, and we'll do our part to ensure that these threats remain in that category. We'll take special care protecting the bridges, and if you see anything that concerns you, please make a report."

Ideally, a press conference about threats to the Golden Gate Bridge would be held on the Golden Gate Bridge.

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