Fear Less

Gavin DeBecker

Part 6

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Phrases like these are used to imply some large scale to a story. "A new threat to our nation's water supplies" won't be a threat to our nation's anything. Our nation is enormous. Nothing, not even nuclear bombs, poses a threat to all of any system in our society at the same time. When they say "our nation's" anything, they are usually trying to give grand significance to something that doesn't have grand significance. We might not perk up as much if they said, "A new threat to Klopp County's water supply." A story about old Doc Ames's truck leaking oil into the reservoir just isn't gonna scare up enough ratings. But this could: "Next up, a new threat to our nation's water supply. An alarming incident that experts say could happen anywhere!"

"SHOCKING NEW DETAILS".

"Shocking new details when we come back."

Well, first of all, the details are not likely to be new, and if they are so critical, why are we waiting till after the commercial, and anyway, what does shocking mean at this point? Unless the news anchor reaches through the screen and pulls my hair, I don't imagine he could shock me. They've ruined another word for themselves.

AUDITORS, OBSERVERS, a.n.a.lYSTS, INSPECTORS, LOOPHOLES.

 

"Auditors cite loopholes in security at our nation's libraries." That's right, anytime you have an audit or an inspection, you're going to find something. Auditors are people who've been hired to write reports identifying deficiencies. Have you ever heard of a one-line audit report? "The auditors didn't find one d.a.m.n thing that could possibly be improved." Did you ever hear of an inspector who said, "We've wasted six months on this inspection, because the place is bloomin' perfect. Whoever's running this show sure thought of everything."

The implication projected in a story about a security loophole is that someone will come crashing through the loophole - but that is not necessarily so. They tell you (and the terrorists) about the loophole because it is frightening, not because it's enlightening.

"IN A CAREFULLY WORDED STATEMENT".

"In a carefully worded statement, the President said . . ." Is this distinct from those statements that world leaders just have the kids throw together? "Carefully worded" is often used to imply that something is being hidden.

"SERIOUS".

"Officials consider the threat to be serious." Is that to distinguish this threat from the threats they laugh about over lunch? Taking something seriously does not mean the risk is great or imminent. It just means officials are doing what anyone -would do.

"Officials here are taking no chances when it comes to school safety." Sort of. More likely, they're taking no chances that reporters will broadcast a report accusing them of taking chances.

"OFFICIALS ARE CLOSELY MONITORING".

This implies that something is imminent, and worthy of being closely monitored. "Closely monitoring" is like "Officials are on the lookout for . . ." Both phrases suggest that something bad is surely coming, as if officials are standing outside looking around with binoculars.

"COULD," "PERHAPS," "POTENTIAL," "MIGHT".

"NASA reports that a large piece of s.p.a.ce junk - perhaps as big as a freighter - could enter Earth's atmosphere sometime tonight over North America. Experts warn that it could potentially slam into the earth."

What are we to do with this report? Move a little to the left or right? They don't say, of course, that every night, thousands of pieces of s.p.a.ce junk enter Earth's atmosphere and completely burn up before ever hitting the ground, or that no person on earth has ever been struck and killed by a piece of s.p.a.ce junk. Or that if something's as big as a freighter before entry, it might end up as small as a grain of sand by the time it reaches the ground - but it could potentially hit your house, I suppose.

"AN ALARMING PERCENTAGE".

"Fifteen percent of Americans are at risk of being seriously injured in car accidents on our nation's highways this year." Whenever you see a percentage cited, reverse it and think about the other share in the equation. For example, from the story above you can conclude that 85 percent of Americans are not at risk of being seriously injured in car accidents this year. Sort of good news, all things considered. Also, phrases such as "a sizable percentage" or "an alarming percentage" can be applied to just about any percentage. Get the actual number, and then you decide if it's sizable or alarming to you.

AS MANY AS.

Experts warn that as many as twenty-five thousand people in America may be carrying the deadly gene . . ." or "As THE NEWSSPEAK OF FEAR.

many as twenty states may be susceptible to radiation-leakage disasters."

"As many as" means somewhere between zero and the number given.

"IN A DEVELOPING STORY".

A phrase used when they don't really have the story yet.

FORMER EMPLOYEES.

"But one former employee at the doomed refinery reveals shocking new information."

What does he reveal? That they fired him because he was too ethical, or because they didn't want to hear the truth? Or that he knew all along? Anyway, he wasn't there the night of the fire, so is he the best source of information? Truth in advertising would require the reporter to say, "We interviewed one man who hasn't been to the refinery in three months - his opinion next."

LANGUAGE FROM ONE STORY BEING USED IN ANOTHER.

As certain words and phrases become symbolic or evocative from one type of story, they show up in another. In the days after 9/111 saw a TV news report about a tropical storm making "a direct hit" on a tiny coastal community, as if the hurricane were aiming. (And the word tiny is used because it implies vulnerability. Storms that make direct FEAR LESS.

hits on tiny places are frightening bullies.) A story about a flight that experienced extreme turbulence is headlined TERROR IN THE SKY.

"DEADLY".

As in the popular "deadly virus." This word is used to imply that everyone who gets the virus perishes, when the truth is that very few people die from the virus. If a really serious virus ends up being fatal for 20 percent of the people who contract it, then truth in advertising would require language such as "Next up, a local man is stricken with a highly survivable virus."

It's quite a bit shy of "deadly" when someone tests negative for anthrax, yet in the weeks after 9/11, even a negative test for a "deadly" virus was presented as a frightening thing.

To put this into perspective, flu-related disorders killed 5,000 times as many people as anthrax in 2001. Is anthrax still scary? Yes, and all the more so because of the implication that it was everywhere (colored maps showing the places in the United States where anthrax was found or suspected). It wasn't everywhere. Reports were everywhere. And the same report repeated seventy-five times is still the same report. But you wouldn't know that by the excited delivery: "New details emerge in that anthrax case." Details maybe, but not new - far more likely when you watch TV news, they'll be the same "new" details for the tenth time that day.

A storm is described as deadly: "We'll have new information on that deadly hurricane that's heading up the coast."

A hurricane qualifies for the word deadly when someone, somewhere, on the hurricane's round-the-hemisphere journey dies as a result of the storm. That does not mean the hurricane tries to kill all people it encounters, but that's the implication - that something dangerous is coming. You'll note that the people who die are usually in a situation far different from yours: They are on a small fishing boat at night off the coast of Peru, and you're at home 1,200 feet above sea level.

"IN A LAST-MINUTE DEVELOPMENT . . ." "IN A SURPRISE DEVELOPMENT . . .".

These usually mean they didn't get a news crew there in time. Or they didn't warn you about it yet, which actually is interesting, since there are only two or three possible awful outcomes involving human beings that they haven't warned us about yet.

"DISTURBING QUESTIONS".

As in "Disturbing questions have been raised about the safety of our nation's . . ." Yes, the questions are disturbing. They're disturbing everyone. Please stop raising them.

"A NEW STUDY REVEALS . . ." "A NEW REPORT WARNS . . ." "EXPERTS FEAR . . ." "EXPERTS WORRY . . .".

Yes, reports and experts do seem to warn, fear, and worry a lot.

"EXPERTS SAY IT'S JUST A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE ...".

They sure do.

"BUT NEW YORKERS FEEL . . .".

Global conclusions drawn from man-on-the-street interviews represent literally nothing. You can edit a story into "New Yorkers feel terrified" or "New Yorkers are ready to move on" - it all depends upon which of the five interviews you cut into the piece broadcast.

Here are two quotes brought back by one NBC News crew: "I think if you change your life, they're winning," says Captain Frank Carver. "So the more we continue our daily routine, the better off we all are."

At Pat's Country Bakery nearby, Joann Charters concedes she's still apprehensive. "It's a really scary feeling with kids in school. You don't know what's gonna happen," says Charters.

To accurately summarize these quotes you'd have to say: "Some people feel one way and some people feel another way. Back to you, Tricia."

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Joann Charters citing that it's scary because "you don't know what's gonna happen" is right on. That's why it's scary: because you don't know what's going to happen - not because you do know, not because danger is advancing toward you, but because it is not.

THE WRAP-UP.

Pay attention to the very last line in news reports. They are rarely summaries but rather are designed to keep the story open for more reports. Most often, the closing line takes a last bite at the fear apple, one final effort to add uncertainty and worry. "Many here are left wondering if it will ever be safe," "Fear continues its tight grip on this tiny community," "Whether more will die remains to be seen."

In the world of TV news, frightening stories never end. We never hear the words "And that's that."

Let's put a few of these newsroom strategies together into a story and see how it looks. As the basis for our mock TV news report, I'll draw on something that actually happened to my a.s.sistant. Earlier this year, her wrist was injured when a dog bit her.

THE TEASER.

"Next up, dogbites! The bone-crushing power of dogs. Experts warn that even friendly dogs can bite, sometimes without provocation. And they're everywhere. A new government study estimates as many as three hundred dogs per square mile, with the numbers climbing each year. How many backyards in your neighborhood are hiding a deadly menace? We'll tell you what experts say - when we come back."

THE STORY.

"A shocking bite from the dog everyone described as a little angel leaves one area woman nursing her wounds. Dog-jaw experts say that even a small dog can produce as much as five hundred pounds of biting force, and given the rate at which dogs breed, it's just a matter of time before more people are placed at risk. A former employee with the Department of Health says hospitals are unprepared for a major increase in dogbites, and officials are closely monitoring this situation that could pose a deadly threat to our nation's neighborhoods. Disturbing questions have been raised about loopholes in the licensing system, and observers point out that dogs who bite can receive licenses and be released into neighborhoods."

THE WRAP UP.

"It's no surprise that many local residents are living in fear: 'You never know when somebody is walking their dog right behind you. We're scared.' Officials say links between the recent dogbite and one that occurred in the tiny town of Ames, Iowa, have not been confirmed, but either way, it's a nightmare few will ever forget. And one that many fear will not be over in the morning."

Coming to understand these popular phrases and strategies, and being able to see around them, has made me appreciate those news reports that are direct, clear, and informative. Since many newspeople use these tricks, those who do not stand out as all the more special and valuable.

If you watch TV news, you're probably going to spot lots of sensationalizing tactics I've missed, and maybe even start a list of your own. If finding them becomes an occasionally enjoyable part of your news-viewing experience, that in itself will be great news.

FAR FROM THE LIMITS OF COMPa.s.sION.

Me against my brother; Me and my brother against my family; Me and my family against my tribe; Me and my tribe against the world.

- AFRICAN PROVERB.

WHEN CHANGE COMES UNINVITED ---as it did on 9/11 -it's not surprising that many people want things back the way they used to be. I don't. I want things to be better than they used to be. I believe that requires us to stay awake. Ironically, remaining awake requires that we get some rest. And real rest requires peace of mind. Just as with our bodies, our minds are most healthy when this cycle is completed each and every day: peace and rest, stimulation and action, peace and rest again.

For us to rest well, everything that torments us about what happened must be placed in some compartment within our minds or hearts. In this chapter, I want to explore our confidence and lack of confidence in law-enforcement agencies, and discuss what we can fairly expect from government. But first, there is a question that still deeply troubles many Americans: What kind of people would do such a thing to us, and why do they hate us so much?

Even the question is instructive, for it calls the perpetrators "people" and not "monsters." Since many think of violence as a mystery, sometimes the greatest contribution I can make to enhance their feeling of safety (and their actual safety) is my refusal to call it a mystery. Rather, violence is a puzzle. I have seen the pieces of this puzzle so often that I may recognize them sooner than some people do, but my main job now is just to get them on the table. Only by understanding those who intensely frighten us do they cease being the omnipotent, alien monsters of our nightmares.

Often we use the word inhuman to describe perpetrators of terrible acts, but I know many such people, and they are not inhuman - they are precisely human. Their violent acts were merciless and inhumane, to be sure, but not inhuman.

When a bank robber shoots a security guard, we all understand why; but with something like 9/11, many resist the concept of a shared humanness. That's because us and them is far more comfortable. But the characterization leaves "them" with power over us, particularly if we call them monsters. As every child knows, monsters are terrifying, overwhelming, relentless, merciless, and nearly impossible to defeat. To call a man a monster is to give him all that - and at the same time to stop understanding him. Scientists, after all, do not observe a bird that destroys its own eggs and say, "Well, that never happens; this is just a monster." Rather, they correctly conclude that if this bird did it, others also might and that there must be some reason, some cause, some predictability.

Though anthropologists have long focused on the distinctions among people, it is recognizing the sameness that allows us to most effectively understand and prevent violence. Accepting someone's humanness does not mean excusing his behavior, of course. This lesson is probably starkest when you spend time with the world's most violent and dangerous people, the ones you might call monsters, the ones who committed acts you might think you couldn't have imagined. Many of them are locked up at Atascadero State Hospital in California, where I visited them several times - to learn. Some of the lessons are explored more fully in The Gift of Fear, but for now I want to share the words of a woman who works at Atascadero. After a pet that the patients had cared for died, she wrote to me about what she observed: As I sat in my office watching the patients, all felons, many guilty of brutal crimes, most lost in a variety of addictions (you choose), mental illness (pick one), and regarded as the bottom of the barrel, I saw a glimmer of compa.s.sion, a bit of emotion, and the glimpse of humanity that society believes these men lack (and in most situations, they do). It is true that the majority of these men are exactly where they belong; to unleash them on society would be unthinkable, but we cannot disregard their humanness, because if we do, I believe, we become less human in the process.

Brutal acts have within them the power to take us to the limits of our compa.s.sion; being victimized can lead to our wishing to victimize others. Those sad results are not written in stone, however, and the tragedies of September 11 seem to have brought many Americans to a different place. For example, even while fighting a war in Afghanistan, we have carefully considered the suffering of people who are not our enemies. The military has provided food to the starving, and citizens of the United States and Canada have donated money, time, and services to help people caught in the crossfire. When an American bomb misses its target and accidentally kills an Afghan child, her family must wonder if Americans are monsters. That we care enough - in spite of what happened to us on 9/11 - to hold our government accountable for such accidents is itself a sign of something wonderful in us. And if it is in us, it is in all people.

When I visited ground zero at the World Trade Center, I learned that an Austrian government official was arranging to bring children who had lost a parent in the tragedy to Austria for a visit. That was the first time I had ever heard of foreign aid for American children. When victimized, we were humanized to a world that had never really seen us as subject to the same pains and traumas as the rest of the international community. Truly vulnerable and hurt for the first time, we received compa.s.sion from other countries, perhaps also for the first time. As often happens, the worst of human behavior brought forth the best of what people can be.

Are we destined to forever experience such extremes of cruelty and kindness? In one of history's most remarkable correspondences, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud asked the same question, and their answer is yes. Einstein's letter concluded that "man has in him the need to hate and destroy." In his reply, Freud agreed "unreservedly," adding that human instincts could be divided into two categories: "those which seek to preserve and unite, and those which seek to destroy and kill." He wrote that the phenomenon of life evolves from these two instincts (which we could call love and fear) acting together and against each other.

A Native American parable expresses the truth about us in simpler terms: "Inside of me there are two dogs, one evil and one good. The evil dog and good dog fight all the time. Which dog wins? The one I feed the most." Our individual decision about which dog we shall feed is complicated by the fact that modern humans are the dazed survivors of a continuous, five-million-year habit of lethal aggression. Though we live in s.p.a.ce-age times, we still have stone-age minds. In addition to the qualities we can be proud of, we are compet.i.tive and territorial and greedy and domineering - Americans and Middle Easterners alike. And we are violent. There are people who insist this isn't so, who insist they could never harm anyone, but they invariably add a telling caveat: "Unless, of course, a person tried to harm my child." Then that peaceful soul would stab, shoot, bludgeon - whatever it might take to protect her child. So the resource of violence is in everyone. AH that changes is our view of the justification.

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