Terrorism and paranoia

It is becoming clear that the purpose of the September 11 terrorist attacks was not so much to kill thousands of Americans as to shatter the very foundations of American society by permanently subjecting it to the threat of relentless terrorism.

Far more injurious in the long term than the acts of terrorism that people will actually see or experience are the menacing images that a paranoid imagination can assemble. They are the terrorist’s most lethal weapons.  All that is needed to trigger them in a period of heightened alert is a series of demonstration cases.   The anthraxletters, of which there have not been actually more than half a dozen, are perfect examples of how terror begins and spreads globally.

Its effects are limited only by the imagination.  It can paralyze entire societies.  It breeds distrust and paranoia.  It conditions people to accept routine invasions on their privacy and restrictions on their liberties.  People find themselves setting aside their educated beliefs to give vent to dormant prejudices.  They lose their cheer, they find themselves caught in the tide of conflicting opinions and emotions, and soon they blame their government both for scaring them and for not doing enough to protect them.

Terrorism’s real kick is reserved for the aftermath.  When the grief and the outrage have subsided, and the thirst for vengeance has been quenched, the emotions begin to turn inward.  Terrorism then awakens existing insecurities and resentments.  Fear begets its own monsters the way the human body honors imagined infections by actually activating its physiological defenses.  Anyone who handles a package or letter laced with nothing more dangerous than talcum powder will, from now on, likely experience itchiness.  Some may even show blisters.  The mind will imagine anthrax spores lurking in every envelope.  This is the ancient power of suggestion, the basis of all psychosomatic disorders.  In an age of media spectacles, we can begin to understand how the world will be stopped not by anthrax, cholera or small pox, but by paranoia.

At no other time has the sociologist W.I. Thomas’s dictum been truer than now: “When men define their situations as real, they tend to be real in their consequences.”  It didn’t matter that witches did not exist in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.  On that year, its residents launched frantic witch-hunts and actually “found” and condemned “witches” on the basis of ridiculous proof.   The term “witch-hunt” became part of the vocabulary of moral panic and, in another epoch, came to refer to the persecution of suspected communists.

Today, its targets are the suspected terrorists.  Unlike the “witches” of the 17th century, terrorists are real and dangerous, and the much publicized personal profiles of the September 11 hijackers, some of whom had lived quiet lives in middle-class America, provide ample reason to search one’s own neighborhood. Profiling on the basis of race and religion has already begun, and Muslims and Middle Eastern-looking persons are its victims.

What makes America a vibrant and self-renewing country is the enormous capacity of its social order to form a community of conscience from a multiplicity of cultures.  At the base of this capacity is its tolerance of difference.  Today, the survival of this ethos is very much in doubt.

Because of September 11, America has had to review those background understandings of everyday life that until that fateful day in September had made it possible for its citizens to claim privacy and feel secure in their personal pursuits.  Today America is a nation, the philosopher Richard Rorty says, that is being “accustomed to people in uniform roaring in, closing down buildings and public spaces, and arresting suspicious-looking people, without advance warning.” U.S. authorities justify these intrusions as the precautionary measures of a nation at war.  But this is going to be worse than war, argues Rorty. “Wars have aims that might someday be achieved, thus bringing about an end to hostilities, but terrorism has no such aims.  The object of terror is terror.”

The best way to fight terrorism is by isolating and pinning down its perpetrators, while denying them the satisfaction of believing that they are achieving their objective of sowing panic and powerlessness among the population.  The worst way to respond to terrorism is by instituting measures that attack the civil liberties of ordinary individuals, and magnifying every instance of a terrorist attack.  While it is the duty of the state to warn citizens of the extent of the danger they face and to instruct them on how to deal with it, it must do so without creating the very state of panic it seeks to dispel.

The conduct of the mass media is very crucial.  They must stop sensationalizing reports of suspected terrorist attacks.  They must report the bare facts and not magnify them.  They must get accurate assessments from the authorities rather than frenzied sound bites from supposed victims.  Beyond this, by cautiously choosing the tone they use in reporting the news, they may promote a basic commonsense and a calm disposition that people need to have in order to survive terrorist attacks and terror itself.


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