Americans Need to Stop Overreacting to Terror Alerts

December 19, 2015, 4:00 PM UTC
Community Mourns As Investigation Continues Into San Bernardino Mass Shooting
SAN BERNARDINO, CA - DECEMBER 08: A view of a makeshift memorial near the Inland Regional Center on December 8, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. The FBI has officially labeled the attack carried out by Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik as an act of terrorism. The San Bernardino community continues to mourn the attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 21 injured. (Photo by Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Photograph Brian Vander Brug LA Times via Getty Images

In the new era of fear that America seems to have entered after the San Bernardino shooting, how should public officials react to threats of a terrorist attack? Should officials always act with “an abundance of caution” — a phrase used by police chief Charlie Beck after Los Angeles decided to close its schools this week, inconveniencing millions. Or must the response be that “We cannot give in to fear and change how we live our lives,” as President Obama urged Americans at the National Counterterrorism Center on Thursday.

Public officials have struggled for years to find the sweet spot between informing the public about the very real threat of terrorism without causing excessive fear or magnifying the power of the terrorists. Finding the right tone and message is a difficult challenge. Take for instance America’s response in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, where the U.S. government relied on the multicolored warning system to alert citizens about terrorist threats. Remember that? The designation of “Code Yellow” or “Code Orange” became such a useless sign of nothingness that the system was abandoned in 2011. It was replaced by a binary “on-off” warning system that would activate only in the event of a “specific, credible” threat.

Since, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson recently modified that system yet again, issuing a “bulletin” earlier this week to warn citizens about the “general trend” of “self-radicalized actors who could strike with little or no notice.” That system was put to use earlier this week — two weeks following the San Bernardino attacks. Johnson’s post-hoc “alert” demonstrates how terrorism warnings place public officials in a classic no-win situation. Officials who honestly inform the public of a lack of specific, credible information about a terrorist attack are made to look foolish if something happens soon thereafter.

However, if there is genuine, specific and credible information – the police will usually leap into action to find and arrest the perpetrator. Officials need to remain silent to protect police operational security. When officials receive anonymously provided information – they are left to either ring the alarm bells and risk embarrassment if they are wrong or stay the course and pray nothing happens. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Calming a jittery public is no easy feat, either. The “no specific or credible threat” mantra has been repeated so many times it is hard to believe it has any salutary impact.

Evidence also suggests that the more terrorism warnings are issued, the more scared the public gets, even when officials are telling them not to worry. And government officials can do nothing to influence the hyper-competitive media environment that thrives when fear drives viewers to tune in. So, how can the government deal with the terrorism warning conundrum – providing the public what it needs to know without generating unnecessary fear?

First, terrorism hoaxes need to be investigated and punished severely. Arrests and prosecutions should be widely publicized to deter others. Second, the police should make their best professional judgment about the credibility of threats, and public officials need to back them up right or wrong. Given the amount of public disruption shutting down public services can cause, police should have a fairly high threshold for deeming a threat to be credible.

Government officials might also let the public know about a threat, allow experts to explain their credibility assessment, and then let the American people make their own decisions as to whether to send a child to school or use public transportation that day. This would be an unsettling practice at the beginning, but over time, it could make the public feel more empowered, less afraid, and more trusting of public officials.

Third, and most importantly, public officials need to start talking about terrorism as one of the background risks we face in society instead of an all-pervasive bogeyman to be feared above all other things. When it comes to terrorism, government leaders appear to feel an imperative to ensure the public that they are “safe.” But of course, there is no such thing as absolute safety. Indeed, the statement that “we are doing everything in our power to keep you safe,” a line politician’s cannot resist, is categorically untrue. If it were, mayors would be putting a cop on every street corner and eliminating funding for things like parks and new roads. Instead of constantly assuring the public of absolute safety, politicians should start placing the risk of terrorism in a context the public can understand.

As John Mueller from Ohio State has reported, the chances of getting killed by a terrorist since 9/11 are about 1 in 110 million. That is about a .000001 percent chance. The risk of an American drowning in a bathtub per year is 1 in 950,000. So it is about 100 times more likely you will drown in a bathtub this year than it is that you will be killed in a terrorist attack. If the public had a better grasp on the actual risk terrorism poses, then perhaps officials would feel more confident to make calm, informed judgments when responding to threatening, but most probably bogus, emails about terrorism.

David Schanzer is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy and Director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion