The detailedaccounts of the terrorist-shooter false-alarm at Kennedy Airport in New York last week illustrate how completely and totally unprepared the airport authorities are for any real such event.
I have two reactions to this. On the one hand, this is a movie-plot threat -- the sort of overly specific terrorist scenario that doesn't make sense to defend against. On the other hand, police around the world need training in these types of scenarios in general. Panic can easily cause more deaths than terrorists themselves, and we need to think about what responsibilities police and other security guards have in these situations.
More psychological research on our reaction to terrorism and mass violence:
The researchers collected posts on Twitter made in response to the 2012 shooting attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. They looked at tweets about the school shooting over a five-and-a-half-month period to see whether people used different language in connection with the event depending on how geographically close they were to Newtown, or how much time had elapsed since the tragedy. The analysis showed that the further away people were from the tragedy in either space or time, the less they used words related to sadness (loss, grieve, mourn), suggesting that feelings of sorrow waned with growing psychological distance. But words related to anxiety (crazy, fearful, scared) showed the opposite pattern, increasing in frequency as people gained distance in either time or space from the tragic events. For example, within the first week of the shootings, words expressing sadness accounted for 1.69 percent of all words used in tweets about the event; about five months later, these had dwindled to 0.62 percent. In contrast, anxiety-related words went up from 0.27 percent to 0.62 percent over the same time.
Why does psychological distance mute sadness but incubate anxiety? The authors point out that as people feel more remote from an event, they shift from thinking of it in very concrete terms to more abstract ones, a pattern that has been shown in a number of previous studies. Concrete thoughts highlight the individual lives affected and the horrific details of the tragedy. (Images have >particular power to make us feel the loss of individuals in a mass tragedy.) But when people think about the event abstractly, they're more apt to focus on its underlying causes, which is anxiety inducing if the cause is seen as arising from an unresolved issue.
In the wake of the recent averted mass shooting on the French railroads, officials are realizing that there are just too many potential targets to defend.
The sheer number of militant suspects combined with a widening field of potential targets have presented European officials with what they concede is a nearly insurmountable surveillance task. The scale of the challenge, security experts fear, may leave the Continent entering a new climate of uncertainty, with added risk attached to seemingly mundane endeavors, like taking a train.
The article talks about the impossibility of instituting airport-like security at train stations, but of course even if were feasible to do that, it would only serve to move the threat to some other crowded space.
Hopefully this advice is superfluous for my audience, but it's so well written it's worth reading nonetheless:
7. SO, the bottom line is this: If you are in a place where you hear steady, and sustained, and nearby (lets call that, for some technical reasons, anything less than 800 meters) gunfire, do these things:
Go to your basement. You are cool there.
If you don't have a basement, go to the other side of the house from the firing, and leave, heading away from the firing. Do not stop for a mile.
If you do not think that you can leave, get on the ground floor, as far from the firing as possible, and place something solid between you and the firing. Solid is something like a bathtub, a car (engine block), a couple of concrete walls (single layer brick...nope).
If you are high up (say 4rd story or higher) just get away from the side of the building where the firing is taking place. You will, mostly, be protected by the thick concrete of the structure.
8. But for cripes sake, do not step out on to your front porch and start recording a video on your iPhone, unless you actually have a death-wish, or are being paid significant amounts of money, in advance, as a combat journalist/cameraman.
I'm not going to write about the Newtown school massacre. I wrote this earlier this year after the Aurora shooting, which was a rewrite of this about the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. I feel as if I'm endlessly repeating myself. This essay, also from 2007, on the anti-terrorism "War on the Unexpected," is also relevant. Just remember, we're the safest we've been in 40 years.
Horrific events, such as the massacre in Aurora, can be catalysts for social and political change. Sometimes it seems that they're the only catalyst; recall how drastically our policies toward terrorism changed after 9/11 despite how moribund they were before.
The problem is that fear can cloud our reasoning, causing us to overreact and to overly focus on the specifics. And the key is to steer our desire for change in that time of fear.
Our brains aren't very good at probability and risk analysis. We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. We think rare risks are more common than they are. We fear them more than probability indicates we should.
There is a lot of psychological research that tries to explain this, but one of the key findings is this: People tend to base risk analysis more on stories than on data. Stories engage us at a much more visceral level, especially stories that are vivid, exciting or personally involving.
If a friend tells you about getting mugged in a foreign country, that story is more likely to affect how safe you feel traveling to that country than reading a page of abstract crime statistics will.
Novelty plus dread plus a good story equals overreaction.
And who are the major storytellers these days? Television and the Internet. So when news programs and sites endlessly repeat the story from Aurora, with interviews with those in the theater, interviews with the families, and commentary by anyone who has a point to make, we start to think this is something to fear, rather than a rare event that almost never happens and isn't worth worrying about. In other words, reading five stories about the same event feels somewhat like five separate events, and that skews our perceptions.
We see the effects of this all the time.
It's strangers by whom we fear being murdered, kidnapped, raped and assaulted, when it's far more likely that any perpetrator of such offenses is a relative or a friend. We worry about airplane crashes and rampaging shooters instead of automobile crashes and domestic violence -- both of which are far more common and far, far more deadly.
Our greatest recent overreaction to a rare event was our response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I remember then-Attorney General John Ashcroft giving a speech in Minnesota -- where I live -- in 2003 in which he claimed that the fact there were no new terrorist attacks since 9/11 was proof that his policies were working. I remember thinking: "There were no terrorist attacks in the two years preceding 9/11, and you didn't have any policies. What does that prove?"
What it proves is that terrorist attacks are very rare, and perhaps our national response wasn't worth the enormous expense, loss of liberty, attacks on our Constitution and damage to our credibility on the world stage. Still, overreacting was the natural thing for us to do. Yes, it was security theater and not real security, but it made many of us feel safer.
The rarity of events such as the Aurora massacre doesn't mean we should ignore any lessons it might teach us. Because people overreact to rare events, they're useful catalysts for social introspection and policy change. The key here is to focus not on the details of the particular event but on the broader issues common to all similar events.
Installing metal detectors at movie theaters doesn't make sense -- there's no reason to think the next crazy gunman will choose a movie theater as his venue, and how effectively would a metal detector deter a lone gunman anyway? -- but understanding the reasons why the United States has so many gun deaths compared with other countries does. The particular motivations of alleged killer James Holmes aren't relevant -- the next gunman will have different motivations -- but the general state of mental health care in the United States is.
Even with this, the most important lesson of the Aurora massacre is how rare these events actually are. Our brains are primed to believe that movie theaters are more dangerous than they used to be, but they're not. The riskiest part of the evening is still the car ride to and from the movie theater, and even that's very safe.
EDITED TO ADD: I almost added that Holmes wouldn't have been stopped by a metal detector. He walked into the theater unarmed and left through a back door, which he propped open so he could return armed. And while there was talk about installing metal detectors in movie theaters, I have not heard of any theater actually doing so. But AMC movie theaters have announced a "no masks or costumes policy" as a security measure.
Essentially, Holmes has called the NRA's bluff. It may be true that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But the best way to stop a good guy with a gun is a bad guy with body armor. And judging from Holmes' vest receipt, he wasn't even buying the serious stuff.
The NRA bases its good-guy approach on a well-substantiated military doctrine: deterrence. By arming myself with a weapon that can hurt you, I discourage you from attacking me. For many years, this doctrine averted war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each side feared mutually assured destruction. What broke the deadlock wasn't a weapon. It was a shield: strategic missile defense. The Soviets understood that a system capable of shooting down their nuclear missiles would, by removing their power to deter us, free us to attack. The best offense, it turns out, is a good defense.
That's what Holmes figured out. Defense, not offense, is the next stage of the gun-violence arms race. Equipping citizens with concealed weapons doesn't stop bad guys. It just pushes them to the next level. The next level is body armor. And unlike missile defense, which has proved to be complicated and disappointing, body armor is relatively simple.
EDITED TO ADD (8/2): Seems that the amount of body armor Holmes wore was exaggerated.
"If a cricketer, for instance, suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat,which he could do very easily, I mean, are you going to ban cricket bats?" In a Radio 4 interview shortly after the Dunblane shootings in 1996. He said to the interviewer off-air afterwards: "That will really set the cat among the pigeons, won't it?"
anything that can be called an "assassination" is inherently political;
very often the "politics" are obscure, personal, or reflecting mental disorders rather than "normal" political disagreements. But now a further step,
the political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events. The Jonestown/Ryan and Fromme/Ford shootings had no detectable source in deeper political disagreements of that era. But the anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades people debated whether the city was somehow "responsible" for the killing. (Even given that Lee Harvey Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)