Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Fear, Terror and a Letter from a Young Friend

          Fear is the Mother of Foresight – Thomas Hardy

I recently received a note from a young lady whom I think quite highly of.  Her questions are on many of our minds now, and they forced me to stare into that abyss and search out my own answers.  I thought I’d share my answers with you; not because they’re right, but to goad each of you to find your own answers, as she did me.  She wrote:

“Some time ago you wrote about Minsky moments, how a long period of stability induces more risk-tolerance and consequent risk-acceptance and lack of preparedness. I told you that in ________ constant multi-hazard exposure was developing unconsciously a culture of preparedness, and was saving lives.  However, I forgot a key factor in the equation: fear.

The concept of terrorism is first of all a psychological war: inducing a constant feeling of terror. It is working. The issue being that we are not facing a simple war of religions, this one is extreme Islamists VS. everyone else… How can we put together risk reduction strategies that are appropriate to “everyone else”? When we see the difficulty one country/one region/one community has in taking a consensual decision, how can we expect “everyone else” to do so? Especially when every single individual of this “everyone else” faces fear, fear of attacks, fear of our loved ones being attacked, fear of losing everything…

We can remember the results of the fear resulting from the economic crisis of the ‘30′s in Germany leading a whole nation to accept the most outrageous anti-humanitarian speech and sacrificing “outsiders” to save the Nation…

However, when I see my friends canceling their nights at a concert to avoid crowded areas, when I hear my Muslim friends saying they are afraid to go in the street and risk being insulted, when I sat at the airport and saw that everyone was standing still and watching and waiting for something to happen…I wonder how can we address this? How can we fight hateful speech in Europe and the USA without undermining the fear felt by the whole world?

Preparedness, capacity building, more resources? How more armed security guards, and consequent constant reminder of the threat, can help to reassure people? How do we remind people they may face major floods or deadly cyclones but not have those preparedness activities raise fear at the first heavy rain or strong winds?…

…Have you ever seen a community who managed to control its fear of disasters (not denying it!!!), or is it an inexorable factor, inherent to human nature and human social systems, that explains why a community can never be fully resilient?”

I answered:

“The questions you ask are some of the great conundrums that bedevil our society.  I will offer my personal answers to them but will hasten to add that many may/will disagree.

Let me start by saying as an old soldier I have great respect for Fear.  Like Thomas Hardy, I see Fear as a pre-condition for preparedness.  As you point out, this is the case in _______.  There, Fear is a rational recognition of Nature’s might that drives the populace to take action.

Terrorism is something entirely different.  The goal of terrorists is to incite panic to achieve other ends.  The panic may be either an irrational paralysis of the will, or a slightly more rational lashing about in a manner that is actually harmful to our own interests.  You used the right word, as well – we are in a War in which a weaker more agile foe is trying to either confuse us so that we don’t use our strength, or goad us to use our strength in ways that will help our foe get stronger.

History teaches us that Terrorism is almost always a weapon used by ideologically motivated but weaker factions – from ISIS’ brand of radical Islam back to the Anarchists of the late 1800′s.  In the past (from the Anarchists on to the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany and even to al Qaeda), spread of the ideological message and planning of outrages was mostly accomplished through personal contact; most of the terrorist’s soldiers were known and directly supported by the terrorist leaders. The new element that ISIS is taking advantage of is the internet.  It has enabled ISIS to convert the disaffected into its soldiers without any direct contact.

In the past examples I’ve cited, the tremendously greater strength of Western society overcame the much weaker terrorist groups (although in some cases it took decades, and we haven’t completely taken down al Qaeda yet) in large part because of their reliance on personal contact.  Now we’re faced with a much stronger foe – safely entrenched in Raqqa and Mosul – whose use of the internet is making it much less vulnerable than earlier terrorist groups.  It has its “own” soldiers – a conventional army – ready to engage in urban warfare to protect its “Homeland.” But it also broadcasts messages designed to enlist the disaffected in the West as the soldiers of its clandestine army.  Their attacks cannot be easily defended against because even ISIS’ leadership doesn’t know (or even care) where they will come.

The Western world is trying to fight this war as if it were fighting crime – with more and more “gates, guns and guards” – but is doing nothing to combat the terror that is ISIS’ immediate goal.  We see stepped up security, we read about governments’ efforts to identify and neutralize terrorists before they act, and yet in spite of all this, we still see the horrific scenes in Brussels and Paris and Jakarta and Bali…and on and on.  What Western leaders seem to fail to see is that an essential part of the War is combating ISIS’ calls to the disaffected in our midst.  I could dwell on that but I’ve written about it in the past and probably will again in the future.

You asked for examples of communities that overcame terrorist attacks – I can think of two.  First, the British during the Blitz of ’42 and the V-1 and V-2 attacks of ’44 and ’45.  They had a strong leader who called out to the brightest angels of the people’s spirits, voicing why they were fighting and for what, and pointing out that everyone had a role to play.

A contemporary example – and a very interesting one – is Israel.  Terrorists have launched over 11,000 rockets into Israeli towns and villages.  They have also experienced all of the types of attacks we’ve seen recently in Europe and the US.  Again, their leadership has recognized both the existential and the psychological aspects of the War and have seen the nation respond.  The people appropriately fear, but use that fear to goad them to prepare for the next attack.  I said that Israel is an interesting example – three years ago they experienced rather severe wild fires and responded poorly:  lack of Fear?

We are at War against a strong foe who is trying to turn some of our strength against us.  When the Fear of “everyone else” becomes paralysis, ISIS wins.  When we indiscriminately attack those different from us, ISIS wins.  But when “everyone else” begins to truly believe in the ideals that are the basis of Western society – freedom, respect for the individual, and equal opportunity for all who seek it – then ISIS will begin to wither and die in its desert strongholds.  Fear can be a powerful force for our resilience.”