The word ‘fear’ has gotten a bit of bad rap this decade. And, I would argue that’s hurt the country’s public preparedness. Let me explain.
I think the fear of being accused of fearmongering has put a significant crimp in the ability of our leaders to communicate with and prepare Americans for terrorism. That’s a problem since the public’s current level of emergency readiness, is, in the words of a top federal preparedness official, “very concerning and frankly very frightening.”
Almost nine years after 9/11, government officials at federal, state and local levels have still not determined how best to communicate with the public on those threats. What is already a difficult task has been made even more challenging, I would argue, because officials are worried about being accused (by political opponents amplified by the media) of scaring the public.
The inability to raise the topic of potential threats in any detail has not only hurt the country’s citizen preparedness. But it has also made things more difficult for the government to get public input and buy-in on how best to allocate the nation’s resources and find the right balance of risk when it comes to disasters.
From the beginning of her tenure, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has said that she wants to better inform Americans about the threats facing the nation and highlight the citizen role in the homeland security enterprise. She believes that addressing public complacency is one of the biggest challenges for her Department. When asked by the Washington Post what keeps her up at night, she said:
“Complacency…The fact that it has been eight years since 9/11, and people just assume the government is going to take care of that. . . Safety, security is a shared responsibility. It doesn’t take much for everybody just to take a deep breath and say, ‘Okay, what would I need to do to be prepared?’
In an another interview in the Post, the Secretary was asked “if the American people could see what you see — if they were privy to intelligence reports and they saw the whole spectrum of what was out there, do you think they would have a different view of preparedness?”
Her reply: “Oh, yes, perhaps. But on the other hand, I think what is important for them to recognize is that we have hundreds of thousands of people working on this every day.” Even as she would like to get the public’s attention, the Secretary understandably does not want to unnecessarily stoke concern.
Napolitano has pointedly emphasized that she does not want to scare people, rejecting what she calls the “politics of fear.” Finding that balance is key. Yet to address “complacency,” officials will have to find ways to better illustrate what is “out there.” And there is absolutely no way to do so without explaining in some detail why Americans shouldn’t be complacent. To me, being scared and being prepared are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think the former is a necessary part of the process to achieve the latter.
In their recent books, both of Napolitano’s predecessors, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, make the need to address public “complacency” by explaining the terrorist threat a major theme. Chertoff warns of returning to a “September 10” mindset” urging the government “be candid with American people, sharing as much information as possible about dangers we face.” Both acknowledge that they were not able to accomplish that goal. Both men have told me in interviews of their frustrations with the inability to communicate threats and engage in a more frank sustained dialogue with the American public about post-9/11 homeland security.
Their inability to do so was in large part due to the fact that the Bush Administration was viewed — sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly — as using terror communications as a political tool. As a result, no Administration official could discuss any type of potential threat without it being seen as suspect by the media and the public.
President Obama has the chance to start over in this area tabula rasa. But to date, the Administration while expressing an interest of doing so has not done it. That’s understandable. This is not easy stuff. There’s nothing to pull ‘off the shelf’ for preparing the public for all the threats of the 21st Century, a number of which have never been faced by anyone let alone Americans. In addition, new technology has also changed message delivery. It will take some real thought in designing both the content and distribution of the information.
Both one thing is clear: if officials are going to have a discussion of potential disasters, they cannot avoid communicating some level of fear. Explaining what citizens would need to do in the event of a biological or chemical attack cannot be done without contemplating dire possibilities. But just for a moment. These are scary, unfamiliar topics. But the objective is to do so in a responsible and constructive manner — not stirring up more fear than is necessary, handling it with perspective, and providing concrete things people can do to prepare themselves and communities.
And, ironically in some cases, the threats — e.g. a ‘dirty bomb’ — is not as serious as most Americans currently perceive it is. However, that fact has to be communicated in advance to the public, because — due to general public distrust about government and instances such as the health precautions and reporting during the World Trade Center cleanup — Americans will be skeptical about anything said during and after such an incident.
One of the reasons I think we need to (and can) rehabilitate the word “fear” is that officials are already using it in other areas. In fact, currently there is a preparedness double standard. Officials are not allowed to talk about terrorism threats without being accused of scaring people. But we seem to have no problem when it is used to generate public interest in more traditional disasters.
For example, with hurricane season beginning this week FEMA’s Twitter feed sent out this message: “In an average 3-year period, roughly 5 hurricanes strike the US killing 50-100 people anywhere from TX to ME” Isn’t that fearmongering? But the ‘tweet’ makes the important and fair point that Americans shouldn’t be complacent during storm season since hurricanes can kill people, and they should prepare for them. The fact is that fear can be a useful lever (as one part of a communications effort) to encourage constructive behavior. So, why are officials allowed to use it for natural disaster preparedness and not for terrorism?
Further, why has the campaign against global warming been successful and grabbed public attention? In large part, it is because proponents have made the case that if we don’t do something the planet will become inhabitable. That’s a ’scare tactic’ if I’ve ever heard one. Why isn’t that labeled fearmongering? To me, it’s just presenting the public the facts, offering government’s response and providing ways people can contribute towards dealing with the problem. And, by the way, I think the effort on climate change is very much related to disaster preparedness.
If the government isn’t allowed to discuss serious threats, there is no way that we can have the important discussion about what we expect the government to protect us from and what risks are we willing to accept. It would have been useful to have a debate on the costs/benefits of building levees before Katrina or an unprecedentally large oil well in the Gulf before the recent spill. Again, it may not have prevented worst case scenarios but it would have at least laid out for the public, elected officials and the media the real risks and the financial tradeoffs. In fact, the media has a major role in both explaining the threats more fully and not reflexively calling officials who talk about it “fearmongers”.
One way to mitigate the fearmonger attack is to offer people something they can do rather than place them into a victim, dependent mentality. The more information given will better empower the public and also underscore that citizens have a role in disaster preparedness. There is a role for fear. But it needs to be part of a broader effort of strengthening communities and citizens and making more resilient. (This blog attempts to find that balance. I don’t shy away from difficult or scary topics, but I try to handle them in a way that is responsible, have a purpose and offer suggestions on how citizens can become involved.)
Carrie Lemack from Families of 9/11 told the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism in 2007 she knows from first hand experience that offering Americans information about terror threats does not engender fear but confidence:
I was told by one senior government official that marketing and communication professionals had determined that the best course of action was not to discuss the issue publicly, since it might scare Americans.I disagree.I spent 18 months traveling from Des Moines to Columbia, South Carolina. St. Petersburg to Manchester, New Hampshire. And in all the talks and forums I attended, not one person left in fear.
In fact, it was quite the opposite. Once they knew that the threat could be prevented, there was hope, even optimism.When Americans see a solution to a problem, though it may be difficult to achieve, they are quite capable of reaching their goal.I hope the next Administration is willing to talk candidly with the American public, to engage them, and to trust that they can accept the realities of the world we live in today.
As Lemack points out from her own work, officials have to give the public more credit for dealing with scary topics. With apologies to Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Nathan Jessep in A Few Good Men, “We can handle the truth.” Here in New York City, after the Times Square attack New Yorkers may have been frightened briefly, but then we moved on and went back to worrying about quotidian urban concerns like being hit by a taxi running a red light. And, as someone who is currently dealing with a life-threatening disease, I want to be told the truth however scary it might be.
What adds to the communications challenge is that security officials sincerely do not know how, when, and where future attacks will occur? But again, Americans can handle that uncertainty if we’re told that and are able to develop a trusting, transparent and ongoing dialogue with the government. Again, officials using fear frequently and irresponsibly is very wrong. But let’s not throw the baby out with bathwater. But fear does have a role public preparedness.