We don’t know any more than anyone else about the pros and cons of sealing one’s windows with duct tape. We assume that there are moments – when terrorists are using the right agent and are located the right distance from you – when it’s exactly the right thing to do. We assume most of the time it doesn’t do much good – except perhaps for making you feel like you’re taking some action, and thus diminishing the inclination to run out into the street or drive off into a traffic jam, which is quite likely to be the wrong thing to do. We can’t see it doing much harm. But we will defer to others on what sorts of tape and what sorts of plastic sheeting are best for what sorts of bioweapons.

What’s interesting to us is the extraordinary public and media response to the government’s suggestion last week that it might be a good idea to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting – along with a few days worth of food and water and other provisions for sheltering in place. Actually, three responses are interesting:

  • The mocking response. “Duct tape is useless, and the suggestion is hilarious. This is a stunning example of how laughably inept the government’s counterterrorism policy really is. Why don’t they just shut up?”
  • The fearful/dependent response. “Duct tape is useless, and the suggestion is inadequate. This is a stunning example of how woefully insufficient the government’s counterterrorism policy really is. Why don’t they recommend something stronger, and do something stronger?”
  • The numb/counter-dependent response. “Duct tape is useless, and the suggestion is unnecessary. This is a stunning example of how inappropriately terrifying the government’s counterterrorism policy really is. Why don’t they stop alarming people and provide reassurance instead?”

Two other, more cognitive responses are not the main subject of this column. The political response: “Don’t be fooled. These recommendations are the Republicans’ way of avoiding the need for huge budget increases for counterterrorism planning.” And the skeptical/distrustful response: “This is just another example of the government scaring us to drum up support for whittling away our civil rights and going to war.”

Note that all the above responses were quite frequently combined with cooperative, even diligent, behavior: “It sounds pretty silly/inadequate/scary/duplicitous, but I’ll stop anyhow for duct tape on my way to the supermarket, where I’ll pick up more batteries and a few gallons of water. I still have some in the basement from Y2K, but they’re pretty old.” Many thousands of people calmly lined up to buy counterterrorism supplies without stepping on anyone’s grandmother. There was no panic.

But there was contempt, which presumably diminished the number of people who complied, not to mention the enthusiasm with which they did so.

What’s going on here? Why has there been nearly universal disdain for the Department of Homeland Security’s shelter-in-place recommendations? Why are these recommendations seen alternately as a patronizing effort to reassure us with pabulum or as a disingenuous effort to scare us into support for war? Why has the effort to color-code levels of alert met with similar contempt? Why has the combination of these warnings with advice to continue our ordinary lives – go to work, go have fun, go shopping – struck most observers as inconsistent at best, macabre at worst?

And, most important, what should the government do about it? In this column we want to explore the reasons why people are responding so weirdly to recommended counterterrorism precautions. Then we want to offer some advice on how to make these precautions easier to take.

Why is the public response so weird?

The essence of the government’s advice is to be vigilant; to take those precautions that are prudent (not too expensive or too disruptive); and to go about our business. This “routinization of terror” is almost undoubtedly the right long-term response to the new reality in which we find ourselves: neither pretending that the terrorist threat isn’t there nor allowing the terrorist threat to dominate our lives. It is what Israel, Northern Ireland, and other countries have learned to do. It is what residents of U.S. inner cities threatened by gangs and drug dealers have learned to do. It is what the rest of us must now learn to do.

So why do we rebel? Among the answers:

  • Hopelessness (“My world is ruined and I can’t imagine it getting better.”)
  • Denial (“I don’t want to think about it.”)
  • Projection (“In the face of this threat I feel helpless and small and inept and stupid. But those feelings are unbearable, so I’ll accuse the government of being helpless and small and inept and stupid.”)
  • Fatalism (“Nothing will help. What will be will be.”)
  • Distrust of the government. (“They lie. They exaggerate. They minimize. They don’t really know anything. They have ulterior motives.”)
  • Failure of imagination (“How can I possibly have anything to contribute to such a huge problem?”)

Finally and most important, the rebellion demonstrates an infantile yearning to be allowed to stay passive while the government takes care of us all. Somehow a measured response to the threat of terrorism seems wrong. We want less or more; we want the government to assure us that it’s not a problem or pull out all the stops to solve the problem for us. Nothing in the middle satisfies. Make it go away!

On the most overarching level, most of us are raging, outwardly or inwardly, about the way our world has changed, and the unlikelihood that it will ever change back. Until 9/11 we didn’t even have the phrase “homeland security”; we just had homeland security, or thought we did, without thinking about it. For years we either mocked or supported the increasing numbers of gated communities in the U.S., never quite noticing that we lived in the largest gated community in the history of the world. And if we did notice, we thought the weakest part of the fence was the southern border. Now we learn there is no fence. Many of us, those who were paying attention, were horrified in 1989 when Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence on Salman Rushdie. Now there is a death sentence on us. We are paying attention, and we can hardly believe it.

Telling us to buy duct tape to keep the enemy out throws all this in our face. The very phrase “Homeland Security” throws all this in our face. It’s hard to bear. We need to bear it, and we need help bearing it.

The comparison to 1950s duck-and-cover drills is a frequent and illuminating one. Faced with the possibility of atomic attack, the government of the fifties tried to offer us things to do to protect ourselves. Some of what was recommended may have been futile – but our desire to judge it all to be futile, whether it was or not, was rooted in the same list of paralyzing emotional responses. If the Bomb fell, we told ourselves, there was nothing to do but bend over and kiss your ass goodbye. This may have been close to accurate for those located very near Ground Zero – which is where we all imagined ourselves to be located. Further away, duck-and-cover was a pretty decent way to avoid being blinded by the fireball. Further away, fallout shelters would have, well, sheltered us from fallout. We didn’t want to hear it. A nuclear attack, we insisted, would kill everyone. Precautions were futile. Those who said otherwise were traitors to the essential task of making sure that nuclear war remained unthinkable.

Duck-and-Cover Redux

On December 15, 2010, the New York Times published an article detailing the U.S. government’s reluctance to tell the public about the most basic and effective way to survive the immediate aftermath of a nuclear explosion: sheltering in place. The story is illustrated with 1950s duck-and-cover photos.

Obama administration officials are undoubtedly reviewing the Bush administration’s duct tape experience as well.

Despite officials’ understandable fear of provoking both criticism and ridicule, gold standard fear-appeal research strongly suggests that giving people things to do – things that are effective and doable – is the best way of overcoming fatalism about a terrifying prospect. Even scoffers tend to learn and remember the advice. And even mockery by late-night television comics helps to spread it.

For some of our other related writing, see:

  • “Fear of Fear: The Role of Fear in Preparedness … and Why It Terrifies Officials” (2003)
  • “Scared stiff – or scared into action” (1986)

(Note added December 20, 2010)

Decades later, anti-nuclear power activists in New England tried to raise public fear and outrage with a billboard near the Seabrook nuclear plant stating: “No evacuation possible.” Friends visiting from Florida looked bewildered at that billboard. Everyone in southern Florida knows about hurricane evacuation routes; they’re posted on street signs. They don’t guarantee that everyone will get out in time, but planning certainly improves the odds.

The comparison to hurricanes and other natural disasters is actually more apt than the comparison to nuclear war or nuclear power. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency urges precautions against natural disasters – including taping your windows – it is fighting an uphill battle against apathy. No one accuses FEMA of ulterior motives; no one accuses FEMA of false reassurance or of panicking the public. No one accuses FEMA of anything in advance of a disaster; no one is even paying attention until after the disaster, when everyone accuses FEMA of not doing enough.

But switch from natural disasters to terrorism, and from FEMA to Homeland Security, and the reaction changes. Homeland Security is fighting an uphill battle not against apathy but against outrage, fear, and denial. Homeland Security is accused of insulting our intelligence. It is accused of fostering a false sense of security, or of fostering a false sense of danger, or both at the same time!

If you are some distance away from an explosion, your main initial risk is flying glass and debris; going to an interior hallway, away from windows, is a no-brainer. Ask folks who survived Hurricane Andrew, or who live in Tornado Alley. We recall lots of industrial accidents where people beyond the immediate evacuation zones were advised to stay inside and close their windows. Millions “sheltered in place” during a three-day ice storm in New England. We now live in Mercer County, New Jersey; most of our neighbors remember the advantage of having bottled water on hand during and after Hurricane Floyd, when the water company’s water was temporarily contaminated.

Being prepared to cope on your own isn’t just a way of helping yourself. It is also a way of freeing emergency responders to focus where they need to focus. Households that can be self-sufficient in the aftermath of an attack (better yet, households that can help their neighbors) won’t drain desperately needed resources.

Sure, you might take the wrong precautions. There is room for debate over what precautions make the most sense. Maybe duct tape doesn’t belong on the list – though food, water, medicine, flashlights, batteries, and candles certainly do.

But that’s not the point. The point is that the government is right to be suggesting precautions for us to take. When we ridicule those precautions, our reaction reveals more about our state of mind than it does about the wisdom of the precautions. But it also says something about the government’s skill in anticipating and addressing our state of mind – which raises this column’s second question.

What should the government do?

The single most important thing the government should do, we think, is to ask more of people. Duct tape and the rest should be part of the agenda for a terrorism-alert populace. But only part. For reasons both practical and psychological, the government should expect more.

In 1939, with Germany threatening to invade Great Britain, the Ministry of Home Security put up posters headlined, “If the Invader comes – what to do and how to do it.” The posters asserted that “the invaders will be driven out by our Navy, our Army, and our Air Force,” but also insisted that “the ordinary men and women of the civilian population will also have their part to play.” Instructions included strong directives for civilians: “In factories and shops, all managers and workmen should organise some system now by which a sudden attack can be resisted.” The government expected a lot of people.

Last week, although our government asked us to do some preparation, George Bush said, “We’re trying to protect you. We’re doing everything in our power to make sure the homeland is secure.” He’d better be. But he also should demand much more of us. It’s frightening to some, contemptible to others, to be asked to do so little. It seems worse than nothing. Shelter-in-place preparedness has a long and honorable track record – but it’s not enough.

Self-reliant emergency preparedness is not unique to terrorism. In Los Angeles, the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) helps citizens prepare for emergency and disaster situations where they may initially be on their own and their actions can make a difference. In the land of earthquakes, this is not considered alarmist or patronizing or over-reassuring. CERT’s web site has question-and-answer sheets about how many drops of what kind of bleach to use to maintain stored water; where to get goggles, dust masks, gloves, and helmets; how to check your gas valve – page after page of detailed, useful information. Over 40 states and six countries are now using CERT training materials. This “positive and realistic approach,” as CERT calls it, is hopeful and heartening, and a model for people who want to be part of disaster preparedness.

Tom Ridge is right to tell us to store three days of food and water, but he should also advise us about information sources like CERT, so we can learn more, and do more, to protect ourselves. We need detailed recommendations, especially about ways to prepare on the local level: learning where your town’s shelters and emergency distribution centers are; making a list of elderly and handicapped neighbors who may need help preparing now and help coping if a crisis arises; participating in or at least knowing about your town’s (or your neighborhood’s) emergency planning efforts.

Nor does self-reliance have to mean every household for itself. There are spectacular examples of very local community organizing that energizes communities, stiffens the spines of the fearful, lifts the spirits of the numb, activates the stunned – and actually takes care of the neighborhood during a disaster. In the Independence Plaza apartment complex near Ground Zero in New York City, tenant Diane Lapson led her well-organized tenants’ association in making sure elderly residents had medicine; cooking food for rescue workers and housebound tenants; setting up a crisis drop-in center; and even obtaining pet food for stranded dogs and cats.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies has studied civic and volunteer responses to terrorism, and concluded that the government needs to recruit and harness our strong desire to help, rather than giving us minimal and vague instructions that leave many people feeling helpless.

Will everyone want to do all this? Absolutely not. Advice about precaution-taking should almost always come on three levels: a minimum level that you think people ought to do even if they consider the risk negligible; a higher level that you think is worth the extra effort and therefore recommend; and a still higher level for those who feel especially alarmed, especially vulnerable, or especially interested in getting involved. Last week’s recommendations were a good minimum (with or without the duct tape). Now where are the two higher levels of precaution?

Asking more of people is largely about asking them to implement appropriate precautions. But that’s not all it’s about. It also means asking them to bear the misery, uncertainty, fear, and anger that the new reality necessarily provokes. Most people can bear it. Some cannot. Those who are most deeply in denial may need to be allowed to stay there, until they feel ready to face up to what has happened and what may happen. Those who are experiencing ungovernable and intolerable emotions may need professional help. But what most of us need is gentle prodding from a government that believes we can bear it and wants us to try.

Some other things we think the government should do:

  • Acknowledge the public’s misery.
    Misery is often ignored or lumped in with fear, contempt, and denial. It is by far the most common response to post-9/11 reality, and by far the biggest reason why people have trouble taking that reality seriously. We need help accepting, and acting upon, the sadder world we now inhabit.
  • Express empathic wishes.
    “I wish this didn’t even need to be planned for.” “I wish we had more answers.” “We all wish we were back in that pre-9/11 world.” Even angry wishes can be empathic if they are said with a sense of irony: “I wish people would stop laughing at me and just buy the damned duct tape.”
  • Mention the unmentionable.
    The real possibility, even inevitability, of further attacks has been mentioned. It needs to be mentioned more. And more. And still more. This, too, can be done empathically. The single best thing we have heard Tom Ridge say was his response to the over-reaction of a few people who started sealing their homes: “God forbid there may come a time when the local authorities or national authorities or someone will tell you that you’ve got to use [the duct tape].”
  • Share the dilemma.
    Acknowledge that it isn’t easy to come up with appropriate precautions for people to take against terrorism. Ask the public for ideas, and set up a mechanism for receiving, assessing, and publicizing their suggestions. Concede that people often wish the government had all the answers, that you often wish the same – but it doesn’t.
  • Explain that you know some of the information you give people isn’t really useful.
    This is less about duct tape than those color-coded alert levels, and the periodic warnings that “somethin’s comin’ ” but you don’t know when or where or what. Yes, it’s partly CYA, and you can say that. But it’s more than CYA. Though people may be angry when given vague information they can’t really use, they are far angrier when kept in the dark on the grounds that they have no real use for the information. We have a right to know what’s going on, and we need to get used to this new reality. So you’ve decided on a policy of telling unless there’s a strong reason not to tell – instead of the outmoded policy of not telling unless there’s a strong reason to tell.
  • Acknowledge that some recommendations sound a bit lame.
    It was predictable that Homeland Security’s duct tape would end up on Letterman and Leno. That isn’t necessarily a reason not to make the recommendation. But it is a reason to admit at the outset that it may sound laughable, and to explain why you think it makes sense anyway.
  • Take the derision in stride.
    At best, the near-universal mockery is part of an adjustment. Humor may be our way of letting the new reality in, a little at a time. It defuses tension while safely expressing, in projected form, our rage and our anxiety. Of course if humor replaces action, that’s a problem. But if humor facilitates action, by energizing us and prompting new ideas after we finish mocking the old ones, we’re coping. Our mockery is partly self-mockery projected onto the government – and we know it.
  • Take disapproval and disagreement in stride too.
    Humor aside, there are bound to be people who think the government’s approach to homeland security is wrong, even profoundly wrong. Some will think the government is over-reacting; some will think it is under-reacting; some will think it’s just pursuing the wrong priorities. Counterterrorism is more art than science. There is plenty of expert disagreement. Let it show – even showcase it as an example of how democracies face difficult problems: openly.
  • Tell stories.
    Probably the most useful stories are the inspirational ones, stories about people overcoming fear or denial or lethargy, preparing themselves and helping prepare their communities. (Diane Lapson told her story at a recent conference sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense, and got more sustained applause than any expert all day.) But virtually any relevant story will help. If Laura Bush told Tom Ridge a good duct tape joke, now’s the time for him to retell it.
  • Address the full range of audiences.
    Homeland Security seems not to have considered the different target audiences that make up its stakeholders; it addresses the public as a whole without empathically supporting the fearful and the numb, without acknowledging the skeptical, without engaging and allying with the mocking. If Homeland Security did all this, it would earn the right to gently admonish the over-dependent: “We can’t do it all. We need you to do your part. There are lots of rungs on the ladder between you at home and us here in Washington. Go find out what your town is planning; check out your local emergency preparedness web sites. Make a list of your elderly neighbors and make sure they have a few days worth of food and water.”
  • Anticipate mistakes and failures.
    They’re going to occur, and some of them will be devastating. Whatever precautions we take, things can happen for which they will have been the wrong precautions. Keep reminding us that we are working for a “safer” homeland, not a “safe” homeland; the latter is not and never was within our grasp. Remind us also that how we prepare and how we respond will in part determine how bad the disaster will be.
  • Fight hard for the “middle” approach to terrorism.
    It’s going to be a long haul. We all keep saying that, but we haven’t yet adjusted to it. We need precautions that we can integrate into our lives – and still live the sorts of lives we want to live. The view that we must sacrifice everything we hold dear (from civil liberties to shopping malls) in order to stop terrorism is not acceptable. Neither is the view that we must keep everything just as it was, and leave ourselves just as vulnerable as we were. Life has changed and life goes on.

Copyright © 2003 by Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard