Panic Attacks

Drawing the thin line between caution and hysteria after September 11.

On October 7, some police officers in Maryland decided that two trucks on Interstate 270 might be carrying explosives. The alert cops blocked traffic for an hour, searching the vehicles for tools of terror. On examination, the cargo turned out to be stage equipment bound for a memorial service for the firefighters killed on September 11.

A forgivable mistake, given the circumstances? Perhaps.

In Tyler, Texas, a few days earlier, federal agents, city police, and bomb experts from far-flung cities descended on one family's mailbox to grapple with what the local Morning Telegraph described as a "crudely fashioned gadget, which was pieced together with batteries and green duct tape." The streets were blocked; the neighbors were evacuated. The device turned out to be an 8-year-old's homemade flashlight, built as a school project and left in the mailbox for safekeeping.

Still forgivable? Maybe -- though on reflection, it doesn't seem likely that the killers who organized the World Trade Center attack would select a neighborhood in East Texas as their next target. But why, after learning that the purported bomb was actually a jerry-rigged flashlight, did the authorities still feel the need to confiscate it?

Since September 11, and especially since the anthrax outbreaks that followed, the news has been filled with bomb scares, germ scares, and nervous airlines. Baltimore-Washington International Airport shut down an entire concourse when someone mistook some powdered coffee creamer for anthrax spores; it later shut down a hallway for fear of what proved to be Sheetrock dust. In Nevada, a man called in the police after receiving a suspiciously lumpy package that, when opened, turned out to contain a pair of lace panties and a love letter. An airline bound for Los Angeles was diverted to Shreveport when a man handed a stewardess a note she described as "bizarre" but not actually threatening. ("It didn't make a lot of sense," she said, "but at the same time it was alarming.") Another flight was diverted on its way to New Jersey when some passengers aroused suspicion by speaking a foreign language in the back of the plane. A thorough investigation revealed that the men were two Jews praying.

It's a cautious time, and some of these incidents seem ridiculous only in retrospect. Others simply shouldn't have happened at all. Even the most sympathetic observer will have a hard time defending the airport guards in Philadelphia who nabbed Neil Godfrey before the 22-year-old could board his flight to Phoenix. According to Gwen Shaffer's report in the Philadelphia City Paper, a National Guardsman's suspicions had been aroused because Godfrey was reading a novel -- Edward Abbey's Hayduke Lives! -- whose cover illustration included some dynamite. United Airlines refused to let Godfrey board his plane, then barred him again when he tried to take a second flight.

Don't assume that such behavior has been limited to the United States. On October 29, the writer Tariq Ali was temporarily detained at Munich Airport when someone noticed he was carrying a volume titled On Suicide. The guard's pique turned to panic when he saw that the book had been written by Karl Marx.

Social Panic

At such moments, panic is indeed the appropriate word: a crushing, contagious fear that prompts people to behave hysterically. The issue isn't whether we're right to be afraid. It's whether we're responding rationally to our perfectly justified fear. The 9/11 attacks go so far beyond even their closest precedents that they leave us unsure how to distinguish real threats from the jitters.

The question becomes more pressing when you consider the social dimension of panic. Academics have long discussed the idea of the moral panic, in which fear and hysteria are magnified and distorted -- perhaps even created -- by social institutions. Though he didn't coin the phrase, the sociologist Stanley Cohen was the first to use it systematically, laying out the requirements for a moral panic in 1972: "A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible." To illustrate the model, Cohen examined the British uproar over two teen subcultures of the early 1960s, the rockers and the mods, and their sometimes violent rivalry. In the popular press, Cohen notes, seaside towns were being destroyed by warring gangs, with property getting trashed willy-nilly and pitched battles being fought in the street. But the kids had actually stuck to insults and minor vandalism until the press trumpeted its distorted account, inspiring an intense public concern, an increased police presence, and, ironically, a new willingness among the objects of the panic to behave the way they'd been described.

The concept of moral panic has since been extended by many other writers -- at times, arguably, to the breaking point. Typically, sociologists have written about panics in which the purported threat was overblown (as with the rockers and mods) or entirely imaginary (as with the mythical Satanic child abuse rings of the late '80s and early '90s). Terrorism, by contrast, is clearly a real risk, and to some that in itself is enough to dismiss any talk of moral panic. "I certainly do not see the classic signs of panic, which chiefly involve disproportionate fear," says Philip Jenkins, a Penn State historian who has written about a variety of exaggerated social threats, from designer drugs to cult crime to clerical pedophiles. "As yet, we may not be as frightened as we should be."

Joel Best strikes a similar note. Best is a sociologist at the University of Delaware; like Jenkins, he has written often about moral panics. His 1999 book Random Violence notes that, contrary to social anxieties, violent crime does not threaten everyone equally but instead follows distinct patterns. You can't say that about the crimes of September 11. "Part of what's so mind-bendingly horrifying about the attack is that it comes out of nowhere," Best observes. "Obviously, the buildings that were struck were not picked at random, but whether you lived or died was a matter of luck. Nobody went to work that day with the thought that an airliner might be driven into the building." Some of the fears to emerge since then have been silly, Best concedes ("There's a tendency for people to say, 'First the World Trade Center, then the Pentagon, now something near me'"), but "if you're looking for signs of panic, I don't think it's in the public or the government. It's in the breathless 24-hour coverage. It's a big story, but on a slow day there's a tendency to spin out the implications."

Erich Goode, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and co-author of the 1994 book Moral Panics, is less sure. "There are certainly some features of this fear and concern that are very much like a classic case of a moral panic," he argues. One is the process of sensitization -- in Goode's words, "seizing on small threats from the putative agent supposedly responsible for the danger and exaggerating them into major threats, to the point where even imaginary agents become threatening." For Goode, the bioweapon scare fits the bill. "Thousands upon thousands of reports of presumed anthrax sightings have flooded hospitals, 911, officials, etc., nearly all of them bogus...even guacamole and talcum powder have been candidates."

Another essential feature of a moral panic is a folk devil, which Goode defines as "an evil agent responsible for the threatening condition" -- not the actual evil agents who did the deed, mind you, but a convenient scapegoat that can represent them. "There is the widespread feeling," Goode comments, "that Muslims/Arabs/Middle Easterners/people who 'are not like us' are responsible and should be punished." The initial wave of assaults on turban-wearing immigrants "seems to have died down" -- and wasn't anywhere near as large as similar spurts of racial violence in the past -- but the police aren't necessarily following suit. "We see a substantial number of suspects being detained on the basis of one or another supposed connection to the attack, but many of these detainees are far from suspicious," Goode notes. "One died in custody, and he had no connection whatsoever to the terrorists."

Still, when it comes to disproportionality, Goode becomes ambivalent. On the question of whether our fears are exaggerated, he says he's "not convinced one way or the other," but he has no doubt that the threat is both real and significant. "What's the likelihood that another attack will occur, even a major one?" he asks. "Substantial, almost certain."

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