Panic Attacks

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

(Page 2 of 3)

Legal Residue

The most important parallel between the current scare and a moral panic may be the loosest. Some panics dissolve quickly, leaving no institutional legacy. But others are frozen into law, even if the initial fears that inspired them quickly fade. Even minor panics can leave a legal imprint. The late-'80s frenzy over freeway shootings, in which a small handful of unrelated incidents were mistaken for an emerging trend, faded quickly when the Road Warrior-style bloodbath failed to arrive. Even so, California passed three freeway violence bills, ranging from a mild measure beefing up the highway patrol to a law adding five years to convicted freeway shooters' sentences.

For a more substantial example, consider the media-fueled fears that have preceded virtually every drug prohibition. In particular, consider the reaction to LSD in the 1960s, an affair that Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda, writing in Moral Panics, describe as a "truly remarkable" hysteria. "Of all the widely used recreational drugs," they note, acid "is the one taken by users most episodically and occasionally, least regularly and chronically." Furthermore, the panic coincided with "an extremely low level" of LSD use, with the hysteria actually fading as the drug's popularity increased. The dangers of LSD were as exaggerated as its prevalence: At various times, it was alleged to cause chromosome damage, to produce birth defects, and, in one famous tale, to convince teenagers it was safe to stare directly into the sun. All of these claims were later discredited.

The LSD hysteria clearly fits Cohen's requirements for a moral panic. The drug was definitely defined as a threat to social values, and the mass media undeniably presented its moderate risks in "a stylized and stereotyped fashion." Goode and Ben-Yehuda note that '60s press accounts of LSD identified it with "psychic terror, uncontrollable impulses, violence, an unconcern for one's own safety, psychotic episodes, delusions, and hallucinations." (It was also associated, of course, with the hippie subculture, regarded in many quarters as a threat in itself.) The moral barricades were manned (the chairman of a New Jersey commission declared acid "the greatest threat facing the country today"), and accredited experts proposed several solutions to the alleged crisis, one of which was to prohibit the drug. LSD was outlawed in 1966, and it remains verboten in 2002, even though -- again following Cohen's template -- the panic rapidly deteriorated, to the point where there is no particular social concern about LSD today except to the extent that it is part of the larger drug war.

Violent crime, too, has inspired several panics, with public worries suddenly focusing on a threat that is relatively rare (such as serial murder) or a weapon that criminals rarely use (such as the guns carelessly lumped together as "assault weapons"). The first group of fears has inspired many laws; from the 1930s to the '50s, for example, many states passed "sexual psychopath" legislation. As the criminologist Edwin Sutherland noted at the time, there was no correlation between which jurisdictions rushed such bills into law and which jurisdictions saw an actual increase in such crimes. More recently, it's doubtful that carjacking would be a federal offense were it not for the exaggerated attention it received in the early '90s.

The second group of fears, of course, has unleashed several waves of arbitrary gun control legislation. Assault weapon laws, for example, did not prohibit guns based on their destructive power; comparably powerful weapons remained legal. Nor did they ban models that were misused especially frequently; the affected guns actually accounted for less than half a percent of American homicides and an even smaller percentage of all gun crimes. They were banned because they looked scary.

Even when no new legislation is passed, social hysteria can leave a lasting legal residue. During the panic over ritual child abuse, scores of men and women were convicted for their alleged roles in obviously fanciful conspiracies, usually on the basis of no more than the coached testimony of easily suggestible preschoolers. Many remain in jail today. Gerald Amirault, for example, is still serving a 30-to-40-year sentence for purportedly molesting dozens of children at Fells Acre Day School in Malden, Massachusetts, despite a complete absence of corroborating physical evidence for the often bizarre allegations. (Among other odd elements, the children's charges featured robots, magic wands, and a "bad clown" in a "magic room.")

Consolidating Power

Just like these earlier panics, the atrocities of September 11 have inspired many extensions in the scope and power of government, at least some of which will surely remain in effect long after the crisis has passed. We have already seen the birth of a new bureaucracy, the Office of Homeland Security, charged with protecting the home front against terrorists. There have been radical changes in the regulation of air travel, from a newly federalized security system to tighter restrictions on what items can be brought onto a plane. And then there's the hefty "USA PATRIOT Act" -- an Orwellian law deserves an Orwellian name -- which, among many other things, permits secret searches and warrantless Internet surveillance, allows authorities to hold foreign nationals without trial, gives police access to accused terrorists' phone records (again without a warrant), requires retailers to report "suspicious" customer transactions to the Treasury Department, and expands the definition of terrorist to include such nonlethal acts as computer hacking. In mid-November, President Bush took this expansion of executive power a step further, declaring unilaterally that accused terrorists can be tried in secret by special military tribunals.

Further encroachments on civil liberties have been proposed and may yet pass, from a national ID card to legalized torture. Other changes have been made without any formal legislation. As Goode notes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has interned over 1,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants, most on minor charges that ordinarily would have been followed by a quick release on bond. The vast majority are not suspects, and no evidence ties them to the terror network: The police are on a fishing expedition, and they're the unfortunate fish. No law was officially changed to allow this, but by exercising their powers in this way, the authorities may have set a far-reaching precedent.

An awful lot of the new and proposed "security" measures will do little or nothing to improve Americans' security. It's now clear, for example, that intelligence agencies received several scattered signals of the impending attacks. Their failure to foresee the atrocities seems to have stemmed not from limits on their surveillance powers but from dysfunctional bureaucratic relations that kept them from connecting the data into a coherent picture. Nor is there good reason to believe that a federal airport security force will be more competent than the private guards formerly in place. What's important is the security incentives the airports face, not whether the people hired to stand guard are public employees.

Why were so many measures passed with so little thought? Because of the intense climate of fear, and the widespread feeling that something must be done to protect us from terrorists. If there were an encouraging number of warnings after 9/11 that civil liberties must be preserved and immigrants spared from racist assaults, there was also far more room for ideas that would have sparked shock or laughter just a week before. On the relatively mild side of the spectrum, there was the historian David McCullough's declaration that "it's not good to say, 'That's against the Bill of Rights, that's a violation of the Constitution.' We have to be realistic, we have to be responsible." More frantic were the erstwhile civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz, who suggested that judges should issue "torture warrants" when suspected terrorists are captured, and columnist Andrew Sullivan, who infamously commented that "the decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts...may well mount a fifth column." Even Media Whores Online derided the latter remark as "McCarthyist." (For those unfamiliar with the Media Whores site, this is a bit like being redbaited by Lillian Hellman.)

At times like this, actual effectiveness may not be the first thing on every decision maker's mind. It takes time, and a certain amount of creativity, to make effective changes in airport security; meanwhile, the government and the airlines still have to go through the motions of doing something about the threat. So they toss on useless regulations, presumably on the theory that the illusion of security will be reassuring, and that rules that are especially intrusive and rigid -- that is, more noticeable -- will heighten the illusion. This isn't protection; it's a protective ritual.

Whether or not this is a panic, it's certainly a stampede. The USA PATRIOT Act was rushed blindly into law, with legislators voting for it without even reading it. Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican from Texas, told Insight that "the bill wasn't printed before the vote -- at least I couldn't get it. They played all kinds of games, kept the House in session all night, and it was a very complicated bill. Maybe a handful of staffers actually read it, but the bill definitely was not available to members before the vote."

Defending Ourselves

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.