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."

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

For all that, we aren't necessarily in a moral panic. Set aside the government for a moment, and instead consider the governed. I began this essay with a litany of goofy responses to the terrorist threat. But it's a big country, and people do dumb things in it every day. That doesn't mean they're typical. "I think that people have tried to deal with this in a relatively calm, relatively professional way," argues Best. "I don't like the word panic—it implies irrational emotionalism. Think of the vast number of people who successfully evacuated the World Trade Center. Clearly, they didn't panic."

What's more, just as many apparent threats have turned out to be harmless, much behavior that initially appears to be hysterical might, on closer examination, prove rational. Such myopia has dogged some moral panic theorists, most notably the Marxist sociologist Stuart Hall. Hall's analysis of mugging in 1970s Britain held that the ruling class had conjured a panic over street crime to distract the masses from economic woes. His critics point out that muggings really did increase in the period in question, and that the uptick in public concern was therefore more sensible than Hall supposed.

Similarly, some observers have looked askance at Americans for suddenly stocking up on gas masks, learning martial arts, searching for Cipro to ward off anthrax, and rushing to practice at the shooting range. Writing about how anxieties were "getting the better of many of us," a reporter for the Orange Country Register dismissively declared, "It's gone far beyond the buying of gas masks and the hoarding of bottled water. Now people are buying guns. They're wearing surgical gloves and scrubbing their hands after handling mail. They're canceling trips, avoiding bridges, venturing to malls only in pairs. They're mobilizing to shut down the San Onofre nuclear power plant, plotting escape routes in case it blows, pinpointing family meeting places in the event of catastrophe." Similar pieces, each with its own local spin, have appeared in other cities across the country, from Fort Worth to New York.

But do such precautions really represent an overactive anxiety? Or does it make more sense to regard them as an inchoate, spontaneous movement toward civil defense, with citizens acting to protect themselves after the institutions that are supposed to protect us failed? Chances are, we'd be a lot safer if those institutions would do less to move power toward the center (by, say, setting up secret military tribunals) and more to facilitate our ability to defend ourselves (by, say, expediting Food and Drug Administration approval of other anthrax treatments).

In any event, preparing for the worst hardly belongs in the same category as social scapegoating or rushing ill-considered bills into law. Spores and errant airplanes may haunt the average American, but that doesn't mean he's panicking. For true hysterics, you have to look to the political class. Unfortunately, we may be stuck with the consequences of their hysteria for a long time to come.