Why We Seem to Care More About Paris than Beirut — Never Mind Baghdad

Coming together after a tragedy is equally tribal as causing the tragedy in the first place.

The toll from the Paris terrorist attacks; 129 dead, 352 injured, billions frightened. Relatively few victims, yet global fear. Why? What is it about this particular threat that gives it such inordinate emotional power, far beyond the danger that it actually poses to most of us. Why does terrorism terrorize? And why, though many other global perils threaten us far more, does fear of terrorism uniquely bring the world together?


Three characteristics make this threat emotionally unique. First, it's random, unpredictable. Guns and grenades here, car bombs there. A train in Spain. Busses in London. Buildings in New York, Beirut, Baghdad. We don't know when or where the next attack will come.

And we don't know who is out to get us. Yes, extremists fall into general patterns. Some act in the name of religion – Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism - to excuse their murderous rage. Some invoke the superiority of their race, their nationality, their culture. Some are angry at repressive governments. But just who the individuals are who will show up unexpectedly with guns and bombs and murderous rage, we don't know.

So we don't know who might attack us, when, where, or how they might do it. We don't know what we need to know to protect ourselves. That uncertainty, that powerlessness, helps make terrorism particularly frightening. And it explains why we are willing to go to such lengths, including paying the high price of giving up some civil liberties, to reduce the threat. More police surveillance cameras, expanded government powers for intelligence gathering, increasingly invasive security checks at airports and borders, are costs that people in many nations have been willing to pay to reduce the uncertainty that we might be attacked.

Terrorism, and mass murders and plane crashes and big industrial accidents, kill a lot of us all at once in one place, which research in the psychology of risk perception has found magnifies the fear.

Second, terrorist attacks terrorize because they kill and injure a lot of people all at once. Many causes of death kill far more people, but they are what public health experts call 'chronic'. The number of victims of hunger, and infectious disease, and climate change-connected severe weather events far exceeds the number of victims of terrorism, but those deaths are spread out across time and space. Terrorism, and mass murders and plane crashes and big industrial accidents, kill a lot of us all at once in one place, which research in the psychology of risk perception has found magnifies the fear. Our greater concern about what that research calls 'catastrophic' risks is why such events get more attention from the news media, and extensive coverage of terrorism magnifies fear yet further.

But perhaps the most powerful psychological reason terrorism terrorizes is that we all worry that it could happen to us. We all feel that we could be the next target, the next victim. In a restaurant, a mall, at a concert, in a bus or plane or train or just walking down the street. Minding our own business. Going about our normal lives. We are, all of us, at any time, potential terrorist targets.

Never mind that the numerical odds are low (roughly 1 in 20,000 in Paris from this attack, roughly 1 in 110,000 in the U.S. on 9/11/01). Emotionally such odds mean little. If you think you might be the numerator, the one, your fear will be real, though it exceeds the statistical risk.

This emotional risk perception factor – the vulnerable sense that “It could happen to me" – explains why anyone in the civilized world feels threatened by what happened in Paris, and what has happened in Tokyo and Mumbai and Barcelona and London and Nairobi and Oklahoma City and New York and Boston. The terrorists are lashing out at the normal world they see as their oppressor. “The civilized world", as President Obama has put it. Our world. You and me.

This emotional factor explains why many of the world's most famous buildings were illuminated in French bleu blanc et rouge within hours of the attacks.

It's why many of the leaders of the world, including the leaders of China and Russia, and the Pope, spoke out in solidarity with the French. It's why German Chancellor Angela Merkel said what she said to the French;

“We are so close with you," said Ms. Merkel, dressed in black. “We are crying with you. Together with you, we will fight against those who have carried out such an unfathomable act against you."

Chancellor Merkel's “we" means more than Germans. It refers to all of us in the normal world. We all feel Paris' pain, and fear, because those feelings, particularly the fear, are ours.

Sadly this psychology also explains why the terrorist bombings in Beirut (43 dead, 200 wounded) and Baghdad (at a funeral, 19 killed and 30 wounded), just hours before the attacks in Paris, drew much less international attention. Sectarian terrorism that targets particular groups doesn't target everyone. If we don't belong to the group under attack, we aren't threatened. We don't worry. We shed no tears. We don't demonstrate solidarity. Which is why the civilized world that is so ready - so EAGER- to fight back against Daesh (a more accurate and derisive name for the group that is falsely validated with labels like Islamic State), does little when Sunni Muslims terrorize Shiites, or radical Hutu Rwandans slaughter Tutsis, or Palestinians murder Israelis and vice versa. Tribe-on-tribe violence doesn't threaten the greater tribe – humans – to which we all belong.

Too bad we don't feel that way about global perils that threaten us all and will do infinitely greater harm than terrorism; climate change, the decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics, the peril of a quickly spreading pandemic in our globally-connected community.

But attacks like the one in Paris are against everyone outside the Daesh tribe, Muslims included. While that makes us all afraid, it's also what brings us together. Shared fear reminds us that we are all citizens of the global village, that despite our many differences we are all connected, concerned for and even responsible for one another at the primal level of survival. The outpourings of support and offers of assistance to victims after terrorist attacks anywhere are evidence of this connection.

Too bad we don't feel that way about global perils that threaten us all and will do infinitely greater harm than terrorism; climate change, the decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics, the peril of a quickly spreading pandemic in our globally-connected community. Those much greater threats don't have the emotional characteristics that make them as personally and viscerally frightening as terrorism feels.

But perhaps these post-terror attack moments of increased global togetherness might remind us of our connections with and responsibilities for each other. After all, we are all members of the human tribe and what helps that tribe survive helps us as individuals. Remembering that, and coming together not just to fight terrorism but to protect ourselves from other shared dangers, would be a great way to honor the victims of terrorists who, by spreading fear, also promote a sense of human connection around the world that can help us all stay safe.

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David Ropeik is an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. He runs a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk and was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which he was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.

image: Getty Images, Jeff J. Mitchell

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On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.