The Danger of Our Fickle Up and Down Fear of Terrorism

We over-worry about terrorism when the latest attack makes news, and grow complacent when the headlines fade, and both our excessive and insufficient fears create risks all by themselves.

Oh how fickle are our fears. We over-worry about terrorism when the smoke is in the air and the ambulance sirens scream. And we under-fear when no one is bleeding and the headlines have moved from the most recent attack back to the normal noise of the day. As a recent encounter with security at Heathrow Airport, before the Brussels bombings, demonstrated…


Something seemed unusual. The security lines were long, moving slowly. The queue at the end of the conveyor belt waiting for our bags was barely moving. Each backpack or briefcase or handbag was being opened, and security officers were pulling out cosmetics, toiletries, toothpaste, deodorants, visually inspecting anything that might contain a liquid, gel, or paste, and wiping them down with swabs that were then inserted into a chemical sniffer looking for explosives. It was a giant hassle that seemed like over-the-top precaution, what critics derisively call "security theater."

An elderly woman in a wheel chair sat with a look of resignation while officials took off her purple tweed coat to inspect it and swabbed each container in her purse. Another woman behind us in line wasn’t as patient, complaining loudly that things were moving so slowly. We were frustrated too. My wife was carrying 15 or 20 containers of various things – "beauty secrets," she calls them – and each one was getting a close inspection.

After several minutes a security guard told us some items would have to be taken to another location for even closer examination, and trotted off. Her supervisor respectfully explained, “We’re sorry but the initial test detected chemicals associated with explosives.” This is getting ridiculous, we thought. Us? Terrorists? We waited. The people behind us waited. The line grew, as did the griping and grumbling.

The first officer returned and whispered to the supervisor, who told us “I’m sorry, but at this point we can either confiscate these items and you can proceed to your flight or if you want to try and keep these materials we can escort you to the police for a further investigation.” We were incredulous! My wife made the only reasonable choice, to say goodbye to more than $200 worth of treasured beauty secrets, so we could go find someplace to sit down and grab a cup of coffee and Facebook all our friends with the over-the-top security bull____ we just experienced.

And now they are counting the bodies in Brussels, and the on again/off again fear of terrorist bombs is on again, and what seemed like annoyingly excessive security a few days ago now seems reassuringly thorough. When the threat of terrorism (or any threat) is real…tangible…our fear goes up, and often exceeds the actual danger. The research on risk perception psychology explains why. It’s called the Availability Heuristic. Basically the more aware of a threat we are the more space it occupies on our risk radar screen, and the more emotional weight it carries.

And as our fear goes up, in the name of safety our willingness to accept excessive security procedures and more invasive government surveillance goes up and we more readily surrender civil liberties. The social psychology literature finds that as our fear goes up, our fear of others goes up too, and we more readily vilify whole groups of people for the acts of a few. To give ourselves a sense of control against a danger that is so unpredictable, we change how we live our lives, how we travel and where to. We close our borders. Our readiness to unquestioningly support political leaders and demagogues who promise us protection goes up. Our clear-headed thinking gives way to the potentially dangerous passions of precaution and self protection.

Then, after a few days or weeks, when the most recent attack has faded from the front pages and awareness goes down, our fear fades off our risk radar screens. But we get no more clear-headed. We grow dangerously complacent; our lack of awareness does mean lack of threat. We grow impatient with those long lines and uncomfortable pat downs at airports. We resist surveillance of our emails and texts and phone calls, which help prevent these attacks in the first place. We blithely call for peace and comity and coexistence, and naively lose vigilance against angry terrorists deaf to such intellectually pleasant pieties. We drop our guard, which is dangerous against a threat that is still very real.

We have been riding the see-saw of our fear of terrorism up and down, for decades, sometimes worrying more than we need to, sometimes worrying less than we should, and putting ourselves at risk with both excessive fear and complacency. We can no more protect ourselves from this risk than from terrorism itself. The nature of risk perception is inherently subjective, a matter of feelings more than merely an objective analysis of the facts. But we can at least recognize this danger, and try to learn from some of the mistakes we’ve made in responding to terrorism in the past, to try and minimize the risk of our own risk perception, as much as we are trying to keep ourselves safe from bullets and bombs.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

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.