Rumors of a terrorist gunman escalated at LAX. A panicked crowd trampled an old woman, snapping her femur. In our best Dick Cheney voice: "If you allow blind fear to disrupt society, the terrorists have already won."
A loud noise caused a panic at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on a recent Saturday in late August. At 8:45pm, passengers who were quietly waiting for their flights suddenly mobilized into a panicked herd, running in all directions, live-tweeting videos, and screaming about a shooter. But there was no shooter, according to local ABC affiliate WKOW. Police evacuated the suspected terminals and did a thorough investigation, but found no viable threat. The noise that shut down an entire airport and backed up flights into Monday morning was a literal false alarm.
That incident is far from the only time Americans freaked out at a false threat. Earlier this month, passengers at Kennedy International Airport in New York City went into the same sort of panic over another literal false alarm. Mall patrons in North Carolina, Michigan, and Florida did too. In every incident, mass hysteria broke out.
People were injured, even trampled, over perceived threats, causing much more damage and fear than if they had simply waited for further information before reacting. That's hard to do, especially with such a serious situation as a terrorist threat. But it's just psychological conditioning; reacting calmly to a potential terrorist threat is a choice you can make. Neurobiologically speaking, you can stimulate the production of acetylcholine, a “tranquilizer that you can self-administer simply by taking a few deep breaths with long exhales," according to Psychology Today. Game designer Jane McGonigal explains the technique here:
A group of former Navy SEALS who offer safety training for mass shootings offers these survival tips as well:
If there's anyone around you who's freaking out, either try to quiet them or get away from them. Their anxiety will spread and will make everyone react in a panic, Psychology Today advises.
All of those tips can keep a scary incident from becoming a panicked frenzy. That said, the frenzied response of the airport and mall patrons, while drastic, is understandable. Incidents of shooters in airports at Brussels and Istanbul happened earlier this year. High-profile terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, France, as well as within our own borders in San Bernadino and Orlando, also happened this year. All of those attacks primed us to expect the worst. Always. “The steady stream of news reports of bloodshed has heightened anxieties out of proportion to the threat," The New York Times explains, “making panic more likely to take hold." Dr. Daniel Antonius explained to the Times that there is “a national anxiety about mass attacks that did not reflect the real level of danger."
The real level of danger is much lower than most of us think. All violent crimes, including terrorist attacks, are at the lowest levels they've ever been, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). See?
Image source: FBI
In 2014, only 1,165,383 violent crimes happened in America according to the FBI's statistics. Sixty-three percent of them were aggravated assaults; 0.000016 percent were terrorist attacks, according to the Global Terrorism Database. That's 19 terrorist attacks. That's more than we'd like, but certainly not as many as we feel threatened by. Compared to the onslaught of potential threats stoked by the 24/7 news cycle – and to Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, whose combined experience of terrorist attacks is 54 percent of the entire world's attacks – when you look at the numbers, Americans have no reason to panic.
The concentration and intensity of every terror attack in 2015. Source: Global Terrorism Database.
Worse still, living in that constant state of panic is hurting us. We've told you before about how fear warps your brain and panic works much the same way. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, panic is “a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger." It brings intense feelings of fear, worry, and helplessness. It can even cause physical symptoms, like a heart attack.
To be clear, the threat of a terrorist attack in the United States is more perceived danger than real danger. But the psychological warfare of terrorism works because it is draws on the natural effects of panic to instill fear and disrupt society, whether through airport shutdowns or mistrust between communities. Australian media commentator Waleed Aly has called terrorism the mouse that roars. By panicking about any potential threat and treating it as if it might be the worst possible one we can experience – a terrorist attack – we dull our senses and response time to actual threats, exhausting our mental and emotional resources. Harvard psychologist Susan David explains it this way: “The more familiar something sounds… even if the story is inaccurate, even if the story doesn't serve us, the more we are likely to become immured to it and immune to it."
We do need to be vigilant against terrorist attacks. But we also need to be vigilant against accepting false information and blind panic. Limiting exposure to news will help. Reading Alain de Botton's The News will help. So will understanding the actual probability of a terrorist attack. But there are real consequences to not taking this seriously. David broke it all down for us:
The death of God didn’t strike Nietzsche as an entirely good thing. Without a God, the basic belief system of Western Europe was in jeopardy.
It’s been 134 years since Friedrich Nietzsche declared: “God is Dead” (or Gott ist tot, in German), giving philosophy students a collective headache that’s lasted from the 19th century until today. It is, perhaps, one of the best known statements in all of philosophy, well known even to those who have never picked up a copy of The Gay Science, the book from which it originates. But do we know exactly what he meant? Or perhaps more importantly, what it means for us?
Nietzsche was an atheist for his adult life and didn’t mean that there was a God who had actually died, rather that our idea of one had. After the Enlightenment, the idea of a universe that was governed by physical laws and not by divine providence was now reality. Philosophy had shown that governments no longer needed to be organized around the idea of divine right to be legitimate, but rather by the consent or rationality of the governed — that large and consistent moral theories could exist without reference to God. This was a tremendous event. Europe no longer needed God as the source for all morality, value, or order in the universe; philosophy and science were capable of doing that for us. This increasing secularization of thought in the West led the philosopher to realize that not only was God dead but that human beings had killed him with their scientific revolution, their desire to better understand the world.
The death of God didn’t strike Nietzsche as an entirely good thing. Without a God, the basic belief system of Western Europe was in jeopardy, as he put it in Twilight of the Idols: “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole.”
Nietzsche thought this could be a good thing for some people, saying: “... at hearing the news that 'the old god is dead', we philosophers and 'free spirits' feel illuminated by a new dawn.” A bright morning had arrived. With the old system of meaning gone a new one could be created, but it came with risks—ones that could bring out the worst in human nature. Nietzsche believed that the removal of this system put most people at the risk of despair or meaninglessness. What could the point of life be without a God? Even if there was one, the Western world now knew that he hadn’t placed us at the centre of the universe, and it was learning of the lowly origin from which man had evolved. We finally saw the true world. The universe wasn’t made solely for human existence anymore. Nietzsche feared that this understanding of the world would lead to pessimism, “a will to nothingness” that was antithetical to the life-affirming philosophy Nietzsche prompted.
His fear of nihilism and our reaction to it was shown in The Will to Power, when he wrote that: "What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism... For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe." He would not have been surprised by the events that plagued Europe in the 20th century. Communism, Nazism, Nationalism, and the other ideologies that made their way across the continent in the wake of World War I sought to provide man with meaning and value, as a worker, as an Aryan, or some other greater deed; in a similar way as to how Christianity could provide meaning as a child of God, and give life on Earth value by relation to heaven. While he may have rejected those ideologies, he no doubt would have acknowledged the need for the meaning they provided.
Of course, as Nietzsche saw this coming, he offered us a way out. The creation of our own values as individuals. The creation of a meaning of life by those who live it. The archetype of the individual who can do this has a name that has also reached our popular consciousness: the Übermensch. Nietzsche however, saw this as a distant goal for man and one that most would not be able to reach. The Übermensch, which he felt had yet to exist on Earth, would create meaning in life by their will alone, and understand that they are, in the end, responsible for their selection. As he put it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred yes is needed: the spirit now wills his own will." Such a bold individual will not be able to point to dogma or popular opinion as to why they value what they do.
Having suggested the rarity and difficulty in creating the Übermensch, Nietzsche suggested an alternative response to Nihilism, and one that he saw as the more likely to be selected; The Last Man. A “most contemptible thing” who lives a quiet life of comfort, without thought for individuality or personal growth as: "'We have discovered happiness,' -- say the Last Men, and they blink." Much to the disappointment of Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s mouthpiece, the people whom he preaches to beg him for the lifestyle of The Last Man, suggesting his pessimism on our ability to handle God’s death.
But you might ask, if God has been dead for so long and we are supposed to be suffering for knowing it, where are all the atheists? Nietzsche himself provided an answer: “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.” Perhaps we are only now seeing the effects of Nietzsche’s declaration.
Indeed, atheism is on the march, with near majorities in many European countries and newfound growth across the United States heralding a cultural shift. But, unlike when atheism was enforced by the communist nations, there isn’t necessarily a worldview backing this new lack of God, it is only the lack. Indeed, British philosopher Bertrand Russell saw Bolshevism as nearly a religion unto itself; it was fully capable and willing to provide meaning and value to a population by itself. That source of meaning without belief is gone.
As many atheists know, to not have a god without an additional philosophical structure providing meaning can be a cause of existential dread. Are we at risk of becoming a society struggling with our own meaninglessness? Are we as a society at risk for nihilism? Are we more vulnerable now to ideologies and conmen who promise to do what God used to do for us and society? While Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the future, the non-religious are less so than the religious. It seems Nietzsche may have been wrong in the long run about our ability to deal with the idea that God is dead.
As Alain de Botton suggests about our values, it seems that we have managed to deal with the death of God better than Nietzsche had thought we would; we are not all the Last Men, nor have we descended into a situation where all morality is seen as utterly relative and meaningless. It seems that we have managed to create a world where the need for God is reduced for some people without falling into collective despair or chaos.
Are we as individuals up to the task of creating our own values? Creating meaning in life by ourselves without aid from God, dogma, or popular choice? Perhaps some of us are, and if we understand the implications of the death of God we stand a better chance of doing so. The despair of the death of God may give way to new meaning in our lives; for as Jean-Paul Sartre suggested "life begins on the other side of despair."
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"CNN/ORC Poll: 57% Pessimistic about U.S. Future, Highest in 2 Years." CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 04 Aug. 2016.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. "The Meaning of Our Cheerfulness." The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage, 1974. N. pag. Print.
Press, Connie Cass Associated. "Gloom and Doom? Americans More Pessimistic about Future." Las Vegas Review-Journal. N.p., 03 Jan. 2014. Web. 04 Aug. 2016.
Russell, Bertrand. Bolshevism: Practice and Theory. New York: Arno, 1972. Print.