What’s scarier? Communists or Islamic Fundamentalists? Stalin or Osama? Although I’m too young to remember the U.S.S.R. – the crumbling Berlin Wall is a vague childhood memory, and my sense of the Soviets came from Rocky 4 – I tend to agree with this sentiment:
Although I did duck-and-cover drills as a boy and served two years right at the Iron Curtain as a young man, I don’t remember ever being afraid. I can’t say the same about the War on Terror, but that may simply be that I know more now than I knew then.
So why is the post 9/11 era more frightening than the post 1945 era? After all, the world actually almost ended during the Cuban Missile Crisis. While exploding airplanes and dirty subway bombs are destructive and tragic, they aren’t Armageddon. We were closer to the Rapture in 1962 than we are in 2006.
My answer is that Al Qaeda is much more unpredictable than the Soviets, and is thus much scarier. As I noted in an earlier post, people naturally fear what they don’t know. We avoid gambles where the odds are unknowable, because such ambiguity activates our amygdala. Osama, of course, understands the psychology of fear: the whole point of terrorist attacks is to be randomly murderous, to make every airplane passenger scared even if you can only blow up a single plane. So even though we are more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed in an act of terrorism, we find ourselves fixated on these statistically improbable events. (How else can we explain the fact that Indiana has 8,591 potential “terrorist targets”? Do we really think that suicide bombers in Afghanistan are plotting to blow up the Amish Country Popcorn Fair?)
The Soviets, on the other hand, were infinitely more dangerous – they had enough missiles to implode our planet – but during the Cold War everyone assumed that everyone else was acting rationally. We all knew the odds; game theory was popular in the Pentagon and Moscow. Furthermore, the possibility of violence didn’t seem random. Nobody expected KGB agents to blow up a bus. This security may have been illusory – mutually assured destruction is no guarantee that everything won’t be destroyed – but that didn’t stop us from believing it was real. The fact is, the Cold War didn’t upset out amygdala. Osama does.
I am just not going to wet my pants every time some guys get arrested in a terror plot. I will do my best to stay informed. I will support the necessary law enforcement agencies. I will take whatever reasonable precautions seem, um, reasonable. But I will not be terrorized. I assume that the terror-ists would like me to be terror-ized, as that is what is says on their nametag, rather than, say, wanting me to surrender to ennui or negative body image, and they’re just coming the long way around.
Update: More evidence that our irrational fear is getting out of hand…