The Frontal Cortex

The Cold War Vs. The War on Terror

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.

This is why it’s important to remain calm, especially when hyped up rumors of liquid bombs lead us to ban chapstick in airports. Here’s some excellent advice:

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…


  1. #1 somnilista, FCD
    August 16, 2006

    The communists were much scarier. After they invaded and conquered us, they would have forced all the survivors to be atheists. What could be more frightening than that?

  2. #2 drcharles
    August 17, 2006

    add to that the tantalizing graphics on cable television, the dramatic theme music on fox, the buzz in the lcd displays of a billion computers – the news and the state of the world is hollywood produced, and mesmerizing

  3. #3 DavidD
    August 17, 2006

    “the Cold War didn’t upset out amygdala”

    Man, I don’t know whose amygdala you mean, but it’s not mine. Didn’t you see all those post-apocalypse Twilight Zones? No, maybe not. Didn’t you know how game theory and the mathematical and experimental perfection of the “tit-for-tat” strategy made mutual assured destruction the logical way to go for both sides. I think Mike has it right in that link you gave that he knows more now than he did then. Some of us knew plenty then.

    Only it was actually worse than the public knew. I think it was the History Channel that has since taught me that American generals were all ready to invade Cuba in 1962, not knowing tactical nuclear weapons were in operation defending Cuba right then, having predated the strategic weapons that the whole fuss was about. Who knows where the nuclear exchanges would have stopped if Kennedy had OK’d the initial invasion plan instead of trying blockade?

    It’s true the media is more sensationalist now than it was then, but then I could count on a missile exploding near me. We didn’t have duck and cover drills where I was in New Mexico. We could have had kiss our butts goodbye drills given how close we were to military targets. Now, I don’t know. So someone might explode a dirty bomb somewhere. My amygdala cares more about when a truck goes by and it might be a earthquake for a second. That happens a lot. There’s some habituation to such things.

    But terrorists? I wish I didn’t have more things to be concerned about than that.

    Besides, doesn’t our amygdala alert us to all sorts of significant things, not just danger? If I recall that right, mine somehow got trained to alert me about food and pretty women, even if I can’t approach either one the same way I once did. Then there’s the occasional obnoxious man I’d like to shut up, but that’s why we have other structures to tell our guard dog to be quiet. We really could use some science on how best to train these things. Maybe we could all use quarterly tune-ups to be alerted in the most productive way.

  4. #4 lieben
    March 4, 2009

    Interessante Informationen.

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