Column on Panic versus Alarm

Alarm versus Panic

Tibor R. Machan

Raising star of mainstream media, Fareed Zakaria, on his Sunday CNN program GPS (Global Public Square), chided American officials and commentators for responding to the failed, near-miss terrorist attack in Detroit with panic. He based his assessment on the fact that there have been numerous calls for greater vigilance in defense of the realm and that the errors that helped the perpetrator to almost succeed were roundly lamented and finger pointing was in evidence everywhere. Falling in line with the atmosphere of tolerance and understanding, as opposed to one of condemnation and punishment, Zakaria is concerned that by showing panic, the very objective of terrorists will be enhanced. What they want, he argued, is to scare us all out of our whits. By panicking we will have actually encouraged them to do more similar deeds, even if they do not succeed in out and out murder.

There is, of course, something to Zakaria’s concern but he is also overstating his point. It sounds more like he is trying to show off his low key, civilized, worldly attitude than to aim for in depth understanding. I believe it would be far more accurate to characterize much of the reaction to the near-miss terrorist attack as alarm instead of panic. The mistakes that helped the terrorist get as far as he did were terrible and while no one ought to respond to them with panic–whoever benefits from that–it is quite appropriate to be alarmed.

The various agents who should have exercised greater professional vigilance did rightly create alarm in us all and we are right, indeed, to be alarmed and to make a special effort to thwart such attacks. This imperative is especially vital given that in a relatively free country the means available for thwarting terrorists need to be confined to what will not overstep the limits of people’s human and civil rights. Panic is that would ignore the limits those rights pose to public and private efforts to cope with terrorism and the failed attempts to deal with it properly. But alarm can increase appropriate vigilance and thus guide the responsible parties toward greater success in the future.

Despite his civilized, urbane demeanor, Mr. Zakaria, who not only hosts this program but is also the editor of Newsweek International, appears himself to react to this terrorist act with more sophistry than wisdom. He seems to be eager to put down all those around the world who are really concerned about terrorism and who, moreover, believe that the attitude of tolerance and understanding toward the perpetrators may very well encourage them to try more of the same. By calling those who are concerned peddlers of panic instead of people who are alarmed and wish to learn from this experience and improve the prospect for discouraging terrorist, maybe even scaring them to desist rather than try more, Mr. Zakaria appears to be more concerned with promoting a kind of multicultural, relativist view of terrorists than is justified. When one keeps stressing that such maniacs need to be better understood instead of dealt with effectively and even harshly, one lessens the loyalty to the values of peaceful coexistence among people. Instead one is saying, in effect, "Well we realize you folks have problems and laments and while we dislike what you are doing about them, don’t worry, we will not assert ourselves in ways that will stand in the way of your thinking and acting."

Of course, the approach that Mr. Zakaria seems to favor is well in line with the widespread amoralism of our age–no one is responsible for malpractice, it is all the fault of circumstances and only those are guilty of anything at all who fail to fall in line with this kind of thinking.

When we keep looking for explanations of terrorism rather than for effective ways to combat it, we suggest that terrorism is a kind of inevitable disease instead of a controllable human failing. Nothing good can come from this.

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