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If We Can’t ‘Fear Not,’ Let’s Fear Better


Jan 19 2016
How to show love in a time of terror.

Remember the color-coded terror threat alert system implemented by the Department of Homeland Security after September 11? Each color represented a different threat level; the greater the threat, the more vigilant citizens should be.

That scale was replaced in 2011 with the National Terrorism Advisory System, which offered more specific designations and steps communities, agencies, and private citizens can take to protect themselves or prevent an attack. According to Homeland Security, this newer system “recognizes that Americans all share responsibility for the nation's security, and should always be aware of the heightened risk of terrorist attack in the United States and what they should do.” In other words, it’s more realistic and more helpful to simply accept significant risk as reality.

The old alert system never went to green (low risk) or blue (guarded). It stayed at yellow (elevated risk) most of the time and occasionally moved to orange (high risk). Yellow became the color of everyday life. Yellow became easy to ignore as we learned to live in a new normal.

While such adaptation can turn into complacency, it’s also a healthy process—we are not designed to be chronically on guard. In fact, a long-term state of fear is detrimental to every system in our bodies, most notably to our brains. Fear is a good thing in its place; out of bounds it can literally rewire the brain and cause us to think and behave very differently. So learning to live with a new normal is good for us, but it doesn’t mean we’re safe.

In 2016, we continue to increase security measures and vigilance, usually in response to nothing more specific than a general sense of vulnerability. We find ourselves living in a culture taxed by fear. This is, of course, one of terrorism’s primary goals—and unfortunately it’s having its intended effect as we wisely restrict certain freedoms and unwisely allow fear to take over.

After November’s coordinated terror attacks in Paris, cities across the US increased security measures in anticipation of the same possibility. Officials emphasized they weren’t responding to any specific threats, merely acting “out of an abundance of caution.” Airports around the world heightened security, as did the NFL and other major sports leagues.

More recently, in response to the federal government’s designation, the Rose Parade employed far more serious safety measures than ever before. The holiday season saw beefed-up security measures in force at shopping malls, at Disney World and other Orlando theme parks, and even the North Dakota State Capitol building, which has a tradition of pride over its openness to the public. In all these cases, there wasn’t a specific threat, only the context of a threatening environment.

Related Topics:Fear; Psychology; Terrorism
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If We Can’t ‘Fear Not,’ Let’s Fear Better