As the details about the bombings in Boston unfold, it’d be easy to be scared. It’d be easy to feel powerless and demand that our elected leaders do something — anything — to keep us safe.
It’d be easy, but it’d be wrong. We need to be angry and empathize with the victims without being scared. Our fears would play right into the perpetrators’ hands — and magnify the power of their victory for whichever goals whatever group behind this, still to be uncovered, has. We don’t have to be scared, and we’re not powerless. We actually have all the power here, and there’s one thing we can do to render terrorism ineffective: Refuse to be terrorized.
It’s hard to do, because terrorism is designed precisely to scare people — far out of proportion to its actual danger. A huge amount of research on fear and the brain teaches us that we exaggerate threats that are rare, spectacular, immediate, random — in this case involving an innocent child — senseless, horrific and graphic. Terrorism pushes all of our fear buttons, really hard, and we overreact.
But our brains are fooling us. Even though this will be in the news for weeks, we should recognize this for what it is: a rare event. That’s the very definition of news: something that is unusual — in this case, something that almost never happens.
Remember after 9/11 when people predicted we’d see these sorts of attacks every few months? That never happened, and it wasn’t because the TSA confiscated knives and snow globes at airports. Give the FBI credit for rolling up terrorist networks and interdicting terrorist funding, but we also exaggerated the threat. We get our ideas about how easy it is to blow things up from television and the movies. It turns out that terrorism is much harder than most people think. It’s hard to find willing terrorists, it’s hard to put a plot together, it’s hard to get materials, and it’s hard to execute a workable plan. As a collective group, terrorists are dumb, and they make dumb mistakes; criminal masterminds are another myth from movies and comic books.
Meantime, stop reading the news. It doesn’t help.