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I am compelled to post something briefly here because I'm stunned by the events of this week. Stunned by the attacks in Boston and the images we're being bombarded with on the news. Stunned with how simple the device seems to have been. Stunned by the ricin laced letters being discovered.

But it suddenly dawned on me that I'm stunned by something else too. No one is talking about it in my office. No memos have been sent, no resources are being provided. There's been no acknowledgement that this environment might be unsettling to people.

Speaking for myself, I've been very anxious since Monday. After the bombings I went to the gym to run off the jittery-ness, but also because I didn't want to get on the metro immediately. I've since become very aware of every trash can I pass. Maybe my feelings are stronger because I have a personal connection to Boston, having gone to college there. Maybe I'm just naturally a little more anxious than the next person. But I also have to assume I'm not the only one that feels this way.

I've seen multiple stories about how we need to talk to children about these events to help them cope with the feelings of anxiety and fear. That the open discussions help them feel safe when, really, there is an element of the unknown with regards to what is unfolding. So why aren't we, in our workplaces, being encouraged to do the same thing?

Is it different in your office? Do you feel safe at work? On your commute?

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Why wouldn't you feel safe?  If anyone wanted to do harm, in every city every day there are literally thousands of opportunities where people gather in largely unproctored or unsecured fashion.  Multiply those hundreds of thousands of opportunities, across the nation, by the number of days in a year, and the number of years, and now divide 1 by that number, and calculate the odds.  I'd be more afraid of driving home at the end of the day if I were you. 

One of the quirks of human cognition is that frequency-of-occurrence is logged in rather indiscriminate fashion at an unconscious level.  So when people are glued to the news, and the same footage of a terrible event is repeated endlessly for hours and days on end, we may "know", at a conscious level, that it is one rather rare event, but at an unconscious level, we are given to logging it as something that "happens a LOT".  If you listen to your partner rave about the same restaurant to many of your friends, you'll log it as the restaurant being immensely popular, even though it is one solitary opinion.  This is, of course, why folks who watch a lot of TV are known to overestimate the incidence of crime in their area: the same few news events, repeated, FEEL like a frequently-occurring category of events.

At the same time, it is entirely understandable that when an event like Monday's is so rare and novel for younger persons (older individuals having likely experienced more traumatic events over the course of their lives), they will want to know and learn as much about it as they can.  It will rivet their attention, as anything new and emotionally-laden should.  But within the context of the contemporary 24hr news cycle, that solitary event will consume the airwaves and bandwidth, and leave folks like yourself with the unshakeable deep-seated feeling that it is an event highly likely to reoccur, and elicit fear as a result.

I'm not diminishing the seriousness one iota, just drawing attention to the manner in which normal human cognition, when paired up with media that don't feel any obligation to be mindful of such things, plays tricks on one's thinking and reasoning.

So, you're safe.  The person/s who did it...not so much.

Over forty years ago, when I was in junior college, martial law was declared and my city was locked down after the British High Commissioner and a provincial cabinet minister were kidnapped, the latter being murdered and found in a car trunk ( ).  This had been preceded a few years earlier by a rash of mailbox bombings in the same city by the same political extremist group.  There were tanks and jeeps patrolling the streets downtown, and soldiers with machine guns at the entrance to every subway station.  A number of my classmates and instructors went into hiding because all sorts of folks were being arrested and detained.  Pretty dramatic stuff.  But we had no internet, no cellphones, no Twitter, no Facebook, no cable news, and very little media coverage apart from the 6PM and 11PM news, and newspaper.  Nothing was being suppressed; we just weren't drowning in the stuff.  We treated it seriously, but we went to school, came home, went shopping, went out, and lived our lives normally, with very little effort, and no shudders of fear after, because it wasn't drilled into our heads in a way that made us feel it could happen again at any moment on any day.

Mark, Thanks for your comments. I have explained to many people that what I know has little impact on how I feel right now. But, these are the kind of conversations that we can have in our offices (with those who are "in the same boat" so to speak) that can be really helpful. Even though these conversations are not being had in my office, I'm grateful to have other govies to provide insight. I'm going to apply this interesting info from the field of cognitive science and do what I can to avoid over exposure to the media for a little while--Thanks!

Words of wisdom, Mark, very well put. 

FYI -- Yes, I feel safe during my metro commute from Maryland to DC.  Likewise, I feel safe in my federal workplace.  You should too. 

I recall being in my federal building downtown on 9/11 and having to evacuate. I recall the panic, fear and uncertainty that gripped the city and the country in the days, weeks and months that followed. Since then, an untold number of high-level and unseen security measures have been put in place in the Washington area and enacted into national law (Patriot Act, etc.). 

By the way, my agency conducted a shelter-in-place drill today. On Tuesday, during a large meeting in a conference center, the hosting official began by acknowledging the Boston bombings. He then pointing out where all of the emergency exits are located and specifically where people should go in case of an emergency evacuation. 

And while it's reassuring, smart and prudent to have plans in place and security enhanced, let's not forget that ordinary citizens need to be proactive and alert to their immediate surroundings.  If you see something, say something, like DHS keeps reminding us.

Inflicting  fear, panic and uncertainty on the masses is a major goal of terrorist acts.  Don't let yourself be a victim. Rather, fear not.

We are safer and more prepared today than a decade ago, both in the nation's capital and nationwide.  We live in America, land of the free and home of the brave.  Let's try to remember that and keep things in perspective.



David, thanks for your insight. I did make it a point to go for a nice walk around the capital Tuesday, since it was a nice day and that is normal for me. You also bring up a great point about preparedness in our offices, to make sure we know how to respond and where to get our information from in the case of an emergency. 

Excellent point!  That is what I really do not like, is the inundation of media coverage - it does tend to blow it out of proportion.  Thanks you!

No I don't feel safe, but not specifically because of bombings.  The world as a whole feels more unstable these days, on many levels.  I do have a sense of shifting sands in a good way, but quicksand is everywhere.  At least that is my personal experience.  OpenGovvies may be more vulnerable, simply because we are more visible.

Megan, thanks for sharing your feelings. It's reassuring in an odd way to know other people feel the same and it can be hard to talk about these things. But you're right, no matter how many ways we can rationalize that we are safe (as other people have commented), there is something kind of vaguely unsettling about things in general. I do hope you are right about positive shifting sands--it is about time!

I am more afraid of the massive overreaction to these events than the events themselves.  We have become a very fearful society, willing to allow our "protectors" to restrict basic freedoms and impose limitiations in the name of security that previous generations would have found intolerable.


As a young child, my family moved to Washington in 1965.  Severe riots had recently turned much of the 12th and 14th street corridors into burnt out shells (some of the damage still remains).  There were deadly riots in major cities literally every summer.  The 82nd Airborne was deployed to Detroit to control riots and Newark NJ was more or less burnt to the ground before the army went in. Walking outside at night in many urban neighborhoods was risky during the daytime and suicidal at night.  SDS (Students for Democratic Society) terrorists planted bombs, and other groups openly shot the "pigs" (police officers for you millenials).  JFK, RFK and MLK were assasinated in the space of 5 years.  And there was also the constant threat of a world ending thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union.Those were truely dangerous times.


But few people panicked the way they do today.  The streets of Washington were open and welcoming rather than resembling an armed police state.  People could drive down the streets between the White House and Treasury or Old EOP.  People could freely enter any federal building, mostly to eat at the Hot Shops in the basement.  The capital was open 24/7 and largely unguarded.  The shopping mall in the Pentagon was a great place to grab a snack between buses. Travelers could get out of a cab at the entrence to the airport and board their plane 5 minutes later simply by walking unhindered to the gate.  Law enforcement's response to the ongoing violence was to focus on catching, prosocuting and incarcerating the perpetrators while imposing as little burden as possible on the average person just going about their daily business.


The situation today is 180 degrees reversed.  The number of actual terrorist attacks is actually quite low compared to the 60s and the last major riot was 21 years ago in LA.  The vast majority of urban neighborhoods are reasonably safe at night and very few are dangerous during the daytime.  Yes there are bad people doing bad things; but compared to the 60s, we mostly coexist peacfully.


But look at how law enforcement and the public overereact to the small number of incidents that do occur.  Daily life in downtown DC today farily closely resembles the descriptions we used to read of East Berlin, Moscow and Peking.  The last time I flew out of Dullus, I allowed 60 minutes to get through security and only cut it that close because I had no checked baggage.  The gate area was patrolled by an armed policeman carrying a "spray and pray" short barreled assault rifle which would, if ever used, pose more danger to the civillians in a crowded airport than to any potential attackers.  Government buildings resemble armed fortresses in which the public we serve is completely unwelcome.  We have become the society George Orwal warned us to avoid.


I am not niave and recognize the danger posed by terrorists.  But I have also seen central DC brought to complete gridlock by empty cardboard boxes left on the sidewalk.  At least four times in the past three years.  This is not rational security.  It is mindless paranoia.


We need to identify the terrorists, find and capture them, try them fairly in an open court of law, confict them, allow them one and only one appeal, stick a needle in their arm, execute them and be done with them.  Next we need to get back to leading normal lifes.  Yes, there will be another incident and one after that and on and on.  They are an unfortunate part of the human condition and have been since barbarian tribes first raided Sumarian cities.  But locking ourselves in some sort of supermax security state and cowering in fear is not the right answer.

Passionate analysis, Peter.  Thanks.

This morning, we were awakened to news of the terrible fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.  In terms of devastation, injury, and loss of life, it appears at this point, to have been more severe than the Boston bombings.

What separates these two very terrible events? To some extent, it is the presumption of motive behind one, but not the other.  And, to the extent that people who could have motives are everywhere, the one elicits our anxiety while the other much less so.

I am well aware, due to my wife's job checking over WHMIS sheets for completeness and currency, that a great many people work with materials and substances that could pose great risk to them, and those around them, unless used, stored, and disposed of, properly and safely.  But we don't see every manufacturing plant or dry cleaner as a potential source of threat (even though they are, as last night's Texas tragedy illustrates), because we don't presume "stuff" to have motives (although some industrial tragedies are a result of the lack of motivation by some).  In any given year, far more Americans will be killed, maimed, or have their lives savagely disrupted by industrial accidents than by acts of deliberate attack on the basis of some ill-conceived political or religious motive.

I don't say any of this to suggest "this boo-boo is bigger than that one"; it's ALL terrible and the sort of stuff you pray to keep out of the lives of those you care for.  Rather, it is more a musing about what shapes our perceptions of risk/threat/safety.  If the danger is from "stuff", we seem to blithely accept it, and carry on about our business, making some minor sensible adjustments here and there. 

Will folks who work in, or even near, the fertilizer industry walk around today, thinking that at any moment "it could happen to them"?  Maybe.  But it will dissipate fairly quickly.  By contrast, when any threat is deemed to be based on someone's motive, anxiety and feelings of being unsafe linger much longer.  Part of that is in response to the way in which such events are publicly responded to (e.g., all the announced preparations and precautions, worldwide, at most of the upcoming marathons, as if somehow long-distance races had suddenly become a "target", equivalent to Iraqi police recruiting offices) and the things that public officials do to convey that they are "taking care of the problem".  Those things tend to prolong the emotional impact of the precipitating events.  But another part of it is social mistrust, and the notion that someone - who could be anywhere - may be harbouring malevolent motices, waiting "for the right moment".

Human perception of risk is a curious thing, innit?  And in the contemporary communications era, where our perceptions are shaped more by information from 2nd or 3rd parties than by our own direct experience, even more curious.

Mark, I completely agree with your comments on the industrial explosion in TX. There are also very normal everyday things that present a risk. People have every right to be concerned about the industries around them and that they are safe. Interestingly, I have hear some discussion about the zoning laws in West, TX near the plant, raising questions about whether you should be allowed to build a school or homes some close. Certainly an interesting question for local gov to consider the pros and cons of the argument. 

Peter, thank you for sharing your perspective. It is always instructive to remember that this isn't the first time our nation has dealt with these crises and it likely won't be the last. But also that we always get back to "normal". I would assert, however, that having open discussions about our fears, rational or not, is constructive. We need mindful vigilance, but the mindful paranoia, as you put it.

Great to hear someone with the same mindset!  Quick and sure justice, and then move on - don't give more attention to evil than to good, and then maybe society could realize the difference!  Thank you Peter for sharing your views!


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