If you were on campus on Wednesday, January 16, you may have enjoyed the privilege of being booted out of the Thompson Library, the University Pavilion, or someplace else, due to a bomb threat directed against the State Building nearby. I had an out-of-town meeting, so I experienced the evacuation only via email, but it reminded me of a favorite book of mine, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, by Gavin de Becker (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997).
It’s a fascinating book that I’d recommend to anyone, especially women and parents, and is available in the second floor of the Main Collection, call number HM 281 .D36 1997. The theme of the book is using your instincts and intuition to keep yourself safe, although the relevant part here is a section (pp. 130-132) on bomb threats:
It’s amazing how much fear can be caused by a single phone call; it might cause an organization to evacuate a building, close for the day, or enact restrictive security procedures. But to believe the caller who says, “I’ve planted a bomb, and it’s going to go off in three hours,” you have to believe that the person went to the extraordinary trouble and risk of obtaining the bomb components, then found a location where he could be sure nobody would ever see what he was doing, then assembled the bomb, then took the chance of losing his liberty and life while placing the device, and then undid it all by making the warning call.
I can’t fault the administration for ordering the evacuation, because there may be crucial facts to which I’m not privy. They may also have decided that an extremely unlikely event (i.e. an actual bomb) that was potentially deadly to many was worth the trouble of an evacuation: put another way, they may have reasoned that a 0.01% chance of, say, ten injuries was an unacceptable risk.
I can’t fault this decision, but neither can I endorse it. As a society, we’ve become so risk-averse that we jump at the slightest hint of (particular) dangers. De Becker points out that “nearly 100 percent of [bomb threats] are bogus,” yet whenever some loser picks up a phone and calls in a bomb threat, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people are inconvenienced by an evacuation. He asks, “If some anonymous caller said, ‘Listen, I’ve buried a million dollars cash in the planter in front of the building,’ would everybody from the CEO to the receptionist rush out and start digging through the dirt?”
A few years ago, a friend of mine was planning to fly to England, and admitted being afraid of being eaten by sharks on his trip. How could this happen, you wonder? His plane might crash-land in the middle of the ocean, he explained. This was a man who smoked, by the way. The odds of his plane a) crashing, and b) crashing in mid-flight over the ocean instead of at takeoff or landing over dry land were utterly dwarfed by the possibility that he would die prematurely, perhaps by decades, because of his cigarette habit. His shark anxiety was probably more in the realm of phobia (i.e. inherently irrational and immune to evidence and logic), but it seems that many public policies are based on similarly disproportionate fears of extremely rare events.
Filed under: FYI | No Comments »