On February 26th, 1993, a group of Islamist terrorists managed to detonate a nitrogen-hydrogen gas enhanced truck bomb underneath the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. It was meant to bring the tower down and into its neighbour, sending both towers crashing to Earth; instead, it merely caused some fixable structural damage while killing six people and injuring thousands.
The measured response to this should have been to take the spectre of Islamist inspired terrorism much more seriously within the US. Instead, it was largely ignored until September 11th, 2001. This happened even within intelligence circles – there are many good books that have been written about how low a priority Islamist inspired terrorism continued to be after February 93, despite a bomb going off in lower Manhattan. The attack barely had any effect on public opinion on the matter within America whatsoever. The reaction to the attack was for everyone to hugely underreact, particularly in hindsight given what we know that underreaction directly led to eight and half years later.
Cut to September 11th, 2001. In the wake of the attacks, widespread Islamophobia sweeps across the western world. Within the US, a sort of security mania ensues – I recall passing through Philadelphia airport in 2002 and having to go through five security hubs to get through a single terminal I was not even flying out of. It felt manic; I haven’t flown into or within the US since 2009, but the echo of 9/11 could still be palpably felt eight years after the fact in a mostly dysfunctional way.
What the 9/11 hijackers had done was spot the fact that pre-9/11, there was no security when you flew within the US. So, if you caught a flight from Boston to Chicago, there was no security whatsoever along the way. The measured response to this would have been to simply replicate the security American airports already had in place for when people were flying from or to an international destination. Instead, they went bonkers. In the process, I don’t see how they made flying in America more safe myself.
I understand the overreaction to 9/11 and the underreaction to the 93 bombing. The latter had a narrative of “bad guys tried to something horrible, mostly failed” which allowed the vast majority of people to file it away immediately, while 9/11 seemed unfathomable at the time. This is human nature – we are biologically programmed to filter risks in our environment and discard anything that isn’t a priority and really, really prioritise stuff that we think is immediately of importance. I just think this factor of under and overreaction isn’t taken into account nearly enough within public policy making. It’s like we assume people are always rational actors when within the context of a crisis, when we are almost always anything but.
Take the current crisis. You can see massive under and overreaction side by side with each other. On one hand, you have people queueing to get into supermarkets at five am to panic buy items when there is nothing whatsoever wrong with the supply chains – they are just under too much sudden pressure from people over buying. This is a massive overreaction. At the same time, we have people going on holiday in Spain and refusing to comply with lockdown, or people in London still going to the pub most nights. A massive underreaction. It’s like people fall into one camp or another, which makes perfect sense – you either see this as a threat to your well-being or you don’t. If you have taken this on board as a threat, panic buying becomes logical; if you haven’t seen it as a real threat, why should you change your lifestyle to accommodate something that’s no big deal?
Meanwhile, people who have weighed the pros and cons and taken a measured response are outraged by both sets of behaviours. Which again, is understandable – if you have evaluated a situation and figured out that if everyone just avoided big gatherings, stayed at home for the most part and only bought what they needed, we’d be out of the woods reasonably soon, then watching people either run around like headless chickens or acting like nothing’s happening is very frustrating. But again, there is no point in being upset about this or thinking people are somehow going to stop acting the way they are biologically programmed to respond.
How would we be responding to this crisis differently if we baked in under/overreaction? I have no idea specifically, but I just feel like if we factored that in more, we’d probably deal with crises a lot better. If we just stopped expecting people to act in a level-headed manner that took into account a balance of collective and individual needs and threats, and instead figured out that a large enough part of the population to cause real problems is going to massively panic while another segment just isn’t going to respond at all until the threat to them personally is blindingly obvious, we’d make better decisions about what to do.
In a few weeks time, I have another book coming out. It’s called “Politics is Murder” and follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. The plot takes in Conservative Party conference, a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
Also: there is a subplot around the government trying to built a stupid bridge, which now seems a charming echo of a more innocent time!
It’s out on April 9th, but you can pre-order here: