Risk Management Reports

August, 2005
Volume 32, No. 8
The Crippling Effects of Fear

On the evening of July 6, I started reading Ian McEwan´s new novel of a neurosurgeon´s life in London, a deeply introspective reflection on one day´s events. It begins with the sighting of a burning airplane, "some hours before dawn," that leads him to imagine a possible terrorist attack on the city. I dropped off to sleep after the first chapter and awoke to find not a simple accident and no fatalities, as in the book, but the appalling carnage of four suicide bombers, the dead and wounded in the Underground and on the bus, and the continuation of raw terror.

Is there any significance to this unusual connection of mine or to the prescient words of McEwan? That this event was anticipated goes without question. Premonition or not, the simple statistics of the post-9/11 world and the calculations of the quants warned us to expect another New York, Bali, Madrid. We can´t avoid the daily headlines from Iraq and Afghanistan. July 7 is stark reminder of the gulf that exists in our world today. On one side is a modern, individualistic, mostly secular group that is, above all, comfortable with uncertainty—in economics, politics, science and philosophy. On the other side, living almost 800 years in the past, is a group that despises the outward trappings of a modern world, caught in regressive ideologies based on the immoveable readings of an ancient text by self-appointed priests, imams, mullahs and ayatollahs. This is hardly a new story: throughout history, as McEwan notes in his novel, "the pursuit of utopia ends up licensing every form of excess, all ruthless means of its realization." While the current terror is primarily attributable to radical Islamists, their vision is similar to those who preceded them (and inevitably, to others who follow). Again, McEwan: "Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever—mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ´s kingdom on earth, the workers´ paradise, the ideal Islamic state." These illusions are seductive and, when set in the minds of fanatics, become bloodthirsty.

So our great challenge for the next 50+ years must be to convince those trapped in their "certainty" of the past to adopt more tolerant view. This challenge is as important in what we refer to as the "West" as it is in the Middle East and Asia. It directly affects those of us who practice the discipline of risk management because our discipline teaches us to accept and even revel in uncertainty.

My sympathy goes out to all Londoners, who have already demonstrated the same resilience they showed under the onslaught of the Luftwaffe, V-1 buzz bombs and V-2 rockets in the Second World War. Londoners have responded just as New Yorkers and the citizens of Madrid. The constant threat of a senseless terrorist act will be the central risk management issue for many years to come. Other cities will suffer similar acts, just as Bali, Belfast, Tokyo and Oklahoma City have experienced them. Ian McEwan said the same halfway through his novel: "there will be more deaths on a similar scale (referring to 9/11), probably in this city (London)." Somehow we will learn how to meet and respond to this tidal wave of irrational fanaticism and to engage all those trapped in their inability to accept uncertainty. But can we do so without sacrificing in the process our own standards and liberties?

At the very end of the book McEwan comments: "London, his small part of it, lies wide open, impossible to defend, waiting for the bomb, like hundreds of other cities. Rush hour will be a convenient time." McEwan knew it; the terrorists knew it; and we know it.

Terrorism is not easily susceptible to the models of quantitative analysis. It requires a sense of history, patience and a willingness to embark on a slow and tedious track of persuasion. At the same time we must maintain the openness and tolerance of our societies. Yes, it is a "war," but it must employ not just warriors and arms but minds and ideas.

. . . there must have been survival advantage in dreaming up bad outcomes and scheming to avoid them. This trick of dark imagining is one legacy of natural selection in a dangerous world.

. . . misery is more amenable to analysis.

Ian McEwan, Saturday, Doubleday, New York 2005

Copyright 2005, by H. Felix Kloman and Seawrack Press, Inc.

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