Fear -- It's Your New Best Friend

Who will ever again ignore a siren or an unattended backpack? After the carnage in lower Manhattan, Americans need a new set of survival skills

By Jane Black

Jennifer Kane arrived at the World Trade Center for work on Sept. 11 shortly after 9 a.m. As she emerged from the subway, she found herself amid a blizzard of paper that reminded her of a ticker-tape parade. Crowds stood agog -- watching the flames that engulfed the twin towers far above. She reached for her cell phone and saw that she had five messages, the first from her father, whom she immediately called back. "Get out of there now," he warned. So Kane returned to the subway and was back at her apartment by the time the first tower collapsed. "It never occurred to me that this could be a terrorist attack," she recalls.

Today, it would. As Americans return to work the week after hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, everyone is on heightened alert. Sirens, once ignored, inspire fear. Crowds, once a curiosity, are to be avoided. Historic landmarks, once a draw, seem to have developed an alter ego as giant landmines. In short, last week's attack has fundamentally changed the way Americans process information.

"Every day, people try to make sense of what's around them," says John Darley, a professor of psychology at Princeton University and an expert in tracing the social influences of emergency situations. "From now on, our sense-making will include the possibility of terrorist acts."


  What can we expect about daily life in America to change? For one thing, psychologists say the visual images of the twin towers' collapse, played endlessly on TV, form a collective experience that may redefine danger for many Americans -- and change the way they react. For instance, many World Trade Center inhabitants who heeded advice to go back to their desks are now missing and presumed dead.

From now on, if we hear sirens, the first thing we may think is that our town has been attacked, says Darley. If we see someone taking the formerly mundane step of putting a package in a public trash can, we may think that it's a bomb.

That would be a healthy reversal of the way Americans have responded to danger in the past -- at least according to a series of psychological experiments conducted by Darley and a colleague, Bibb Latane, in the late '60s. Back then, their goal was to understand why people within earshot did nothing as a young New Yorker named Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered in the streets. In the first test, a group of three -- two actors and one unknowing subject -- were asked to fill out questionnaires in a room at the top of a six-story building. After a few minutes, smoke began to jet into the room. Because the two actors ignored the smoke, so did the unknowing individual. "The individual is sure that the smoke isn't dangerous because the others didn't react," says Darley.

In a second test, three ordinary people were placed in the room. Remarkably, the result was the same: No one left the room, because each person was waiting for someone else to take action. When no one did, each person assumed that the smoke wasn't a danger. Psychologists call this "pluralistic ignorance."

"I know that I'm frozen because I don't know what's going on. I don't realize that you are frozen because you don't know what's going on," says Darley. The one exception, in another test, was a former captain in the Navy whose ship had caught fire. When he saw the smoke, he immediately took charge and evacuated the group.


  In a similar vein, past experience -- having surviving two earthquakes in San Francisco -- helped save Paula Shorum during the attack on the World Trade Center, she believes. Shorum, an outplacement consultant, was in a meeting on the 21st floor of Tower 2 when the first plane hit the building next door. As fiery debris rained down outside the conference room's windows, Shorum's instinct was to run. She headed for the stairs, yelling to colleagues to evacuate, and was already outside when the second plane hit the tower she had been in. "People stopped and looked up," Shorum remembers. "I never looked back. I just kept running."

After Sept. 11, most Americans probably wouldn't hesitate to run away from a burning building or the surrounding area. But in the new America, what other signs should arouse suspicion? The answers come from cities such as Belfast, Jerusalem, and London, where citizens are on constant guard against terrorist threats.

In Belfast and London, cars and trucks parked in busy commercial areas raise red flags. Is it really a delivery van or could it be a two-ton bomb? In the '80s, Belfast police imposed parking restrictions in most central business districts, creating all-pedestrian commercial centers. (The same idea already has been floated for New York's Times Square.) In London, police have created a metaphorical "ring of steel" around such key areas as the city's financial district. Checkpoints at main thoroughfares let police check drivers' licenses and ask security-related questions.

In Jerusalem, security is even tighter. Any unattended bag or package is suspect. Entire schools, bus stations, and shopping malls are regularly evacuated if someone spies so much as a brown lunch bag with no owner. Israelis -- even children -- are always on the lookout for such unattended bags. If they see one, they know what to do: Evacuate the area and call the bomb squad.

In America, if "you see a backpack, you pick it up, and see if there's any identification. It would never enter your mind that it could be dangerous," says Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. "But when we have the experience of a backpack blowing up a school bus, we will have reached the place that Israelis are today."


  We aren't there -- yet. Whether we do depends on whether average Americans will be willing to develop a new level of awareness that will render such drastic measures unnecessary. Six months from now, the streets of New York probably won't resemble the streets of Jerusalem, with soldiers on every corner and Humvees patrolling the streets. But they probably should resemble those of Belfast -- outwardly normal but filled with citizens with a high awareness of the dangers that could be present.

For most of us, even putting New York and Belfast in the same category is a mental leap. We just want things to be the way they were. Otherwise, popular thinking goes, the terrorists will have won. But failing to learn from the destruction of the World Trade Center would be a tragic mistake. America's world changed on Sept. 11, the day it became clear that, even at work and in two of the biggest and sturdiest buildings on earth, no one was safe. A less casual attitude about security and freedom of movement -- combined with plain old awareness -- might have saved lives.

No one wants to live with a siege mentality. But the alternative, now amply displayed in the rubble of downtown New York, could be far worse.

Black covers technology for BusinessWeek Online in New York