Thursday, November 19, 2015

Their most effective weapon

I have been giving a lot of thought as of late to last week's attacks in Paris, and I have come to a conclusion as a public information officer. The terrorists' most effective weapon isn't the AK-47. Nor is it the homemade suicide vest. Nor is it even its willingness to enlist young children and women to participate in its deadly plans.

No, it's most effective weapon is fear and doubt. That's right. Yes, 129 innocent victims were killed, and more than 350 were injured in indiscriminate gunfire and explosions last Friday in Paris, and we mourn their loss. The terrorists' goal, however, is much more grand that simply that.

Terrorists want us to look warily at each other as we go about our business. Maybe find those who look different than 'we' do - like a Sikh wearing his Turban - and single him or her out for retribution. Maybe change those holiday travel plans out of fear that we may become targets of a group's anger.

Veerender Jubbal, an Indian-born Sikh, PhotoShopped to look like an ISIS terrorist
There is only one true defense against that weapon - and that is fact. Pure and simple.

It's been said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. In these confusing times, it's only natural to seek answers, no matter how off-the wall or discredited they may be. It's a need we have as humans. Our brains need to find patterns. Answers. Fill in the blanks. 

Earlier today, I was reading my Facebook feed where someone posted an urgent warning supposedly from the Department of Homeland Security about someone buying a large number of UPS uniforms. Makes sense, right?  If someone wanted to get access to any number of buildings, that would be an ideal way for this to happen.

The only problem?  This is a recycled bit of netlore which surfaced shortly after the September 11 attacks. It has been totally discredited by UPS, the Department of Homeland Security and other sources, yet it continues to make its rounds any time an event like this happens. As practitioners of this craft, we need to get the official, verified information out to the public as quickly and accurately as possible if we are to refute these bits of erroneous information.

And, the most important fact we need to communicate is that the odds of being killed by a terrorist are staggeringly small. So small, in fact, that they fall into the range of one in 20 million. Your odds of dying from heart disease? One in seven. Does that stop you from ordering the double bacon burger at your local fast food joint? Maybe not. A traffic accident? One in 112. Lightning? One in 170,000. It's the sudden, gruesome and heartless nature that makes a Terrorist attack such a shock to the public's mind.

But, we have seen this type of panic before. The movie Jaws brought about fear of sharks after its 1975 release. People feared getting into planes after the 9/11 attacks. Last year's Ebola outbreak caused mass panic whenever someone presented in medical offices with gastric distress. Without a firm knowledge of what the risks are, people are terrible at assessing the danger these things present to them.

At his first inauguration, Franklin Delano Roosevelt remarked:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is ... fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. 
In these trying times, let's all be the drivers who convert retreat into advance by denying the terrorists the very weapon they need to win.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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