How to master your fear

Story highlights

  • 14 people were killed and 21 injured in a shooting Wednesday in San Bernardino, California
  • Erroll G. Southers: We are living in dangerous times, but that does not mean we have to live in fear

Erroll G. Southers is the managing director of counterterrorism and infrastructure protection for TAL Global Corp., specializing in airport security management and reducing risk. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The United States has had another tragic day. On Wednesday, two assailants armed with assault rifles and handguns attacked a holiday gathering of the San Bernardino County Department of Health. They killed 14 people and injured 21 others.

Many of us were thinking the same thing: Is this a terrorist attack?
When the attackers were killed in a shootout with police, further facts emerged, such as the names and backgrounds of the shooters, which seemed to suggest these two killers may have been carrying out a terror attack driven by Islamic extremism. At this point, though, what motivated the attack is irrelevant for many Americans; the country is afraid regardless of the motivation.
    Erroll Southers
    My countrymen and women, I know you're scared. I'm concerned, too -- for my family, my neighbors, my colleagues and my country. We are living in dangerous times, and to be honest, it's going to get worse before it gets better. But that does not mean we have to live in fear.
    I've been engaged in counterterrorism for decades, stretching all the way back to my work as a young FBI special agent and SWAT team member. And I can tell you from experience, if you aren't a little nervous before charging into a room containing an unknown number of bad actors with an unknown arsenal of weapons, then you aren't human. Part of what law enforcement officers learn in training and in the field is how to control and channel that fear. Fear can paralyze you, or it can drive you to action, sharpening your senses and allowing you to do remarkable things.
    With the increasing threats this country is facing, this is no longer a skill that only law enforcement needs to harness. Today, we all must understand how to control our emotions so we can make clear-eyed decisions in our daily lives.
    How do we do this? A few things come to mind.
    We fear things we cannot control. The government, of course, wants to send a message that it is in control and that it can keep us safe from terrorists. Sadly, that's just not true. Our government cannot protect us all the time. Police officers will not be able to stop every threat. Terrorist attacks will happen.
    But even though our government can't save us every time, we as citizens can take steps to protect each other. Remember, violent extremists have family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and all the normal relationships each of us have. And while there are exceptions, most violent extremists at some point offer some clues of their ideology leading up to a violent event. We just need to be alert and aware of our community, engage those charged with protecting us and collectively take steps to beat back extremist ideologies.
    Lesson 1 is that if you are afraid, take ownership of your personal security. Read about emerging threats and keep your head up. Personal security starts with you.
    We fear what we don't understand. Rhetoric is cheap, yet sometimes it can feel comforting to hear someone stand on a stage and express steel-fisted solutions to the threats facing us. Listening to them helps excise the anger and sense of vulnerability that comes after an attack. We will often hear, for example, how the culprits were inspired by a foreign group rather than our own citizens. We hear about how getting rid of guns will solve the problems of shootings.
    But it's not about guns, and it can't all be blamed on some foreign group. The danger homegrown violent extremists pose is real. And the truth is that the number of threats posed by our own citizens outpaces that from ISIS and al Qaeda by a mile. And these extremists are just as ready and willing to use knives, improvised weapons or explosives as they are to buy an assault rifle.
    This is a highly complex phenomenon, and thousands of us in the security community are enduring sleepless nights trying to crack the code. One thing you need to understand, though, is this: What politicians are telling you is so simplistic it is false. So force yourself to look beyond political talking points to the nonpartisan analysis of security experts in this country and around the world. Dig deeper into the threat environment. It is not possible to attribute terrorism to a single religion, a single experience or a single weapon. Understand that, and you're getting up to speed with what's really going on in this country.
    Lesson 2: Master your fear by mastering your ignorance. Knowledge is power.
    We fear physical injury and an inability to protect ourselves in an attack. This is at the heart of our fears. We do not want to die at the hands of a madman. When I was part of FBI SWAT, mastering this aspect of fear was a little easier, as I wore body armor, carried weapons and was accompanied by my highly trained partners. By comparison, the unarmed, unprotected citizen feels vulnerable. But don't forget, you have teammates, too.
    Look at any terror attack and in the midst of the carnage we see incredible examples of heroism. Think back to the Boston Marathon bombing and the video of officers and citizens sprinting toward the blast to help those who were injured. They saved lives.
    Yes, the country is deeply divided right now, and sometimes it feels like we have two countries living within the same borders. That belies the truth of this nation. We're all siblings, and it is we the people who make this country great. And we do it together.
    Lesson 3: You are not alone. Find security and support in your community. We are the security solution we have been looking for.
    Yes, terrorism is scary. But we have no choice but to put on a brave face and charge ahead, defiant, strong and resilient in the face of a persistent threat. That more than anything will send the message our adversaries need to hear. It's not the American people who will live in fear. It is those would-be attackers who should be afraid.