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Barry Glassner: Dealing with fear and rumor in the wake of terrorism

Barry Glassner is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California. His book, "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things" (Basic Books), has been on bestseller lists and was named a Best Book of the Year by Knight-Ridder newspapers and by the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He joined the chat room from California.

CNN: Welcome to, Professor Barry Glassner. We are pleased to have you with us today.

GLASSNER: Thank you for inviting me.

CNN: Last week's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had a huge impact on everyone's lives in this country. What types of fears have been spreading around?

GLASSNER: I think there are fears that are justified, and fears that are not justified, and probably counter-productive. We have good reason to be much more concerned about terrorism now than we have in the past. At the same time, though, all sorts of rumors and false scares have been spreading in the wake of these horrific events. The last thing we need as individuals or as a country right now are superfluous fears and scares.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does 'victim mentality' have a role?

GLASSNER: We do in this country tend to both give special attention to people who are perceived as victims, and at the same time, express skepticism about claims to victimhood. So, on the one hand, we are a very sympathetic people when it comes to people who have experienced true loss, such as has occurred for so many thousands of people now, after this attack. At the same time, we tend to be a people who believe that you take charge of your own circumstances, and that victimhood is something not to wallow in, or hold on to. And so, I think when we look outside this country at whole peoples who see themselves as victims, we are suspicious.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Professor, isn't education the best answer to unjustified and justified fear as well as respect for diversity?

GLASSNER: Those are two excellent questions. In my book "The Culture of Fear," my argument is that we need to learn how to identify exaggerated or false fears from legitimate ones. The best way to do that is through education and critical thinking. So, in our present circumstance, for example, we need to be able to distinguish between isolated events and rumors, on the one hand, and real problems and dangers on the other hand. It's not always easy to do, but if we learn to identify some of the telltale signs of overblown or false fears, we're able to distinguish much better.

With regard to the question of diversity, I think that we have come to recognize that part of the great strength of the United States is its diversity, but as for anything else in life, one's strength is also one's weakness. Our diversity also opens us up to conflicts between groups that could not exist in a nation that was not diverse.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr Glassner, do you see a parallel between what's happening now and the Red scare of the 50s with people building bomb shelters in their back yards?

GLASSNER: I'm not a historian, so I need to beg off from questions of historical comparison. But I will say that there's one parallel that certainly strikes me, and that is that there is a sense now that we are generally unsafe, and have to protect ourselves as individuals and families. In the case of the bomb shelters, however, that was shown to be very likely ineffective for protecting a family against a major nuclear attack, and likewise, some of the desperate measures that people are taking now are probably not terribly effective. What seems important to me to keep in mind is that simply having these emergency materials or shelters in place can increase a family's sense of danger, rather than lessening it, because you are constantly reminding yourself of the danger every time you look at what you have bought or built to protect against the danger.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is the fear bringing about some increased feeling of need for urgency to resolve this matter that might cause us to move too quickly, too rashly ?

GLASSNER: So far, it appears that our government leaders are responding in a deliberate and careful manner, but there is certainly a risk that if the public or advocacy groups panic or become irrational in their response, the leaders will be pushed to respond accordingly.

Where we certainly have seen disproportionate fear have a negative effect already is in the response in the stock market last week. I think it is fair to say that the steep decline in stocks last week was due in large measure to overblown fears or panic. It takes some will and courage to stay in the market and invest in the market in the current political climate, but if people don't do so, there is a cycle of fear that takes hold and results in continuing drops. If the market goes down, and we panic and get out of the market or don't buy stocks, then the market goes down farther, which creates more fear, and the cycle continues. We've been fortunate that some sanity returned over the weekend, and at least in the short run, that cycle has been broken.

CNN: What about the media's role -- do they inadvertently spread fear?

GLASSNER: I think by and large since the attacks of September 11, the media have behaved quite responsibly. I've been impressed that, with a few exceptions, the journalists have not been spreading some of the rumors which it must be quite tempting to repeat. I've been collecting a long list of those rumors that have been spreading between individuals and groups of people, and fortunately, most of those have stayed out of the news media. Were they to make their way into the news media, real panic could ensue for no reason. In the past, unfortunately, the media has not always been so responsible.

In my book, "The Culture of Fear," I document a large number of incidents in which fears and scares had been overblown, and people have been made afraid for no good reason. But that seems to me that so far the gravity of the situation has resulted in careful reporting, rather than fear-mongering or sensationalism. I hope that continues, but there is always the danger that when the competition for ratings returns, and there are fewer serious stories to report, that some of the fear-mongering will return.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you believe that we must sacrifice what some would consider essential civil liberties in order to re-establish the sense of security of person that Americans once held?

GLASSNER: The paradox here is to the extent that we sacrifice civil liberties over the long run, we come to feel less secure, because we have sacrificed a key part of what makes America unique and precious. I think what we're seeing is a healthy debate about which changes can be made to help discover terrorist activities and plans without sacrificing our cherished freedoms. It would be a big mistake, though, for us to move from a position of fear to a position that will ultimately increase our level of fear, by moving too fast in making changes.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

GLASSNER: One thing I would point out is that there's a kind of false reasoning that comes into play in these circumstances, and that is that we assume that if something completely unexpected, like the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, can occur, then all sorts of other unanticipated disasters will also occur. That is like assuming that because lightning struck last week, it will strike this week. We have to ask instead what the real dangers are, and whether there are patterns to those dangers, and how best to respond where there are real dangers.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Professor Barry Glassner.

GLASSNER: Thanks again, and goodbye for now!


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