Terrorism anxiety increasing in U.S.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | February 21, 2001


Public concern about terrorism is increasing in the face of Saddam Hussein's vows of revenge for recent air strikes, the arrest of a prominent FBI counter-intelligence expert, and a Feb. 7 shooting near the White House.

Faith-based response leaders agreed it's not just an act of terrorism but the threat that can cause human suffering.

"Terrorism is either the threat or the act itself," said Terry Wesbrock, a security specialist for Church World Service. "The threat is actually the whole agenda."

Many organizations have specially trained teams or staff members to handle response to terrorism. In addition, many faith-based groups

and churches are working to combat the prejudice that may arise in times of increase terrorist suspicions.

"Everybody immediately thinks of the Arabs," said Wesbrock. "But you can't judge people by skin color of the type of their clothing. You

can't stereotype or you'll miss the ball."

Should any terrorist act occur, at least some U.S.-based denominations have teams ready to respond. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA)

has a specially trained subgroup that responds to such incidents.

"This team has responded to school shootings and to other critical incidents, and remains ready to go on site to deal with pastoral issues," said Susan Ryan, PDA coordinator.

Clark McCauley, professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, cites a "mass media effect" that amplifies concerns and

initial reactions of people to reports of real or potential trouble.

There are many factors that influence a way a person evaluates risk, according to McCauley, but people tend to worry more "where there's

no voluntary control" over the danger. "It's not true that we're risk avoidant," he said. It's just that we want "the right level of risk."

In fact, said McCauley, "People like to take risk where they have voluntary control." That's why the opportunity to speed while driving

seduces many people who get behind a steering wheel.

As national security tightens, people may also be wondering how to assess related risks to their physical security on a local level, whether it's in the form of unstable dynamite in an abandoned home, explosive chemicals left in a storage bin, or homemade bombs in a neighbor's garage.

Sean K. Anderson, a political science professor and an expert in domestic terrorism based at Idaho State University, Pocatello, said, "If a group is involved in violent or seditious plotting involving bomb-making and the like they will tend to be aloof and perhaps hostile to neighbors." But he noted that, because of the need for secrecy, most such endeavors are confined to "areas that are not thickly inhabited."

The sometime involvement of "teenagers or youngsters" who are experimenting "as a lark or a prank" and "don't take basic safety steps" is possibly a "greater danger" in populated areas, said Anderson. "They are more likely to accidentally explode a device."

And there is another possible liability. It derives from the ever-more electronic age. "Blasting caps," said Anderson, "have become increasingly risky due to more sources of electronic emissions that could detonate them."

In this case, even blasting caps stored for legitimate purposes -- mining efforts -- could be subject to unexpected detonation.

Obviously, there is cause for concern if neighbors are storing potentially dangerous chemicals or explosives in a garage or shed. And

Anderson said volatile and combustible solvents present a particular problem because they can explode. Heat on a summer day is particular

culprit in this area.

What should people do in the rare instance they determine there is a genuine danger? "If a person suspects a neighbor is making a bomb in

his basement or garage," said William Banks, professor of law at Syracuse University, "or has reason to believe that the person is making a weapon for use against others, [he or she] may contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation and, of course, should contact the local police.

"The FBI has the authority to investigate these matters if there is a potential threat of terrorism." Banks' current research interests include domestic and international terrorism.

Stress from worry itself can also pose a health threat, added McCauley. And in the remote possibility a person does have a neighbor involved in making weapons, there is likely to be little neighborly interaction, which can add to stress, because we tend to seek pleasant, even if largely superficial, social interaction with neighbors.

Experts also added that heightened interest in what is going on in garages and sheds should also bring homeowners to an appropriate re-evaluation of their own day-to-day unsafe practices with materials they rely on in the garden.

If residents are storing gasoline, fertilizer, or mulch -- then subject those materials to excessive, prolonged heat -- they could be their own

worst enemy on the safety front. Officials urged people to take proper precautions when storing any potentially dangerous substance.

And where people want to "put effort in" to reduce day-to-day risk, "the best thing they could do is drive less and drive safely," added

McCauley.


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