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Review: "Fear Less: Real Truth about Risk Safety, and Security in a Time of Terrorism" by Gavin De Becker

Trauma, resilience, and recovery continue to develop as essential dimensions of training and competence. Since the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, the need for all health professionals and law enforcement officials to be aware of and sensitive to these issues has never been more evident. While much has been published in the general field of trauma, Gavin De Becker’s book examines the issues faced by Americans pertaining to the September 11th attacks in an organized, readable, and engaging work.

The book consists of ten chapters, and begins by conceptualizing fear itself as a pervasive entity meant to be accepted for what it is. Terrorism is then conceptualized and characterized as dependent upon the imaginations of those directly and indirectly exposed to acts of terror. Perceptions of safety are then explored by examining the September 11th attacks against the backdrop of other acts of violence in American history.

Recognizing that previously common coping mechanisms for societal violence were shattered on September 11th, the text introduces the concept of compartmentalizing ones perception of danger and weighs this concept against the defense mechanism of denial, ultimately proposing compartmentalization as the more adaptive approach. The tendency to view the past in an idealized manner is challenged by presenting acts of violence Americans were able to successfully compartmentalize over the past five decades. The reader is then encouraged to reconceptualize those who commit acts of violence as pervasive aspects of human civilization.

The role intuition plays in human thought and behavior is then explored, and the roles of fear, anxiety, and worry are described and differentiated. Perceptions of one’s own safety and the ability to effectively address troublesome situations are then discussed, teaching the reader to differentiate warranted versus unwarranted fear. Parallels between the September 11th terrorist attacks and past attempts on America are drawn, and the reader is educated about pre-incident indicators to such acts. It is emphasized that a civilian is not powerless against acts of terrorism, and is in fact an invaluable source of information for law enforcement officials when they are vigilant and willing to act on suspicious activity. Dimensions of intuition and denial are then explained.

The author describes the architecture of conspiracy, and recounts the behavior of the September 11th terrorists in order to exemplify the noticeable and reportable behaviors that take place prior to such an act. A list of product and service providers is given to inform the reader of possible resources a terrorist may use. Furthermore, various scenarios one may encounter prior to an act of terrorism are presented, and the crucial role law enforcement officials play when armed with eye witness information is summarized.

The tendency to think catastrophically is explored and viewed as relevant toward survival. The role played by the media in perpetuating this tendency is discussed, and the need to base one’s actions and concerns on experience, logic, information and intuition as opposed to imagination is emphasized. Chemical attacks, biological attacks, nonmilitary nuclear attacks, and credible threats and their warning signs are discussed. Each is presented in a way that gives the reader a realistic and informed perspective on the likelihoods and consequences of such actions.

Flight safety is put in perspective against the backdrop of other common activities during which one is more likely to be harmed, and effective strategies to strengthen traveler’s physical security are suggested. Such means of strengthening security include keeping the cockpit doors closed, passenger screening, bathroom use by pilots, stopping in-flight meal service for pilots, and emphasizing the crucial role vigilant passengers play in their own safety.

The media’s effect on the American citizen’s sense of security is then scrutinized. The text addresses both the constructive manner in which the media informs the public, and the potentially destructive manner in which it speculates about catastrophic events. Individual media networks are then reviewed along a continuum, from those that rely on factual content to those reliant on sensationalistic journalism. The author reviews guidelines that advise the reader to be selective between forms of media that are helpful and accurate, as opposed to those who inspire fear and uncertainty. A glossary of terminology used by the media to alarm citizens as opposed to informing them is then reviewed.

Perspectives on the internal drives occurring within those who commit acts of terror are discussed, along with the manner in which common citizens perceive these terrorists. A broader picture of cultural and historical differences is then described. Our confidence in and expectations of law enforcement agencies and public officials is addressed, and the honor that our triumphing over terror does the victims of the September 11 attacks is emphasized. The book concludes with acknowledgments, appendices containing web sites for information and advice on talking to children about terrorism, and offers an essay which gives a sad and powerful commentary on how September 11 affected people of different ages.

Among the many positive qualities of this book are its organized presentation, the author’s engaging writing style, and broad applicability to all American citizens. The author uses historical and current facts to demonstrate numerous points of practical significance. The book is appropriate for students, teachers, therapists, law enforcement personnel, and any citizen wanting to achieve a deeper and broader understanding of homeland security and the psychological manifestations in victims, witnesses and caregivers.


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