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Disproportionate fear results in poor policy decisions

Fear sells. Ask Donald Trump. Or Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle, whose two-line headline of inch-high bolded capitals declared “SECOND ROCHESTER MAN LINKED TO ISIS.”

Terrorism is certainly real and frightening. The self-proclaimed Islamic State, with its video beheadings and shrewd use of media (social and otherwise) must be taken seriously. And yet we can control our response to events and must avoid the temptation to overreact.

Consider the Dec. 14 email sent to a number of school districts nationwide. Anonymously threatened with murder and mayhem, New York City chose to treat this as a hoax. By contrast, Los Angeles canceled school for 640,000 students, a decision that affected 1,087 schools. Events proved that New York City chose correctly. Students in L.A. learned a different lesson that day, that they are at risk and that any fears they may have are justified. Why would the city have closed schools otherwise?

The D&C wasn’t alone in its breathless reaction to the “second ISIS recruit.” Rochester Police Chief Michael Ciminelli, in consultation with Mayor Lovely Warren, canceled the New Year’s Eve fireworks celebration downtown, as the chief wanted the officers on the streets, presumably looking for other terrorists. Like the 640,000 L.A. students, Rochester-area residents were put on notice—be afraid.

Let’s look at the facts, as presented in the text of the D&C story: Emanuel Lutchman, the ISIS-inspired “terrorist,” is what John Page, co-owner of the plot’s alleged target, Merchants Grill, called an “aggressive panhandler” and is described as having a history of mental health problems. Through subsequent reporting by veteran D&C staffer Gary Craig, it appears that Lutchman’s entire plan was developed in concert with an FBI informant, labeled “CS-2” in Craig’s story, who apparently also was involved with the arrest of Mufid Elfgeeh, a pizza shop owner. Lutchman’s terror apparatus—a machete, knives, duct tape, etc.—was purchased with CS-2’s cooperation (and encouragement?) and paid for by the informant (and presumably reimbursed by the U.S. taxpayer).

Sadly, our world is filled with lonely, unstable, angry, suggestible people. I’ve a friend who frequently tells me of angry, violent thoughts, a manifestation of his chronic mental illness. Were he converted to radical Islam, his anger and his threats could pose a risk to others. But he seems, like Emanuel Lutchman, an implausible member of a terror cell.

I’m grateful for the careful reporting in Friday’s paper and the studious follow-up by Gary Craig. But that headline still troubles me. Following the October shootings at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, a WXXI reporter asked a Monroe Community College student about the events—then expressed surprise in her wrap-up that the student did not seem to be afraid. Many D&C readers never stray past the headlines—the power of headlines vastly exceeds that of the story itself. Few of WXXI’s listeners dig behind a story they hear. The media has a particular obligation to place matters of risk in perspective.

If a simple email can keep 640,000 Los Angeles students home from school or the threats of someone like Lutchman can spur a bold, 23-square-inch title in our local daily and cancel Rochester’s fireworks, then I believe we’ve lost perspective.

Justified fear spurs prudent policy. Disproportionate fear encourages isolation. After the Paris attacks, a friend mentioned that she was thinking of canceling her 2016 vacation to Italy. Another friend, whose son was actually in the Paris stadium that was attacked (and had more reason to worry, to be sure), hoped that the boy’s college would cancel the remainder of the semester abroad and bring him home. Although their apprehension is perfectly understandable, terrorism remains a rare event. The risk of death from food poisoning, auto accidents, binge drinking and drug overdoses are each 2,000 times higher than the risk of death from terrorism.

We must engage the world—the last thing the world needs is an insular United States. Donald Trump and others seem to urge that we scratch out the poem at the base of Lady Liberty and close our borders to the world’s needy migrants, or consider carpet bombing the Middle East. We have a pivotal role to play in combatting the global terror threat and cannot cease to engage policymakers and extend a hand to the world’s needy.

Kent Gardner is chief economist and chief research officer for the Center for Governmental Research Inc.

1/8/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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