Balancing vigilance and fear

It’s almost impossible to blame the leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District for their decision to close their schools Tuesday. While critics took aim at the decision, what would those same critics have said had the school district proceeded as normal and the no longer unthinkable happened?

The armchair hindsight is the most predictable thing about this scenario.

Even though the emailed threat from a supposed “extremist Muslim who has teamed up with local jihadists” turned out to be a hoax, it is hard to fault school officials for being cautious. Still, some idiot hiding behind a computer screen effectively gave 640,000 students a day off from school.

Not ideal either.

This is who we are now. A nation on edge, braced and jittery as we await the seemingly inevitable news of the next terrorist plot on American soil.

Recent polls show the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have vaulted fears of terrorism to the front of Americans’ minds. Of course they did. Not only do we have actual terror threats to worry about, we get swamped daily with doomsday speculation from TV talking heads and political candidates.

Donald Trump has been the most visible example, but he’s far from the only political candidate to do so. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz reminded us during Tuesday night’s GOP debates that radical Islamists are trying to kill us all. (Perhaps they felt we might have forgotten that inconvenient fact since the San Bernardino shootings). Rick Santorum told us we’re now in World War III.

With that as our current psychological backdrop, should we be surprised that an emailed threat could shut down Los Angeles’s schools? Even an email so haphazardly constructed that the would-be jihadist failed to capitalize the word “Allah”?

That mistake helped New York City officials to see the threat for the fake it was. But in this atmosphere, Los Angeles officials’ decision is understandable. Military leaders speak of the “fog of war.” Right now, it’s more like the “fog of fear.”

We don’t know how much fear is prudent and precautionary, and how much is too much. We simply don’t know what we don’t know about the possibility of homegrown jihadists.

That alone makes Americans fearful, and rightfully so. Given how jittery we’ve all become, our leaders need to strike the right balance between quiet vigilance and sounding the alarm.

But President Obama has given us too much of the former, and the GOP field have supplied us with too much of the latter. The ISIS fanatics undoubtedly cheer for either scenario.

The writer Bertrand Russell once said: “Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.”

Our nation’s leaders need to understand that. Let’s hope they focus not on our fears, but on finding the most effective way to win the fight ahead.

In the meantime, it might behoove local officials everywhere to rethink the penalties for those who make false threats to government sites. We live in a time when all claims must be taken with some degree of seriousness. The penalties for those caught should fit the action.

Reprinted from the Jacksonville Daily News

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