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Fear Itself

Author: Randall D. Larson, Editor, 9-1-1 Magazine

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-06-25
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This is the full-length original version of an Editor's Desk article condensed for publication in our May 2005 issue.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”  So wrote early 20th Century American horror author Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose work I have followed since my youth and whose literary sensibilities I have frequently emulated as an occasional dabbler in literature outre’ myself (see my Editor’s Desk in our August 2004 issue for a glimpse into this lifelong abberation). 

As dispatchers, we are merchants of fear – not that we vend it like some ghoulish retailer on a shadowy corner of Diagon Alley – but that we confront it hourly in the manner of many of our callers, those whose lives have reached some terrifying consequence requiring the aid of police, fire, or medics.  The spectre of terrorism has raised the prevalence of a panicked populace to more frequent occasions – it’s not only the suspicious lurker on the playground, the uncertain sound from upstairs, the aggressive domestic partner, or the simple menace of crime, all of which are contemporary “unknowns” that generate fear in many people.  But now, with the very real potentiality of terrorist events in our neighborhoods, an even more potent fear of the unknown is taking root, encouraging many more calls to 9-1-1.

Best-selling horror author Stephen King (perhaps Lovecraft’s embodiment for the latter half of the 20th Century), has identified two palpable degrees of fear.  The most subtle level, he describes, is called terror, the dread of the unseen and unknowable.  The next level, horror, is more direct and specific.  “Terror is being afraid of what's behind a door; horror is opening the door and seeing a guy with an axe,” noted King.  These concepts are as true in reality as they are in literature and other entertainment media.  Many members of our community are afraid of the terrorist – or the burglar, the robber, the rapist – behind the door, and rely upon us to provide help. 

During the recent hurricanes that struck Florida and other states, many dispatchers took calls from frightened residents seeking information and advice.  Reassurance.  Relief from fear.  In the case of terrorism, unless an event has occurred or a suspicious person or package is present to be investigated, much of the help we are able to provide is through understanding and reassurance.  In the case of terrorism, unless an event has occurred or a suspicious person or package is present to be investigated, much of the help we are able to provide is through understanding and reassurance.  

There is an attractive market for entertainment media that encourages fear, suspense, and anxiety.  Despite the anxiety-escalating threats of terrorism and disaster, suspense thrillers remain popular in literature and movies – perhaps because they “tackle upsetting issues from the safe distance of allegory” and “[permit] a safe confrontation of real fears disguised in conquerable, metaphorical form,” as wrote Boston writer Constance Pittman Lindner in an article entitled “The horror paradox: why being scared can feel good” posted on the website of North Carolina health care system, Caromont.  “It's fun to be a little scared, particularly if it's safe," adds Marvin Zuckerman in Behavioral Expression and Biosocial Bases of Sensation Seeking.  Whether it’s a speeding, whirling rollercoaster, the latest Dean Koontz bestseller, or the current horror film menace, most Americans love fear when it provides a vicarious thrill under controlled conditions.  During times of national distress – even during ongoing threats of terrorism itself – horror lit and terror films are reaching ongoing popularity.

The difference has to do with control.  With entertainment, we are in control.  We can close the book, turn off the TV, walk out of the cinema.  With terrorism, correctly or not, we feel helpless.  Fear has become the commerce of the terrorist.  It’s not so much the results of the terrorist’s actions – suicide bombings being the most devastating and dreadful – but the fear those actions cause in the rest of us that reap the greater rewards for the committed terrorist. 

“Whatever power threats have is derived from the fear instilled in the victim, for fear is the currency of the threatener,” wrote by author and internationally recognized expert on threat assessment and violent management, Gavin de Becker, in Fear Less [read our book review here ]. “How one responds to a threat determines whether it will be a valuable instrument or mere words.”

“While terrorism is an effective and inexpensive weapon of war, the oldest and most effective weapon is fear,” wrote Lois Clark McCoy, President of the National Institute for Urban Search & Rescue ( in a letter published in a recent issue of Homeland First Response, echoing Lovecraft.  “That nameless fear has mired our population into sitting frozen in denial like deer in the headlights,” added McCoy.

Speaking earlier at a Homeland First Response Conference in Los Angeles, McCoy said first responders need to “give up the fear of terrorism” in much the same way that residents of tornado-prone areas have given up their fear of tornadoes, instead choosing to focus on developing warning, damage-mitigation, and response systems.

This is where communications personnel can fit into the scheme of things.  As the “first” first responders via our telephone connection, we can provide information or reassurance to the caller, or relay vital information from them to prep our responding units.  “[We] can be sources of reasoned information, insight, comfort, and courage,” de Becker encouraged his readers.  “…though we may not be able to stop terrorism, we can stop lots of terror.”

As professional telecommunicators, we are in a unique position to reduce the terror of the unknown in the minds and hearts of our citizens as they dial 9-1-1 or call on our business lines, whether in reference to a terrorist threat, a natural disaster like the hurricanes experienced recently in the southeast, or a criminal event.  By being confident and reassuring in our demeanor, and relying accurate and factual information, we can become harbingers of comfort and assurance rather than envoys of Lovecraftian dread.  Good information erases the unknown quantities that give rise to trepidation and allows reasoned decisions to be made.

“A change in behavior caused by fear is the desired effect and the purpose of terrorism,” wrote Stephen Cox, President and Medical Director of the National Anxiety Foundation, shortly after 9/11.  “Helping other citizens to fight this fear is the duty of every citizen.”

“Unwarranted fear or anxiety if always based on your memory or imagination,” wrote de Becker in Protecting the Gift, sequel to his popular book (and essential reading), The Gift of Fear.

“A life lived in fear is a life half lived,” is the sentiment of a support web site for anxiety sufferers called Tickle the Chicken God (I am not making that up, to quote Dave Barry; however the web site has since be replaced by that of a mundane business entity).  Fear is the trade of the terrorist and the collateral byproduct of the average criminal.  We owe it to our communities and our colleagues to remain informed and pass that on to our callers, helping to obliterate the unknowns that lurk in the heart of our their fears.

9-1-1 Magazine Editor Randall Larson retired in 2009 after 25 years as a communications supervisor and Field Communications Director for the San Jose Fire Department.  Larson has been a Field Communications instructor for First Contact 9-1-1, the California Fire Chiefs Association – Communications Section, and other organizations, and was a Communications Specialist for FEMA’s California US&R Task Force 3.  Since retirement, along with editing, Larson continues to participate in the annual California Mobile Command Center Rallies, which he founded in 2009, and is a busy writer in several other fields of interest.  Occasionally he eats and sleeps.


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