For What It's Worth

May 24, 2012
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Imagine you are driving down the road at night when suddenly the street lights, traffic lights, and store lights completely turn off. You cannot see the road to drive, and other cars around are unable to drive safely, as well. Panic ensues as cars come to a streaking halt, crashing in to other cars as well as people as they emerge from their cars. Thousands of people are killed in the dense, dark night. Reaction from this incident prompts local, state, and federal authorities to issue guidelines on procedures for civilians to follow in the event this happens again in order to diminish the loss of life.

Survival is the ultimate goal of learning from disastrous events. Because no one wants to be included in a Darwinian weed-out, humans have learned to react to any threat presented by perceived, reliable authorities: Reaction is warranted if the threat to human life is perceived to be real and of considerate quantifiable loss. Problems occur every day whether we like it or not. It is how we as people deal with these problems that have the possibility to create stress and reaction; thereby, defining who we are as both individuals and as a species. John F. Kennedy once stated, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.” Taking in to account the preparedness for an unforeseeable disaster is a positive for survival, what extent do manufactured and real events reported by authority affect our perception of reality?

On Sunday, October 30, 1938, millions of radio listeners were shocked when radio news alerts announced the arrival of Martians. The listeners were frightened when they learned of the Martians' brutal and seemingly inescapable attack on Earth. Many deserted their homes in mass hysteria while others fled by car. Though what they actually heard was a portion of Orson Welles' adaptation of a book, War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, many of the listeners thought what they heard on the radio was actually occurring. On this particular afternoon the radio listeners were shocked to hear yet another station announcing (fictional) news alerts advising of an assault of Martians attacking Earth. Not tuning in earlier to hear the introduction of the play and listening to the “authoritative and real commentary and interviews of the regular news broadcast”, many believed it to be real. All across the United States and even other parts of the world, listeners reacted. Several Thousands of people alerted radio stations, police and newspapers, people went to churches to pray, people created temporary gas masks, and even miscarriages and early births were announced. Deaths were yet another thing reported but never established. Many people believed the end was near. Just hours after the program had ended and listeners had become aware that the Martian assault on Earth was not actually happening, the public was seething with rage that Orson Welles had “tried to fool them”. Many people sued as a result of this. Others questioned if Welles had created the hysteria on purpose. The power of radio had “tricked” the listeners. They had become habituated in to believing everything they heard on the radio, without questioning it. Now they had learned their lesson…the hard way. In the age of radio, this was the first documented case of media-induced panic in mainly metropolitan areas. Because this was not a legitimate attack, no one was hurt; however, the human reaction was filled with fear.

In 1941 during WWII, blackouts were common to avoid enemy bombers from Japan. Citizens were alerted to turn off all sources of light inside their house and put up a black covering over their windows. Lights were also turned off on the streets. The fear Japanese fighter pilots would bomb homes increased participation in blackouts; however, blackouts also increased the number of car wrecks and thousands of fatalities. Although the fear of bombing assisted in confusing enemy fighter pilots, the human reaction to the lack of preparedness produced death just the same.

Forty years after Orson Welles’ Halloween stunt in November 9, 1979, the computers at North American Aerospace Defense Command's Cheyenne Mountain site (i.e., the Pentagon's National Military Command Center, and the Alternate National Military Command Center in Fort Ritchie, Maryland) all indicated what the United States dreaded most; a massive Soviet nuclear strike aimed at devastating the U.S. command system and nuclear forces. A threat assessment conference was organized without delay. Launch control centers for Minuteman missiles received a warning that the United States was under a large-scale nuclear attack. Also the entire continental air defense interceptor force was put on alert, making ten fighter jets embark. Furthermore, “…the National Emergency Airborne Command Post, the president's ‘doomsday plane,’ was also launched, but without the president on board.” Afterward, it was determined that a realistic training tape had been unintentionally placed in into the computer running the nation's early-warning programs. The world was fortunate enough that the mistake was discovered in time before a massive retaliation strike on Russia was ordered. Because of the panic created with the public, movie-makers produced the 1983 WarGames based on the premise of a computer-manufactured disaster created fear and hysteria.

Government agencies have taken a page from the fear/reaction effect of the bizarre. One example of this is the CDC (Center for Disease Control) “Zombie Preparedness Guide.” The CDC’s guide includes basic provisions such as emergency kits, water, food, guns, etc. Assistant Surgeon General Ali Khan wrote the CDC’s post for the Zombies Preparedness Guide to better aware people if such any event warranting survival were to occur. The Guide was published shortly after the earthquake and tsunami destroying Japan in March as preparedness guidelines for any disaster. In this instance, fear/reaction was amusingly received by the public and may have been the line between believing everything you hear from authorities versus common sense before belief.

Fear of not surviving an event is perceived before it is confirmed. In most cases, reacting on fear alone has the potential to cause greater harm than the event itself. Since the inception of our country, natural and man-made disasters have dominated our continent and are in the fabric of our daily lives. Learning how to be prepared and confirm facts in a timely manner in order to survive is essential to obtaining any shred of peace in a paranoid and shell-shocked world.





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