Thoughts in the aftermath of a tragedy

April 18th, 2007 by Julie Ferguson

Our hearts go out to the Virginia Tech community in their time of mourning. What a terrible event and what a sad reminder that life is short and and can be snatched from us and those we love at any moment in the most unlikely of circumstances. Perhaps the best memorial we can offer to the deceased is to redouble our efforts to live with kindness and goodwill. That, and to reach out and hug our loved ones.
Be alert for your employees’ reactions to this event. A horrible incident like this can take a psychic toll on many – even those who are remote observers with no actual connection to the event can suffer emotional stress. This is particularly true for those who have previously been involved in episodes of violence. Events of this nature can rekindle or exacerbate post-traumatic stress disorder for people unrelated to the actual event. For others, it can bring repressed fear and anxiety to the surface. The continual media drumbeat 24/7 and focus on sensational details can add to general distress.
In the aftermath of this and other horrors, we seek to make sense of senseless events. It’s natural that many would look to find someone or something to blame beyond the deceased perpetrator. Right now, many are looking to the university’s security procedures and questioning why the campus wasn’t locked down after the first shooting. That’s a valid question. Of course, it’s easy in hindsight to say what should have been done, but the reality can be more complex, so we will need to wait for the investigation to answer this and many other questions. Certainly, Columbine delivered some hard lessons about how things could have been handled better to minimize loss of life. Recommendations from follow-on Columbine investigations have been adopted by law enforcement personnel nationwide, and may already have saved lives.
The psychology of security
Can a community of 30,000 ever be securely locked down against a deliberate and cunning killer? Bruce Schneier presents a sober look at the issues of risk management and security in his excellent article, The Psychology of Risk. He points out that security is both a mathematical reality that can be calculated and a feeling based on psychological reactions to both risks and countermeasures. In regard to the latter, he notes:

* People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
* People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
* Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
* People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.
* Last, people overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.

He goes on to present several examples of how and why people exaggerate some risks and downplay other risks, often in complete disregard to the mathematical realities. These perceptions influence our expenditures of time and effort:

“Why is it that, when food poisoning kills 5,000 people every year and 9/11 terrorists killed 2,973 people in one non-repeated incident, we are spending tens of billions of dollars per year (not even counting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) on terrorism defense while the entire budget for the Food and Drug Administration in 2007 is only $1.9 billion?”

Noting that absolute security is an impossibility, Schneier frames the matter of relative security as a trade-off. We measure the time, expense and inconvenience of a given security measure against our perception of the risk. If that perception is faulty, it’s an irrational trade off that doesn’t do much to increase our security.
After a tragedy, emotion often prevails over dispassionate rationality. Thus we can’t carry shampoo on planes and we strip down to almost our skivvies in airports. Does that make us safer or does it just make us feel safer? It’s unlikely that any measures can be thorough enough to guard us from a random determined killer in our midst. Efforts might be better spent trying to determine the root causes of why there are so many random determined killers in our midst.
Schneier’s article presents interesting, well-framed ideas in well-written format. Whether you work in the business of risk or just live in a risky world, it’s worth a read.

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