Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Factors Affecting the Amplification or Attenuation of Public Worry and Dread about Bioterrorist Attacks

Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Factors Affecting the Amplification or Attenuation of Public Worry and Dread about Bioterrorist Attacks

Article excerpt


When the World Trade Center collapsed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, experts, and the public generally agreed that terrorism would be a facet of modern life in the foreseeable future, and that the likelihood of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons being deployed against societies is real rather than apparent. Of these, perhaps the least understood is bioterrorism: "the unlawful or threatened use of microorganisms or toxins derived from living organisms to cause death or disease in humans, animals, or plants so as to create fear in the public or intimidate governments." 1

In a situation where uncertainty is high, how do citizens react? Few studies have attempted to provide insights into the way the public may respond to issues, topics, or practices people think are threatening or risky. 2 So far, decision analysts have suggested two approaches: the technical or rational and the normative or value-laden approach. This study investigates which of these two approaches predicts people's level of worry and dread before, during and after a bioterrorist event, and offers suggestions to help mitigate such legitimate public reactions.

Recent experiences with biological attacks have raised new and heightened national security concerns. In November 2009, perhaps as a scare tactic, envelopes mailed from Dallas to foreign consulates in Manhattan were found to contain a suspicious powder, but field tests came back negative for dangerous substances. 3 An incident in 2001, however, was lethal. Letters contaminated with anthrax, sent to media companies and the Washington, DC offices of two senators, resulted in twenty-three cases of infection, five deaths, and the contamination of numerous U.S. Postal Service facilities. 4 Department of Homeland Security experts warned that the spores released in this case could be used to seed the bio-weapons programs of "rogue" countries like North Korea, and active terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, the Marxist insurgents in Colombia, the Chechen resistance fighters against Russia, the Maoist rebels of Nepal, as well as domestic biological "unabombers." 5 Natural epidemics are terrifying enough, but the notion that pathogens can be harnessed as weapons is even more chilling.

Historically, whenever biological weapons are deployed in terrorist events, they cause low casualties but high visibility. 6 Today, however, experts say there is no weapon more effective in creating havoc than microorganisms spread to large swaths of the population. 7 A 1993 report by the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment estimates that between 130,000 and three million deaths could follow the aerosol release of 100 kilograms of anthrax spores upwind of Washington, DC. 8

The prospect of epidemics caused by the deliberate release of biological agents on civilians, and the well-chronicled vulnerabilities of societies to large-scale disease outbreaks, fulfill the litany of factors hypothesized to lead to the amplification of risk: (1) the projected fatalities and injuries are high; (2) exposure to bioterrorism agents is expected to be widespread; (3) the effects on civilians can be immediate; (4) the impact on the future looks devastating; (5) the news media are the major "social stations" for amplification; (6) the origin of fatalities may be unknown in the period immediately after the attack; (7) the risks are likely to be shared across society; and (7) there is much uncertainty concerning when, where, and how the attack is going to happen. 9 As such, unlike most natural epidemics, bioterrorism incidents present atypical risk-communication challenges.

Even the prospect of experiencing bioterrorism incidents is likely to produce high levels of worry and dread among the public. Worry generally refers to mental distress or agitation resulting from concern for something impending or anticipated. …

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