Logical Errors and Mass Hysteria:
Responses to Acts of Terrorism

by Dr. Helen Smith

When America is faced with tragedy, we will do anything to alleviate our fear, not the least of which is constructing irrational thoughts about ourselves and the external world. In years past people knew that tragic events like the attack on Pearl Harbor happened, but we tended (with some exceptions like the internment of Japanese Americans) to use rational thought to bring about a solution, not mass hysteria. But the climate has changed. In the new Oprah and Rosie O'Donell culture, our first instinct is to make ourselves feel better rather than to find a solution that works.

But in our haste to feel good we are falling for "solutions" that might even contribute to continued acts of terrorism. After tragedies like Oklahoma City or Columbine (and now the destruction of the World Trade Center), we eagerly watch our leaders and politicians put in place new regulations that are supposed to keep us safe. For example, we are comforted by "zero tolerance" for knives -- even dinner knives or plastic knives -- aboard aircraft and heightened security searches for benign objects despite evidence to the contrary. (Terrorists typically do not follow these rules anyway and they use real knives, not plastic ones).

People at airports seem to favor stringent enforcement of these policies. For example, after the World Trade Center tragedy, one passenger at United Airlines stated that she was glad the authorities were keeping lines long to check for coffee cups with sharp edges. (No, really.) "This makes me feel really safe,"she said. "I feel like they are doing something." Doing something is nice, but perhaps it would be better to do something effective. "Feelings" may not care about effectiveness, but terrorists do. We see a similar dynamic with zero tolerance weapons policies in schools. Sure, it makes sense to expel a kid who brings a real loaded gun to school, but most of the time, innocent kids are expelled for drawing a picture of a weapon (something boys have been doing since time immemorial) or for pointing a finger and going "bam, bam!" Has this averted one act of school violence? It's doubtful.

What these rules actually do is punish the average citizen who is not doing anything wrong. But that's actually part of the dynamic. There are far more law-abiding citizens: by punishing them the authorities reassure other law-abiding citizens that they are acting. If they only acted against people who were actually violent, most ordinary citizens (i.e., voters) wouldn't notice. Unfortunately, these policies also leave the rest of us with a false sense of security. At least, that is, until the next mass murder takes place and we are left shaking our heads, wondering why our symbolic solutions have done nothing to solve the problem. Of course, this is what these kinds of symbolic solutions are all about--the appearance of doing something. Whether or not that something works to reduce random acts of violence is not even the question.

This is not surprising. From primitive times to the present, people have engaged in magical thinking in times of terror. Magical thinking is the practice of associating a particular action with a desired result even though there is no logical connection between the two. It's like ancient priests sacrificing babies to prevent an earthquake, or a modern student carrying a rabbit's foot in the hopes of passing a test. Studying would be better, but it's also work.

Magical thinking is very similar to what Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, calls "logical errors." A primary goal of cognitive therapy is to help clients become aware of their "logical errors" about the world and to label events more clearly in order to be more effective. Common logical errors include polarized thinking (thinking in a black-or white fashion) and arbitrary inference (drawing conclusions without evidence).

Symbolic approaches to violence make both of these mistakes. Zero tolerance approaches use all or nothing thinking. If a kid brings nail clippers to school--he or she is a criminal and gets the same punishment as the kid who brings the Uzi. We also use the logical error of arbitrary inference when we ban objects that have no link to actual violence. For example, we have no evidence that nail clippers make kids kill people in real life, nor do we know of terrorists who have used plastic knives to hijack a plane (and in both cases, it's hard to take such prospects seriously). Yet we ban these objects anyway in response to acts of violence.

Another illogical error we make is to encourage a culture of passivity among civilians in times of crisis. Because we see violence as always bad, we have concluded that people who are passive and have no means of fighting back will not be harmed (hence, a call for stricter gun-control laws after each tragic occurrence). This despite the fact that evidence points to the contrary--that people who fight back often have a better chance of surviving a mass murder. Violence experts know that people who live through a mass murder are active and aggressive. They either run out of the dangerous area (impossible in a flying airplane) or if cornered, they aggress against the perpetrator. One such expert, J. Reid Meloy states, "People who are killed do not run or hide effectively: they usually choose obvious hiding places, like under a desk or table. .....this behavior appears to be acutely regressive-like the child who hides in an obvious place, believing that if he closes his eyes and cannot see, he won't be seen." Such approaches work with imaginary monsters, but not with real ones.

Unlike the frightened child who hides under the covers, we cannot close our eyes to real solutions to terrorism. This includes tracking down the perpetrators who did the deed, arming the citizenry (at least psychologically) to fight against such people, and encouraging a culture of action rather than one of passivity. These are real solutions and our only hope for keeping America the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Helen Smith, PhD, is a forensic psychologist in Knoxville, TN who specializes in the psychology of violence. She has written numerous articles on violence-related issues and provided legislative testimony on school violence in the aftermath of the Springfield, Oregon and Jonesboro school killings. She is the author of "The Scarred Heart: Understanding and Identifying Kids Who Kill." She may be contacted at

Published Thursday, September 27, 2001