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Mortal Shield

Available at Southeast Missouri State University Press

In the backwoods of a state park, a group of religious extremists train to murder the governor, using state highway policemen for practice. In the State Capitol, security agents practice their formidable protection skills to guard the life of a governor and his family who try to outmaneuver their bodyguards at every turn. When the governor hosts a nationwide governors’ summit, security is taxed to the limit while the extremists infiltrate the gathering to massacre government officials and anyone else in their way.

In the real world, public figures are faced with hazardous situations every day. Stalkers, inappropriate or threatening communications, and unwelcome approaches are all part of public life. The fiction thriller Mortal Shield, by protection-expert Thomas Taylor, delves into the hearts and minds of bodyguards, the dignitaries they protect, and the opponents they attempt to foil. Mortal Shield is a realistic and spellbinding portrayal of protection work, which captures the everyday challenge of guarding high-level VIPs.

Most “assassin” novels are the same: Lone assassin stalks VIP; hero stalks assassin; hero is discredited and becomes outcast; hero figures out assassination plot; against all odds, hero lunges in at last moment and foils assassination in front of incompetent bodyguards. You seldom read: bodyguard orchestrates flawless travel procedures; bodyguard figures out assassination plot among hundreds of false alarms; bodyguard lunges in and saves VIP.

Every situation, every person, and each piece of equipment described in this book are truthful depictions of the real world, down to the gritty details of training for everything, planning for anything, and protocol from everywhere—all elements which the protector has to weigh and measure. Readers will never look at public figures or their bodyguards the same way again.

Innocent Targets: When Terrorism Comes to School

Available at

Innocent Targets – When Terrorism Comes to School provides an informed and rational examination of this difficult subject, starting with the 1970 murder of nine Israeli school children and three adults in a brutal attack that left nineteen others crippled for life. Tracing the history of school related terrorist attacks in twelve countries to Beslan and its aftermath, the renowned father and son co-authoring team invoke the counsel of other top experts in evaluating this timely, emotional and critical subject.

Paradigm of the Moral Warrior

Available at

“Paradigm of the Moral Warrior” is dedicated to those who understand that the remedy for predatory violence is the sharpened mind directing the trained body. The need for the “Moral Warrior” is acute in our modern times, since a diminishing number of people stand willing to confront crime, terror or tyranny.  “Paradigm of the Moral Warrior” presents ethical and moral support for protectors of society and our way of life.

Someone, Somewhere: Encounters with People and Places

Ordering and excerpts: |

‘Roman Pryjomko reveals many hearts. He invites us into a deep and personal experience of people who happen to live on the other side of the lines drawn on maps.’ So writes bestselling author Gavin de Becker (The Gift of Fear and Fear Less) in the foreword to Someone, Somewhere: Encounters with People and Places.

Geographer and prolific traveller, Roman Pryjomko takes the reader across the world - from Pakistan to Zimbabwe and the Middle East to South Africa - describing his personal encounters with extraordinary people and places. From having tea with the Taliban, accidentally meeting a notorious assassin, a casual telephone conversation with a deposed dictator and mass murderer, to witnessing a terrorist attack by Al Qaeda, the stories are vivid and poignant with unexpected humour and contemporary relevance to today’s news headlines. They offer a diverse travelogue and emotional roller coaster revealing an intriguing, complex, sometimes dangerous and frequently absurd world.

More comments about Someone, Somewhere: Encounters with People and Places:

‘Someone, Somewhere: Encounters with People and Places’ is a wonderful book, period. The ‘Hunting the Tiger’ chapter is captivating and the words about political correctness are strong and passionate. I have not been to Moscow but the ‘Shadow Play’ chapter took me there. The author’s travel experiences, compassion and writing skills all add up to something profound and valuable. This is a book that I feel, in these times of interest in the larger world (post 9/11) would be of great interest.’
—Gavin de Becker (USA)

‘It is riveting and entertaining and scary and joyful all at once and written in a very effective storytelling style that enlivens everything.

‘Time and again, I found myself wanting to know more about the author, despite the adventures so well told. In many respects, he is the most interesting of characters in these pages. What a wonderful read it is!’
—Dr. H. J. de Blij (USA), Author and Distinguished Professor of Geography

Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill

There is perhaps no bigger or more important issue in America at present than youth violence. Jonesboro; Paducah; Pearl, Mississippi; Stamps, Arkansas; Conyers, Georgia; and, of course, Littleton, Colorado. We know them all too well, and for all the wrong reasons: kids, some as young as eleven years old, taking up arms and, with deadly, frightening accuracy, murdering anyone in their paths. What is going on? According to the authors of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, there is blame to be laid right at the feet of the makers of violent video games (called “murder trainers” by one expert), the TV networks, and the Hollywood movie studios—the people responsible for the fact that children witness literally thousands of violent images a day.

Authors Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano offer incontrovertible evidence, much of it based on recent major scientific studies and empirical research, that movies, TV, and video games are not just conditioning children to be violent-and unaware of the consequences of that violence-but are teaching the very mechanics of killing. Their book is a much-needed call to action for every parent, teacher, and citizen to help our children and stop the wave of killing and violence gripping America’s youth. And, most important, it is a blueprint for us all on how that can be achieved.

In Paducah, Kentucky, Michael Carneal, a fourteen-year-old boy who stole a gun from a neighbor’s house, brought it to school and fired eight shots at a student prayer group as they were breaking up. Prior to this event, he had never shot a real gun before. Of the eight shots he fired, he had eight hits on eight different kids. Five were head shots, the other three upper torso. The result was three dead, one paralyzed for life. The FBI says that the average, experienced, qualified law enforcement officer, in the average shootout, at an average range of seven yards, hits with less than one bullet in five. How does a child acquire such killing ability? What would lead him to go out and commit such a horrific act? 

Available at

On Killing

Available at

From Publishers Weekly
Drawing on interviews, published personal accounts and academic studies, Grossman investigates the psychology of killing in combat. Stressing that human beings have a powerful, innate resistance to the taking of life, he examines the techniques developed by the military to overcome that aversion. His provocative study focuses in particular on the Vietnam war, revealing how the American soldier was “enabled to kill to a far greater degree than any other soldier in history.” Grossman argues that the breakdown of American society, combined with the pervasive violence in the media and interactive video games, is conditioning our children to kill in a manner similar to the army’s conditioning of soldiers: “We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.” Grossman, a professor of military science at Arkansas State University, has written a study of relevance to a society of escalating violence. Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Dodging Bullets: A Strategic Guide to World-class Protection

Available from Institute of Police Technology and Management

Protection – the duty of the bodyguard. A bad day on the job could result in bloodshed. Whether protecting a President or a celebrity, the bodyguard is only successful when his or her protectee is safe.

In this revised edition of Dodging Bullets – A Strategic Guide to World-Class Protection, Thomas Taylor outlines the standards for anyone involved in the protection industry. Throughout the book, he uses examples of both successful and failed assassination attempts to demonstrate what a bodyguard should and should not do. You will be amazed at how the slightest missed detail by a bodyguard can result in injury or death.

Mr. Taylor uses historical facts as well as numerous proverbs, versus and ancient quotes to illustrate how a bodyguard can achieve a world-class level of protection. He stresses the importance of how being prepared, remaining professional and keeping one’s distance from the protectee – while still remaining within arm’s reach – is the only way to be truly effective.

This book is a must read for anyone who is part of the protection industry, including Secret Service agents, police officers assigned to a mayor or other dignitary or private sector bodyguards assigned to a celebrity or CEO.

On Combat

“This new book is what our young warriors need. At one of David’s last briefings a Senior NCO approached me and said, “Sir, the army spent 18 years and thousands of dollars teaching me to kill. This is the first time I have been taught how to deal with it.” This book will allow those not fortunate enough to hear David do their own preparation for the ultimate test.” Lt. Col. Hal McNair Professor at the Joint Spec Ops University. 
Available at

It's every parent's worst nightmare - your child is lost. What can you should teach her to do for her safety?

Last week I was in the mall with my two children. Suddenly, I looked up from the rack and couldn’t find my five-year-old. I heard a scream in the hallway of the mall and realized it was my daughter running down the hall! I held on to my baby and ran after her. Luckily a grandmother had stopped her and was talking to her. My daughter had been totally frightened when she couldn’t find me in the store and her instinct was to scream and run. I’d like to teach her a better way of responding when she is lost. What should I do?

I don’t believe in teaching inflexible rules because it’s not possible to know if they’ll work in all situations. There is one rule, however, that enhances safety in most situations:

Teach your child to go to a woman if she is lost.

Why? First, if your child selects a woman, it’s highly unlikely that the woman will be a sexual predator. Next, a woman approached by a lost child asking for help is likely to stop whatever she is doing, get down to the kid’s eye level, commit to that child, and not rest until the child is safe. A man approached by the same child might say, ‘‘Head over there to the manager’s desk,’’ whereas a woman is most likely to get involved and stay involved.

Is what I’ve said politically incorrect? Maybe so, but the luxury of not running for office is that I don’t care if it’s politically incorrect. The fact is that men in all cultures and at all ages and at all times in history are more violent than women - and facts are not political.

‘‘If you are ever lost, go to a woman’’ works because it’s practical (there will almost always be a woman around) and simple (easy to teach, easy to learn, easy to do). Finally, teaching children to choose someone rather than wait for someone to choose them will be a useful lesson their whole lives. It’s the same advice I give to adult women.

What if my son wants to sleep over at a house that keeps guns?

My next-door neighbors have several guns in their home. A few weeks ago, I told them I didn’t want my 14-year-old son sleeping over there anymore. The father said his two teenage boys know all about gun safety, but I still said “No.” Later, he offered to put locks on his guns when my son sleeps over, but that doesn’t feel good enough to me. Am I wrong?

Do you mean are you wrong to listen to your intuition about your son’s safety? Absolutely not. Gun locks are an after-market product, not part of the gun itself. It would be like having to put a padlock on your car every time you parked it, as opposed to merely using the built-in door and ignition locks.

You are absolutely right to recognize all these risks. They are real, and they pose more of a threat to our teenage boys than anything else in their lives.

Firearms are unique among consumer goods in America in that they are not governed by any federal safety regulations. There are four categories of regulations covering the manufacture of teddy bears, but none about guns. While most every business is concerned with delivering its product or service safely, gun manufacturers are studying ways to make their products more lethal. They work to make them more portable, more rapid, and more effective at damaging human tissue.

For some people, restricting gun use in any way – even for toddlers – Is the psychological equivalent of government-imposed castration. I want to point out that I am not challenging our so-called right to bear arms (in whose name, by the way, more Americans have died at home than have died at war). And I am not advocating government gun control.

It is clear, however, that children would benefit if we held gun manufacturers to the same product-liability standards we require for every other consumer product.

Guns could have components that inhibit firing by children, or technologies that allow operation only in the hands of the owner (with a coded ring or wristband, for example, or a built-in combination lock). It’s easier to shoot most handguns than it is to open a bottle of children’s vitamins.

Speaking of tamper-proof containers, the design of billions of bottles of consumer products was changed after the deaths of eight people from poisoned Tylenol, a tragedy completely beyond the control of the manufacturer. Ironically, gun-makers knowingly and enthusiastically build products that kill five hundred Americans each week for which we don’t require a single safety feature.

Some gun owners explain that they needn’t lock their weapons because they don’t have children. To them I’d say that other people do have children, of course, and they will visit your home one day. The plumber who answers your weekend emergency will bring along his bored nine-year-old son, and he will find your gun.

Although videos can't replace parenting in terms of safety, learn which ones can help teach your child about this crucial subject.

I was wondering where I might find videos geared toward preschoolers on subjects like stranger danger, good touch/bad touch, or my body is my own. If you could help me, it would be greatly appreciated.

Considering the number of books and pamphlets about safety that are addressed to children, it’s clear some people believe that children themselves have a lot to contribute to their own protection. There’s even one that claims it will teach them to ‘‘take responsibility for their own safety.’’ Given that most kids can’t take responsibility to feed the goldfish, I just don’t see it.

Having said this, there does come a day when the people initially responsible for a child’s safety welcome a new member to the team: the child. Parents may agonize over whether he or she is ready; they may even delay the day as long as possible, but the day will come. Though it’s at the end of a gradual process, your son or daughter will make that walk to school, or to a friend’s house, or to the market. The eyes that used to casually take in the sights will have to detect, assess, perhaps even deter danger.

Though no video can replace effective parental protection (of course), I’ve reviewed many programs aimed at kids. I was most impressed with a series called ‘‘Yello Dyno.’’ It is a musically-based educational system that helps children remember important safety information. Yello Dyno himself is a character who sings and dances, and helps encourage confidence in kids. You can see the selection of video and audio tapes at Let me know what you think. I also suggest taking a look, run by Ken Wooden, among the nation’s most effective advocates for child safety. Another training method to look at is KIDPOWER, which teaches children many important assertiveness and self-defense skills (

Will mandatory uniforms reduce school violence?

Given the recent climate of school violence, do you think mandatory school uniforms will reduce this violence?

I believe that school uniforms can reduce violence, and that they help in other ways as well. Dress codes and uniforms can make school more about the learning and less about the symbolic individual expression of fashion. Students are left to communicate through language as opposed to clothing, style, designer names, bandanas, or gang colors. Dress codes help make everyone a student, as opposed to some kids being rich, some being tough, or anti-this, or pro-that. It is unifying-as the word uniform implies. Other places young people visit will still allow personal expression through fashion, but just as some professions wear business attire, and police, nurses, and firefighters wear uniforms, the school uniform is emblematic of what one does. At school, kids are there to be students.

How do I change what I’ve taught my youngster about talking to strangers?

After years of telling my five-year-old daughter ‘‘never talk to strangers,” how do I begin to say ‘‘now it’s ok to talk to strangers”?

Well, it can’t be too many years, given her age, but let’s imagine that she’s had a fairly clear concept of strangers for a year or two. Just like you, her perception of what “stranger” means changes as she grows up and learns more. Many young children describe a stranger as “a man with black clothes, dark hair, a beard, a gun,” etc.

The goal is to move to change your daughter’s focus off strangers and on to behavior. For every stranger who would harm your daughter, there are millions who will not, so strangers are not the issue. I suggest that you pursue opportunities for your daughter to communicate with strangers in appropriate environments. Children thus learn what feels comfortable and what does not. Such learning can be aided by a parent who watches a child communicate in a restaurant or store and then discusses the encounter afterward. “What did you think when that guy stood so close? I thought he seemed strange; I wasn’t comfortable with him.” Or, “I felt safe with that man at the next table who talked to us; did you”

One mother I know regularly encourages her seven-year-old son to approach strangers, giving him small challenges such as, “Can you find out what time it is?” or “Can you get directions to the nearest frozen yogurt place?” Then she stands back a bit and observes as he selects a person to ask. Afterward, they discuss why he chose who he chose, how the exchange went, if he felt comfortable with the person he spoke with, if that person was comfortable with his approach, and so on. Her son has safely rehearsed all kinds of encounters with people.

Could it be that this boy who actually approaches strangers in public is less likely to be a victim than someone taught never to talk to them? Absolutely yes. Let me know how things go with your daughter.

Questions to Ask Prospective Nannies

I am in the process of hiring a nanny. Do you have a list of good interview questions I could ask?

In our culture of short encounters and little accountability, it is important to learn a lot about someone you bring into your life, particularly someone who’ll be alone with your children. The more you know about someone, the more you reduce that person’s anonymity. If you have talked to five of the candidate’s references, that’s five more inhibitors against bad conduct, five people whom you and the babysitter know in common, five people who could hear about a misdeed When you have many inroads into a person’s life, you raise the consequences for bad behavior.

Pre-employment questions are low-tech, easy tests you can perform when screening someone to take care of your kids. They are designed not just to elicit information, but to put important subjects on the agenda.

Among the questions you might ask (after having someone fill out an application):

What is your philosophy about discipline?
Exploring this topic will reveal their opinions, and also serve as an ideal segue for you to set forth your house rules on discipline. If you don’t want the babysitter spanking your child, this is the time to say so.

Have you ever suspected that a child in your care was being sexually molested by someone?
This question is designed as a bridge into the topic of sexual abuse, but also as a way to test denial, and you do not want a denier as a babysitter or nanny. People caring for children have a duty to acknowledge and recognize reality, even hard reality, and denial is an evasion of that duty. When evaluating a babysitter, put sexual crimes against children squarely on the agenda. If the person you are talking with is a denier, you’ll know it quickly (’‘Things like that don’t happen around here’‘; ‘‘I’ve never even considered such a thing’‘; ‘‘I’ve only worked with good families’‘, etc.).

Do you have children of your own? Do you have younger siblings?
It may be a plus when they answer yes to either question. In any event, the topic allows easy transition to several other areas: Did you take care of siblings when you were growing up? How old were you when you first stayed with them alone? How young do you think is too young?

Why do you do this work?
The answer might be ‘‘For the money,’’ ‘‘It allows me time to study/read,’’ ‘‘I love children,’’ ‘‘It’s easy,’’ or ‘‘I dunno,’’ but whatever it is, the answer will inform your intuition.

Have you ever been in an emergency situation while babysitting? Have you ever been in any emergency situation?
These questions can reveal the applicant’s thought processes about emergencies.

What is your opinion of drugs and alcohol?
Many parents look intently at applicants, hoping somehow to determine if they are drug or alcohol abusers. There’s a greater likelihood of learning something valuable about the topic by discussing it explicitly.

Describe a problem you had in your life where someone else’s help was very important to you.
Is the applicant able to recall such a situation? If so, does he or she give credit or express appreciation about the help? A candidate who is not willing to accept help might not be the best caretaker for your child.

Who is your best friend and how would you describe your friendship?
While many people will name several friends, there are, believe it or not, some who cannot think of a single person. Another benefit to the question comes if an applicant gives a name that was not listed as a reference (which happens often). Ask why the person wasn’t listed; ask if you can now have the contact number.

Describe the best child you ever babysat for. Describe the worst child you ever babysat for.
This is a powerful inquiry that can reveal important attitudes about children and behavior. If the applicant speaks for just a moment about the best child, but can wax on enthusiastically about the worst, this is telling. Does he or she use unkind expressions to explain the trouble with a given child (’‘brat’‘, ‘‘little monster’‘)? Does the applicant take any responsibility for his or her part? A follow-up is: Could you have taken another approach?

Other questions might include:

  • Can you give me some examples of problems you have had with kids and how you handled them?
  • What if my son fails to obey you when you ask him to do something? What if he is doing something dangerous?
  • How do you handle fighting between brothers and sisters?
  • How do you handle tantrums?
  • How would you react if a child bit or hit you?
  • What do you do when you become angry with a child?
  • What if my daughter asked you to keep a secret? What would your response be?
  • What if she revealed something to you that you knew I wouldn’t approve of?
  • Can you swim? Would you be willing to go in the pool with our child?
  • At what point would you call a pediatrician or 911?
  • Do you prefer to work with boys or girls and why?
  • What would you do if you saw a child fondling himself or herself?
  • How would you handle a situation of this nature?

During your interview, few things are as powerful as silence. When someone finishes an answer you consider incomplete, don’t just accept it and go on. Instead, wait silently; he or she will start talking again and give you more information to evaluate.

Some parents ask about medical conditions that could be relevant, and some even ask babysitters to pass medical examinations or drug-screen tests. Some require special skills, such as CPR. (Remember that CPR for infants requires training beyond regular CPR.) Safe Sitter is an excellent national program that teaches an intensive two-day course in the prevention and management of accidents. Founded by Dr. Patricia Keener, Safe Sitter (1-800-255-4089) teaches babysitters (as young as eleven-years-old) about medical emergencies in addition to the basics of childcare. Student must pass a rigorous written and practical exam.

Find out about childcare facilities that have Internet-wired camera systems that allow parents to ''look in'' at any time.

I recently heard of a company called Parent Watch. It wires daycare centers with Web cameras and allows parents to observe their children’s daycare center. I was wondering if you had heard of this and what other companies are doing something similar. Do parents like this? Is there anything they should be concerned about?

This is a use of cameras that I fully endorse. More than a hundred childcare facilities nationwide now have Internet-wired camera systems that allow parents to ‘‘look in’’ at any time. While it’s no substitute for an actual visit, it does add a lot more scrutiny than would otherwise be available. At Kids ‘R’ Kids in Marietta, Georgia, for example, parents pay $10 a month to be able to view password-protected images from sixteen cameras. Aside from gaining peace of mind and a greater feeling of connection to their kid’s experience, parents can share the password with friends and family who rarely get a chance to visit. Employees at such facilities know that they can be viewed at any time, meaning the children are not the only witnesses to what goes on.

All the parents whose kids attend a daycare facility can join together in asking for installation of such a system. The parents may even choose to share in the cost of the installation. If so, it gets very hard for a daycare business to say no.

Have concerns about sending your child to school? Learn to distinguish between fear and worry.

I’m so afraid for my four-year-old daughter to attend preschool. I feel she’s still so small, she’s my only child, and I fear someone may mistreat her. There’s no one there she knows and she’s all alone. I met her teacher and she doesn’t seem friendly. My daughter is still a baby and has never been cared for by anyone other than family. How can I overcome this fear for her?

Assuming you have put your best resources into selecting a good preschool, remember children are safer at school than almost anywhere else. But it sounds to me like you are hesitant about the preschool. You write that the teacher ‘‘doesn’t seem friendly.’’ Did you discuss that with the teacher or the principal? The main issue you ask about is something you call fear, but what you describe is not fear.

True fears and unwarranted fears may at times feel the same, but you can tell them apart. True fear is a gift that signals us in the presence of danger; thus, it will be based upon something you perceive in your environment or your circumstance. Unwarranted fear or worry will always be based upon something in your imagination or your memory.

Worry is the fear we manufacture; it is a choice. Conversely, true fear is involuntary; it will come and get our attention if necessary. But if a parent or a child feels fear constantly, there is no signal left for when it’s really needed. Thus, the parent who chooses to worry all the time or who invests unwarranted fears into children is actually making them less safe. Worry is not a precaution; it is the opposite because it delays and discourages constructive action.

I suggest working to increase your level of comfort about the school, but at the same time, working to reduce unwarranted worry in your life (and thus, in your daughter’s life). You may want to check out this link about reducing worry.

Can all psychiatrists and psychologists predict violence?

Your article that appeared recently contained a reference to becoming educated about threats and predictions of violence. After a student at my son’s school wrote a ‘‘shoot to kill’’ list, I contacted a couple of adolescent psychiatrists to get more information about threats and predictors, but was essentially told there was not enough quantitative data available to help forecast when writers of letters take the next step to violence. Do you have any more information?

Only a few psychiatrists or psychologists have experience or genuine familiarity with the field of predicting violent behavior. Many elements of society have to evaluate threat letters and develop the best management plan for each case: the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Marshals Service, every Governor’s office, U.S. Capitol Police, and on and on. There are strategies for these high-stakes evaluations that improve predictions and case-management of situations that might escalate to violence.

After Littleton, an Emergency Conference was held in Los Angeles on the very question you ask, and there is a 4-hour video you can get for your own information, and for your local high school. It includes these experts:

  • Barbara Nelson is Dean of UCLA’s School of Public Policy and Social Research.
  • Dr. James McGee is an advisor to the Maryland State Police who recently headed a comprehensive study of the 14 students who have committed multiple shootings at school. He presented a profile of these violent boys, as well as lessons from the case studies.
  • Paul Mones is author of When A Child Kills, a seminal work in the field of violence by children.
  • Gregory Gibson’s son was killed during a mass shooting by another student at his school. The day of the shooting, the killer received a package from a gun manufacturer that he refused to open in the presence of school officials. The same day, an anonymous caller told administrators he intended to kill people. Mr. Gibson described the school’s unsuccessful battle to avoid liability.
  • Deputy District Attorney Scott Gordon is a founding member of the Stalking and Threat Assessment Team of the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office; he chaired a panel discussing interventions and management methods for students determined to be dangerous.
  • Robert Martin, former Commanding Officer of LAPD’s Detective Headquarters Division and founder of the department’s Threat Management Unit, addressed the history of high-stakes predictions.
  • Gil Garcetti, District Attorney for the County of Los Angeles delivered the keynote address.

Is there too much violence in wrestling?

My grandsons are both eight and are obsessed with wrestling. Is there too much violence in wrestling and should they be allowed to watch it?

The fact that you raise the question means you are concerned about the violence in the wrestling shows they watch. I happen to share your concern, but you don’t need me to tell you what you intuitively already know. Remember, nature chose parents and grandparents to raise kids, and your inner feelings on a subject have great validity. You wouldn’t let eight-year-olds read books or magazines filled with death threats, intimidation, violent imagery, and glorification of revenge. So, as is often the case, your answer was imbedded in your question.

My son was shot at by a teenager boy who lives next door.

A few weeks ago, my son (14) was cutting the grass in the backyard. He was shot at by a teenage boy from the next house. The police were called and they were also fired at by the boy. The boy in question (17) was arrested and released. My boys (14 and 15) have just started school. They have to ride the same school bus as the shooter. Being that the shooter is a minor, what can I do to safeguard my kids? Can I legally go to the school administration with the boy’s name and description of his activities?

You present your question as a legal matter, but it’s not a legal matter. It’s an issue of safety. You would be negligent NOT to tell the school about what happened. Assuming your son is certain of the identity of the shooter, tell the school as soon as possible. Another alternative is to ask police to notify the school.

An older boy is touching the young girls in our neighborhood.

There’s a large seventh-grade boy on our block who has, on several occasions, touched two of our young (under six-years-old) girls in ways that horrify us mothers. He picked up a three-year-old and was rubbing under her dress until a mom saw and grabbed her, and another time he was rubbing himself on a five-year-old. We are afraid and angry but not sure how to handle this other than hiding our children indoors. Please advise us.

Signed, Four Moms

What you describe is damaging criminal behavior, and I suggest the police be informed as soon as you’re done scrolling through this answer. That is the most likely way that this boy will get the intervention he needs, and your children will get the protection they need. You are in an urgent situation that needs to be changed, even though some of the changes won’t be easy. You know the phone number: 911.

Are there indications of violence to look for in my teenage sons?

I have two teenage sons. They’re great kids, honor roll students, active in sports, school activities, church, etc. They have friends, attend dances, and are interested in school activities. Like many other teenage boys, they like violent video games and movies. But the Columbine shooters sounded just like this. What other kinds of things should I be looking for?


First of all, the boys who killed fellow students at Columbine did not sound just like this. Sharing a few behavioral features and interests with boys who killed others does not constitute danger. To give you an alternative to the nonsense warning signs offered on the local news, here are some REAL pre-incident indicators associated with boys who act out violently:

  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Addiction to media products
  • Aimlessness
  • Fascination with weapons and violence
  • Experience with guns
  • Access to guns
  • Sullen, Angry, Depressed (SAD)
  • Seeking status and worth through violence
  • Threats (of violence or suicide)
  • Chronic anger
  • Rejection/humiliation

Most of these are self-explanatory but I want to add a couple of brief elaborations: Note that alcohol and drug abuse are at the top of the list; one recent study shows that an astonishing 75 percent of homicides by young people occur when they are high or drunk. Next, the term SAD is used by my firm’s behavioral scientists for easy identification of Sullenness, Anger, and Depression, which include changes in weight, irritability, suicidal references, hopelessness, and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities.

I don’t imagine that the items on the list above apply to your sons. Also, there are seven key abilities human beings need to effectively manage life: the ability to motivate ourselves, to persist against frustration, to delay gratification, to regulate moods, to hope, to empathize, and to control impulse. Many of those who commit extreme acts of violence never learned these skills, but I expect your sons have.

If you are still worried, let me know.

As a teacher, I’m wondering about the best policy for safety.

I am a teacher in a middle school and am concerned about contacting the office in case of an emergency. We have no connection by any means with the office (which is quite a distance away). Our principal doesn’t allow teachers to have cellular phones in the building. What is a good policy that ensures everyone’s safety?

Well, it’s one where the people feel safe – and you don’t, so the policy probably needs some help. Cellular phones may be inappropriate for students to carry at school, but assuming teachers are not using the phones in ways that interfere with their jobs, having one available seems like a good idea. I suggest finding out the principal’s reasons for concern about personal phones and seeing if they can be addressed. The school clearly needs your help, and you are to be commended for persistence in this important area.

A boy in our son’s class has been abusive and the principal isn’t doing anything about it.

My son is in sixth grade and there’s a boy in his class who has major problems! He’s not the only problem though.  My other problem is the principal, who won’t hold any of the kids accountable for their behavior.

The boy has been physically and verbally abusive to several kids. Two years ago, he beat another boy’s head against a wall resulting in a concussion. This past year he stalked yet another boy for months, calling him names and threatening him. He eventually threatened to get a gun and kill the boy he’d been stalking.

The victim told a policeman that works part-time for the school, and boy got only a three day in-school suspension. When this boy’s mother was called, she wasn’t surprised; she reported that he threatens her all the time. This boy is supposed to take medication daily, but he throws it away. This boy also makes racist remarks. The other parents that I’ve talked to are afraid the principal won’t do anything and they don’t want to get involved.

I’m scared to send my son back to school because this kid already picks on my son, and has made reference to getting a gun. Please help.

Your email to me has most of the text you’ll need for the letter I propose you send to the Principal and the Superintendent of your school:

“To Whom it May Concern: I want to formally bring to your attention several matters which have an impact on my son’s safety and well-being, as well as the safety and well-being of other students and staff at the school. [INSERT YOUR TEXT]. My family and community recognize that schools face special challenges these days and we want to be certain our expectations are reasonable. If we’re off base on any of these items, please let us know:

  • We expect the safety of students to be a priority.
  • We expect our child to be allowed to contact us at any time he feels the need.
  • We expect the school to inform us of anything that might have an impact on his safety or well-being.
  • We expect the school to comply with the policies of the District.
  • We expect the school to follow all available supplemental screening practices set forth in the Department of Justice Guidelines for the Screening of Persons Working With Children.
  • We expect the school to be a weapons-free environment.
  • While we authorize you to make decisions on our behalf about educational matters, we do not authorize you to make unilateral decisions on our behalf about life-and-death matters.
  • We are relying upon you or your designates to notify us of any threats to commit violent acts at the school. Even if our son is not specifically named, since he could be in the environment of targeted individuals, we want to be informed so we can evaluate the risks. We request that a safety committee of parents be formed, and that the committee be notified of all threats to commit violent acts.

We know that you face bureaucratic, political, and budgetary challenges, but we are relying upon you to take immediate steps toward ensuring a safe environment while our son is at school. Just as we hold you to your duty as principal, so do we ask you to hold us to ours as parents. On this point, please advise us of ways you feel we can help in this matter.

Sincerely yours…’’

I’m a student who doesn’t feel police in schools help.

I’m not a parent but I needed to ask this to someone who has experience. I’m a high school student and I really don’t feel that police in the schools will help. If there is a kid in any school with enough anger inside, police have only about 5 percent impact on someone like that. I could probably point out about 50 kids that would be candidates for a killer. Many kids honor those Columbine killers. I don’t feel scared, but I’m worried about the next group of kids that comes in and loves death. Does any of this make sense to you?

Yes, it all makes sense, and you offer some real wisdom. Most schools have responded to the Littleton tragedy by improving real estate, instead of improving education. The buildings have been enhanced with cameras and locks, and armed police are roaming the halls.

But Littleton had cameras, and armed police - neither detected the upcoming violence or prevented the tragedy. Indeed, you are right that many kids have a fascination with death, and that’s always been true. What’s different, however, is that those kids are now encouraged by local TV news that also has a fascination with death. Hours every day are dedicated to showing viewers how they might die. Then, other media glorify revenge and violence, and yet some people are surprised when a kid chooses the violent option that’s been paraded in front of him. We spend more time and money learning about why a kid wants a particular brand of jeans than about why he wants a gun. Society will benefit when we adults starts listening to children and teens, and YOU help us do that. I can tell you’ll be helping in other ways as well. Stay in touch.

Can you offer ideas on how to handle a rebellious preteen?

I have an 11-year-old daughter who is being very rebellious and doesn’t like to do what she’s told. I know I don’t spend a lot of time with her any more (because of my work). How do I handle this situation?

First, let’s be sure this is a real problem, because it looks to me more like a mixed blessing. For many parents, the least popular feature of their children is defiance. Yet it is one of the most important for safety. If defiance is always met with discipline and never with discussion, that can handicap a child. Many years ago, the first time your daughter asserted her will may have been cause for celebration, not castigation, for she was building the courage to resist. If as a teenager, she never tests her defiance on you, she may well be unable to use it on a predator. So, she has something right now that many young women and adult women never acquire - and it needs to be protected. This is not to say you shouldn’t address her behavior, but just that it includes some good as well as some bad. Also, as is often the case, part of your answer was embedded in your question: You acknowledged that you don’t spend as much time with your daughter as you’d like.

Should I be concerned about the violent things my grandson brags he has done?

My ten-year-old grandson brags about violent things he says he has done. I don’t believe he has really hurt or beaten up all the boys he says he has, but I am worried about his boastful attitude. Should I be concerned?

You ask if you should be concerned, but the fact that you ask at all means you are concerned, so let’s start there. Next, why don’t you believe that your grandson has done some of the things he has boasted about? The possibility that he may have, and the fact that his ideation seems focused on violence, seems like a matter for some attention. Boasting about having committed violence is not a boasting problem; it’s of more interest to me if he is focusing a great deal on violence. Questions that come to mind: Is he angry about something? Is he being mistreated at school? Or elsewhere?

My son’s friend is being bullied at school. Do I tell his Mom?

My son is eight. He came home from school today and told me that his good friend is getting picked on by other kids who call him a wimp and a geek because he is quiet and non-confrontational. I know the boy’s Mom. Do I tell her?

Would you want to be told if your son was being harassed or abused? Since I know the answer is ‘‘yes,’’ you have your answer. There’s little reason to allow kids to be harassed or abused. If something similar was done to an employee in the workplace, there would be intervention. School should be no different. With kids, being protected is doubly important because they can otherwise develop coping methods that are counterproductive. A wisdom from nature applies: When the dominant do not protect the vulnerable, then the vulnerable seek to become dominant. Little wonder that so many of the boys who have acted violently at school had been picked on by other kids.

How can you teach a painfully shy child to speak to strangers?

I liked the idea of actually having my seven-year-old daughter learn to speak to strangers. How do I go about something like this when she is too shy to ask for things and sometimes can’t even order her own food in a restaurant?

You start by starting. Your daughter will be more willing to choose and then talk to strangers when there is a benefit to her. She wants frozen yogurt? No problem, but she’ll need to choose someone and ask where the nearest place is (while you stand close by). She wants to look at puppies? OK, but she’ll first have to choose a stranger and ask where the nearest pet shop is. After she has these discussions, you and she can discuss how the person reacted, why she chose that particular person, was she comfortable with the person she asked, etc.

How to Get Through to Teenage Girls

by Gavin de Becker, Family Safety Expert

image (From Protecting the Gift Copyright 1999 by Gavin de Becker. Published by The Dial Press. Reprinted with permission.)

How would it be if teenage girls had some initial wariness about every man they encountered? It would be realistic - sad maybe, but realistic. Here’s why: rapes and other sexual crimes are virtually always committed by men, and most rapes and sexual assaults happen to girls under eighteen years of age.

Does this mean a teenage girl should have a “Prove-to-me-that-you-aren’t-dangerous” attitude with all new men? No, because dangerous men are the very ones most frequently seeking to “prove” they aren’t dangerous. The strategies such men apply are designed to gain your trust. Men who will not harm you needn’t persuade you to trust them; they simply act appropriately from the moment you meet them and for as long as you know them. They do not exude forced harmlessness like the drama teacher everyone assumes is gay, or the understanding neighbor who says, “If you ever need to just get away from your parents for a while, consider my place open to you.”

Other than by the passage of time, it isn’t possible for a man to prove he isn’t dangerous, nor is it his responsibility to do so. It is, however, a young woman’s responsibility to heed intuitive signals if she gets them, and it is her responsibility to learn and recognize strategies of persuasion.

I’m realistic enough to know that teaching teenage girls about safety isn’t easy. Warnings of danger haven’t become any more compelling than they were when you first heard them from your parents. That’s partly because there is an appropriate divide between teenagers and their parents; nature wants young adults to tear away for a while and find their own path. Also, while a mother is probably familiar with every important life-experience her teenage daughter has had (because she had them herself), their cultural experiences are hugely different. Here are some humorous but true examples:

Your teenage daughter has never feared a nuclear war; to her “The Day After” is a pill, not a movie. She’s too young to remember the space shuttle blowing up, she has no idea that hostages were held in Iran, she knows there was a president named Reagan, but doesn’t know he was shot, and if she’s heard of Robert Kennedy, it’s because he’s John Kennedy, Jr.‘s uncle. The expression “You sound like a broken record” means nothing to her - she’s never owned a record player. She doesn’t know who shot J.R. or even who he was, and the same for Mork and Mu-ammar Gadhafi. The Titanic was found? Until the movie, she didn’t know it was lost. She has no idea when or why Jordache jeans were cool, and to her, America, Alabama, and Chicago are places - not music bands. Finally, there’s been only one Pope, Jay Leno has always been the host of “The Tonight Show,” popcorn has always been cooked in a microwave, and Michael Jackson has always looked like this.

This list shows that many things in the world have changed, but unfortunately, there are many more that haven’t changed, including intimate violence, date rape, rape, and murder. In our violent patriarchy, some mothers and teenage daughters may find that their shared target-status brings them closer together.

Of all the lessons a mother might pass to her daughter, the most valuable can be summed up with just two letters: N-O. Though the word No is one of the most potent in our language, it is among the least popular. In part, that’s because most of us grew up associating that word with not getting what we wanted. Most kids hate the word, but as they grow, there is exceptional value from learning to love it. Though perhaps hard to imagine, this single word can play a central role in safety, particularly for young women, and particularly when she comes to dating age.

Teaching teens about this isn’t easy because they’ve learned so much about dating from movies and TV shows. A popular Hollywood formula could be called Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn’t Want Boy, Boy Persists and Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girl. Many movies teach young men that if you just stay with it, even if you offend her, even if she says she wants nothing to do with you, even if she’s in another relationship, even if you’ve treated her like trash (and sometimes because you’ve treated her like trash), you’ll get the girl.

Young women will benefit their whole lives from learning that persistence only proves persistence - it does not prove love. The fact that a romantic pursuer is relentless doesn’t mean you are special - it means he is troubled.

Young women (and all women) benefit from understanding this paradox: men are nice when they pursue, and women are nice when they reject. The most troublesome part of this niceness is the too-popular practice called “letting him down easy.” True to what they are taught, rejecting women often say less than they mean. True to what they are taught, men often hear less than what is said. Nowhere is this problem more alarmingly expressed than by the hundreds of thousands of fathers (and mothers), older brothers (and sisters), movies, and television shows that teach most young men that when she says no, that’s not what she means. Add to this all the young women taught to “play hard to get” when that’s not what they are really feeling. The result is that “no” can mean many things in this culture. Here’s just a small sample: Maybe, Not yet, Hmm…, Give me time, Not sure, Keep trying, and I’ve found my man!

There is one book in which the meaning of no is always clear. It is the dictionary, but since Hollywood writers don’t seem to use that book very often, we have to. We have to teach young women that “No” is a complete sentence. This is not as simple as it may appear. Understand that when a man in our culture says No, it’s usually the end of a discussion, but when a women says No, it’s the beginning of a negotiation. This fact brings to mind a popular adage about selling: “The sale begins when the customer says No.”

What starts as persistence often leads to unwanted pursuit, stalking, even date rape. I’ve successfully lobbied and testified for stalking laws in several states, but I would trade them all for a high school class that would teach young men how to hear “no,” and teach young women that it’s all right to explicitly reject. If the culture taught (and then allowed) teenage girls to explicitly reject and to explicitly say no, or if more of them took that power early in every relationship, stalking and date-rape cases would decline dramatically.

How can I protect my teenage daughter from older men in chat rooms?

Our oldest child is 15 and likes to go in chat rooms, which she does at the local library because the children cannot log in by themselves in our home (our PC is password-protected). It seems she started chatting with a man who is 28. About a month later, she received a phone call from this same man. Our daughter has refused to give us the information about this man. How do I protect my child?

Step one is succeeding at some form of authentic communication with your daughter. If she is withholding information from you about the man on the Internet, she could just as easily withhold information about a face-to-face encounter with someone, or about any of a hundred things. Your challenge here is not the bogeyman on the Internet; it’s the failed communication with your daughter. That’s where I’d focus my attention, maybe even seeking help outside the family (family counselor, etc.). I also propose to you that by this age, there is no information about men and the world that your daughter need be protected from. Information is now her armor. I’d suggest you and your daughter might benefit from reading How to Get Through to Teenage Girls, from my book Protecting the Gift.

Do criminals pass on their violent genes?

I was adopted as a child. I recently found my birth mother and found out my father was a violent rapist. I have two teenage sons. Is there a hereditary predisposition gene that is passed on? I have heard that criminals pass on their violent genes. Is this true?

“Nature versus nurture” describes the ongoing debate about whether genetics or environment most influence future behavior. Unless you see behavior signals in your sons that concern you, I’d suggest forgetting about the issue. There isn’t likely a “rapist” gene, and if your boys have grown up in a non-violent environment, that’s likely what will guide their lives.

How can I protect my son when I’m not able to be around?

My son gets beat up a lot on his way home from school and once he got his bike taken away from him. What can I do to stop that since I am never home when he gets home? What can I do?

As is often the case, your answer is embedded in your question, for if you are never home, and you are never able to be present, there may be nothing you can do. It sounds like some prioritization is in order. If you can’t be there, can you ask someone else to be around? I know there is someone in your community who would be glad to help with this.

I’m worried my seven-year-old will be violent as a teenager.

My seven-year-old son gets angry very easily, talks back, refuses to do what he’s told, and hurts my four-year-old daughter when he’s angry. He has also said a couple of times that he is going to kill himself. I am worried about how he is acting now. Will he be even worse as a teenager? Should I be worried?

As is often the case, your answer is in your question: You ask if you should be worried, yet you already are worried, so the real question is: Should you do something about it? I think (and imagine you also think) the answer is Yes. Your family will likely benefit from professional advice, and your seeking it will be an act of love to your boy, your four-year-old daughter, and yourself.

What’s the best way to evaluate bomb threats at schools?


I am school principal who recently had to manage a bomb threat situation. What’s the best way to evaluate these threats?


First, it isn’t the threat that’s evaluated at all: It’s the situation. The words a caller chooses are not the issue. For example, imagine one student threatens to kill a friend, and a second student threatens to blow up an auditorium when it’s full of people. Is one threat worse than the other? NO. One OUTCOME is worse that the other, but the relevance of the threats as a symptom is the same.

Death threats and bomb threats may trigger more anxiety than any other words ever spoken. But why?

Perhaps because we believe only a dangerous person would even think of saying such things, but that just isn’t so. Still, the expression of violent thoughts causes us anxiety, and most of the time that’s the whole idea.

Threatening words are dispatched like soldiers under strict orders: Cause anxiety that cannot be ignored. It’s bad, of course, that someone threatens violence, but the threat means that at least for now, he has considered violence and decided against doing it. The threat means that at least for now (and usually forever), he favors words that alarm over actions that harm.

For an instrument of communication used so frequently, the threat is little understood, until you think about it. Our social world relies on our investing some threats with credibility while discounting others. Our belief that they really will tow the car if we leave it here encourages us to look for a parking space unencumbered by that particular threat. The disbelief that our joking spouse will really kill us if we are late to dinner allows us to stay in the marriage. Threats, you see, are not the issue—context is the issue.

Imagine a man arriving for work one morning. He does not go in the unlocked front door where most people enter the building but instead goes around to a back entrance. When he sees someone ahead of him use a key to get in, he runs up and catches the door before it re-locks. Once he is inside the building, he barely responds as a co-worker calls out, “The boss wants to see you.” “Yeah, he’ll wish he hadn’t seen me,” the man says quietly. He is carrying a gym bag, but it appears too heavy to contain just clothes. Before going to his boss’s office, he stops in the locker room, reaches into the bag, and pulls out a pistol. He takes a second handgun from the bag and conceals both of them beneath his coat. Now he looks for his boss.

If we stopped right here, and you had to evaluate this situation on the basis of what you know, context would tell the tale, because to know just one thing changes every other thing: This man is a police detective. If he were a postal worker, your evaluation would be different.

A threat is to a bombing what a cough is to pneumonia. A threat is a symptom that might be linked to violence, just as a cough is a symptom that might be linked to disease. But you’d never base a whole diagnosis on just one symptom.

Usually, threats betray the speaker by proving that he has failed to influence events in any other way. Most often they represent desperation, not intention. Indeed, whatever one’s intent, attention to threats is always appropriate; fear is rarely appropriate.

Now, since I don’t know anything about your situation (beyond that you got a threat), there’s little I can say on the topic beyond this: The link between bomb threats and bombs rarely exists. But the threat is a symptom of something. I’d suggest you get a copy of my book, The Gift of Fear and you’ll find a lot of information about threats and bomb threats that you can apply to your particular situation.

The most aggressive, disruptive student in my class.

I’m a grade four teacher in a major metropolitan city. I have a male in my class who draws pictures in which he is killing other students and teachers. These drawings show students and teachers being hanged and shot, etc. He constantly talks about guns and also says he dreams about killing people he knows (students and teachers). Neither the social worker nor the student’s mother have shown concern when I raised the matter with them. The student in question has admitted to having delusions as well. In all the years I have been teaching, I have never had such an aggressive, disruptive student in my class. His teacher last year concurs, and even feels the boy is getting worse.

Indeed, it is a serious matter, and your personal challenge appears to be that people are not listening. Whenever that’s the case, I propose changing the medium: Switch to writing your concerns in a letter to your principal and/or superintendent. You might include text along these lines: “Chronically angry children need intervention beyond what I can offer in the classroom if I am to meet my obligation to the other students. I am concerned about this boy’s welfare, and the safety and well-being of students around him for the following reasons: [your list].”

I’m concerned about the safety of children in our township.

A girl in my son’s fifth grade class brought a knife to school because someone had been making fun of her. The principal made a recommendation for expulsion. However, there was an appeal made by the family and now the girl is back at school. Our superintendent and school board can give me no reason why a child is ever excused from expulsion. They will only say there were extenuating circumstances. No one was hurt BUT I wonder about the safety of all children in our township which until this time I believed to have zero tolerance. Should I keep pursuing this?

Though I am not alarmed by the school’s decision, it’s clear you are not satisfied with the response you’ve gotten. Accordingly, I’d suggest a letter to the school. Hopefully, their reply will lessen your concern. Here’s a draft I put together that you can use or amend as you see fit.

Dear Superintendent:

Our son is attending your school this year. We recognize that schools face special challenges these days and we want to be certain our expectations are reasonable. If we’re off base on any of these items, please let us know.

  • We expect the safety of students to be a priority;
  • We expect our son to be allowed to contact us at any time he feels the need;
  • We expect the school to inform us of anything that might have an impact on his safety or well-being;
  • We expect the school to comply with the policies of the School District;
  • We expect the school to follow all available ‘‘supplemental screening practices’’ set forth in the DOJ Guidelines for the Screening of Persons Working With Children;
  • We expect the school to be a weapons-free environment;
  • While we authorize you to make decisions on our behalf about educational matters, we do not authorize you to make decisions on our behalf about life-and-death matters;
  • We are relying upon you or your designates to notify us of any threats to commit violent acts at the school. Even if our son is not specifically named, since he could be in the environment of targeted individuals, we want to be informed so we can evaluate the risks.

Please revisit for us the recent incident in which a student brought a weapon to school and was not suspended. We don’t expect to disagree with your decision, but we do feel a duty to understand it.

Just as we hold you to your duty as principal, so do we ask you to hold us to ours as parents. On this point, please advise us of ways you feel we can help you develop a safer school. Knowing that you face bureaucratic, political, and budgetary challenges, there is surely something we can do to help.

We’re confident that if your office and our family work together, our son will have the best possible school experience. At the same time, we want to assist you in furthering the well-being of all the students.

Sincerely, (your names)

What do you do about a bully who ignores adult intervention?

What do you do about a bully? My son is on a sports team and one child seems to have it out for him even though my son doesn’t even know the child. I’ve already discussed this with the coach and he says he’ll watch out for it but it has not been resolved. My son comes home very upset after the practices but he doesn’t want to quit because of this one person. My son is ten-years-old. How can I handle this?

How would you handle this if it was happening to you at work? You’d insist that the employer provide a work environment that is free from bullying and harassment. I suggest no less for your ten-year-old. Insist that it be stopped – and don’t tolerate behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated in any other aspect of our lives.

What are some signs that a student might be violent?

Are there any signs to look for if a student is going to kill some one or act out in violence?

Yes, indeed, there are. Though no pre-incident indicator on its own is persuasive, if a student displays many of the indicators below, it is call for concern. At a minimum, the student may need some intervention that will be helpful to him, as well as to the safety of others.

  • Alcohol and drug use;
  • Addiction to media products;
  • Aimlessness;
  • Fascination with weapons and violence;
  • Experience with guns;
  • Access to guns;
  • Sullen, Angry, Depressed (SAD);
  • Seeking status and worth through violence;
  • Threats (of violence or suicide);
  • Chronic anger;
  • Rejection/humiliation;
  • Media provocation.

couple of brief elaborations: Note that alcohol and drug abuse are at the top of the list. One recent study shows that an astonishing 75 percent of homicides by young people occur when they are high or drunk. Next, the term SAD is used by my firm’s behavioral scientists for easy identification of Sullenness, Anger, and Depression, which include changes in weight, irritability, suicidal references, hopelessness, and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities.

The PIN called Media Provocation evolved because widely publicized major acts of violence often stimulate people who identify with the perpetrators and the attention they received. Because these cases tend to cluster, violence is more likely during the period following a widely reported incident. (Two weeks after a boy named Michael Carneal shot classmates at his school, another named Joseph ‘‘Colt’’ Todd did the same thing at his. Four weeks after Drew Golden and Mitch Johnson shot students at their school, a boy named Andrew Wurst did so at his, and four weeks later, Kip Kinkel did so at his.) Proximity to major acts of violence understandably increases media coverage (i.e., the incidents become local news stories as well as national). It is remarkable that seven of twelve cases in one study occurred within a 350-mile radius of each other.

Daniel Goleman’s book ‘‘Emotional Intelligence’’ adds further insight. He describes seven key abilities human beings need to effectively manage life: the ability to motivate ourselves, to persist against frustration, to delay gratification, to regulate moods, to hope, to empathize, and to control impulse. Many of those who commit extreme acts of violence never learned these skills, and if you know a young person who lacks them all, it’s an important pre-incident indicator, and he needs help.

What are your do’s and don’ts of placing information on a website?

Is there any information available about the do’s and don’ts of placing information on a website such as pictues, hobby info, personal info, and more? We are aware of chat room danger but this is different. We have found nothing that is specific to website information placement. Can you tell us anything more or guide us to a site that addresses this information particularly?

Personal websites can indeed provide a method whereby child sexual predators gain access to kids, not literal physical access, of course, but access to communicate with a child and work on persuading a child to meet, talk on the phone, etc. Some websites also have photos that may appear innocent to kids, but might be the type of photo of interest to a predator.

Some websites that contain personal information make kids easy to locate. If you allow your kids to have a website, apply this rule: Don’t post anything on a website that you would not be willing to post on the bulletin board of every supermarket in every city in America.

Another great option that addresses all of what your kids might encounter on the Internet: Place a remote monitor (computer screen) in the kitchen or livingroom so that whatever your child is seeing and doing on the Internet could be seen by others in another part of the house. The cost for a monitor and cable is small. Is this like Big Brother? I think it is no different than influencing what books, television shows, or movies your child has access to.

We’re having conflict with our child over a violent video game. How should we handle this?

My 13-year-old son bought the PC game Diablo. It is beginning to cause problems in our home, due to his wanting to play it all the time and, frankly, because I’m not comfortable with the level of violence on the game. Trying to negotiate limits on the amount of time has not resulted in satisfaction for either one of us, and now I would like to take the game away altogether. How should we handle this problem?

You write that you are uncomfortable with the level of violence and that you don’t want him to play the game at all. So that’s your starting point. When you have made that decision, there will be nothing to negotiate. The word decision, like the word incision, means to cut off from all other options. But you haven’t made that decision yet. When you have, the video game problem will be over. That’s not to say it will be easy, but I am certain it will be better than being immersed in simulated killing.

Should I send my son to a camp where a counselor was accused of sexual misconduct?

The camp I chose for my four-year-old son had a great reputation. However, last summer a counselor was accused of sexual misconduct with a first-grader. The matter is pending in court now. The camp has not changed any policies and they stand by their reputation. Should I be concerned? Is one bad apple a good enough reason not to send my son to this camp?

situation. Did they conduct an internal investigation? Did they tell parents about the incident? Have they fully disclosed what their own internal investigation concluded? Did they learn anything from the incident? Had they conducted a pre-employment background investigation on the counselor? Had they ignored signals that they should have reacted to? Forget about the camp’s “reputation.”

The camp’s “reputation” with me is not at all good, given just what you’ve told me, but reputation is an ever-changing concept that cannot help inform your decision. It is time to get to the real issues. If at the end of your extensive inquiry you believe that they put child safety first, that they take effective steps to employ decent, capable, honorable people, that they do all they can to provide a safe environment, then you’ll feel comfortable sending your son there. If you feel otherwise, you won’t feel comfortable sending your son there.

Our troubled 13-year-old is turning to violence…

Our 13-year-old son has been arrested for attempted assault on his father, and suspended from school for telling a student he was going to bring a gun to school and blow everyone away (he has no access to a gun). We have him in counseling, but it doesn’t seem to be helping much. The child psychiatrist has put him on Paxil. Our son is also hearing impaired, and wears two hearing aids. I only want to do what’s best for him, but I’m at a loss about where to go next for help.

Two observations: You note that your son “has no access to a gun,” but in America, sadly, that just isn’t so. I suggest that you always remain familiar with his room and other areas of your home. If you check his room when he is at school, for example, remember that you’re looking for indicators of serious problems—not minor infractions. In other words, no need to bring up small things with him, because it’s best if he doesn’t feel you are invading his privacy. Next, I sense that the psychiatrist treating your son doesn’t have your full confidence. Finding someone you respect, someone who educates and empowers you, is important, because there will be many times you’ll want guidance. Your parenting challenge is more difficult than most, so your efforts, patience, and commitment to learn all you can are an expression of true love for your son. Thank you for what you’re doing.

Is it best to discourage my son from guns or to teach him how to use them properly?

I am the mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old boy. Many of his playmates have toy guns and other ‘‘violent’’ toys. We do not have any and I try to discourage him from playing with them at a friend’s house. However, lately, he has been constructing ‘‘guns’’ out of LEGOs and playing ‘‘shooting game,’’ explaining that he is only shooting monsters. My question is: Do I still try to discourage him or do I go out and buy a gun and try to teach him about gun safety? My husband believes he should have one and we should teach him the pros and cons. My husband is not a gun owner but did have a BB gun when he was a kid and ‘‘nothing ever happened to him.’’ I’m really torn on this issue.

Your husband grew up in a much different world, but I respect his opinion, and suggest that if teaching gun safety is his concern, that can be done at a firing range using guns provided by the range. In other words, having a gun in the home is not a requirement of teaching gun safety.

Here are the tough questions you are facing:

  • Do we want to have a gun in the house?
  • If so, where do we want to keep it?
  • How do we want to store it?
  • How do we want to secure it?
  • Do we want it to be a secret from the kids?
  • Do we want to teach our kids how to use a gun?
  • Do we want to give our son a gun of his own?

The question of whether to keep the location of a gun secret from a child is easy: You may elect to treat it as a secret, but never, ever rely upon the belief that a child cannot find a gun in the house. Even a denier will have trouble finding some meaning hidden between the words never and ever.

The toughest issue is whether or not to have a gun in the house at all. Since my perspective is solely the safety of your children, it’s easy to conclude that for most families, having a gun in the house increases risk. That isn’t just the conclusion of this one expert, but also of the National Center for Victims of Crime, the National Crime Prevention Council, the American Medical Association, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Center for Health Statistics, and most relevant to our topic, the American Academy of Pediatrics.

No exploration of your child’s safety can be complete without taking a clear-eyed look down the barrel of these statistics:

  • Everyday, about seventy-five American children are shot. Most recover; fifteen do not.
  • The majority of fatal accidents involving a firearm occur in the home.
  • Gunshot wounds are the single most common cause of death for women in the home, accounting for nearly half of all homicides and 42 percent of suicides.
  • An adolescent is twice as likely to commit suicide if a gun is kept in the home.
  • A gun is not likely to be a key element in protection from an intruder, and is far more likely to harm a family member.

I hope this information makes your decision easier.

What are your thoughts on spanking children as a form of discipline?

What are your thoughts on spanking children as a form of discipline? I am currently doing a paper about this issue and would appreciate your input.

I oppose hitting children as a form of discipline. I also oppose hitting as an expression of anger, as a method of domination, or for any other purpose. Imagine a child hitting his younger sister, and then being hit as a punishment. Either it is alright for larger, stronger people to hit smaller ones - or it is not alright. We seem to want it both ways. Parents can hit children, but children cannot hit children, and of course, kids are not allowed to hit parents.

We are beings with astounding intellectual ability, and there are so many other methods for communication. Striking a child is a communication, to be sure, but it ultimately teaches that more powerful beings can do what they want, and less powerful beings cannot resist. These are precisely the lessons we’d then want to un-teach as children grow up and enter a free society. I would ask advocates, ‘‘If hitting is an effective and harmless teaching method, why does this society stop using it when citizens become adults and break the rules?’’ Because it is oppressive and breeds resentment, anger, and ultimately more problems in the long run.

How old should a child be when she starts walking to school alone?

How old should a child be when she starts walking to school alone? My daughter is eight.

A child doesn’t magically at some predetermined age become confident, assertive, capable, and powerful. Ideally, this development is a gradual process of ever-greater challenges during which a child gains experience and autonomy.

Only you know what and when your child is ready to learn and how to best inform her. I can offer a test of what children would ideally know before they are ever alone in public. (I am noting just those points relevant to violence and sexual predation, and I am leaving out obvious requirements such as knowing one’s home address, important phone numbers, and other basics.)

Take The Test of Twelve to determine if your daughter is ready to walk to school alone.

Plenty of adults couldn’t themselves pass the Test of Twelve. For example, many have never even considered that if a predator says ‘‘Don’t yell,’’ he is actually saying that yelling would serve you and silence would serve him. Too many people feel compelled to cooperate in their own victimization, in part because they assume they’ll be hurt if they don’t. When a predator says, ‘‘Don’t yell,’’ he is telling you what cards you hold, literally informing you of the way to mess up his plans. ‘‘Don’t yell’’ should be heard by a child as ‘‘YELL.’’ (A role-playing game to teach this skill will obviously be pretty fun.)

The corollary guideline is if someone says, ‘Don’t tell,’ your child should hear ‘‘TELL.’’

Questions for Your Child’s School

Rather than relying on government, you can make at least as vigorous an inquiry of your child’s school as you would of your child’s babysitter. Below is a list of questions that can guide your evaluation of a school. The school should have a ready answer to every one of these questions. If they don’t, the mere fact of your asking (which can be done in writing) will compel them to consider the issues. There may be resources the school feels would improve the safety of children, possibly even resources they have long wanted, and your own participation in the process can help them implement those improvements.

  • Do you have a policy manual or teacher’s handbook? May I have a copy or review it here?
  • Is the safety of students the first item addressed in the policy or handbook? If not, why not?
  • Is the safety of students addressed at all?
  • Are there policies addressing violence, weapons, drug use, sexual abuse, child-on-child sexual abuse, unauthorized visitors?
  • Are background investigations performed on all staff?
  • What areas are reviewed during these background inquiries?
  • Who gathers the information?
  • Who in the administration reviews the information and determines the suitability for employment?
  • What are the criteria for disqualifying an applicant?
  • Does the screening process apply to all employees (teachers, janitors, lunchroom staff, security personnel, part-time employees, bus drivers, etc.)?
  • Is there a nurse on site at all times while children are present (including before and after school)?
  • What is the nurse’s education or training?
  • Can my child call me at any time?
  • May I visit my child at any time?
  • What is your policy for when to contact parents?
  • What are the parent notification procedures?
  • What are the student pick-up procedures?
  • How is it determined that someone other than me can pick up my child?
  • How does the school address special situations (custody disputes, child kidnapping concerns, etc.)?
  • Are older children separated from younger children during recess, lunch, rest-room breaks, etc.?
  • Are acts of violence or criminality at the school documented? Are statistics maintained?
  • May I review the statistics?
  • What violence or criminality has occurred at the school during the last three years?
  • Is there a regular briefing of teachers and administrators to discuss safety and security issues?
  • Are teachers formally notified when a child with a history of serious misconduct is introduced to their class?
  • What is the student-to-teacher ratio in class? During recess? During meals?
  • How are students supervised during visits to the rest-room?
  • Will I be informed of teacher misconduct that might have an impact on the safety or well-being of my child?
  • Are there security personnel on the premises?
  • Are security personnel provided with written policies and guidelines?
  • Is student safety the first issue addressed in the security policy and guidelines material? If not, why not?
  • Is there a special background investigation conducted on security personnel, and what does it encompass?
  • Is there any control over who can enter the grounds?
  • If there is an emergency in a classroom, how does the teacher summon help?
  • If there is an emergency on the playground, how does the teacher summon help?
  • What are the policies and procedures covering emergencies (fire, civil unrest, earthquake, violent intruder, etc.)?
  • How often are emergency drills performed?
  • What procedures are followed when a child is injured?
  • What hospital would my child be transported to in the event of a serious injury?
  • Can I designate a different hospital? A specific family doctor?
  • What police station responds to the school?
  • Who is the school’s liaison at the police department?

Resource List

American Safe Room Door Company. 818-227-8794.

Alanon Family Groups: 800-344-2666 (1-800-443-4525 in Canada)

Alcoholics Anonymous. 212-870-3400

Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America: 215-567-7000

BLAUER Tactical Systems is one of the world’s leaders in the development of personal safety, self-defense, tactical and combative training. They specialize in personalized confrontation management strategies & tactics. 877-773-2748

DoubleSunrise is a reliable and safe internet site where you will receive health information pertinent to the unique needs of young women, early teens to college years and their parents. 800-449-0013 212-641-6681

IMPACT Personal Safety, Inc. 310-360-1096; Programs for Women, Men, Teens and Children, Schools and Corporations

KIDPOWER TEENPOWER FULLPOWER International is a charitable educational organization that teaches people of all ages and abilities to use their power to stay safe, act wisely and believe in themselves. KIDPOWER prepares children, teens, and adults to protect themselves through personal safety workshops that emphasize success-based practice. KIDPOWER has brought education and training to over a million children, teenagers, and adults around the world. There is a wealth of information on their website including an extensive library of free articles, cartoon-illustrated educational materials for sale, training manuals, and a free monthly e-newsletter. Their most recent publication, the 600-page KIDPOWER Book for Caring Adults, provides outstanding information for parents, teachers, and other caregivers on teaching personal safety skills to young people in ways that are empowering and effective.  KIDPOWER has an exceptional track record in the fields of personal safety and violence prevention. (800) 467-6997

The power of intuition via A Free Resource for people affected by domestic violence.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE

National Center for Victims of Crime: 800-273-8255

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Yello Dyno: Providing non-fearful, memory-enhancing educational products and curricula to protect children from child abuse, molestation, abduction, bullying, date rape and violent kids. 888-935-5639

Just 2 Seconds

Available at | Available on Kindle

The essential guide for protectors of at-risk people.

Think of every assassination you’ve ever heard about. For most people, a few of these major ones come to mind: Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, John Lennon, Israel’s Prime Minister Rabin, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto.

From start to finish, all of these attacks — combined — took place in less than one minute. And the hundreds of attacks studied for this book, all of them combined, took place in less than a half-hour. Those thirty minutes, surely the most influential in world history, offer important insights that can help today’s protectors defeat tomorrow’s attackers.

This 650-Page Book Contains:

  • An original work of new insights arising from ten years of research.
  • The Five Essential Lessons for protectors.
  • The Compendium: 400 pages of summarized attacks, near attacks, and incidents against at-risk persons all over the world from 1960 – 2007, more than 1400 entries.
  • Appendices: More than 100 pages of additional material and resources.


Protecting The Gift

Available at

In Protecting the Gift, Gavin de Becker shares with readers his remarkable insight into human behavior, providing them with a fascinating look at how human predators work and how they select their targets and most important, how parents can protect their children. He offers the comforting knowledge that, like every creature on earth, human beings can predict violent behavior. In fact, he says, parents are hardwired to do just that.

Protecting the Gift provides a direct look at the strategies of predators, a study of how children are victimized, and a look at why. Understanding human violence empowers parents to protect their children more effectively. De Becker asks readers at the outset, “Of all the strategies you might bring to protecting your children, could ignorance about violence possibly be an effective one?”

Exploring issues surrounding child abduction, family violence, childcare workers, school safety, teenage dating, driving, drinking, and the often-deadly relationship between boys and guns, Protecting the Gift will enable parents to confidently answer some of life’s highest stakes questions:

  • How can I know a babysitter won’t turn out to be someone who will harm my child?
  • What’s the best way to prepare my child to walk to school alone?
  • What should I do if my child is lost in public?
  • How can I spot sexual predators?
  • How can I know if my child is being sexually abused?
  • How can my kid’s safety be improved?
  • How can I know whether some friend of my child’s might be dangerous?
  • Is my own child displaying warning signs of future violence?
  • What must my teenage son or daughter know in order to be safe?
  • How can I teach my child about risk without causing too much fear?
  • How can I reduce the worrying?

Here’s what others are saying about Protecting the Gift:

Dr. John Monahan
Professor of Psychology and Law
University of Virginia
Author of Predicting Violent Behavior
“A rare opportunity to converse with a master observer of the human condition. Protecting the Gift is the antidote for every parent’s worst nightmare.”
Robert Ressler
FBI Behavioral Scientist
Author of Whoever Fights Monsters
“De Becker has done it again in a field that is full of pseudo advice on protecting America’s most valuable asset - our children. Protecting the Gift leads the way in this field. It’s a must for all parents raising children in an ever increasingly violent society.”
Ann Wolbert Burgess
Professor of Psychiatric Nursing
University of Pennsylvania
“Gavin de Becker’s Protecting the Gift takes a giant step in helping parents translate fear into positive action that can provide safety for their children.”
Ellen Snortland
Author of Beauty Bites Beast:
Awakening the Warrior Within

Women and Girls
Protecting the Gift is dynamic, inspiring and practical. It’s also an entertaining and gripping read. What a combination of qualities! After reading it, you will be changed, and your children’s lives will be safer. This is a must read for every parent or anyone who cares for kids.”
Paul Mones
Children’s rights attorney
Author of When a Child Kills
“In Protecting the Gift de Becker writes eloquently and compassionately about the real dangers facing children. De Becker delivers his message not only through emotionally resonant real life stories (by far the most compelling are from his own childhood) but also through a distillation of the teachings of major criminal justice and psychological researchers. He has achieved what the academics have not been able to effectively do - make the research understandable and useful to the average person.”
Ken Wooden
Leading Child Advocate
Author of Child Lures
“Gavin de Becker has done it again - this time for kids. Protecting the Gift provides practical solutions for keeping youngsters safe from the day-to-day violence and risk that threatens their world. De Becker is truly a modern day knight - a good guy who shares his intuitive and intellectual armor with us all. A brilliant lesson in prevention”
Casey Gwinn
City Attorney
San Diego, California
“Gavin de Becker has captured the truths from real life stories that we can use to protect our children from the predators of our society. I will be a different kind of parent, spouse, and friend because of Gavin’s profound insights. We would need fewer police officers and prosecutors in this country if everyone followed the advice in this book.”
Jan Wagner
Founder of Yello Dyno
Author of Raising Safe Kids in an Unsafe World
“We have become a voyeur society of worriers consumed by dramatic tragedies that will most likely never touch us. In the same breath we ignore the signals that would prevent our own tragedies from occurring in our own neighborhood…even in our own homes. In language that is simple and direct, Protecting the Gift removes the blinder of denial, reconnects parents and children to their instinct of self preservation and gives them the guts to act in their self defense. Gavin de Becker, by sharing his gift of awareness, will undoubtedly save lives, quite possibly yours or even your child’s.”

The Gift of Fear

Available at | Available on Kindle

An instant #1 National Bestseller, The Gift of Fear reveals practical lessons from Gavin de Becker’s decades of studying violence. The book appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for seventeen weeks and has been published in 13 languages.  In 2008, Oprah Winfrey did a special show commemorating the 10th Anniversary of its publication, and the book was featured several other times on her show, as well as two full hours on Larry King Live, three weeks in a row on Prime Time Live, two center pages in Time Magazine, among many others.

Today, a decade after its first publication, AMAZON’s list of the 25 Bestselling Self-defense books shows The Gift of Fear at #1 in the world, with editions of the book also appearing on the list as #4, #7, and #22.

In The Gift of Fear, de Becker draws on his extensive expertise to explode the myth that most violent acts are random and unpredictable and shows that they usually have discernible motives and are preceded by clear warning signs. Through dozens of compelling stories from his own career and life, he unravels the complexities of violent behavior and details the pre-incident indicators (PINs) that can determine if someone poses a danger to us. Readers learn how to:

  • Recognize the survival signals that warn us about risk from strangers
  • Rely on their intuition
  • Separate real from imagined danger
  • Predict Dangerous Behavior
  • Evaluate whether someone will use violence
  • Move beyond denial so that their intuition works for them

Offering in-depth solutions to people who are dealing with domestic abuse or workplace violence or who are the targets of unwanted pursuit, de Becker also provides unique insight into death threats, stalkers, assassins, children who kill, and mass killers. After reading The Gift of Fear, individuals will be able to confidently answer life’s highest-stakes questions:

  • Will the employee I must fire react violently?
  • How should I handle the person who refuses to let go?
  • What is the best way to respond to threats?
  • What are the dangers posed by strangers?
  • How can I help my loved ones be safer?

The Gift of Fear is an important book about human behavior, one which has left millions of readers stronger and safer.

What others have said about The Gift of Fear:

Casey Gwinn
City Attorney, San Diego
“Gavin de Becker moves the reader from victim to victor as he identifies the God-given abilities we all have to avoid the risk posed by the predators in our Society. The real life stories in The Gift of Fear create the picture better than any camera ever could.”
Linda A. Fairstein
Sex Crimes Prosecutor and Author
“An important and provocative book which offers real solutions to problems of fear and personal violence - from an expert who knows the territory and explodes the myths. I know The Gift of Fear will be a terrific resource for me - and, I hope, for millions of readers.”
Marcia Clark:
“In my 14 years as a prosecutor, crime victims or their loved ones have always asked me, “What could I have done to prevent this?” The Gift of Fear is the first book that answers that question. It teaches you how to tap into and act on the subtle warning signs that herald danger. Gavin de Becker’s brilliant insights and encyclopedic familiarity with the minds of criminals have made powerful contributions to the successful prosecution of many cases, including mine, and now he shares that knowledge with his readers.”
Robert Ressler
FBI Behavioral Scientist
Author of “Whoever Fights Monsters”
“A modern-day survival manual for everyone in our society, uniquely and firmly founded on Gavin de Becker’s extensive experience, and on his own life. This book contains wisdom that transcends traditional approaches to violence.”
Meryl Streep
“A thorough and compassionate primer for people concerned about their safety and the safety of their families. This book not only empowers the reader, it also captures your attention and doesn’t let it go until the end.”
Scott Gordon
Chairman, Domestic Violence Council
“...tackles the hard questions about living in America today. It should be read by everyone who wants to triumph over fear.”
Daniel Petrocelli
Lead Plaintiff counsel
Goldman v. Simpson
“Gavin de Becker’s book is the first to explain that our powers of intuition are the best protection we have against violence.”
Erika Holzer
Lawyer and author of “Eye For An Eye”
“...a tour de force: riveting, instructive, a book that dissects the phenomenon of violence, unravels its mysteries, and shows us how to prevail.”
Rochelle Udell
SELF Magazine
The Gift of Fear is an important story with a powerful message, a story every woman must read.”

Fear Less

Available at

Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear showed millions of readers how to better protect themselves from violence and unwarranted fear. Now, in Fear Less, de Becker answers the questions many Americans have been asking since September 11th:

  Can air travel be safe?
  What is the risk of biological or chemical attack?
  Can the government detect and prevent future acts?
  How can we best talk to our children about what has happened and what might happen?
  What can individuals do to reduce fear and worry?
  What specific steps can individuals take to reduce terrorism?
  What are terrorists likely to do next?
  Most simply, is everything going to be all right?

De Becker says, “Just as your imagination has placed you in frightening situations, it is now time to place yourself in empowering situations, time to see that you have a role to play, and contrary to so many TV news stories, it isn’t just victim-in-waiting.”

Fear Less offers specific recommendations that can enhance our national security and our individual safety – and help put fear into perspective.

“In this war, there will be no captured beachhead upon which we can lay our fears to rest. So we are challenged to find safety and peace of mind in other ways.”

“You and I can be sources of reasoned information, insight, comfort, and courage. The more of us there are, the better – and though we may not be able to stop all terrorism, we can stop lots of terror. Let’s go further into the relevant topics than one can do in a sound bite, go into them without alarming bulletins and scary graphics, go into them without hype or politics, go into them just deeply enough to come out the other side.”

“Then you can see if you reach the same conclusions I have: that you can find your life in these times, that you can influence your own safety, that you can help protect your country, that you can manage fear, and that you are going to be all right.”

Apocalypse Not Now

“What’s the bottom line?” people often ask me. “Will terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb? Spread smallpox? Release nerve gas? What’s the worst case scenario?”

You have probably known someone who experienced a trauma, and you may have seen that person later reliving the tragedy. There is also such thing as pre-living a tragedy. Exactly as we benefit from letting go of the past, millions of Americans will benefit from letting go of the worst-case future. Someone proposes a so-called worst-case scenario (as if there could be any objective view of what would constitute the worst case), and then the scenario gets discussed so much on television that it comes to seem like a likelihood.

A worst-case scenario is a theoretical sequence of events intentionally devised to be as bad as possible, the word scenario coming from scene, as in a scene in a play or movie. Worst-case scenarios are creative exercises, not predictions of likely events. If we had examples of the realities to explore, we’d be doing that, but in most of these instances, we have only the imagination to chew on. Remember, these things enter the stream of discussion specifically because they are not likely, specifically because they are at the far end of possibility, and specifically because they have not ever happened.

These things start through someone saying, “Geez, what if terrorists got hold of an inter-continental ballistic missile?” Then TV news personalities interview experts in some loosely related field, a scary graphic is developed (say, a mushroom cloud emerging from the top of a local playground), then they hound a government official with the question, “But isn’t it possible that someone could get hold of an inter-continental ballistic missile?” and he says how unlikely that is, but acknowledges that it is possible (i.e., within the realm of physics and imagination) – and we’re off and running.

The human mind pounces on this sort of thing because it can seem relevant to survival. We’re built to entertain every thought of danger that’s put in front of us, to turn it over, to look at it from every angle. The more enormous a lethal danger might be and the more people it might harm, the more fascinating. But for us to be fascinated by something, it has to be made accessible to our minds. For example, the Earth coming out of its orbit and spinning off into a collision with Jupiter is too hard for us to get our minds around, but the idea of someone using a makeshift nuclear bomb has been made to appear plausible simply because of so much discussion.

Though TV news carries theoretical discussions of doom further than other media, magazines and newspapers do their part. Journalists are writers, and they love creative stories, so we get detailed accounts of precisely how terrible a terrible outcome could be. Editors love a dramatic hook, and you’re the fish they’re trying to catch with it. Print may seem to give credibility to worst-case scenarios, but the truth is that only you decide what credibility to invest in any given doomsday tale.

You’ve probably heard that anyone can easily get information about how to build a nuclear bomb by just logging on to the Internet. Have you tried “just logging onto the Internet” and getting those simple step-by-step instructions? Do you know how to build a nuclear bomb? Whenever I hear about how easy it is, I am reminded of an old routine from the brilliant humorist, author, and filmmaker Steve Martin: He would promise to tell his audience the secret of how one could earn a million dollars and yet pay absolutely no taxes. “First,” he’d say as if this were the easy part, “earn a million dollars.” To all those who make nuclear bomb construction sound as simple as putting up Christmas lights, I’d say, ‘First, get some plutonium or highly enriched uranium.”

Someday some person or group may indeed detonate a small nuclear device somewhere on earth. It will be awful. It will harm some people. It will be recovered from. After we accept that it could happen, is it constructive to spend every day between now and then trying to experience the event in our minds?

The future is longer than the past, and because the future occurs on the foundation of the past, more will happen than has happened. This means that nearly everything we can imagine has some likelihood of happening sometime, particularly if you include far off times. In a truly intelligent worst-case scenario, one would theorize that some young Americans bent on grand mischief are far more dangerous than foreign terrorists. They are here, they are brilliant, some are reckless, some are homicidal and suicidal, and we must assume that the extraordinary knowledge being accumulated in our society and made available to young people will be misused. Many teenagers are capable of mounting ferocious attacks and many have the motivation to do so – as we have learned in tragedies like Columbine. What a 30-year old would find discouragingly difficult to accomplish, an 18-year old will keep trying at. What a 30-year old might find too reckless or dangerous, an 18-year old might find intriguing.

I make this point to bring some perspective during a time that Americans have focused almost entirely on Middle Eastern terrorists. When anthrax spores were sent through the mail after 9/11, we were fascinated to know if the crime was linked to the attack on the World Trade Center. This raises one of the most salient questions about risk: Does motive matter? It’s understandable that people are more afraid if anthrax spores are sent by Middle Eastern terrorists, even though there are far more American-bred attention-seekers who might do this kind of thing. Excessive fascination with motive and with the origins of risk can cloud our ability to make effective assessments of what is really likely and how to respond to events that actually occur. Whether sent by an American or a middle-easterner, the best management of the anthrax cases remains the same.

There are people whose jobs require some degree of worst-case thinking. I am one of them. Whole teams of threat assessment practitioners in my firm spend their time developing contingency plans and responses to cover a variety of unfavorable outcomes. For example, making arrangements for a controversial public figure to give a speech at a rally about an emotionally charged political issue calls for contingency plans about many kinds of things that could happen, but we put more effort into those possibilities that are most likely.

An assassin in the audience, at the vehicle arrival area, or along the foot-route from the car to the holding room, a sniper in the distance, a bomb that was placed a week before the event, someone trying to strike the public figure, even a pie attack – all these things and more are on our list during the days of planning leading up to such an appearance. I do not oppose contingency planning. I do oppose time-wasting, however, and in my firm, in my life, and in your life, everything we give energy to takes energy away from something else. Accordingly, we are wisest to put our resources where they’ll be most likely to return some benefit.

You already live your life according to that equation, deciding where to put your protective resources at home, for example. Though intruders could land a helicopter on your roof and core through the ceiling, you’ve decided that entry via the front door is more likely – and you’ve got a lock that requires a key. While a criminal could photograph your credit cards with a telephoto lens and then painstakingly duplicate them, you’ve determined that someone taking your purse is more likely – so you watch it carefully. If there’s an emergency phone list in your home, the names and numbers reflect your family’s assessment of likely hazards. Is the U.S. Department of Energy Nuclear Emergency Search Team on that list? Probably not, and you’re not likely to need that phone number. You also have a list in your head of things you want to avoid or prevent. You base the list on experience, logic, new information, and intuition. The list has limits – because it has to.

Conversely, worst-case scenarios have no limits. Wherever the imagination can travel, your mind can take you there. But the trip is voluntary – even when TV news producers are urging you to go, you don’t have to.

Three terrible possibilities in particular have dominated the national dialogue: chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks. Normally, it’s fair to assume that when everybody is discussing something, it’s likely to happen, but that equation is warped a bit by people on television news shows – who will discuss anything.

In 1997, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen appeared on an ABC News show and held up a 5-pound bag of sugar, threatening that “This amount of Anthrax could be spread over a city—let’s say the size of Washington. It would destroy at least half the population of that city. If you had even more amounts…” Let me interrupt Mr. Cohen for a moment, and recall that he also said, “One small particle of Anthrax would produce death within five days.” With that kind of inaccurate ad-fear-tising, it’s no surprise that every scenario we used to hear about anthrax involved the death of hundreds of thousands or even “millions, millions” as Cohen was intoning when interviewer Cokie Roberts actually said to him, “Would you put that bag down please.” We have had several instructive examples of how worst-case scenarios fail to follow the creative scripts people write. For example, since the dread begun by Cohen’s bag-of-sugar threat, we’ve actually experienced some biological attacks – and they’ve been far different from the scenarios we were offered.

Before 2001, did you ever hear a scenario about anthrax that went like this:

Somebody will put anthrax spores in letters and send them around several East Coast cities. Fewer than 100 people will be exposed to the bacteria, and about 30 will get sick and be successfully treated. A few will die. There will be absolutely no impact on the health of 280 million other Americans, though the events will cause sadness and fear around the nation. In a city the size of Washington, D.C. fewer people will die from anthrax than from bites and bee stings.

So, anthrax has gone from a mass killer that would leave nobody alive to even write a news story about what happened – to something far less apocalyptic. I am not saying there is no potential for escalation, but in the months after September 11, the reality of anthrax looked more like the paragraph above and less like the popular scenarios.

In addition to sinister use of biological pathogens, chemical attacks have also actually happened, and the outcomes of those undertakings were also far different from what we’d been led to expect. Here’s what happened in the most famous case: A Japanese sect called Aum Shinrikyo undertook a chemical attack in the Tokyo subway system – an ideal environment for maximum fatalities because it is enclosed, has limited ventilation, and has tens of thousands of people unable to get away easily. Still, even with nearly perfect conditions for the attack, less than ten percent of the people in the subway were injured, all but a few of those who experienced any effects were better in a few hours, and only one percent of those injured died. Were the perpetrators just incompetent? Hardly; the group’s membership included highly trained bio-scientists and chemists. Were they underfunded? Hardly; they had millions of dollars to spend. Were they rushed? Not at all; they had lots of time for research and preparation. Did they fail? Utterly.

In what way did they fail? Well, first of all, they failed to harm and kill lots of people. Second, they failed to shut down the Japanese government. And mostly, they failed to make reality match imagination, and that’s going to happen a lot.

To be clear, my point here is not that bad things don’t happen – I am deeply involved in managing bad things that happen all the time. My point is not that there’s nothing to worry about – there’s plenty you can worry about. Rather, my point is that the popular worst-case scenarios are just that: popular – and they remain so as long as they offer drama, and, perhaps surprisingly, as long as they don’t happen. Once a terrible thing happens, it moves from our imaginations to our reality; it moves from being an interesting possible problem to something about which we must choose real and immediate solutions. We respond. We manage, even when faced with tidal waves, and nature’s stunning timebombs: volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. These are clear and powerful dangers, of course, though understandably, we are more afraid of the danger that is conscious, the danger that emerges from the malicious intent we face today.

So let’s explore some of the malicious possibilities that occupy our attention so that we can place them into the appropriate mental compartments. Once compartmentalized, the information will be available if needed, and not blinding us to the rest of life when not needed. As opposed to inviting these outcomes to be houseguests, we’ll look at them from a distance - because that’s where they actually are: at a distance.

Chemical weapons are toxic substances, normally in gas or liquid form, that someone seeks to get onto or into human beings. They act immediately on physiological systems to cause debilitation or death.

Biological weapons are bacteria and viruses that are intentionally introduced into human hosts. (This was previously called “germ warfare.”) Once inside, they propagate and cause disease. There is always a period of time, called an incubation period, between the time of first exposure and when disease symptoms appear.

These hazards together can be abbreviated as “biochem.”

In recent times, you have no doubt gained an unusual education about biochem agents by assembling fragments of information from reporters, scientists, and talking heads whose expertise ranges from dubious to impressive. While I do not intend what follows to be a comprehensive treatise about biochem weapons, I do want to provide an accurate foundation onto which you can continue to add new information. To help, I sought out two experts who might seem like polar opposites: an internationally known scientist, and a retired soldier.

Dr. Raymond Zilinskas is a consultant to my firm on biochem issues, selected because of his impeccable credentials as a United Nations weapons inspector. He is Senior Scientist at the Center for Nonproliferation Research at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Sergeant First Class Red Thomas is a retired weapons, munitions, and training expert from the U.S. Army. Since he was seven-years old, Red has had, as he puts it, “a penchant for learning about anything that goes bang, boom, or pop.”

Dr. Zilinskas, tired of seeing so much misinformation on the TV news, offers sober thinking, keen intellect, and exceptional communication skills to help his country understand the actual risks during these times. Red Thomas explains his contribution more simply: “I was watching these ninnies on the news, and I hurt for all the people I knew were afraid.”

Though Dr. Zilinskas is in the business of considering worst-case scenarios, he points out that “These are worrisome times, but let us not overestimate the hazard. For the average American citizen, the probability of being affected by a bioterrorist attack is vanishingly low.” Neither Dr. Zilinskas nor Red Thomas believe we will see the kinds of devastating attacks often portrayed in TV news stories, in which tens of thousands of people are harmed or killed.


Red Thomas recalls a 60 Minutes segment in which someone reported that one drop of nerve gas could kill a thousand people: “Well, he didn’t tell you the thousand dead people per drop was theoretical. Drill Sergeants exaggerate how terrible this stuff is to keep the recruits awake in class. I know this because I was a Drill Sergeant too. Forget everything you’ve ever seen on TV, in the movies, or read in a novel about this stuff; it was all a lie.”

Though media reports and politicians characterize chemical agents as “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” this appears to be the wrong category. The only weapons of mass destruction on earth are bombs (with nuclear bombs being the most dangerous). Red Thomas points out that chemical weapons are not made for mass destruction – they are made for “area denial” and terror. As he says, “When you leave the area, you almost always leave the risk. That’s the difference between you and a soldier: You can leave the area and the risk; soldiers may have to stay put and sit through it and that’s why they need all that spiffy gear.”

Dr. Zilinskas has made clear that many difficulties would have to be overcome before someone could inflict mass casualties with chemicals. Adds Red: “This stuff won’t work when it’s freezing, it doesn’t last when it’s hot, and wind spreads it too thin too fast. They’ve got to get this stuff on you, or, get you to inhale it for it to work. They also have to get the concentration of chemicals high enough to kill or wound someone. Too little and it’s nothing, too much and it’s wasted. A chemical weapons attack that kills a lot of people is incredibly hard to do even with military grade agents and equipment.“

While nerve agents may sound like science fiction, Red brings the truth home:

“You have nerve agents in your house; plain old bug killer (like Raid) is a nerve agent. All nerve agents work the same way: They are cholinesterase inhibitors that mess up the signals your nervous system uses to make your body function. They can harm you if you get it on your skin but it works best if they can get you to inhale it. If a person doesn’t die in the first minute and can leave the area, they’re probably going to live.”

“The military’s treatment response for all nerve agents is atropine and pralidoxime chloride [usually called 2-pam chloride]. Neither one of these does anything to cure the nerve agent; what they do is send the body into overdrive to keep a person alive for five minutes – after that the agent is used up. The best protection is fresh air and staying calm.”

The symptoms for nerve agent contamination include everything you’d imagine: sudden headache, dimmed vision, runny nose, excessive saliva or drooling, difficulty breathing, tightness in chest, nausea, stomach cramps. (There can also be an odor of hay, green corn, something fruity, or camphor.) In the unlikely event you ever experienced these symptoms in public, Red Thomas suggests you ask yourself, “Did anything out of the ordinary just happen; a loud pop, did someone spray something on the crowd? Are other people getting sick too?”

Again, it’s so unlikely, but if the answer to these questions is Yes, then calmness is key, because panic leads to faster breathing, and accordingly, more inhalation of poison. Next, leave the area immediately; get outside. Fresh air is your best immediate treatment, what Red Thomas calls the “right now antidote.” If some thick liquid is actually on you, your natural inclination is the wisest: Get it off you, blotting or scraping it off with something disposable – and get away from it.

If you get away and you lessen your exposure, the risk drops. Red Thomas moves this fear from the paralyzing to the practical: “Remember, people trying to hurt you with nerve agents have to do all the work; they have to get the concentration up and keep it up for several minutes. All you have to do is quit getting it on you and quit breathing it by putting space between you and the attack.”

Another category of chemical weapons are called blood agents (cyanide or arsine that effect the blood’s ability to provide oxygen). The scenario for attack using these poisons would likely be the same as for nerve agent. The symptoms include blue lips, blue under the fingernails, rapid breathing. The military’s recommended treatment is amyl nitrite. As with nerve agents, the treatment is just to keep your body working for five minutes till the toxins are used up. As with nerve agents, immediate fresh air is important.


Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax, currently the biological pathogen causing the greatest concern, cannot be spread in many ways. The anthrax spore is dormant and dry. Merely touching it does not give you anthrax. If you have a cut on your finger, and you touch anthrax spores, you might come down with the skin form of anthrax – and you might not. The same is true of the two other kinds of anthrax infection: in the digestive tract usually gotten from eating infected meat or otherwise ingesting many spores, or in the lungs, which victims get from deeply inhaling anthrax spores that become airborne. Whatever type, anthrax is not contagious person to person – and many people who are exposed don’t ever develop the disease.

Dr. Zilinskas advises that terrorists trying to harm lots of people with airborne pathogens are likely to have relatively little success. This is because of the technical difficulty in formulating pathogens and toxins for wide range airborne dispersal. It would be difficult to develop and operate dispersal mechanisms successfully, and difficult to ensure proper meteorological conditions for effective dispersal. Air temperature, ground temperature, humidity, sunlight, precipitation, wind speed, and obstacles such as buildings and terrain all influence the success of any effort to disperse biochem agents.

Adds Red Thomas: “Saddam Hussein spent twenty years and millions of dollars, and he couldn’t get it right – so you can imagine how hard it would be for terrorists. The more you know about this stuff the more you realize how hard it is to use.”

Even without directly affecting large numbers of people, anthrax and other biological agents cause great fear, leading observers to forget that naturally occurring infectious diseases are far more dangerous – as proved throughout human history. Says Dr. Zilinskas: “In comparison to the real and enormous hazard of naturally occurring infectious diseases, the problem of deliberately caused disease is almost insignificant.” In other words, while we worry about a handful of people who are intent on doing something destructive with biological pathogens, literally billions of bacteria are working to get into your body and cause trouble. During the period in which one person died in a week from anthrax, recognize that about 400 times as many people died from flu-related ailments, and few of us bother to even get a flu shot.

You may also have been concerned about terrorist attacks where food is contaminated, and indeed, such attacks have occurred. Dr. Zalinskas notes: “Much like what has taken place in the past, these attacks are likely to harm people ranging in number from a few to hundreds – not thousands.” (As mentioned in Chapter One, ten restaurant salad bars and one supermarket were contaminated by members of the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon in 1984. There were 751 people affected. All recovered fully.)

You have likely also heard worst-case scenarios about Bubonic and Pneumonic plague. Bubonic plague is not communicable from human to human; pneumonic plague is communicable but all plague can be treated with commonly available antibiotics. You may also have heard speculation about Botulinum toxin; it is deadly if untreated, but it can be treated with an anti-toxin.

And finally, there’s smallpox, which is caused by a terrible virus that was declared eradicated worldwide in 1980. Though anything is possible, the smallpox virus officially exists in just two places on earth, at a U.S. research facility, and at a Russian research facility. There is an effective vaccine for smallpox, and the U.S. Government has millions of doses and millions more are currently being produced.

Dr. Zilinskas and I agree that smallpox is an unattractive biological weapon for a terrorist organization with political goals, particularly if the organization is state-sponsored (and governments are the most likely institutions to be able to get the Smallpox virus). The reason a government will likely discourage the terroristic use of Smallpox: The more successfully the virus is spread, the more likely the same virus will make its way back to the sponsoring country. In other words, were Iraq to sponsor the spreading of smallpox (as unlikely and difficult as that may be), if many people in a target country were infected, it becomes a near-certainty that people in Iraq would become infected as well. No nation on earth would be more able to deal with the public health emergency than the United States – so to the precise degree that a perpetrator succeeds, the sponsoring nation loses.

Accordingly, unless an individual or group has apocalyptic visions (the destruction of everything and everyone – and Middle Eastern terrorists have not been apocalyptic), the spreading of highly infectious diseases is counterproductive to virtually every political aim one could imagine.

While it’s clear there will always be vulnerability to biochem weapons (as we are vulnerable to naturally occurring viruses and bacteria), several important steps have been taken in the last few years. For example, the U.S. Armed Forces have organized and trained rapid-response teams to survey attack sites and initiate decontamination procedures. Many state and local agencies have received federal funding for equipment and training, and have participated in exercises that help anticipate and prepare for meeting our needs in a biochem emergency. That’s why hundreds of agencies have the protective clothing, other specialized equipment, and training you saw as they responded to suspicious powders and hoaxes all over America. I don’t mean to say every possibility has been fully anticipated or prepared for, because that’s not the case. However, during the weeks following 9/11 useful new knowledge about anthrax was evolving right before our eyes. You probably already know a lot about treatment plans and symptoms, and more information is available to you as it develops. (See Appendix #TK.)

Also, consider that our government agencies have lots of experience in responding to incidents of accidental chemical and biological contamination. Reassuringly, the response to a chemical gas attack would not be unlike the procedures currently used for responding to a situation in which a railroad tank car containing contaminants overturns. Several outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease (a biological hazard) were successfully handled by authorities around the nation.

Dr. Zilinskas advises that, when a disease outbreak is first detected, officials are not immediately in a position to know if the outbreak was intentional or natural. Thus, the initial public health and medical response to a disease outbreak is the same whatever its origin.

If a government agency detects a chemical or biological attack, they will likely issue specific civil defense warnings through the media. In most cases – unless you happen to be at the actual site of the chemical or biological agents – you are likely to have time to take the one precaution that applies to all biochem hazards: avoiding areas near the contamination.


A nuclear device used by terrorists would be low yield; it would not, contrary to our worst imaginings, level whole cities. Effects are likely to be limited to a half-mile circle (not that far off the area of damage at the World Trade Center). But when it’s done, it’s done. People within the affected area who live through the heat, blast, and initial burst of radiation are likely to continue living for as long as they would have in any event. As Red Thomas says, “Radiation will not create fifty-foot tall women, giant ants, or grasshoppers the size of tanks.”

There are many kinds of radiation, but three are most relevant to our topic: alpha, beta, and gamma. The others you have lived with for years. Red Thomas explains: “You need to worry about what is called Ionizing radiation. It’s the same as people getting radiation treatments for cancer, only a bigger area gets radiated. The good news is you don’t have to just sit there and take it, and there’s lots you can do rather than panic. First, your skin will stop alpha particles, a page of a news paper or your clothing will stop beta particles, you’ve just got to try and avoid inhaling dust that’s contaminated with atoms that are emitting these things and you’ll be generally safe.” Gamma rays are the most dangerous, but it also takes a lot of them to kill people.

Overall preparation for any terrorist attack that results in major damage is the same as one would wisely take for a big storm or earthquake. How has Red Thomas prepared?

“If you want a gas mask, fine, go get one. I know this stuff and I’m not getting one and I told my Mom not to bother with one either. How’s that for confidence? We have a week’s worth of cash, several days worth of canned goods, and plenty of soap and water.

These terrorists can’t conceive of a nation this big with this much resources. Biochem and small nuclear weapons are made to cause panic, terror, and to demoralize. The government is going nuts over this stuff because they have to protect every inch of America. You’ve only got to protect yourself, and by doing that, you help the country.”

Credible Threats, Warning Signs, and Kangaroos

Since we are the editors of what scenarios get in and which are invested with credibility, it’s important to evaluate our sources of information. I explained this during a presentation for hundreds of government threat assessors at the Central Intelligence Agency a few years ago, making my point by drawing on a very rare safety hazard: kangaroo attacks. I told the audience that about twenty people a year are killed by the normally friendly animals, and that kangaroos always display a specific set of indicators before they attack:

  1. They will give what appears to be a wide and genial smile (but they are actually showing their teeth).
  2. They will check their pouches compulsively several times to be sure they have no young with them (they never attack while carrying young).
  3. They will look behind them (since they always retreat immediately after they kill).

After these three signals, they will lunge, brutally pummel their victim, and then gallop off.

I asked two audience members to stand up and repeat back the warning signs, and both flawlessly described the smile, the checking of the pouch for young, and the looking back for an escape route. In fact, everyone in that room (and now you) will remember those warning signs for life. Your brain is wired to value such information, and if you are ever face to face with a kangaroo, be it tomorrow or decades from now, those three pre-incident indicators will be in your head.

The problem, I told the audience at the CIA, is that I made up those signals. I did it to demonstrate the risks of inaccurate information. I actually know nothing about kangaroo behavior (so forget the three signals if you can – or stay away from hostile kangaroos).

In our lives, we are constantly bombarded with kangaroo facts masquerading as knowledge, and our intuition relies on us to decide what we will give credence to.

For example, in the months following 9/11, we were often warned about new major of acts of terrorism predicted to occur within days. Government officials and newsreaders spoke of “credible threats,” a phrase often confused with high likelihood, but let’s break it down: A threat is a statement of an intention to do harm, period. Credible means plausible, and it can sometimes mean believable. In the context of the world since 9/11, any threat spoken by extremists is believable.

Politicians and newsreaders often use the word threat as if it is interchangeable with hazard. Threats and hazards are two different things. Hazard means a chance of being injured or harmed. (The root of the word actually comes from a dice game.) A threat is something someone expresses. Accordingly when the U.S. Attorney General speaks of a credible threat, if he is using his terms correctly, he is telling us about something someone has expressed.

Threats are generally spoken specifically to cause fear and anxiety. That’s not my intent right now, so please pardon my saying this: I am going to kill you.

There, you have just received a death threat. I am a credible person who is capable and well versed in the ways of violence, so it’s a credible threat, too. This threat you just received is vastly more direct, clear, demonstrable, and well-documented than most of the terrorist threats you’ve heard about.

Press conferences that warn of terrorist strikes “within the next two days” understandably cause lots of uncertainty. For example, the Governor of California announced a “credible threat” against landmark bridges in California, and warned that the attacks would take place between November 1st and November 9th. Upon what in the world do they base these schedules? Is the underlying premise that some terrorist said, “If I haven’t done this by the 9th, I’ll get over it, and I wouldn’t dream of doing it on, say, the 14th. So your risk is just between the 1st and the 9th.”

In any event, after the Governor’s “credible threat” had caused concern to Californians for a few days, the FBI described it as “not credible.” Incredible, isn’t it?

A lot of the warnings we’ve received from public officials might as well be threats themselves, for they have the same effect. The row of serious men behind the podium and the choice of alarming words often obscure underlying information that is pretty thin. The drama of these presentations is tantamount to having your doctor call you in, sit you down, and put one hand on your shoulder as he thumbs through your charts with the other. He levels a serious look at you, and just before you pass out, he says: “Your test results are in, and in my opinion, you’re going to be fine.”

I am certain that most officials who announce threats mean well, but it sometimes seems that everybody wants to be Rudy Guiliani. Since only Rudy really is, others could help us more if they advised the public along these lines: “You may notice extra National Guardsmen at various bridges. This is a precaution in response to some threats and speculation we have assessed. As you’ve seen in recent weeks, no threats have been successfully acted upon, and we’ll do our part to ensure that these threats remain in that category. We’ll take special care protecting the bridges, and if you see anything that concerns you, please make a report.”

Ideally, a press conference about threats to the Golden Gate Bridge would be held on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Alarming words -whether spoken by some angry extremist or by our own public officials- cause people to react by going into a defensive posture, psychologically speaking. Though the words themselves can’t put us at any actual risk, uncertainty about risk causes alarm, and this causes a problem: When we are stunned or distracted we raise the very drawbridge -perception- that we must cross in order to make successful predictions.

In the last thirty years, I’ve read, heard, and seen the world’s most creative, gruesome, distasteful, effective, and well-performed threats. I’ve learned that it’s important to react calmly, because when in alarm we stop evaluating information mindfully and start doing it physically.

For example, a death threat communicated in a letter or phone call cannot possibly pose any immediate hazard, but the recipient might nonetheless start getting physically ready for danger with the increased breathing and heartbeat to support all the fear-response chemicals and systems. These responses are valuable when facing present danger, but for assessing future hazard, staying calm produces better results. A way to do this is to consciously ask and answer the question “Am I in immediate danger?” Your body wants you to get this question out of the way, and once you do, you’ll be free to keep perceiving what’s going on.

Though thoughts of harming you may be terrible, they are also inevitable. Many people around the world (and even in America) hate America, some enough to actually harm us, others enough to want to harm us, many enough to threaten harm, and many others enough to be glad when we are harmed. Until 9/11, most people in the world had never seen Americans as human, vulnerable, or part of the world community. Our aloofness and our success bred envy. It is particularly difficult for Americans to fully believe and accept that people hate us so fiercely, and there has been lots of denial about this truth. Individual Americans can feel that they are just going about their lives, but that in itself -without you doing another thing- has been fuel for aggression. It’s understandable that this aggression causes so much fear because it seems to many as if it came out of nowhere. It didn’t, but whatever the reasons, all these thoughts about harming us are themselves harming us.

Thoughts are not the problem, of course; the expression of thoughts is what causes us anxiety, and most of the time that’s the whole idea. Understanding this will help reduce unwarranted fear.

That someone would intrude on our peace of mind, that they would speak words so difficult to take back, that they would exploit our fear of flying, that they would care so little about us, that they would raise the stakes so high, that they would stoop so low – all of this alarms us, and by design.

Threatening words are dispatched like soldiers under strict orders: Cause anxiety that cannot be ignored. Surprisingly, their deployment isn’t entirely bad news. It’s bad, of course, that someone threatens violence, but the threat means that at least for now, the speaker has considered violence and decided against doing it. The threat means that at least for now, the speaker favors words that alarm over actions that harm.

For an instrument of communication used so frequently, the threat is little understood, until you think about it. The parent who threatens punishment, the lawyer who threatens unspecified “further action,” the head of state who threatens war, the terrorist group that threatens mass killing, the child who threatens to make a scene – all are using words with the exact same intent: to cause uncertainty.

Though you wouldn’t know it by the reaction they frequently earn, threats are rarely spoken from a position of power. Whatever power threats have is derived from the fear instilled in the victim, for fear is the currency of the threatener. How one responds to a threat determines whether it will be a valuable instrument or mere words. Thus, it is the listener and not the speaker -we and not the terrorists- who decides how powerful a threat will be.

In most instances of terrorist threat, the threat is the terrorist event. It is the end it itself. Speaking generally, those who threaten do not act, and those who act do not threaten.

What often happens, however, is that a threat refers to a previous terrorist act, thus attaching to the current threat the potency of the past tragedy. For example, after the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, any threat about blowing up a federal building conjured the original act and caused great anxiety. Hundreds of federal buildings were modified in response to an incident that happens, in effect, once every 230 years. Nobody would want Timothy McVeigh to be among this nation’s most influential architects, but that’s been one result of our overreaction.

A shooting from the sidewalk and we add bulletproof windows. Then a bomb in the lobby and we add X-ray machines and explosives-sniffing dogs. Then a bomb outside the building, and we add vehicle barricades. Then a shooting from across the highway -as happened to CIA employees as they arrived at work one morning- and what do we do, add a fence around all the buildings? Some precautions aren’t reducing risk so much as moving it around.

The point to remember when we think about what terrorists might do next is this: By its very nature, terrorism surprises us. It’s true that there are sometimes trends in which several people or groups mimic a particular kind of act, but the overall history of terrorism is that it changes. Terrorists try to do unpredictable things. The terrorist’s imagination begins where the security expert’s imagination (and budget) ends. Precautions that are reactionary, such as concrete barriers around every federal building (as opposed to those that are clearly special targets) end up costing us a lot, without making much difference to terrorism.

Our social world relies on our investing some threats with credibility while discounting others. Our belief that they really will tow the car if we leave it here encourages us to look for a parking space unencumbered by that particular threat. The disbelief that our joking spouse will really kill us if we are late to dinner allows us to stay in the marriage. And finally, we are better able to go about our day-to day lives with the knowledge that most of the time, terrorists with the power to act, act, and those without the power to act, threaten.

Something often missing from worst-case scenarios is consideration of best case management and response. While it is difficult to fully prepare for every kind of emergency, it’s clear that the United States government has extraordinary disaster response capability. Throughout your life, you have seen our government respond with remarkable effectiveness to unusual and unpredictable occurrences (earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, fire, bombings, workplace violence incidents, outbreaks of disease, and even attacks with jetliners). Those of us present during the Los Angeles earthquake, a devastating natural disaster, recall the rapid resumption of all utilities, the effectiveness of law enforcement, and a faster return to normal life than other nations facing the same challenges could likely imagine. The resources of our federal government, and those of state and local agencies, far outdistance any in world history. If we have learned anything from the emergencies we have experienced in our lives, it is that our infrastructure is strong, resilient, and capable.

For example, following the attacks on the World Trade Center, New York City, the state of New York, and the Federal government brought together resources far beyond what most scenarios would have included. When I toured ground zero at the World Trade Center days after the attack, I was impressed to see emergency responders from all over the nation. I saw police officers from Sacramento, fire fighters from Miami, medical officials from Detroit, and police cars and ambulances from other faraway cities. I saw personnel from every Government agency one can think of. I even saw firefighters from Canada. Public and private resources worked together in astonishing ways, including the preparation of 30,000 meals a day served around the clock to emergency workers (under the heroic direction of a restaurateur named David Boulet, who, along with an army of dedicated volunteers made it his mission in life to feed emergency workers).

Having been closely involved in many emergencies and crises throughout my career, it reassures me to see the flexibility and industriousness of Americans (both in and out of government), particularly when things occur that we either could not or did not precisely predict. In fact, I find our ability to respond to the unpredicted calamities to be far more impressive than our ability to plan for the predictable ones. Prediction itself is uncertain science, while the ability of our government and our people to respond is quite certain. Remember, when any country on earth experiences some giant disaster, it is the United States most often looked to for help – because we’re the country in the best position to provide it.

We all feel some uncertainty these days, and indeed these are uncertain times – like all times. Even so, there are things about which we can be certain: We can be certain that life doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle – and that’s been proved by our management of every challenge we have faced together as a nation. And we can be certain that terrorist threats are not guarantees of action, and in fact, are usually in place of action. These certainties allow us to go about our daily lives; you remember, the daily lives that derive so much of their variety and vitality from uncertainty.

Media Fear Tactics

It would be interesting if the standards of Truth in Advertising were applied to television news as they sometimes are to television commercials. In that unlikely situation, TV news writers would be required to use phrases and words that convey accurate information – as opposed to the phrases and words they use today.

I want to help you break the code of alarming newspeak so that you can more easily find the valuable information that may (or may not) be part of a story.

Given the disturbing reasons we’ve all been watching so much TV news, it would be understandable to overlook the sheer ridiculousness that is inherent in some of the sensationalism. Occasionally, the way TV news is delivered can be downright funny, and indeed, the ability to laugh at something indicates that we are beginning to gain perspective on it. Accordingly, some of what follows is funny, and I have a very clear purpose in offering it: I want to help change your experience of television news, help you actually watch it differently. I want to provide some tools you can use to ensure that when you watch TV news, only actual information gets through.

Though not offered as a comprehensive glossary, here are some examples of words and phrases I think you’ll quickly recognize:

POSSIBLE: As in “Next Up: Possible links between Saddam Hussein and tooth decay…”

The word “possible” doesn’t really have the specificity one hopes for in journalism, given that it is completely accurate when applied to anything anyone can possibly imagine. “A possible outbreak of…” means there has been no outbreak. “A possible connection between memory loss and the air you breathe…” means there is no confirmed connection.

“Officials are worried about possible attacks against…” means there have been no such attacks.

Anytime you hear the word possible, it’s probably not happening right now.

“Next up: Possible links between convicted murderer Charles Manson and yesterday’s traffic jams in the downtown area.”

Are these two things linked? Absolutely, if you loosen your criteria enough, everything is linked by its presence on the same planet at the same moment in time – but only a very few links are instructive or meaningful.

Links are a great news trick, because you can tie a remote, unconfirmed, or even unimportant story to something that’s really pushing buttons. “Next up: Possible links to Bin Laden” is all you have to say to get attention these days.

Almost always when you hear the word link, there is no confirmed link.


“...our Nation’s water supplies…”
“...our Nation’s roadways…”
“...our Nation’s shipping ports…”

They use this trick to imply some large scale to a story. “A new threat to our nation’s water supplies” won’t be a threat to our nation’s anything. Our nation is enormous. Nothing, not even nuclear bombs, poses a threat to all of any system in our society at the same time. When they say “our nation’s” anything, they are usually trying to give grand significance to something that doesn’t have grand significance. We might not perk up as much if they said, “A new threat to Klopp County’s water supply…” The incident in which old Doc Ames truck leaked oil into the reservoir just isn’t gonna scare up enough ratings. But it could: “Next up, a new threat to our nation’s water supply. An alarming incident that experts say could happen anywhere!”

“Shocking new details when we come back.” Well, first of all, the details are not likely to be new, and if so critical, why are we waiting till after the commercial, and anyway, what does shocking mean at this point? Unless the news anchor reaches through the screen and pulls my hair, I don’t imagine he could shock me. They’ve ruined another word for themselves.


“Auditors cite loopholes in security at our nation’s libraries.”

That’s right, anytime you have an audit or an inspection, you’re going to find something. Auditors are people who’ve been hired to write reports identifying deficiencies. Have you ever heard of a one-line audit report? “The auditors didn’t a find one damn thing that could possibly be improved.” Did you ever hear of an inspector who said: ‘We’ve wasted six months on this inspection, because the place is bloomin’ perfect. Whoever’s running this show sure thought of everything.”

The implication projected in a story about a security loophole is that someone will come crashing through the loophole – but that is not necessarily so. They tell you (and the terrorists) about the loophole because it is frightening, not because it’s enlightening.

“In a carefully worded statement, the President said…” Is this as distinct from those statements that world leaders just have the kids throw together? “Carefully worded” is often used to imply that something is being hidden.

“Officials consider the threat to be serious.” Is that to distinguish this threat from the threats they laugh about over lunch? Taking something seriously does not mean the risk is great or imminent. It just means officials are doing what anyone would do.

“Officials here are taking no chances when it comes to school safety.” Sort of. More likely, they’re taking no chances that reporters will broadcast a report accusing them of taking chances.

Implies that something is imminent, and worthy of being closely monitored. “Closely monitoring” is like “Officials are on the lookout for…” Both phrases suggest that something bad is surely coming, as if officials are standing outside looking around with binoculars.


“NASA reports that a large piece of space junk -PERHAPS as big as a freighter– COULD enter the Earth’s atmosphere sometime tonight over North America. Experts warn that it is could potentially slam into the earth.”

What are we to do with this report? Move a little to the left or right? They don’t say, of course, that every night, thousands of pieces of space junk enter the Earth’s atmosphere and completely burn up before ever hitting the ground, or that no person on Earth has ever been struck and killed by a piece of space junk. Or that if something’s as big as a freighter before entry, it might end up as small as a grain of sand – but it could potentially hit your house, I suppose.

15%, 20%, 25%…
“15% of Americans are at risk of being seriously injured in car accidents on our nation’s highways this year.” Whenever you see a percentage cited, reverse it and think about the other share in the equation. For example, from the story above you can conclude that 85% of Americans are not at risk of being seriously injured in car accidents this year. Sort of good news, all things considered. Also, phrases such “a sizeable percentage,” or “an alarming percentage” can be applied to just about any percentage. Get the actual number, and then you decide if it’s sizeable or alarming to you.

“Experts warn that as many as 25,000 people in America may be carrying the deadly gene…” or “As many as twenty states may be susceptible to radiation leakage disasters.”

“As many as” means somewhere between zero and the number given.

A phrase used when they don’t really have the story yet.

“But one former employee at the doomed refinery reveals shocking new information…”

What does he reveal? That they fired him because he was too ethical, or because they didn’t want to hear the truth? Or that he knew all along? Anyway, he wasn’t there the night of the fire, so is he the best source of information? Truth in advertising would require the reporter to say: “We interviewed one man who hasn’t been to the refinery in three months – his opinion, next.”

As certain words and phrases become symbolic or evocative from one type of story, they’ll use them in another. In the days after 9/11 I saw a TV news report about a tropical storm making “a direct hit” on a tiny coastal community, as if the hurricane were aiming. (And the word tiny is used because it implies vulnerability. Storms that make direct hits on tiny places are frightening bullies.) A story about a flight that experienced extreme turbulence is headlined “Terror in the Sky.”

As in the popular “deadly virus;” this word is used to imply that everyone who gets the virus perishes, when the truth is that very few people die from the virus. If a really serious virus ends up being fatal for 20 percent of the people who contract it, then truth in advertising would require language such as: “Next up, a local man is stricken with a highly survivable virus.”

It’s quite a bit shy of deadly when someone tests negative for anthrax, yet in the weeks after 9/11, even a negative test for a “deadly” virus was presented as a frightening thing.

To put this into perspective, flu-related disorders killed 5000 times as many people as anthrax in 2001. Is anthrax still scary? Yes, and all the more so because of the implication that it was everywhere (colored maps showing the places in the U.S. where anthrax was found or suspected). It wasn’t everywhere. Reports were everywhere. And the same report repeated seventy-five times is still the same report. But you wouldn’t know that by the excited delivery: “New details emerge in that anthrax case.” Details maybe, but not new – far more likely when you watch TV news, they’ll be the same “new” details for the tenth time that day.

A storm is described as deadly: “We’ll have new information on that deadly hurricane that’s heading up the coast.” A hurricane qualifies for the word “deadly” when someone, somewhere on the hurricane’s round-the-hemisphere journey dies as a result of the storm. That does not mean the hurricane tries to kill all people it encounters, but that’s the implication – that something dangerous is coming. You’ll note that the people who die are usually in a situation far different than yours: They are on a small fishing boat at night off the coast of Peru, and you’re at home 1200 feet above sea level.

Usually means they didn’t get a news crew there in time. Or they didn’t warn you about it yet, which actually is interesting, since there’s only two or three possible awful outcomes involving human beings and they haven’t warned us about yet.

As in “Disturbing questions have been raised about the safety of our nation’s…” Yes, the questions are disturbing. They’re disturbing everyone. Please stop raising them.


Yes, reports and experts do seem to warn, fear, and worry a lot.


They sure do.

Global conclusions drawn from man-on-the-street interviews represent literally nothing. You can edit a story into “New Yorkers feel terrified,” or “New Yorkers are ready to move on” – and it all depends upon which of the five interviews you cut into the piece broadcast.

Here are two quotes brought back by one NBC News crew:

“I think if you change your life, they’re winning,” says Captain Frank Carver. “So the more we continue our daily routine, better off we all are.”

At Pat’s Country Bakery nearby, Joann Charters concedes she’s still apprehensive. “It’s a really scary feeling with kids in school. You don’t know what’s gonna happen,” says Charters.”

To accurately summarize these quotes you’d have to say: “Some people feel one way and some other people feel another way. Back to you, Tricia.”

Joann Charters citing that it’s scary because “you don’t know what’s going to happen” is right on. That’s why it’s scary: because you don’t know what’s going to happen – not because you do know, not because danger is advancing toward you, but because it is not.

TV news stories like this are filler, background, static, irrelevant. You don’t need a reporter and a video crew to bring you man-in-the-street opinions. There are men on your street you can get opinions from. Or you could just talk to your friends and family.

Any list of warning signs implies great risk. I recall a rash of reports about car-jacking in Los Angeles, and this list of warning signs:

Armed stranger approaches car;
Taps on closed window;
Looks around suspiciously.

And then they offered the checklist of precautions, given by an “expert on car-jacking.” (Is there a college course on that?) The checklist:

Keep doors locked;
Don’t let strangers into your car;
Drive away.

This is tantamount to:


Warning Signs:
Purse feels extra heavy;
Strange noises coming from purse.

“Officials admit that the incident could have developed into a full-fledged riot…” In this context, admit means that when a reporter asked, “If police had never reached the scene, and if a hundred other factors had fallen into place in an extraordinarily unlikely way, couldn’t this have developed into a full-scale riot?” Yes, it could have – an admission.

It may seem you are getting expert advice on the news, but that’s far from so. The moment you edit what an expert says, it’s just words you might as well put in the blender. Would you let a TV news crew mediate your doctor’s advice? Imagine being challenged by a difficult illness and your doctor’s compassionate and complete 30-minute presentation was edited down to 23 seconds.

That’s what the local news brings you: expert opinion edited, mediated, and minimized by non-experts who ask questions designed to elicit the most alarming responses. “Yes, yes, Dr. Stevens, but if it did happen, it would be terrible wouldn’t it?

When the news media assign a nickname to a wanted criminal (e.g., The Night-stalker, The Hillside Strangler) or to a disease (Legionaire’s or Flesh-Eating Diseases), it is indicative of a hoped-for series of reports. When it’s a type of crime (Follow-home Robberies), a trend is not far behind.


Next comes “Officials are concerned,” and soon enough –as with Road Rage, you’ve got hearings before the House Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, and somebody (in this case, committee staff member Jeff Nelligan) calling the issue, “A national disaster.” Presumably, Mr. Nelligan would tone that down a bit today – all of us having found a new meaning for the words “national disaster.”

An NBC News story quotes a member of a university task force on weapons of mass destruction: “We’ve been talking about this for years and people in general have not been interested.” Is there some surprise there – that someone on a task force about weapons would be talking about weapons? The intended implication of these stories is that if someone had just listened, this could all have been prevented. How could discussions at some college task force have been used to prevent anthrax scares? If we had listened, what would be different? This is like an earthquake happening and earthquake experts saying, “We warned you.” Yes, you did; you said there’d be an earthquake sometime. If only we’d listened.

These are stories where TV news people cannot lose. They ask hospitals or public health officials or the utility company or the fire department if they can handle a disaster of X magnitude. If the response is yes, they just keep upping the disaster magnitude until the response is no.

Here’s an example from NBC News: “A survey of 30 hospitals in four states and Washington, D.C., found them ill-equipped to handle a widespread biological disaster.” A guaranteed fear-inducer, pokes right at our insecurity. First off, just asking the question implies that a “widespread disaster” is coming, and it’s even better if the survey was part of a “new study,” because that implies that the question itself is well founded.

Either way, the basic premise of the story is true: If hospitals currently able to handle 500 patients an hour get 5000 patients in some terrible hour, they will be unprepared. The standard of care will drop. Is there something surprising about that? Do TV news writers think Americans assume there is some extra team of 200 doctors and an extra 5000 fully-equipped hospital beds waiting in their community somewhere just out of sight?

Indeed, hospitals are unprepared for that which they have never had to be prepared. Being able to deal with what predictably comes down the pike and putting your resources where they are most likely to be needed is good planning. An emergency room would have to trade some daily-used resource to be ready for mass casualties that don’t appear to be coming. Yes, as the world changes and events change, so does preparation – but expecting hospitals to be fully prepared, for example, to treat thousands of inhalation anthrax casualties when there’s been a few lethal cases in 30 years would constitute bad planning.

One can make an “unprepared” story about anything; America’s police are unprepared for a “widespread crime disaster;” our supermarkets are unprepared for a “widespread food shortage.” It all depends upon how you define the word widespread. Put a microphone in some official’s face and ask if he’s adequately prepared for an attack on the harbor by Godzilla, and you’ve got an unreadiness story.

“Being stuck in the elevator for six days is an experience Betty Hamilton will never forget.” This is used as a measure of how serious an incident it was, but did anyone imagine she was going to forget it? “I think I was stuck in an elevator for six days, but I can’t quite remember.”

Pay attention to the very last line in news reports. They are rarely summaries, but rather are designed to keep the story open for more reports. Most often, the closing line takes a last bite at the fear apple, one final effort to add uncertainty and worry. “Many here are left wondering if it will ever be safe.” “Fear continues its tight grip on this tiny community.” “Whether more will die remains to be seen.” In the world of TV news, frightening stories never end. We never hear the words “And that’s that.”

Let’s put a few of these newsroom strategies together into a story and see how it looks. As the basis for our mock TV news report, I’ll draw on something that actually happened to my assistant. Earlier this year, her wrist was injured when a dog bit her.

“NEXT UP: DOGBITES! THE BONE-CRUSHING POWER OF DOGS. Experts warn that even friendly dogs can bite, sometimes without provocation. And they’re everywhere. A new Government study estimates as many as 300 dogs per square mile, with the numbers climbing each year. How many backyards in your neighborhood are hiding a deadly menace? We’ll tell you what experts say – when we come back.

A shocking bite from the dog everyone described as “a little angel” leaves one area woman nursing her wounds. Dog-jaw experts say that even a small dog can produce as much as 500 pounds of biting force, and given the rate at which dogs breed, it’s just a matter of time before more people are placed at risk. A former employee with the Department of Health says hospitals are unprepared for a major increase in dogbites, and officials are closely monitoring this situation that could pose a deadly threat to our nation’s neighborhoods. Disturbing questions have been raised about loopholes in the licensing system, and observers point out that dogs who bite can receive licenses and be released into neighborhoods.

It’s no surprise that many local residents are living in fear: “You never know when somebody is walking their dog right behind you. We’re scared.” Officials say links between the recent dogbite and one that occurred in the tiny town of Ames, Iowa have not been confirmed, but either way, it’s a nightmare few will ever forget. And one that many fear will not be over in the morning.”

Coming to understand these popular phrases and strategies, and being able to see around them has made me appreciate those news reports that are direct, clear, and informative. Since many news people use these tricks, those who do not stand out as all the more special and valuable.

If you watch TV news, you’re probably going to spot lots of sensationalizing tactics I’ve missed, and maybe even start a list of your own. If finding them becomes an occasionally enjoyable part of your news-viewing experience, that in itself will be great news.

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