Managing Fear

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No, this is not a post on the financial markets or political campaigns

A month ago, I paused to digest the report out of Pakistan that a truck bomb had destroyed the Islamabad Marriott, killing 55 people and wounding more than 250.

The news unnerved me. I had stayed at the Islamabad Marriott for five nights in February 2007 while on an ILO mission to evaluate the Soccer Ball Project. I remember the modern, glitzy lobby, the Thai restaurant, and the “foreigners only” club in the hotel basement that played cosmopolitan Hindustani dance mixes and served alcohol outlawed for most Pakistanis.

The Marriott front gate from my hotel room in February 2007. Anthony P. Ewing © 2007The suicide bomber’s truck stopped at the Marriott front gate minutes before the explosion on September 20, 2008.

I also recall the heavy security in Islamabad and at the Marriott in particular.From my hotel room on an upper floor facing the street, I had observed the hotel’s security procedures. Every arriving vehicle was stopped at the large metal front gate. Heavily armed security guards, including some who appeared to be military personnel, questioned every driver, eye-balled the occupants, searched the trunk, and used a round mirror attached to a long pole to examine the vehicle’s undercarriage for explosives. It was the same routine every time I arrived at the hotel in a well-marked UN vehicle. The truck bomber tried to ram through that gate, failed, then detonated more than one thousand pounds of explosives, leaving a thirty-foot deep crater and igniting an inferno that gutted the hotel

Beyond my immediate “that could have been me” reaction, followed by sympathy for the victims and their families, and concern over the impact of an increasingly unstable Pakistan, the bombing prompted me to reflect on an uncomfortable topic – managing fear.

Fear of terrorism, sadly, is a context of daily life for many people today, whether in Washington, London, Istanbul, or Islamabad. Anyone who has lived or worked in New York City since 2001 has become accustomed to a lingering fear, mostly unspoken, which may diminish over time, but never disappears.

That fear was heightened as I prepared to travel to Pakistan last year. I had welcomed the ILO’s invitation to examine the Soccer Ball Project first-hand and to engage stakeholders on ways to strengthen it. I travel frequently. The security issues appeared manageable, but were hard to ignore. Extremism was rising, former President Musharraf was extremely unpopular, and Islamabad had been the subject of violent threats. I arrived in Islamabad in early February 2007 as the security situation was deteriorating. In late January, a lone suicide bomber attempting to gain access to the Marriott had killed himself and a hotel guard. Another had wounded five people at the airport just days before I arrived.

The Marriott bombing on September 20th prompted me to reflect on my Pakistan experience and how I managed my personal security concerns. Fear is an emotion caused by awareness of danger. If the danger is real, it is impossible to avoid the emotion altogether. The relevant question, it seems, is not how to eliminate fear, but how to manage it. Some preliminary observations:

Knowledge and action reduce fear.

First-hand knowledge and the ability to act are two powerful ways to exercise control over one’s own security, which helps to manage fear.

Unfamiliarity heightens fear. In New York, where I know the city very well, managing lingering security concerns is relatively easy. When I am in a new and unfamiliar place, I often overcome initial concerns by following the tourist advice to “act like you know where you are going, even if you don’t.” A challenge working in Pakistan for the first time is the magnitude of the differences – geographic, linguistic, and cultural. Arriving in Islamabad not speaking Urdu, not knowing the city, and significantly, standing out conspicuously as a Westerner, all heightened my security concerns. But once you are on the ground in Pakistan, or anywhere else, you feel as if you have greater control over your immediate surroundings. You gain familiarity and knowledge through first-hand observation. You get a feel for the geography and for the people.

And you take action. You follow security advice and do not take unnecessary risks. As part of an ILO mission, I fell under the umbrella of UN security procedures, which seemed to be robust. I never traveled unaccompanied and kept a low profile. While traveling between Islamabad and Punjab Province, for example, our driver was in constant contact with the UN country security officer on duty, who tracked our progress.

There is no such thing as complete security. You cannot control suicide bombers. And perhaps objectively I was at greater risk while in Islamabad. Certainly, the danger was real. But I managed any fears of terrorism by exerting greater control over my situation through first-hand knowledge and action.

Conversely, helplessness fuels fear. This is why my family is always more fearful for my safety than I am, which is understandable given their lack of control – limited knowledge and an inability to act – while I am traveling in places like Pakistan.

Information makes fear easier to manage, but too much can be counter-productive.

Managing security concerns requires sufficient information to exercise control over your situation, but you can’t dwell on the worst-case scenarios. Reliable information about the nature and magnitude of the danger provides appropriate knowledge that you can act upon. I had researched security conditions in Pakistan before accepting the assignment. The January 2007 UN security advisory for Pakistan detailed security conditions by region, describing Islamabad at the time as “stable except for occasional politically motivated demonstrations that occur infrequently.” Similarly, the US State Department advised US citizens traveling in Pakistan to maintain “good situational awareness,” avoid crowds and demonstrations, and keep a low profile.

But too much information can heighten fear. My personal security concerns were not reduced by an UN-issued booklet I came across at the ILO Islamabad office. The “Security Awareness” guide for UN personnel worldwide contains tips for surviving being taken hostage (“Avoid appearing to study your captor’s features, dress and mannerisms.”) and examining your car for a bomb (“Walk around the vehicle and look underneath each wheel and bumper for any unusual objects or loose wires.”), among others. Appropriate information for the thousands of international personnel working in high-risk conflict zones around the world, but not the first-hand knowledge I wanted to act upon during my trip.

Focusing on the goal manages fear.

Staying focused on the ultimate goal might be the most effective way to manage fear. I was concerned for my personal security in Pakistan, but dwelling on those issues would have been counter-productive. It is important to acknowledge and address security concerns, but then to move on. Fortunately, there was plenty of work to be done. Working with the ILO Pakistan team, engaging Pakistani and international stakeholders, and helping to facilitate a key stakeholder meeting kept me occupied and focused on the purpose of my trip. The mission ended, stakeholders reached a tentative consensus, and I returned to the United States much more knowledgeable about the challenges facing the Soccer Ball Project.

Would I travel to Islamabad today? Probably not. The security situation has deteriorated dramatically since 2007 and the risk of terrorism is much greater. The isolated suicide attacks in early 2007 proved to be the first in a series of terrorist bombings in Islamabad that accelerated after the Red Mosque siege in July 2007. (Shuttling between my hotel and the ILO headquarters that February, I frequently had passed by a city block where masked students brandishing sticks were manning the walls of their religious school – the compound I later learned was the Red Mosque.) Suicide attacks have killed nearly 1,200 people in Pakistan since 2007. Following the Marriott bombing, the UN ordered its Islamabad staff to evacuate their dependents. I would have difficulty managing personal security concerns effectively today, and be hard-pressed to justify the risks.

How do these observations on managing fear relate to our consulting practice at Logos? Terrorism and threats to personal safety are extreme scenarios on the spectrum of corporate crises and the corporate responsibility agenda. Nevertheless, some basic lessons are relevant for counseling clients:

  • When a situation triggers fearful emotions, reduce anxiety by providing stakeholders accurate information and suggesting actions they can take, two ways stakeholders can exercise greater control;
  • Provide accurate, appropriate and sufficient information, but not so much that worst-case scenarios become the focus; and
  • Ensure that crisis preparation, management and communication, or corporate responsibility efforts, stay focused on advancing the organization’s business objectives.

I welcome your thoughts.

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