Keep Calm and Carry On

We shouldn't overreact. But we shouldn't fool ourselves either: We're not safe.


The Keep Calm and Carry On is cropping up everywhere in the aftermath of the explosions yesterday at the Boston Marathon that most presume are a terrorist attack.

Bruce Schneier at The Atlantic (“The Boston Marathon Bombing: Keep Calm and Carry On“):

As the details about the bombings in Boston unfold, it’d be easy to be scared. It’d be easy to feel powerless and demand that our elected leaders do something — anything — to keep us safe.

It’d be easy, but it’d be wrong. We need to be angry and empathize with the victims without being scared. Our fears would play right into the perpetrators’ hands — and magnify the power of their victory for whichever goals whatever group behind this, still to be uncovered, has. We don’t have to be scared, and we’re not powerless. We actually have all the power here, and there’s one thing we can do to render terrorism ineffective: Refuse to be terrorized.
It’s hard to do, because terrorism is designed precisely to scare people — far out of proportion to its actual danger. A huge amount of research on fear and the brain teaches us that we exaggerate threats that are rare, spectacular, immediate, random — in this case involving an innocent child — senseless, horrific and graphic. Terrorism pushes all of our fear buttons, really hard, and we overreact.
But our brains are fooling us. Even though this will be in the news for weeks, we should recognize this for what it is: a rare event. That’s the very definition of news: something that is unusual — in this case, something that almost never happens.

Ross Douthat (“Keep Calm and Carry On“):

But what I hope we don’t see, when the next race or a parade or festival looms up in front of us, are layers of extra stops and searches and checkpoints, wider and wider rings of closed streets, the kind of portable metal detectors that journalists remember unfondly from political conventions, more of the concrete barriers that Washingtonians have become accustomed to around our public buildings … more of everything that organized officialdom does to reassure us, and itself, that soft targets can somehow be eliminated entirely, and that everything anyone can think of is being done to keep the unthinkable at bay.

This kind of security theater is a natural response to terrorism, but it’s a response that since 9/11 we’ve done an absolutely terrible job of reasoning through and then gradually ratcheting back. Today’s attack, on the kind of event that countless cities hold and that even the most omnicompetent police force couldn’t make entirely secure, could easily lead to a further ratchet, a further expansion of preventive (or preventive-seeming) measures, a further intrusion of bureaucratic and paramilitary rituals into the rhythms of everyday life. Or it could be an opportunity to recognize the limits of such measures, the impossibility of achieving perfect security, and the costs of pretending that an extra ring of barriers and inconveniences will suffice to stop a determined evil from finding its way through.

Like Douthat, I work in DC and very much hope that there’s no permanent overreaction to yesterday’s events. Extra precautions at the White House and other high value targets for a few days, until we figure out who is behind yesterday’s attack and whether follow-ons are likely, strike me as prudent. But measures that last for months and years add inconvenience for little real security.

Unlike Schneier, though, I actually think the threat is under-appreciated. That is, while these attacks are thankfully rare, I can’t for the life of me figure out why. The Boston Marathon and the Super Bowl are comparatively easy to secure, because they’re one-offs, generate sufficient revenue to make a security investment reasonable, and obvious targets. It’s simply impossible to protect all of our schools, shopping malls, movie theaters, airports, and other places where hundreds and even thousands of people gather on a daily basis.

FILED UNDER: Terrorism, Uncategorized, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. billbindc says:

    Actually, you are very safe…with a better chance of getting hit by the bus/struck by lightening/eaten by a shark than dying in a terrorist attack. Don’t let the immediacy of the event distort your reactions. That is, after all, what people who do this sort of thing are looking to achieve.

  2. HelloWorld! says:

    These are the times when Americans look out for each other. Paying close attention at the next race will do more than increased security. Yes, chances of getting killed in a terror attack might be small but we should try to prevent as much premature death as possible. People tend to be trained to keep an eye out for speeding buses (I know in England I’ve looked the wrong way before). We should also be trained to notice and speak up about suspicious looking situations.

  3. grumpy realist says:

    We’re New Englanders. We’re phlegmatic.

    If you look back in history, is this really that much different from the 19th century anarchists, who ran around assassinating people and setting bombs off? I lived in England during a period of “heightened tension.” You get used to it and try not to overreact. No one ever promised us a safe world.

  4. Rob in CT says:

    The whole point of Keep Calm and Carry On is an acceptance of that lack of total safety, James.

  5. Ben says:

    @grumpy realist:

    We’re New Englanders. We’re phlegmatic.

    Exactly. As someone who has lived his entire life in the Boston Metro area (and several years in Boston proper), if there’s any group of Americans that will refuse to overreact in fear and demand everything clamped down in security theater, it is Bostonians. We hate that shit.

  6. Xenos says:

    Helps to keep calm if the president and the secretary to state do not constantly hype threats in order to achieve political ends. It also helps to not have a secretary of homeland security not jerk around different threat levels from orange to green to red, etc. based on political concerns rather than actual threats carefully and impartially evaluated.

    Just sayin’.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    Yeah…somewhere Cheney is touching himself inappropriately and muttering VINDICATION…and planning to invade Venezuala or some other oil-rich country in response to the Marathon Bombing.

    The last thing we need to do is over-react again as that coward did after 9.11.

    Of course it’s not actually all that rare…but many attempts have been incompetent. The Underwear bomber who failed, the Times Square attempt that fizzled, the Washington white supremecist that also failed. Then there are the successes: the Atlanta Olympic white supremecist bombing and OK City. And of course there is 9.11.

    Even with all that…there are much more common ways to die…car accidents…mis-handling of firearms…second hand smoke…

  8. C. Clavin says:

    By the way…did anyone else hear Jenos at that news conference yesterday yelling about Government Conspiracies and False-Flags and limiting our rights? He might have also yelled “Benghazi, Fast and Furious, Ruby Ridge!!!”…but they cut the feed.

  9. john personna says:

    I wonder if the British slogan and poster have become popular as we prepared ourselves for a changed world.

  10. Tyrell says:

    I would agree that adding more security levels, searches, barriers, detectors, guards, gates, and doors is not needed or wanted by the American people. The best thing would be to remind people to drive safely, put down their phones and snacks while driving, and fasten their seat belts. Those steps alone could save a hundred lives in just a week. Of course a quick and thorough investigation followed by a quick trial with appropriate punishment is certainly required.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Rob in CT: Concur. I’m making three points here, perhaps too obliquely:

    1. The fact that these events are rare has more to do with the fact that there aren’t that many people motivated to carry them out. If there were, there would be no stopping them.

    2. There’s not a whole hell of a lot we can do about it.

    3. Most of what we can do is worse than the cure.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @billbindc: Falling planes and lighting strikes are random events. Terrorist attacks are not. The risk of the former is relatively stable. The risk of the latter is infinitely variable based on human agency.

  13. JKB says:

    @HelloWorld!: We should also be trained to notice and speak up about suspicious looking situations.

    Define suspicious? And what if those you speak up to don’t do any thing? What if it is part of their plan?

    When I was in DC, the President was to visit the site for a presentation. Suspiciously, a couple days before, homeless men started hanging around the building. I remember one, as everyone was leaving for the day, had taken up post lounging on a planter. Security did nothing even though this was new. I suspect they were heavily armed “homeless” people.

    Once not long after 9/11, driving into DC, i looked over to see a driver of another car covered head to toe, in a burkha or something. I’d never seen this before so I found it suspicious but had I reported it, I would have just been hassled by the Diversity police.

    Or isn’t it suspicious when our government keeps saying, “If you see something, say something”, but they don’t ever define suspicious.

    There is much consternation over people being hassled for taking photos. But photography is a long and honored means of profiling a target. Is it suspicious?

    The thing is we don’t know how many such attacks are thwarted. The terrs only have to succeed once. But hundreds might have been thwarted. Perhaps directly, perhaps by keeping a needed person out of the country, perhaps by a thorough eye balling of a courier so he disposes of needed materials.

  14. fred says:

    CNN, Anderson Cooper and his GOP sympathizer guest last night were irresponsible in saying a Saudi person was being looked at as the possible bomber in Boston. They put the lives of many citizens, mostly Muslim, at risk and should apologise to viewers. Cooper and CNN are losing credibility daily and this may have been the last straw for many CNN viewers.

  15. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    That was a selective list, sir.

  16. john personna says:


    It is way too soon for that, fred. It might be a good report, and accurate news. Or as you say it might not. We don’t know.

    If it is a Saudi, I might have comments, but not until then.

  17. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: True! But I was responding to a specific comment. Again, I don’t think we should go crazy reacting to these very rare events. I just think it’s worth remembering that they could become much less rare.

  18. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think what I got from billbindc’s original “getting hit by the bus” and etc. list was that he WAS including the things we have control over.

    Tyrell expanded that list nicely.

  19. matt bernius says:

    Since it ties into this topic, I think it’s a good idea for everyone to read “Eight facts about terrorism in the United States” assembled by Ezra Klein and co at the WaPo.

    There’s something in there for everyone…

  20. billbindc says:

    @James Joyner: I don’t think you understand risk….human agency and a myriad of other factors affect whether or not you are the unlucky person who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whether or not it’s a guy with a bomb or an errant bus makes little difference.

    If you live in fear, you are acting out the multiplier effect that terrorist attacks are counting on to be effective. That’s a risk you can materially alter in a positive direction.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @billbindc: We don’t disagree on how we should respond to the situation. All I’m pointing out is that the risk could in fact go up considerably from the historical averages. That’s unlikely to happen with respect to bus accidents.

  22. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    Do you think the terror risk could go up enough, possibly, that it could displace what should be our core concerns? I think not.

    I got caught up surfing “Kenyan top bar beehives” yesterday, and stumbled on this from a dead Frenchman:

    … beekeeping is a moral activity, as far as it keeps one away from cafés and low places and puts before the beekeeper an example of work, order and devotion to the common cause. Moreover, beekeeping is a pre-eminently healthy and beneficial activity, because it is most often done in the fresh air, in fine, sunny weather. For sunshine is the enemy of illness just as it is the master of vitality and vigour. Dr Paul Carton wrote: ‘What is needed is to educate a generation in disliking alcohol, in despising meat, in distrusting sugar, in the joy and the great benefit of movement’. For the human being is a composite being. The body needs exercise without which it atrophies. The mind needs exercising too, otherwise it deteriorates. Intellecuals deteriorate physically. Manual workers, behind their machines, suffer intellectual deterioration.

    Quaint wording, but a better daily guide than “watch out for terrorists.”

  23. gVOR08 says:

    I’m frequently reminded of a radio call-in I heard some months after 9/11. Woman said the terrorists were ruining her life because she had to drive through a tunnel to get to and from work; and every time she drove through it she was terrified someone would blow up the tunnel. I wished there were some way I could reach through the radio, shake her, and say, “Lady, it ain’t the terrorists who are ruining your life.”

  24. grumpy realist says:

    It’s like earthquakes in Japan–you prepare, but life’s too short to worry about it.

  25. Rafer Janders says:

    I’d disagree that the Boston Marathon is “easy to secure” — it’s 53 miles of people.

    But let’s not forget that security creates its own problems. If I were a terrorist and wanted to shut down civilian aviation in the US, I wouldn’t bother with blowing up an airplane — instead I’d pack a few roller bags with explosives and then blow up the tightly packed line of people waiting to go through security at the airport that the TSA has so thoughtfully assembled for me.

    You can secure an event, but how then to do you secure the security line to get into the event? And if you secure that line, how do you then secure the line waiting to get into that line?

  26. Rafer Janders says:


    It’s like one of my coworkers back in 2011 who complained to me that Occupy Wall Street had shut down a subway entrance. I asked her if it wasn’t actually the NYPD, not Occupy, that had put up the metal barricades and stationed the policemen that shut the entrance, but it was only after five minutes of arguing that I got her to concede that, yes, the NYPD might actually have been the ones who controlled street and subway traffic.

  27. James Joyner says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    I’d disagree that the Boston Marathon is “easy to secure” — it’s 53 miles of people.

    No doubt. But it’s still a once-a-year, finite event with lots of resources devoted to it. That makes it easy relative to other dispersed events.

    If I were a terrorist and wanted to shut down civilian aviation in the US, I wouldn’t bother with blowing up an airplane — instead I’d pack a few roller bags with explosives and then blow up the tightly packed line of people waiting to go through security at the airport that the TSA has so thoughtfully assembled for me.

    Right. That’s what I was getting at–there are plenty of crowded places and we simply can’t secure them. Planes are tiny and thus easy. Airports are huge and attempts to secure them create bottlenecks and thus targets.

  28. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: By the way…did anyone else hear Jenos at that news conference yesterday yelling about Government Conspiracies and False-Flags and limiting our rights? He might have also yelled “Benghazi, Fast and Furious, Ruby Ridge!!!”…but they cut the feed.

    Blow it out your ass, you worthless turd.

    Strong letter to follow.

  29. gVOR08 says:

    Face it, we in the US and Canada, western Europeans, and a few others, are the safest people who have ever lived on the planet. If you want to fear something, fear your diet. That’s what’ll probably kill you.

  30. C. Clavin says:

    @ gVOR08…
    No question…imagine the poor creationists that lived amongst the Dinosaurs!!! Now that’s scary.

  31. anjin-san says:

    Being alive is in of itself, a risky and ultimately fatal endeavor. For most of us, driving is probably the most dangerous thing we do, and we do it without a second thought.

    So far, I am encouraged by the reaction to this attack – for the most part, reasonable analysis and resolve. The previous administration worked hard to create a climate of perpetual fear after the 9.11 attacks, but the damage that was done appears to be largely behind us now.

  32. C. Clavin says:

    “…Strong letter to follow…”

    Oooo….I’ll bet it’s going to be a consonent.

  33. anjin-san says:

    “…Strong letter to follow…”

    I am going with the letter “B” for bonehead…

  34. C. Clavin says:

    @ anjin-san….
    B is also the first consonant…so we can be fairly sure he/she knows it.

  35. Rob in CT says:

    Call me crazy, but I think Jenos has a legit beef there. I think you all know it’s not like I’ve got some bias in his favor.

  36. C. Clavin says:

    Maybe he/she will have his/her lawyer, Tsar, type the letter “B” for him/her.

  37. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: Cliffy, did I hire you to follow me around the last time I was drunk? Was that hooker I picked up last month your sister? ‘Cuz I can’t figure out why nearly all your comments revolve around me, and it’s worn out its novelty.

    Here’s a challenge for you, Cliffy, to demonstrate that you’re not a worthless turd — perhaps, just maybe, you might be a turd of some token value. See if you can go three days with only relevant comments, and not mentioning me once.

    Or am I just too important to you?

  38. C. Clavin says:

    See if you can go those same three days without typing anything that isn’t demonstrably false.
    Oh wait…that would keep you from commenting at all.
    If your opinions are based on factual errors, lies, and total BS…then your opinions…

  39. C. Clavin says:

    That was a double negative.
    You get the point.

  40. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: You don’t seem interested in addressing my main point — why? Why am I the subject of your obsession here? Is your life so pathetically empty that this is your only pleasure? Do you see it as some holy calling?

    And isn’t it interesting that you fixate on “demonstrably false,” yet you completely and utterly distorted what I’ve been saying on this topic for a very pathetic and “demonstrably false” attempt at a joke.

    Get an effing life, Cliffy.

  41. C. Clavin says:

    I delight in calling liars, liars and ridiculing conspiracy theorists.
    Have you considered not lying, or positing ridiculous conspiracy theories?

  42. matt bernius says:

    For those interested, NPR’s morning edition ran a story this morning on “Soft Targets” and theories for why — while vulnerable — they are less likely to be hit.

    One of the theories, which makes a lot of sense, is that while soft targets might be very damaging for our local psyche, the fact is that they are not “spectacular” enough in the eyes of terrorist networks and cells looking for funding (or to make a name).

    In some respects — if you follow this argument — 9/11 set the bar so high that people attempt to pull of equally *big* (and therefore difficult to organize and execute) attacks, rather than small scale attacks that won’t receive much international coverage.

  43. anjin-san says:

    Is your life so pathetically empty that this is your only pleasure?

    Irony meter stating to redline again…

  44. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @anjin-san: (Putting on snobby, condescending tone) I consider myself an expert witness on the matter.

  45. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: I delight in calling liars, liars and ridiculing conspiracy theorists.

    I eagerly await your denunciation of yourself for this comment.

    And an interesting use of plurals there. Do you have any others you’ve chosen for your fixation, or am I your one and only?

  46. C. Clavin says:

    Jenos…are you really unable to figure out that the comment you link to was me ridiculing the biggest friggin’ conspiracy theorist on this website? Are you really that thick? Because if you are I shouldn’t be making fun of you…that would be wrong.

  47. wr says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: Jay must be pleasuring himself into rapture right now. He’s not only hijacked an entire thread about the response to a terrorist attack, but he’s turned it into a forum for self-pity. “Please please please talk about me some more!!!!”

  48. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: I’m the biggest conspiracy on this website? Have you even heard of wr, tsar nicky, or superdestroyer?

    Hell, look in your own mirror. I bet you just might be able to see the Halliburton Camera behind it that Dick Cheney uses to spy on you so he can send out the Blackwater Hit Team after you.

  49. anjin-san says:

    One thing we can be sure of. OTB was a better place before Jenos Tea showed up.

  50. James Joyner says:


    1. If you wouldn’t feed the trolls, it would help.

    2. Jenos has changed identities at least once over the years. But he’s not the artist formerly known as Jay Tea. As best I can figure, he’s gone.

  51. anjin-san says:

    @ James Joyner

    1. If you wouldn’t feed the trolls, it would help.

    Excellent advice, I think I will take it.

  52. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    OK, maybe I took it a bit too personally when Cliffy 1) lied about my statements on this and 2) plagirized my actual words for his own position. That was really a contemptible thing to do, but out of deference for our host, I’ll drop it.

    I hope Cliffy drops it, too. I’d also appreciate an apology, but there I know I’m just dreaming.

  53. anjin-san says:

    A last thought for indy…

    out of deference for our host

    If you had any respect for our host, you would either stop trolling, or go away and not come back.

  54. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @anjin-san: If you had any respect for our host, you would either stop trolling, or go away and not come back.

    If you had any respect for our host, you’d let him speak for himself and not put your words in his mouth.

    Which is what Cliffy did to me.

  55. Tony W says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: @C. Clavin:

    May I suggest a cage-match?

  56. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Tony W: I’d rather not fight a cage. Not even Nicholas Cage.