Now, everybody panic!

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “panic”? Most of us probably imagine pictures of running people, screaming and chaos. Panic is something that is feared, something to be avoided at all costs, because social boundaries are cut, people act with animalistic selfishness and no coordinated efforts to adequately address the cause of the panic are possible. Therefore, we must keep control, right?

The paper “Elites and Panic: More to Fear than Fear Itself” (2008) by Lee Clarke and Caron Chess casts some doubt on this line of thought. They show that sometimes the urge to keep control is not the solution because the very people who ought to be in control misjudge the danger of panic, instill panic in the first place or simply panic themselves. One instance this really came to show was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Wide areas of the city were completely flooded. There was no power, clean water or food available. Nevertheless, the remaining inhabitants kept civilized, waited stoically for help, or organized relieve for each other themselves. The people in charge however showed quite the opposite behavior. Fantasizing about bands of looters, street fights and utter mayhem, jazzed up by rumors and overblown media coverage, they completely panicked. Instead of organizing evacuation or the delivery of clean water and medical aid, they prioritized sending in armed forces to keep law and order. This led to situations where soldiers held people at gunpoint or even shot at them for entering certain areas or getting bottled water out of a flooded store.

It goes to show, at times the real danger is not the common people mindlessly losing it at even the slightest sign of trouble, rather than the decision makers sitting in an office, out of touch with the situation and a Hobbesian worldview stuck in their head.

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