|Media ignored calm amid the
September 6, 2002
BY ANDREW GREELEY
On Sept. 11 last year, up to 1 million people were evacuated from
Manhattan by water ''in an emergent network of private and publicly
watercraft--a previously unplanned activity.'' It was an American
like the epic rescue of the British army at Dunkirk in 1940 by an
Yet you most likely never saw this astonishing event, reported
last month by
Professor Kathleen Tierney at the annual meeting of the American
Sociological Association, on television and never read about it
in the print
media. It would have made for spectacular TV imagery; yet, as an
calm and sensible and spontaneous action, it did not fit the media
panic, an image that will doubtless be re-enacted next week.
Tierney, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University
Delaware, argued that the reaction of people at the World Trade
what one might have expected from the research literature of the
years on behavior in disaster situations. ''Social bonds remained
the sense of responsibility to others--family members, friends,
workers, neighbors and even total strangers remains strong. . .
sought information from one another, made inquiries and spoke with
ones via cell phones, engaged in collective decision-making and
another to safety. When the towers were evacuated, the evacuation
carried out in a calm and orderly manner.''
There is growing research literature that Tierney cites that leaves
doubt about this description. (See also Lee Clarke's article in
issue of the new sociological journal Contexts.) Many will not believe
the scenario could possibly be true. Doesn't everyone know that
panic in disaster situations? Don't people become frightened, selfish
flee in headlong panic?
The answer is no, they don't. The proof that this was not true
on Sept. 11
is to be found in the fact that 90 percent of the people in the
Center escaped--which would have been impossible had people panicked.
people are cool under such pressure. Their old social networks do
dissolve, and new social networks emerge. The paradigm of humankind
as a mob
simply isn't true. We are social animals, and even when terribly
we remain social animals.
Note that most of the positive social behavior that saved so many
not organized by any formal agency, much less by any command-and-control
mechanism. People saved themselves. Other people converged from
all over the
city to help. As Tierney says, ''The response to the Sept. 11 tragedy
effective precisely because it was not centrally directed and controlled.
Instead it was flexible, adaptive and focused on handling problems
In some sense, Sept. 11 was a victory over the terrorists. Socially
responsible free Americans prevented the loss from being much worse.
the response of the planning agencies has been to establish more
elaborate command-and-control structures, which will force a population
is not about to panic into panic behavior.
Says Tierney: ''When Sept. 11 demonstrated the enormous resilience
civil society, why is disaster response now being characterized
Perhaps because those who are determined to control everything don't
understand that even in military situations, it's the second lieutenants
the sergeants who win battles, as, for example, in the Omaha Beach
Generals sitting in faraway bunkers cannot control battles. Neither
bureaucrats far from the scene of tragedy, no matter how elaborate
The media got the story all wrong because the panic paradigm is
pervasive and because no one in the media had read the disaster-research
literature. They thus reinforced the propensity of those running
not to trust the good sense and social concern of ordinary folk.
they want to control everything with such ditsy ideas as the proposed
Homeland Security Department. That plan would take union and civil
protections away from government workers and accomplish little else.
You can count on it: In the orgy of self-pity in which the media
next week, no one will pay any attention to why there was no panic
evacuation, much less to the American Dunkirk at the lower end of
Nor will anyone argue that the only kind of formal plan that will
similar situations is one that is sensitive to and ready to integrate
the powerful social propensity of the human species.