Dear Dr. Brian

Hey Dr. Russell,

I currently live in New York and after the recent Paris attacks and the ISIS video that was just released (which insinuates NYC as its next target) are making me very uneasy. In other words, I’m worried that these violent, erratic attacks will come to New York. I wanted your input on this. How concerned should I actually be? How do you think Obama and the US should respond? Please let me know your thoughts.

Nervous in New York

Dear Nervous,

Under the circumstances, I can’t tell you I wouldn’t be somewhat nervous, too. I’ve been saying for years that the kind of street-level terrorism—suicide bombers, rampage shooters, Paris-style attacks—that our Israeli friends have faced for decades would start happening here in America. It’s already happened, with incidents including the Boston Marathon bombings, the Ft. Hood shooting rampage, and others, and I predict it will happen again and with increasing frequency.

While not every individual or small group of individuals who want(s) to do harm to Americans can be preempted, we’ve been relatively fortunate so far—sometimes thanks to dumb luck but often thanks to overworked, understaffed, tirelessly dedicated, and largely unsung homeland security and law enforcement officers and agents. But if we, as a society, wanted to really maximize their effectiveness, we’d look to our Israeli friends and take some key additional steps.

In jihadist strongholds overseas, we wouldn’t just be bombing sporadically and “droning” an occasional leader who can be replaced instantly. We’d be projecting overwhelming force against any serious threat to America emanating from those areas—planes in the air, ships at sea, and yes, boots on the ground if needed, whatever it took to neutralize the threat. If we’ll end up doing it anyway, better to do it before an enemy has a chance to dig in, train, swell its ranks, gather innocent “human shields” around it, etc. “Collateral damage”? That’s the enemy’s fault, not ours (it’s not ours to fix either—you saw how well “nation-building” worked in Iraq).

Here at home, we wouldn’t be weakening our Patriot Act legislation, which enables our national security apparatus to intercept communications between jihadists and their material supporters. Yes, that entails a minor compromise of freedom (e.g., the freedom to make calls even to known ISIS operatives’ phones without attracting the attention of the government to ourselves), but as I explain in my book, Stop Moaning, Start Owning: How Entitlement Is Ruining America and How Personal Responsibility Can Fix It, choosing to live in a society always entails that, and we actually end up freer because of it (and I have yet to hear of a single innocent American who’s been demonstrably, practically—as opposed to theoretically—harmed by this legislation).

We wouldn’t be admitting refugees from jihadist strongholds when we have no good way to vet exactly who they are and why they want to be here and no good way to track them effectively if they choose to disappear into the shadows once here. We can still care about refugees (e.g. help set up “safe zones” in their homelands or, better yet, get their wealthy neighbors to help them), but we should care about Americans more. Yes, that’s essentially “profiling,” and as politically incorrect as it may be, it works. It’s insane to scrutinize a 20-year-old Syrian male no differently than we scrutinize a 70-year-old Irish female.

If, for example, we didn’t allow any young men from countries with significant jihadist subcultures to enter the U.S. for any reason, or at least not any more than we could fully vet and then effectively track in real time, we likely wouldn’t have had 9/11. Yes, we would also have excluded many well-intentioned young men who’ve truly just wanted to study and/or work here—disappointing foreign students is unfortunate, but risking Americans’ lives is worse. Our government’s first duty is to defend us, and here again, “collateral damage” is our enemies’ fault, not ours.

We wouldn’t be releasing people whom we know wish us harm from our Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba (certainly not in exchange for an American deserter like Bowe Bergdahl). Instead we’d be adding occupants to that facility and resuming active interrogations of those detainees. We’d be sealing our borders so those who wish us harm could no longer simply walk in here at will. We’d be tracking down anyone from any nation with a significant jihadist subculture who’s overstayed a visa and disappeared. We’d be deporting people who commit even low-level crimes as guests in our country (after they serve jail/prison sentences here), and we’d be passing an even more stringent version of Kate’s Law (severely punishing any deportee who returns).

We’d be getting the government out of a lot of things in which it never should’ve been involved—e.g. healthcare—which distract its attention and resources from its first duty, defending Americans from attack (internationally, that means the military and intelligence services, and internally, it means law enforcement, courts, and correctional facilities). If our government fails in its first duty, the others don’t matter much, and it has to be 100% effective, while our enemies have to be effective just once, so, in multiples senses of the word, we can’t afford not to focus on fundamentals.

We’d be educating our citizens about the danger we face and enlisting their help in combatting it. For starters we’d all be calling it what it is—jihadism or militant/radical Islam. We’d be training all citizens to say something if they see something and assuring citizens, employers, and law enforcement officers alike of no penalties for good-faith mistakes in that regard. And recognizing government’s not, nor should it be, omnipresent, we’d be affirming competent adults’ rights to have defensive weapons in all states/cities.

Sadly, we won’t do any of the above with the current Administration in office, and depending on whom we elect in 2016, maybe not even after that. To make matters worse, in NYC, your mayor has made you even less safe. He’s banned the NYPD from infiltrating mosques, and he’s made it clear that if a cop makes an honest mistake in stopping a suspected jihadist who turns out to be innocent, the cop won’t get the benefit of the doubt—that makes cops hesitant when we need them most to be decisive.

And, gun rights are severely limited in NYC—unconstitutionally so in my opinion—so an attack in NYC would likely go down much like it did in Paris: the jihadists would be the only ones armed on the scene, and they’d be able to shoot Americans at will until the cops arrived or until enough brave Americans charged them through a hail of bullets (jihadists are generally cowards who flee or commit suicide when faced with counterforce, so they attack where they expect no counterforce to be).

Now, NYC is clearly a prime target for jihadists. They’ve hit it before, and I predict they’ll hit it again. It’s a big place though. Unless you happen to live on top of a particularly-attractive target site, I imagine the statistical chances of you being near an attack remain relatively low, however, there certainly are lower-risk places to live/work. That said, I generally hate to see people feeling driven by fear to make major life changes. So, people have to decide for themselves whether to stay there or not.

If it were me, and I chose to stay, I wouldn’t live my life consumed by fear, but if I could arm myself (without endangering myself, legally or physically, or others), I would. I’d increase my situational awareness, i.e. my vigilance level. If ever I saw something, I’d say something immediately. In the open or in a crowd, I’d have my wits about me (i.e. be 100% sober), and I’d take note of both escape routes and places to take cover if needed.

And I’d have a plan in mind for the worst case scenario. If caught up in the midst of an attack like the one in Paris, I’d plan to escape if possible; if not, to take cover if possible; and if not, to fight, even if that meant rushing the attacker(s)—I’d never permit myself to be transported anywhere, lined up for execution, etc. (that’s, I think, a positive legacy of 9/11—jihadists, and really all mass murderers, count on victims to be paralyzed by panic and are often ill-prepared for resistance).

I’m unsure whether any of this has been helpful—I don’t really give highly-individualized advice, particularly clinical advice, e.g. about anxiety reduction, in this format, but I’ve tried to give you some general principles that maybe you can at least use as a starting point to think and talk about what’s best for you as an individual (which might include seeking input from a law-enforcement, legal, and/or mental health professional there in NYC who’s closer both to you and to your specific circumstances).

Thanks for your question,

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

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