Primary Sources

Federal marshals behaving badly; the relationship between terrorism and bad driving; the surprisingly high divorce rate among born-again Christians

Heads in the Sand

The first casualty of battle is the battle plan—or so goes a military maxim. And a new study suggests that the first casualty in a terrorist attack on an American city would be the civil-defense plan. Researchers at the New York Academy of Medicine told 2,545 randomly selected adults what they should do in the event of a terrorist-induced smallpox outbreak (go immediately to a vaccination center) or the detonation of a terrorist-delivered dirty nuclear weapon (find and remain inside an undamaged building). Then the researchers asked those people what they actually would do—with disquieting results. Only two fifths of the respondents said that they would follow instructions and go to a vaccination center; the remainder said that fears of vaccine side effects, and worry that they would contract smallpox amid the large crowds at a vaccination center, would keep them away. (Concern about side effects isn't unreasonable, since about 50 million Americans run the risk of serious complications from the smallpox vaccine.) Meanwhile, three fifths of the respondents said that in the event of a dirty-bomb attack they would follow instructions and remain in a building other than their home. Many said that unless they were able to verify that their loved ones were safe, they would leave the building to protect their families—an understandable urge, of course, but one that would expose them to a serious risk of radiation poisoning.

"Redefining Readiness: Terrorism Planning Through the Eyes of the Public," New York Academy of Medicine

Who Marshals the Marshals?

In the aftermath of 9/11 one step toward increased security seemed a no-brainer: more money and manpower for the Federal Air Marshal Service. And sure enough, the United States has dramatically expanded its force of marshals and increased the air-marshal budget more than a hundredfold, from $4.4 million in 2001 to $545 million in 2003. How much safer this makes you feel probably depends on whether you've leafed through a recent report from the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, which evaluated recent air-marshal hiring practices and conduct records. The report examined a review of 504 job applicants, all of whom had been approved and were scheduled to receive an offer of employment, and found that 161 had incidents in their records that should have raised a red flag (including misuse of government resources, and allegations of domestic abuse, drunk driving, or sexual harassment). With this in mind, it's hardly surprising to learn that from February of 2002 to October of 2003 there were 753 documented reports of misconduct by air marshals on duty. Among the improprieties: falling asleep, testing positive for drugs or alcohol, and having a weapon lost or stolen.

"Evaluation of the Federal Air Marshal Service," Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security

Terror on the Road

Terrorism strikes fear into society, but how, exactly, does that fear manifest itself? Perhaps in reckless driving. According to a team of researchers from Princeton University and Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, who analyzed Israeli traffic-accident data from an eighteen-month period, the number of fatal traffic accidents increased by 35 percent on the third day following an attack by Palestinian militants (and only on the third day; the effect disappears thereafter). The reason for this spike is unclear, since traffic volume diminishes in the days following a terrorist attack. Perhaps, the authors suggest, it's on the third day that many people attempt to resume their normal activities, even though they haven't psychologically recovered from the trauma. The most intriguing possibility, however, is suggested by a phenomenon known as "imitative suicide," in which prominent suicides are succeeded three days later by a rash of traffic fatalities. If the Israeli traffic accidents are not accidents at all but covert suicides, this would explain why on the third day only fatal accidents spike, whereas the rate of merely "serious" accidents holds steady.

"Terror Attacks Influence Driving Behavior in Israel," Guy Stecklov and Joshua Goldstein, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


A Post-Taliban Snapshot

The Brookings Institution's "Afghanistan Index" tracks the status of that country according to a variety of statistical measures. Current trends reveal an interesting combination of positive and negative indicators. The most alarming news? The Taliban is 50 percent stronger today than it was last year.

primary sources graphs

"Afghanistan Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-Taliban Afghanistan," Brookings Institution


Whom God Has Joined Together ...

There are some difficult-to-interpret rules in the Bible, but the New Testament prohibition of divorce for any reason other than adultery isn't among them. So one might think that Christians, and especially "born-again" Christians, would make an extra effort to keep their marriages intact. But according to a recent nationwide survey by the Barna Group, a Christian market-research company, the divorce rate among born-again Christians is 35 percent—exactly the same as for the population as a whole. (Of course, the propensity of the non-born-again to cohabit rather than marry may artificially lower their divorce rates; but even if break-ups by couples who live together are counted as divorces, the born-again rate is only three percentage points lower than that of the general population.) The survey also uncovered some interesting denominational variation in the divorce rate: Catholics (whose hierarchy still holds a traditional line on divorce) were much less likely to divorce (25 percent) than Protestants (39 percent). Among the latter, Pentecostals were the most likely to divorce (44 percent) and Presbyterians were the least likely (28 percent). So why do many Christians not heed Jesus Christ's warning that "anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery"? Because they don't agree with him, according to the Barna researchers: only one in four born-again Christians—and only one in seven respondents overall—"strongly agrees" that divorce when no adultery has taken place is a sin.

Presented by

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

 Marshall Poe is a writer and historian. He is the editor in chief of the New Books Network.

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