Terror Fears Tougher on Minorities, Disabled

MONDAY Jan. 26, 2009 -- Terrorism weighs on the minds of U.S. minorities and the disabled more so than on other Americans, a new study finds.

Ethnic minorities, as well as the disabled and mentally ill, are also more likely to make behavior changes based on terrorism fears, such as avoiding certain activities. These groups also tend to overestimate terrorism threats, believing the risk is high even when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's color-coded advisories show the threat as low.

"Terrorism fears are affecting the most vulnerable people" in society, concluded the study's lead author, Dr. David Eisenman, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The findings are published in the January issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

In the study, Eisenman and his colleagues analyzed data from a random telephone survey of more than 2,300 Los Angeles County residents, conducted from late 2004 through early 2005 and known as the Public Health Response to Emergent Threats Survey.

The participants were asked what the color was at the time for the country's terrorism alert system, how often they worried about terrorist attacks and how often they avoided activities because of fears of terrorism.

Those who were mentally ill, disabled, black, Latino, Chinese-American, Korean-American or not U.S. citizens were more likely to think that the alert level was higher than it was and apt to worry more and change their behavior because of those fears.

For instance, about 14 percent of whites surveyed said they worry very often or often about terrorist attacks, but more than 26 percent of Latinos said they did. And whereas just over 1 percent of whites changed their behavior very often or often because of their fears, more than 13 percent of Korean-Americans did.

The findings are not surprising to Eisenman, who said vulnerable groups tend to believe that they will be more likely to be harmed by terrorism and less likely to receive help from government services. The perceptions are based on a bias that is sometimes there, he said.

The findings also suggest that the federal government's color-coding of the terror threat level is often misjudged by citizens, Eisenman said.

According to another expert, the study also points to the failure of the U.S. government to assure Americans they'll be protected should bad things happen.

"Sadly, that failure is greatest with those who are already most vulnerable," said Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist and decision scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "I hope that the researchers will get to repeat their study and find that we are doing a better job."

Eisenman doesn't have a follow-up study planned, but he said that efforts are underway to develop specific programs for disaster preparedness -- programs that are tailored to more vulnerable populations.

Meanwhile, individuals in those populations can "demand more attention is paid to getting their community strong and ready for disaster," Eisenman said.

Fischhoff agreed. "Hold your government accountable for providing you with the information and support that you need to protect yourself and your family," he said.

More information

To learn more about the federal government's color-coded terror alert system, visit the U.S. Department of Homeland Security online.

Posted: January 2009


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