"Fear Less" is worth reading, and it is written in a brisk, "self-help" style that makes it easy to digest in a few sittings.
Gavin de Becker's first step is to confront the reader's fears by putting terrorism into perspective. He explains that life is not risk free, terrorism is not new and Americans are much better at stopping terrorists than you might think. Even after September 11, you face a much higher risk of being killed or injured in your car than in a terrorist attack or a plane crash. Thousands of people will die this year from complications caused by the flu--yet many of those who hoarded Cipro probably did not get a flu shot. de Becker's point is that while we should be vigilant about terrorism, we should not stand around and quake in our collective boots.
To help the reader understand where the fear is coming from, de Becker carefully analyzes the endless hand wringing of television news reporters. In the months that followed September 11, I grew very impatient with the stories streaming in from CNN, Fox News, and even the BBC--they just didn't match reality. The war in Afghanistan was supposed to go on for years (wrong), the allied forces were supposed to lose countless aircraft to Stinger missiles (wrong), the fierce Afghan and Al Qaeda warriors were going to bloody our groundtroops (wrong), the terrorists were poised to blow up American bridges and poision "the nation's" water supply (wrong so far), and Americans were hiding under their beds in fear of the next terrorist attack (wrong--everyone I know took a deep breath and kept on flying and living).
Becker zeroes in on the "code words" that television journalists use to mask a weak but scary story. If you learn nothing else from "Fear Less," it will be that you can relax more if you turn off the television and read the newspaper instead.
Having confronted our fears, de Becker offers some helpful guidance about how we can cope with the latest terrorist warnings from the grim and humorless Attorney General Ashcroft. Most of us are not good at identifying suspicious behavior--we rationalize what we see and ignore our intuition. de Becker proposes some suggestions to help us separate the wheat from the chaff, though most of these are too general to be of much practical use.
More helpfully, de Becker describes who among us is in the best position to spot potential terrorist activity as well as what we should be looking for: the list includes the usual suspects (employees of truck rental businesses and sellers of fertiziler), as well as several that are a bit surprising (such as librarians and bookstore owners, who are in a position to observe people with an unhealthy interest in books or internet sites dealing with explosives). He also reviews September 11 and other attacks to explain how terrorist activities can be identified. If people read Chapter 5 of "Fear Less," we will all have a better chance of making sense of Ashcroft's endless warnings and actually spotting some of the terrorist activity we're all worried about.
My biggest criticism of the book is that it is too general, and it reads like a self-help book rather than an analysis of terrorism and what the average citizen can do to oppose it. In de Becker's defense, "Fear Less" was rushed into print to address the fears arising from September 11--it's intended to be, and is marketed as, "self-help/current affairs." The author's prompt response has done us all a service, but I hope that the future will bring us a more comprehensive book--with more concrete examples and advice.
For further reading: If you are interested in books that explain what the risks are (and aren't) in our modern world, try de Becker's "The Gift of Fear" and Glassner's "The Culture of Fear."