The Availability Heuristic and the Prohibition of Being Afraid During War

I recently gave a shiur on the topic of “Leaving Israel in Times of War” (here), and I just wanted to point to one argument about which I would appreciate feedback.

In addition to the general issues involved with leaving Israel, several modern poskim (such as Rabbi Yaakov Ariel in his article in Techumin 12) believe that there is a specific problem with leaving Israel during times of trouble.  They base their claim on the Rambam, who codifies a biblical prohibition to be afraid during war.  R. Ariel extends this, arguing that whenever there is a troubled period, leaving Israel would really abandoning Israel.  He goes further, analyzing the extent to which such a prohibition exists even when one relocates within Israel, and also offering arguments why the prohibition may apply to the civilian population, despite the fact that the original context of the prohibition refers to soldiers.  If he is correct, it would be problematic for civilians, students in Yeshivot, etc. to leave the country when it is under attack, and if we take the Rambam literally, it would even be forbidden to be afraid.  

One of questions that many of the commentaries ask on the Rambam is how can there be a prohibition on being afraid during war?  If ever there was a natural emotional reaction – fear of dying in war is it.  Some suggest that the prohibition is really to flee, not simply to fear.  Others argue that being afraid before the battle begins is legitimate, but once one has decided to enter the battlefield, he is expected to overcome his natural instincts.  Some simply accept that the Rambam thinks the Torah can and does command emotion. I want to focus on another suggestion.  Some of the Achronim, such as Rabbi Yerucham Fishel Perlow, argue that there are two levels to fear.  There is the natural fear that everyone has when under attack.  That, he argues, must be permitted.  However, if one proceeds to dwell on the dangers and make himself or herself more afraid than is natural, then one violates the prohibition.

ביאור על ספר המצוות לרס”ג (הרב פערלא) לאוין ל”ת קכח

הרי שדקדק בלשונו דבאיש הירא ורך הלבב דקרא כתב שאין בלבו כח לעמוד בקשרי המלחמה. ולא כתב בזה שעובר בל”ת. דפשיטא דלא שייך בזה שום עבירה כלל. ורק במתחיל לחשוב ולהרהר במלחמה בדברים שמבהיל את עצמו. שמביא מורא על עצמו במזיד

In the context of a terrorist war, I argued that this answer has particular resonance.  We all know statistically that even at the height of terror waves, it is far more likely that one will die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack.  The reason that people tend to fear the latter more than the former is due to what psychologists call the availability heuristic.  Meaning, our minds do not decide how to react to situations using statistics, at least not without effort. Instead, images that are easily available form our intuitive perception of the world.  Therefore, as we see images of terrorist attacks constantly through the media, and they rightfully pull on our heartstrings, they shape how we understand the world, making us more scared of being killed in an attack than in a car accident.  Terrorism, in fact, feeds on this phenomenon.  I pointed to this telling passage from the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahaneman:

Thinking Fast, and Slow by Daniel Kahanemen

In today’s world, terrorists are the most significant practitioners of the art of inducing availability cascades.  With a few horrible exceptions such as 9/11, the number of casualties from terror attacks is very small relative to other causes of death.  Even in countries that have been targets of intensive terror campaigns, such as Israel, the weekly number of casualties almost never came close to the number of traffic deaths.  The difference is in the availability of the two risks, the ease and the frequency with which they come to mind.  Gruesome images, endlessly repeated in the media, cause everyone to be on edge.  As I know from experience, it is difficult to reason oneself into a state of complete calm.  Terrorism speaks directly to System 1.

Based on this, I wondered whether this understanding of the Rambam would lead us to the conclusion that if someone would be able to remain in Israel by avoiding (excessive?) exposure to media, enabling him to avoid availability cascades that skew the actual situation, allowing one to partially minimize the fear induced by terrorism, he would be obligated to do so.  If one could avoid media and be able to internalize the fact that terrorism, while scary, should not paralyze us, just as the fear of car accidents don’t stop us from driving, would this be obligatory?

Any thoughts would be appreciated.

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