Photograph: Joe Murphy
Besides FedEx and the occasional Jehovah’s Witness, it’s rare that anyone rings my doorbell or climbs the four flights and knocks.
So it was slightly alarming when, a few weeks ago, I heard a knock and opened the door to find two hefty guys taking up a lot of space on the small landing. They told me their names—Anthony? Sean?—and identified themselves as officers of the New York City Police Intelligence Unit. They said something about the FBI going door to door to calm any fears. Not knowing yet what I was meant to fear, I feared the FBI. I shrank back inside.
But the purpose of the visit was not to arrest me as the perpetrator of some treachery against the state. Rather, I was a victim of treachery: one of about 3,000 New Yorkers whose names and “personal information” (the cops didn’t know what) had been hacked from some database (they didn’t know which) and posted to some website (also, no further details).
The hackers belonged to the United Cyber Caliphate, which, the police told me, “has some connection with ISIS.”
This information was couched all around by reassurances. Yes, yes, the United Cyber Caliphate is a terrorist organization. Yes, the hack was considered serious enough that the FBI was sending representatives to each victim’s door to deliver the news. But no, I shouldn’t be anxious. There was no “credible threat.” I should simply “remain alert” and call 911 if I noticed anything suspicious. The police did not say what I should be alert to.
Since 9/11, a lot of people have been selling me fear.
This advice reminded me of a call I got after the publication of my book Harmful to Minors (2002), about kids’ sexuality, aroused a lot of hysterical attention. The police officer on the phone told me I’d received a death threat, through my publisher. But not to worry, she hastened to add. It was “a benign death threat.”
Anthony and Sean asked if I had any questions. But the one I had—why me?—they could not answer. So we shook hands, and they made their heavy-footed way down the stairs.
“I’ve been hacked by ISIS,” I told my partner, Paul, when he got off the phone.
“Should we worry about this?” he asked mildly.
• • •
Paul knows that, given the option, I will worry. In fact, while Anthony was talking, I was entering check marks in two columns in my head: “worry” and “don’t worry.” This mental spreadsheet would be filed in the drawer where I keep backup anxieties, in case I run out of clear and present dangers.
The Internet, of course, is an incomparable aide in amassing, assessing, and monitoring the ever-changing worrisomeness of, well, everything. I Googled my hackers. There was a lot to work with.
Gothamist reported that the United Cyber Caliphate had included me on a “hit list,” two words Anthony had thoughtfully left unspoken (worry). The hackers had posted the list to Telegram, “an encrypted messaging app” (maybe worry). Some State Department and Homeland Security employees were on the list, though most of the names “appear[ed] to have been chosen randomly” (maybe don’t worry). They were all removed quickly (okay, stop worrying).
Then I went to ArsTechnica, which informed me that Telegram is the preferred communications channel of ISIS (better worry). NBC added that the list was accompanied by the message “We want them #Dead” (oh shit—worry).
ArsTechnica described United Cyber Caliphate as “the power of four jihadi hacktivist cells fused together like some sort of cyber-Voltron.” This did not help settle the question. Voltron is a cartoon (don’t worry). Voltron is a giant super-robot (again, oh shit).
The cyber-intelligence experts at a firm called Flashpoint also released a report that day. Hacking for ISIS: The Emergent Cyber Threat Landscape concluded, “While the threat that emanates from ISIS-inspired cyber attacks is of high concern, especially in light of the formation of a new United Cyber Caliphate composed of previously disparate pro-ISIS hacking collectives, these hacking groups still operate unofficially and remain poorly organized and are likely underfunded.” In fact, ArsTechnica suggested that United Cyber Caliphate might not even exist.
So United Cyber Caliphate is an army of fictitious evil robot clowns. Or it’s a threat of high concern.
“The FBI routinely notifies individuals and organizations of information collected during the course of an investigation that may be perceived as potentially threatening in nature,” read a statement from the agency published in several of the articles. “Potential threats may relate to individuals, institutions, or organizations, and are shared in order to sensitize potential victims to the observed threat, and to assist them in taking proper steps to ensure their safety.”
In other words, worry, just in case, even if you have no idea what you are worrying about. This makes sense to me.
On the other hand, when did I ever trust the FBI?
And Flashpoint? According to its website, Flashpoint is “the global leader in Deep & Dark Web data and intelligence.” It claims to “empower companies to discover and monitor previously concealed illicit activity and take informed, proactive steps to defend against existing and looming threats.” Come to think of it, wasn’t it just a bit too serendipitous, this cyber-attack occurring on the same day that Flashpoint released its report?
Since 9/11, a lot of people have been selling me fear. In 2004, while researching a book about consumerism called Not Buying It, I found security products “from advanced biometric iris identification technology to anti-shattering window film ($8 a square foot), part of a fast-growing merchandise segment that its maker, 3M Corp., refers to as ‘bomb-blast mitigation.’” A Web merchant called Terrorbusters Inc. purveyed a substance called EasyDECON 200. “Used as directed,” its marketers claimed, the product had “proven to neutralize all known chemical and biological warfare agents.” I quoted a guy from a Cincinnati risk-management company: since the planes hit the towers, he said, “The entrepreneurs are coming out of the woodwork.”
In 2011, The Guardian described “a national security industrial complex . . . fuelled by an unstoppable flow of money” from government to private soldiers, spies, domestic security agents, consultants, and boondoggles such as “border fences that don’t work” and “dubious airport scanners.” In 2014 the newspaper reported on the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act which provides U.S. government backup to companies selling “terrorism insurance.” Since the act’s passage in 2002, the report determined, the insurance industry had accumulated more than $40 billion in premiums “without ever paying a claim [or] giving a dime to the government for their reinsurance protection.”
Not just businesses but also politicians are big sales reps for fear. Of course, we don’t all get the same message, and different groups fear different things. For instance, if you live in sub-Saharan Africa you might fear that your babies will die because they aren’t getting vaccinated. If you live in Vermont, you’re terrified because they are.
As for terrorism, a Gallup poll taken a year ago—before the November 8 attacks in Paris, before Donald Trump—found that white Americans were five times as likely as blacks to see terrorism as a major problem (5 percent versus 1 percent), whereas the percentages were reversed when the threat was “Crime/Violence.” Six months later—after Donald Trump, just after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks—Gallup found that fear of terrorism had spiked to a ten-year high. The most scared were Republicans, who tend to be white. A quarter of them were worried about terrorism, compared with 9 percent of Democrats. Unsurprisingly, as fear of terrorism has risen, so have hate crimes against Muslims, which gives them something real to worry about.
• • •
Two summers ago, after moving some wood that had been sitting around for a while, Paul and I discovered we were covered with ticks. After a bit of research, we concluded that these were not deer ticks; we did not risk getting Lyme disease. Rather, they were woodchuck ticks, which carry a rare virus called Powassan. The tick injects the virus immediately; fifteen minutes later, you’ve missed your chance to prevent contagion. The viral incubation period lasts between a week and a month. There is no vaccine or treatment. Powassan virus can cause everything from vomiting to permanent neurological damage. It can also kill you.
After picking the ticks off each other, it was clear there was nothing Paul and I could do but wait a month and see if we died. Since there was nothing we could do, we decided not to worry.
A month went by. I did not die of Powassan virus. Nor have I been taken down by a terrorist. I have stopped worrying about that too.
But since I was hacked by ISIS, it has occurred to me that choosing my worries at all is a luxury of twenty-first-century white bourgeois life. In fact, anxiety itself is a modern luxury. Part of the genius of terrorism is that it reduces comfortable worriers like me to primitive fear—or resignation to fate.
I now tuck my pants into my socks when I go for a hike and check for ticks when I get home. Beyond that, I enjoy the hike and hope for the best. Losing the illusion of control is both a horror and a blessing.