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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Fear and Panic

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A number of years ago, in one of those many periods of tension in this region that are sometimes identified as "wars", at other times merely as "actions", but are always times of suffering and fear, I found myself unable to carry out any work. Two of my sons were in the armed services, both, to the best of my knowledge in dangerous places. I sat at my desk trying to concentrate, but entirely unable to do so. When I phoned my wife and told her, she advised me to turn off the radio. It was then that I became aware of how absurdly I had been reacting to the situation. I found that I had three radios and two televisions turned on in different rooms in the house, each on a different station. It would appear that subconsciously I had imagined that by being aware of everything going on I would somehow avoid it actually touching me. In reality, all that I had achieved was to successfully work myself into a state of mild hysteria.

If what we fear most is the unknown, it is the known that creates panic. Doctors find that explaining the stages of treatment to a patient is the best way to alleviate fear of the procedure, but when a person finds himself in a situation where he is aware of danger, but over which he believes he has no control, panic will often set in. And the knowledge that creates panic need not be knowledge of something real. We panic if we imagine danger, even if there is none. I once took my youngest son for a ride on a fairground machine called "The Spider". As soon as we were strapped into our seats my mind focused on the recollection that such machines occasionally go haywire. It mattered nothing that in the back of my mind I knew that such occurrences were extremely rare. Once I was no longer in control of my fate I felt certain disaster was about to happen. The arms of the contraption began to stretch out, turn and spin, and there was absolutely nothing for me to do but squeeze my eyes closed and wait for the ride to come to an end... one way or another. I found this experience more frightening than almost any other I had known, and the fear was all the greater for the knowledge that I was unable to do anything to control the situation.

Another frightening experience I once had involved a large white owl that I encountered while walking alone in the middle of the night while on guard duty. I had been passing between rows of tents in the dark and isolated army base when I came upon this creature perched on a short wooden pole. I hadn't actually noticed it until I was almost upon it. As scared of me as I was of it, it stretched out its wings, let out a horrific screech and rose into the air above me like a scene from a horror movie (in my recollection this occurred in slow motion and the bird was about the size of a house). Had there been someone there to time me, I think, rifle and all I might have knocked a few tenths of a second off Usain Bolt's record for the hundred metre sprint.

Until I somehow learnt to distract my mind, I found travelling by plane a frightening experience. Once, sitting by a window as we lifted off from Kennedy Airport, I saw how, as the plane turned on its side as they do in order to change direction, the wing went down and, so it seemed to me, almost touched the surface of the water. Unfortunately I expressed my fear of an imagined impending disaster rather too loudly, and as the plane neatly completed its manoeuvre and straightened out the woman in the next seat turned fearfully to me and ask what on earth had happened. Life is full of reasons to fear, but panic is often a choice we make.

There were many occasions for fear and panic in crusader history. One of the best descriptions of total, and in this case entirely justifiable panic is found in the account of the fall of the city of Acre in 1291 written by the so-called Templar of Tyre.* He writes that the Mamluk sultan, al-Malik al-Ashraf, after sending the Frankish leaders a brief letter warning of his intentions (always a good means of sowing panic), set up a vast camp stretching several miles north of the city. Then the Mamluks set up four great siege engines, one named 'Furious', another named Victory' and many small engines in between, and surrounded the entire length of the land walls using barriers and wicker screens. As the Muslims undermined the forewall and its towers, and took the Tower of the King, the Frankish women and children fled to the ships in the harbour. But the sea was rough, and they were forced to return to shore. To add to the defender's fears the Mamluks began loudly beating on a drum "which had a horrible and mighty voice" and commenced an intense attack on all sides of the city. Breaking through at the Accursed Tower just behind the Tower of the King, vast numbers of Muslims entered the city, hurling Geek Fire and firing waves of arrows at the defenders, who rapidly fell back before them. One can imagine the noise, the smoke, the total fear. "There was so much smoke that one man could scarcely see another." When the Master of the Templars was mortally wounded his men abandoned their posts and fled deeper into the city. The panic spread as the Frankish leaders, including the king himself and the Master of the Hospital, abandoned their responsibilities and raced to the harbour to save themselves. They boarded their galleys and set sail, leaving the citizens of Acre to their fate. "The ladies and the burgesses and the cloistered maidens and other lesser folk came fleeing through the streets, their children in their arms, weeping and despairing, and fleeing to the sailors to save them from death."

* Paul Crawford, The 'Templar of Tyre', Part III of the 'Deeds of the Cypriots', Aldershot and Burlington, 2003, pp. 104-17.

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