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Terrorism and the Psychology of Fear

2005 July 23
by Paul Vallely

London has been attacked more than once. That alters the way we calculate the odds of danger

‘Let them hate, so long as they fear.’

Lucius Accius Telephus (170 BC – 86 BC)

Terrorism works by instilling not just fear in us but also by inducing in us a sense of helplessness.  That is why its violence is random. Indeed, the more indiscriminate it is in selecting its defenceless victims, the better it suits the terrorists’ purpose.

Outrages take us into mental territory which is beyond our normal comprehension. And the sheer irrationality of this psychology of fear makes it hard for us to construe what is happening around us.

The problem is not so much what we experience as how we interpret it, says Dr Michael Reddy, chairman of Independent Counselling and Advisory Services, a British-based international private network of psychologists that has been at work with trauma victims in London in recent days. “Two people,” he says, “can experience the exact same situation and see it entirely differently.”

Which explains why, according to which newspaper you read, London has been in recent times a “City of Fear” or one in which the resilient “Spirit of the Blitz” is at work.  You pays your money.

“Of course there will be at the present moment quite a lot of people who are afraid,” says Dr Reddy. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a city of fear because the resilience is clearly in evidence too.”

There is more to this than the false dichotomy that sees fear and resilience are opposites. Courage isn’t fearlessness, so much as coping with fear, as the Bishop of Oxford, a former soldier, pointed out yesterday. It is something to do with the difficulty of working out what are the real levels of risk.

The bombers have now targeted London – unlike New York, Bali or Madrid – more than once. That alters the way we calculate the odds of danger, according to Dr Stephen Joseph, an expert in post-traumatic stress from the University of  Warwick.

Terrorist attacks awaken deep existential fears and poison the very process of reasoning. After 9/11 American psychologists attempted to counter this by pointing out that even the Twin Towers attack killed far fewer people than die every year at the hands of criminals, in automobile accidents, or through preventable illnesses. People were not convinced by such mere facts.

“And now there has been more than one terrorist attack in London the rationale alters,” says Dr Joseph, “Is it safe to go on the tube? We don’t yet have the information, in these early days, to know what is the probability of another attack. So we can’t work out the real level of risk.”

But Londoners make three million trips a day over about 1,600 square kilometres on the Tube, so whatever the change in the odds the risk must surely be minimal? “People bring all sorts of past experiences to bear when they make their judgements,” says Dr Joseph. “At this stage we just have to respect the decisions that individuals make.”

Myth is a potent tool of the terrorist here. The psychological blow involved in making the Tube feel unsafe is magnified by the fact during the Second World War the London Underground was cherished as a symbol of safety at a time of danger – a place where, during the Blitz, Londoners were safe from German bombs. What was once a haven has now become, in mythic perception, a death trap.

Of course there were myths about the Blitz too. Joanna Bourke, in her book Fear: A Cultural History recounts how during the German bombing of London there were panics among the stoical resilience. Such a contradictory combination is only to be expected today. Terrorism works because it undercuts the established sense of trust, stability and confidence each individual has in their personal world. “The more indiscriminate it is the better,” says Dr Reddy, “because it shatters the illusion of predictability, control and meaning which are what get us all out of bed every morning.”

Psychologists talk here of the “anticipatory anxiety” as the population wait for the next bomb to go off . They add in the notion of the “learned helplessness” as we come to terms with the fact that there is nothing or very little we can do to stop it. A profound sense of loss of control results. And control, according to Joanna Bourke, is a key ingredient in combating fear.

During the Battle of Britain, she reveals, British fighter pilots were twice as likely to be killed as bomber crews. Yet those in bombers were far more frightened. The level of fear was determined by the nature of the work. Bomber pilots were under orders to hold their course regardless of the dangers; fighter pilots were free to manoeuvre and could vent their fear as aggression, attacking their attackers. One man who served in both capacities reported that when he was flying bombers he couldn’t sleep, and would be drenched in sweat every time he climbed into the plane, but that as a fighter pilot he loved what he called “the sport”.

Intriguingly, what in the United States came to be called September 11 Syndrome was not something which effected those directly involved in the trauma. Rather it affected people across America, in epidemic numbers, and was most prevalent  among those who had remained transfixed to their TV sets for hours watching the towers crash over and over again. If the propaganda value of 9/11 was immense, the response of a tv-addicted nation made it even more so. “If there was no television the terrorists wouldn’t bother,” ventures Dr Reddy. Terrorists want a lot of people watching, more than a lot of people dead.

Fear becomes anxiety when it goes beyond the specific danger situation, says Philip Zimbardo, President of the American Psychological Association,  and is generalised into “a more pervasive feeling of personal vulnerability to things that are not intrinsically dangerous, but are linked symbolically or historically to danger.”

That was clear in America in the three weeks after 9/11 when anthrax was sent through the US postal system. Though nearly 700 million pieces of mail were sent every day – and only eight people were infected by anthrax – there were many individuals who became so afraid of the postal service that they developed  a phobia which prevented them from licking a stamp.  “Our biggest problem isn’t anthrax; it’s fear,” said Dan Rather of CBS-TV at the time. Those who responded to terrorism with fear became, in an odd psychological way, terrorists in their own society.

Xenophobia – including the fear of those perceived as strangers within as well as outside society – is a common response to terrorist outrages. This is particularly so where there is already a distrust between different communities or groups of  citizens. If a scapegoating mentality develops the diversity in a population – which ought to be an opportunity for unity and strength – becomes a real menace. The absence of a clearly defined enemy can also lead to heightened tensions between people who previously regarded themselves on the same side.

It might be supposed that these psychological dynamics alter or intensify where the terrorist threat grows. This appears not to be the case, according to Dr Michael Reddy.

“If the threat wanes then the fear and alertness wears off over time, as days pass and nothing else happens,” he says. “But even if it doesn’t, you get used to it. We know that from London’s experience during the long years of the IRA bombing campaign. And something similar is the case today in Israel.”

That is confirmed by trauma specialists in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where terrorist suicide bombings of buses are a common event. “Colleagues there say, you just shrug and hope you’re not on the wrong bus or in the wrong restaurant,” Dr Reddy reports. In the end the choice is between getting on with your life or opting out, which is just not ultimately a real option for most people.

What most psychologists agree upon, however, is the extent to which the labels we put upon such situations can become self-fulfilling prophecies. “What we say – and what the media says in its coverage – in the end create its own truths,” says Michael Reddy. “You can see anything in a picture that you want to see and make anything out of a situation that suits your view of the world.”

“The evidence is overwhelming that people benefit from support that others give them  in practical and emotional ways – what you might call the Blitz spirit,” says Stephen Joseph. “In saying you detect it you are helping to create or foster it.” In saying the opposite you may be promoting the disintegration of something which could prove vital.

There is more to that that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s celebrated phrase that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. It is that the stories we tell about our experience can shape that experience even as it happens. “Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark,” as the great essayist Francis Bacon put it, “and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.”

What the terrorist wants is for our fear to outweigh our collective virtue, and in doing so to paralyse our hopes and commitment to justice and reconciliation. To combat that we must travel in the direction of our fear. Otherwise we shall look over our shoulders to find that our fear follows us behind.


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