Terrorism is about psychology…It is about making ordinary people feel vulnerable, anxious, confused, uncertain and helpless (Philip Zimbardo, 2007).
New York, September 11, 2001: The Day That Changed the World
Nearly four years after September 11, 2001, an abstract was published online. Its title: The Impact of Terrorism on Brain and Behavior: What We Know and What We Need to Know. This abstract was based on papers presented by Paul Slovic, Rachel Yehuda, Edna Foa, Daniel Pine, Matthew Friedman, John Krystal, and Robert Ursano at the ACNP meeting in December 2003 (Yehuda & Human, 2005). This article draws attention to how terrorism continues to terrorize us so many years later.
Waking in the morning a bit stiff and sitting down with a cup of coffee not yet showered or perhaps already out the door to the office, one would expect the day to begin as it did the day before. First the familiar taste of the coffee, then the dog walk, perhaps still in pajamas, to be followed by a morning shower, teeth brushing and shave. After dressing with the clothes thoughtfully decided the night before, you hear your wife scream, scaring you half to death. What follows after that was incredulous and forever changed all our lives.
Fourteen Years Later
Fourteen years have passed since that eventful day. Fourteen years filled with acts of terrorism too frightening for the American mind to conceive and explicate. Three thousand people from many nations are trapped, crushed or burned to death as the Twin Towers disintegrate on the streets of lower Manhattan. How is this deleterious event possible? For days, weeks and months most of us are in shock, disbelief, scared and feeling perhaps an alien feeling that was never felt before. The threat of terrorism coursed through our arteries, biology, psyche and neurology changing the colors of our mind forever. How was something so unexpected, so inexplicable, incomprehensible going to affect our innocence? How would we ever get over this tragedy? Well in fact most of us did, not however without a new paradigm shift installing into our psyche a new experience of fear never before known.
We had not yet recovered from the events of 9/11, when just four months later, Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter had been kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan, his throat slashed, and video-taped for the world to view. The decapitation of Daniel Pearl left us paralyzed with fear that the world had gone mad and nobody was doing anything about it.
The Boston Marathon bombing was the 59th publicly known terror plot against the United States since 9/11 (Inserra & Walters, 2015). This brought terror back on our soil and it continued. The beheading of innocent men by some ominous figure disguised in black gear, displaying a machete, speaking with a barely audible English accent, delivering threats, created a visceral and guttural sensation throughout the civilized world. We watched daily in shock and disbelief, this hideous event delivered by the media worldwide. The young women kidnapped and sold to slavery added to our tensions and fears of the insanity being perpetrated in a country unknown to many of us. These events were no longer just “over there”. They were here on our homeland as well. The threat of Isis had reached our nation as daily television reporting drowned our minds with inexplicable acts of terror.
Last week we learned of the 65th Islamist terrorist plot or attack intended for the US since 9/11. (Terrorist Plots Since 9/11: Lessons in Domestic Counterterrorism) Between 9/11 and last week our country suffered and will continue to be subject to ongoing violence and threats to annihilate us just because we are Americans. This is a value system that opposes everything our country imbibes and holds sacred to our beliefs. Life that is so precious to us holds no value to terrorism.
The Impact of Terrorism on our Psyche
So, the question is, how does the chronicity of threats and attacks impact our psyche? Our country was designed and created on the principles of freedom; freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the Bill of Rights. The foundation of our country was built on these principles; that all men are created equal; that we have an inalienable right for the pursuit of happiness. As children we learned the pledge of allegiance, the Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. We grew up on a legacy given to us by our founding fathers. When an outside force perforates our system and tries to take away what we hold true to our heritage and hearts; what our soldiers fought and died for, we experience trauma as a nation that had never before existed.
How does terrorism affect us personally and as a nation? We know that psychological effects wield strong and pervasive effects on the neurobiological systems. Our reptilian brain goes into fight or flight when we feel fear. It trumps our neo-cortex and frontal lobes. Fear dominates reasoning. We know too well that PTSD is a common response to something we either witness and/or experience physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually that assaults our essence as human beings and as a country.
Too often the violence perpetrated on us creates a state of shock and grief that may linger for weeks, months and years. Some never recover. Those closest to the events will of course have the hardest time to recover. Those of us who are more directly affected by a terrorist act, have a far greater the risk of developing psychopathology. The rippling effects of terrorism manifest in various ways, depending on the genetic/nature and life experiences of each individual. Our heightened awareness to these attacks and impending disasters coupled with the sensationalism of the media has kept us anxious, restless and apprehensive.
There is a collective unconscious as a people that swells with fear, anger and inconsolable grief and plays out differently for each of us depending on our personal history and biology. Regardless of these factors, we all feel the tragedy to a greater or lesser extent in our bodies and minds. Each of us has different coping styles and levels of tolerance. Following terrorists attacks many Americans reported symptoms of fatigue, poor concentration, sleeping disturbances, depression and anxiety. Anger, loss of appetite, loss of libido and a general apathy were also noted. It was as if the country numbed out in order to survive these unfathomable experiences or obsessed about these acts of violence, often spawning feelings of hopelessness including suicidal ideation. Aberrant behaviors are not uncommon. Addictive behaviors in alcohol and drug abuse increased.
Parents became frightened for their children’s safety in school and at events. A healthy paranoia developed that infiltrated and disrupted our sense of peace of mind. Hyper-vigilance permeated airports as well as air travel. The obvious precautions taken at sports events, concerts and shopping malls were visible to the public changing the landscape of our country.
Home security made us more aware that times had changed forever. We were at war with an enemy that could no longer be recognized. Homegrown terrorists were out to destroy us as we innocently left our homes each morning heading to work, taking our kids to school, running marathons and sitting in coffee shops with our friends, computers and colleagues. The terrorists were accomplishing their goals; to terrorize us, make us vulnerable, and create a climate of fear never before experienced.
As Europe was being attacked, our awareness to the possibility of the same intensified. Racial profiling was not even necessary anymore because we did our own racial profiling as a self-protective response to the terrorists attacks. There was an escalation in prejudice against Islam. Our trust and innocence were compromised and our nation became cautious and guarded. Many people were fearful of air travel and traveling outside of the country. As these acts of terrorism continued abroad we became reluctant to visit countries that once were on our wish lists. We became confused and fearful of the unknown. The terrorists were accomplishing their goals.
A New Landscape: The Good News
Just as we survived Viet Nam, Pearl Harbor, Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, we will find ways to survive this crisis. Just as we mourned the murder and loss of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, we will recover and rise above these atrocities. Just as we endured the Cuban Missile Crisis, the race riots, and the war on drugs, we will persist with the war on terrorism. Not unlike children, we too are resilient. We have always faced adversity head on with defiance, hope and faith. We are a nation of fighters and survivors and will determinedly battle the war on terrorism.
Brown, L. M., Beutler, L. E., Breckenridge, J. N., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). Psychology of terrorism (pp. 3-12). New York: Oxford University Press.
Inserra, D., & Walters, R. (2015) 65th Islamist Terrorist Plot or Attack Since 9/11: Persistent Terrorism Requires Constant Vigilance, The Heritage Foundation, Issue Brief #4378
Yehuda, R., & Hyman, S. E. (2005). The impact of terrorism on brain, and behavior: what we know and what we need to know. Neuropsychopharmacology, 30(10).