In the past few months, the world has seen a string of terror attacks. On a physical realm, the destruction is evident and, thus, easily actionable. In the psychological realm, though, while the damage is not as visible, it is just as valid.
There has been little discussion and action about the mental health problems following a terrorist attack. It is with good reason: people are less inclined to believe what they don’t see. But experts argue that the psychological effects are actually what fuels terrorist attacks.
Unlike natural disasters such as earthquakes and storms, terror attacks are unnatural and can be traced to a fundamental idea. Therefore, to understand terror groups, the key is to look into their ideology. Beyond the political and social motivations, terror groups operate on an ideology of fear.
Simply put, the objective of terror attacks is to instill fear. Whatever actions they do to disrupt social function and disturb the general wellbeing of people are all just contributory to this primary objective.
For instance, the September 11 attacks raised widespread anxiety across the United States. It resulted in evacuation from ground zero, a total distrust in the US government’s capabilities, and, most importantly, fear of future terrorist attacks.
Terror attacks tend to make people feel that they have very little control over their lives. Thus, perhaps subconsciously, recent victims tend to make small decisions that reinforce this sense of control. After the 2000 terrorist attack in Israel, for instance, people tended to sit near alternate exits in restaurants while others avoided restaurants entirely.
In general, after terror attacks, society enters a brief state of public panic where people will tend to avoid small, crowded areas like marketplaces. These, experts explain, are temporary; societies always recover and things return to normal.
A very troubling effect of terror, according to Michael Williams of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, is people start fearing those who are unlike them. This fear, in turn, will subconsciously affect our language, actions, and decisions.
He explained that among terror-assuaging activities are thoughts and behaviors that defend worldviews, which automatically tend to produce biased thoughts and behaviours against anyone, "perceived as unlike ourselves.”
And this is reflected all over the world today. Victims of recent attacks tend to shut out immigrants or people who hold different beliefs from them or people who belong to a different ethnic group.
The result is sparking more conflict, which terror groups thrive on.
Though it may sound paradoxical, terror attacks may eventually backlash against terrorists.
After the Paris attacks of November 2015, throngs of people showed solidarity, both in person and online. After the ISIS attacks in Baghdad and several cities in Iraq, more young men enlisted in their military to help fight the terror group.
For the individual, experts say that it will take time, but victims eventually recover and return to normal lives. This, they say, can mostly be achieved through support and solidarity. MIMS
The psychology behind terrorism
Canis Inculta, 25 Jul 2016