Terror from Terrorism

candle-1521246_1280Terrorism may truly be fear of fear itself.

Over the past few years, terrorism attacks throughout the United States and Europe have captured the public’s imagination. While prevalent, death from terrorism is a remarkably unlikely occurrence, but it often just doesn’t feel that way.

Research indicates that there is something unique about terrorist attacks that makes people expect imminent personal danger. Jennifer Lerner, a public policy expert from Harvard University, found that, after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the average American estimated a 30 percent chance that they would be victimized.

Despite the horrors that often fill our television screens and newspapers, death from terrorism is, statistically, very unlikely. As the Washington Post reported in 2015, Americans are more likely to die from collapsing televisions and furniture than terrorism. This isn’t to mention our risk from heart attacks, skin cancer, or car crashes.

Dr. Lerner explains that this personalized concern was associated with visceral emotional responses. Men were likely to respond with anger, whereas women tended to experience fear. Notably, she found that both private citizens and military or national security experts tended to express similar emotional reactions.

Dr. Lerner suggests that this sort of fear could have a significant effect on government policy. She points out that, when experiencing anger, individuals are more likely to act aggressively and take risks. Thus, the menace of terror can itself shape policy responses to terrorism. She also warned that this can become exacerbated during times of acute crisis where national security officials and policymakers may suffer from sleep deprivation, exacerbating these biases.

But why is it that terrorism has such a provocative effect? If it is truly unlikely to claim our lives, why does it cause so much fear?

Daniel Antonius, a forensic psychiatry specialist with the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, attempts to answer this question by exploring the very emotion of fear. He explains that acts of terrorism are explicitly trying to inspire fear, through acts of sheer brutality. The goal is to make us scared.

“It is this fear, or the anticipation of future acts of terror, that can have serious effects on our behavior and minds,” he explains, demonstrating how acts of terror viscerally affect the automatic nervous system. When we see horrifying scenes in the news, the fear triggers hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which prime our brain for a “flight or fight” response.

Similarly, Dr. Eric Hollander, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, attributes some of this fear to a desire to detect of prevent acts of terror: “We’re told to ‘see something, say something,’ so now people scan the environment and look for things that don’t seem right.” This results in us reinforcing the fear by dwelling on it.

For more information on Humintell’s work on understanding terrorism, click here.

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