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Real Threat of Terrorism Isn't Terror

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"When people start to feel ill -- if they later develop cancer or have reproductive problems, for example --they start to question earlier reassurances," Wessely says. "They begin to suspect a cover-up. Gradually you start to erode confidence in the institutions you need to protect you. When that trust is gone, that is when you see the more malign consequences of terrorism on civic feeling and community."

Public officials can fight this loss of trust by swiftly providing accurate information. This information should include realistic plans for filling gaps in the public-health and civilian-defense infrastructure. "When people have knowledge, terror is not as frightening," Wessely says. "In America, one good thing that may come out of this is a wider public-health safety net."

This doesn't mean that America ever will go back to feeling invulnerable. But leading psychologists tell WebMD that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. University of Michigan psychologist Christopher M. Peterson, PhD, focuses on the study of human strengths.

"While we are completely shocked, in many parts of the world this stuff has happened a lot and life goes on," Peterson tells WebMD. "Life goes on with the possibility with awful events."

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, for 20 years chaired the University of Chicago's psychology department and now teaches at California's Claremont Graduate College. His writings have revolutionized the fields of education and psychology. One aspect of his work focuses on the idea that the actions of every person impact every other person.

"We will need to be creative and make progress in spite of the fact that we now know life is fragile, that civilization is fragile," Csikszentmihalyi tells WebMD. "That is a much more mature way of living than expecting that everything will be fine."

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