Real Threat of Terrorism Isn't Terror

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 19, 2001 -- Terrorism won't work -- at least not right away, according to an international team of experts. They warn, however, that unexpected long-term psychological effects may do lasting harm.

Whether it's anthrax-filled letters or massive civilian bombing, as in the London blitz of World War II, terrorism has the same goal: to bring civilian society to its knees. Terrorists think they quickly can destroy everyday life if they cause enough fear, confusion, and uncertainty.

In this they are mistaken, says Simon Wessely, MD, PhD, professor of psychological medicine at Guy's, King's, and St. Thomas's School of Medicine and the Institute of Psychiatry, London.

"What we have discovered is that terrorism does not cause terror," Wessely tells WebMD. "Civilians are much more resilient than we give them credit for. In World War II it was assumed that civilian morale would crack under the blitz, and it didn't. In fact, you see the other side of it: the increased cohesion in the face of adversity that acts as an antidote to these fears."

Wessely himself has witnessed two London bombings by terrorists associated with the Irish Republican Army. "The IRA caused inconvenience and annoyance for most of us; tragedy and horror for some," he says. "With anthrax in America you have a similar situation. It becomes part of the fabric of society. One gets used to the uncertainty that terrorism brings and after a while it is not as bad as you might think. We got used to the blitz; we got used to the IRA. It is not going to be different this time."

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Wessely and his U.S. and Australian co-authors suggest that the real danger to society is a psychological reaction to terror they call "mass sociogenic illness." An example came a few weeks after the events of Sept. 11 when a man sprayed an unknown substance in a Maryland subway station. Thirty-five people suddenly became ill. The spray turned out to be harmless window cleaner.

Well-intended responses to terrorism inadvertently increase the impact of terrorism. An example is the familiar moon suits commonly used by investigators checking out even the most unlikely anthrax hoaxes. These over-reactions frighten people -- and make them suspicious, especially if they later fall ill.

"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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