The Psychological Impact of the Continued Terrorist Threat
by Andrew Silke


It is easy to assume in the post-9/11 world that the psychological impact of the continued threat of terrorism would be considerable. Across the globe, terrorist attacks kill and maim thousands each year and cause massive economic damage. Images of the aftermath of bombings and other atrocities are rarely absent from the media. In such a context it would be natural to expect that the fear and threat of terrorism would have a crippling psychological effect on society. Yet is this the case?

In some respects the evidence is surprisingly optimistic. Even in the wake of catastrophic attacks such as 9/11, American society overall displayed a quick recovery. In the days immediately after the attacks, stress reactions and anxiety were very common, but these symptoms did not persist; they quickly returned to pre-9/11 levels for most. Psychologists found that the American public tended to be remarkably resilient in dealing with terrorism and this has also been the finding in regions which experience terrorist attacks on a frequent and widespread basis.

Israel and Northern Ireland represent two good examples. Both regions have experienced intense and long-running campaigns of terrorist violence.

In the case of Northern Ireland, there were tremendous fears in the 1970s, in the initial stages of the conflict, that the violence would cripple Northern Ireland psychologically. Terrorist attacks were occurring on a daily basis and the expectation was that this would have a lasting detrimental impact. The psychological collapse of the population, however, never happened. Even at the height of the Troubles, Northern Irish society displayed a remarkable resilience to the violence.

A review of hospital referrals and admissions for mental health problems, parasuicide and suicide rates, and psychoactive drug prescriptions found there were no significant increase in any of these measures which could be linked with terrorist violence. According to the International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes (Cairns, Wilson; 1992), ‘only a very small proportion of the population not directly involved in the civil violence in Northern Ireland have become psychiatric casualties as a result of the political violence’.

This is not to say that society overall showed complete immunity to the effects of frequent terrorist attacks. On the contrary, it was very clear that while Northern Irish society on a whole seemed to have escaped relatively unscathed from the violence, small groups did show signs of suffering. Proximity to terrorist violence was an important factor. The closer one was to an attack, the more of an impact it had on average. Suffering physical injuries as a result of an attack was strongly associated with increased psychological trauma - the more serious the injuries, the more serious the trauma. Survivors of terrorist attacks show high levels of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Why was the constant threat of terrorism not more psychologically damaging in Northern Ireland? A number of reasons have been given to explain the low impact of the violence on wider society apart from standard human resilience. The first answer is that the threat of terrorism made communities more cohesive. In the face of a shared threat, individuals identified more strongly with the community around them. In the wake of terrorist attacks - and with the threat of further attacks to come – the Northern Irish communities bonded closer together, providing increased support to members. The result was that the psychological ill effects felt by the direct victims of terrorism could be ‘buffered by a state of rebound psychological well-being in the rest of the community’, according to the British Journal of Psychiatry (Curran; 1998). This effect was very obvious in suicide rates in Northern Ireland. Trends in suicide rates and terrorist-related deaths in Northern Ireland from 1966 to 1999 show a direct relationship between the two – when terrorism increased, suicide fell and vice versa. The lowest year for suicide deaths was 1972 when 47 people took their own lives. This was also the year when the highest number of people were killed as a result of political violence, 497. It is an irony that the success of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland has been accompanied by a steady increase in the region’s suicide rate.

This was not the first time such effects had been seen. After serious riots in America, research found that significant proportions of the local populations actually reported a long-term improvement in their mental well-being. Research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry also showed that: ‘A certain number of people develop psychological distress as might be expected of those who witness terrifying situations or tragedies or catastrophes, but remarkably, a larger number may actually improve psychologically.’

Terrorist violence – and the threat of such violence – can work to bind communities together with a sense of common purpose and common outrage. Not only do terrorist attacks give a perception that there is a shared enemy out there, such attacks also bolster an individual’s ties to their local community, deepening their sense of belonging and their identification with others living in the area. This is a powerful social effect which has been witnessed many times before. For example, during the London Blitz in World War II, many people noted the widespread camaraderie and closeness of what became known as the Blitz Spirit. Some aspects of this effect have already been seen in the US after 9/11. While many commentators talked about the sense of fear and panic sweeping the country, it was equally clear that there was a massive and widespread sense of shared community. Sales of American flags rocketed and millions of homes flew flags in a very public display of shared identity. Similar trends have been seen in Israel, where relentless terrorist attacks, rather than shattering society psychologically, have instead witnessed a remarkable resilience effect.

Social psychologists have long understood that a strong sense of community in a population is associated with a wide range of positive benefits including better physical and psychological health. In fostering a greater sense of community, terrorism can actually end up working to improve the ability of most people to cope and respond positively to it. While recognizing that individual victims can still be profoundly and negatively affected by their experience, the overall reality is that the psychological impact of terrorism on wider communities has often been surprisingly mild even in countries where terrorist attacks are very common.

A further way in which people adapt to terrorist threats is through what psychologists refer to as "mortality salience," which is the effect of overexposure to death-related thoughts or imagery, including even very subtle cues relating to death or cues not consciously recognized by the person involved. The images of death, dying and killing, which are inherent in most media coverage of terrorism, are usually sufficient to produce a mortality salience effect.

Mortality salience can lead to an increase in identification with and pride in one’s country, religion, gender, race, etc. Crucially, mortality salience can lead to an increase in support for extremism when it is linked to group identity. For example, one study found that under mortality salience conditions, white Americans expressed more sympathy and support for other whites who expressed racist views. Also, individuals experience exaggerated tendencies to stereotype and reject those who are different from themselves. Research has demonstrated that mortality salience produces especially harsh reactions to those who are seen to be breaking the rules.

Thus, the mortality salience created by the coverage of terrorism can be expected to lead to an increase in sympathy and support for the government, and increased hostility toward the country’s perceived enemies.

While populations tend to cope fairly well with ongoing terrorist threats, media coverage often adds a destabilizing factor to the mix. Media attention certainly fosters a widespread belief that terrorist attacks are both more common and more dangerous than is actually the case. Psychologists have also found that intense media coverage by itself can have some damaging impact with some adults and children appearing to suffer serious psychological problems as a result of long exposure to media coverage of terrorist attacks. They often had trouble sleeping, suffered from nightmares, anxiety problems or depression. Yet, these people had not been at the scene when the attack occurred and they were not connected to direct victims. They had not lost family members, friends, neighbors or colleagues in the devastation, but they had witnessed a great deal of media coverage. Researchers found that in some groups of schoolchildren, media exposure alone seemed to be a primary cause of PTSD in the aftermath of the attacks.

A survey of residents of Manhattan in the months after the destruction of the World Trade Center published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002 found that 7.5% of the respondents reported symptoms consistent with PTSD and 9.7% reported symptoms consistent with depression. There was a direct link between how close one lived to the Twin Towers and the likelihood that you would develop PTSD. Twenty percent of those living in the vicinity of the World Trade Center showed signs of PTSD. The findings also emphasized the vicarious impact of the attacks: most of those displaying negative symptoms of PTSD and depression had not been physically at the Center when the attack occurred, they had not been in immediate danger and they were not related to direct victims. Instead, these people turned to television, radio, and the Internet, to learn about what had happened, and for some, the media had then become an extremely significant vector of fear.

The Impact of No Attacks but Frequent Warnings

There have been no terrorist attacks in the US since 2001. Yet despite the absence of violence, terrorism has never left the public consciousness and has remained a high profile political and public issue. Enormous debate and coverage is given to the issue of the threat of terrorism. In the past ten years, the average American is much more likely to have been struck by lightning than to have been caught up in a terrorist attack. Such statistics appear to have done little to reassure, however.

A further problem is the enormous attention given to terrorist alerts. Research in New York has found that changes in the color coded alert system are associated with increased signs of distress among a survey of nearly 2000 people. When the color alert changed from yellow to orange these people showed increased levels of depression, anxiety, phobic responses and other signs of PTSD. When the alert levels dropped back, the symptoms again spiked indicating that public reminders of the danger acted as a stressor regardless of the direction of the change.

Reminders of the threat posed by terrorists also bolster society. Approval ratings for the President show a small rise every time the threat levels are changed – regardless of whether the level is increased or decreased.

One explanation for this consequence is to return to mortality salience effect: when we are reminded of danger we tend to show increased support to our own group and to leaders of that group. This, naturally, has led to accusations that announcements regarding terrorist threats since 9/11 (including changes to the official threat levels) have occasionally been politically motivated.

Terrorism can be dangerous, callous and cruel, but in general the evidence is that society adapts. Even in very violent conflicts where terrorist attacks are happening sometimes on an almost hourly basis, society does not collapse under the psychological strain. Most people adapt and cope, displaying remarkable resilience.

Indeed, the most psychological strain is often not seen when attacks are frequent and common, but rather when they are rare and unpredictable. In the latter circumstances it is harder to develop a sense of control over the situation, and in the end, having a sense of control is important – without it we are much more susceptible to our fears. In some respects, the US today faces the worst of both worlds. The welcome absence of any terrorist attacks in the homeland since 2001 at one level creates an impression of normality, yet this impression is constantly being jostled by the frequent warnings and public announcements of a continuing threat. It is an unhappy balancing act which shows no sign of ending soon.•

Professor Andrew Silke is a psychologist and Director of Terrorism Studies at the University of East London, UK. He is author of several books and articles including Terrorists, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and its Consequences.