Psychology of Terrorism

Psychology of Terrorism

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Psychology of Terrorism


Bruce Bongar Lisa M. Brown Larry E. Beutler James N. Breckenridge Philip G. Zimbardo

1 2007

3 Oxford University Press, Inc., publishes works that further

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All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,

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without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publicaton Data

Psychology of terrorism / edited by Bruce Bongar . . . [et al.].

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN–13 978–0–19–517249–2

ISBN 0–19–517249–3

1. Terrorism—Psychological aspects. 2. Disasters—Psychological aspects.

3. Victims of terrorism—Mental health. I. Bongar, Bruce Michael.

[DNLM: 1. Terrorism—psychology. 2. Stress, Psychological —therapy.

3. Survivors— psychology. WA 295 P9743 2006]

RC569.5.T47P83 2006

363.32019—dc22 2005034001

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Printed in the United States of America

on acid-free paper

This book is dedicated to all those who fight terrorism, to all those who strive to prevent terrorism, and to all those whose lives have been irreparably scarred by terrorism.

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How do I answer the preschooler who asks, ‘‘Why

does that man want to kill us?’’ during a nightly

news broadcast. Why do wealthy suburbanites beg

their primary care physicians to write prescriptions

for Cipro (ciprofloxacin) when no outbreak of an-

thrax has ever occurred within hundreds of miles?

How do we provide explanations of dispositional

perceived risk, negativity bias, attributional error,

and social amplification to the nightly news re-

porter who wants psychological sound bites? Not

long ago few of us would have dreamed that we

would face such questions.

What happens to people, both as individuals

and members of social groups, when we suddenly

find ourselves forced to question our fundamental

assumptions about our basic safety, security, and

well-being? What happens when that challenge

appears suddenly in the form of massive destruc-

tion and loss of life from unanticipated sources

and directions, accompanied by continuing threats

from others we do not know and whose motives

we cannot comprehend? Today, we know the an-

swer: anxiety, fear, dread, and terror.

Terrorism in human history dates back at least

to biblical times, although September 11, 2001,

brought the full psychological and societal impact

of massively destructive terrorist acts into sharp

emotional focus for Western society. During the

following years we have had to confront the horror

of significant civilian casualties, live with uncer-

tainty and fear compounded by stumbling and in-

trusive efforts by government to protect us, all the

while attempting to comprehend the willingness

of other people from different cultures to gladly die

in an effort to kill as many of us as possible.

As behavioral scientists and mental health

practitioners, the years since 9/11 have forced us to

contemplate a range questions long overlooked by

many of our colleagues. Should we regard those

who organize and perpetrate acts of terror as crim-

inals or revolutionaries; antisocial personalities or

religious ideologues; psychopaths or self-sacrificing

advocates of radical social change; or all of the

above? What treatment strategies will prove most

effective for helping people who experience post

traumatic stress, chronic reactive anxiety, burnout,

and related physical symptoms? Does the develop-

ment of a complex fluctuating color coded threat

level system, and announcement that future attacks

will almost certainly occur. facilitate or hinder

coping? Do existing treatment models actually work

or must we abandon conventional ideas for new

intervention paradigms? What can we do to pro-

mote resilience in coping with uncertain risk,

chronic threat of future attacks, and inconsistent

messages from government authorities? Traditional

education and training of mental health profes-

sionals and behaviorally scientists has done little to

prepare us for addressing these critical questions.

Bongar and his talented colleagues offer us

significant assistance in overcoming the gaps in our

training. They have compiled a broad and deep

array of exceptionally useful information aimed at

helping readers both to understand the psychology

of the terrorist and the best scientifically grounded

remedies for the terrorized. These experts from

academic, medical, military, and clinical settings

cover the full range of theoretical, clinical, social

psychological, work site, developmental, and his-

torical contexts. The authors also look well

beyond the scope of 9/11, addressing a wide range

of historical events, as well as domestic terrorism

such as the threats posed by the ‘‘Unabomber,’’

Oklahoma City Bombing, and postal anthrax


As we prepare ourselves and our students to

serve the contemporary needs of society, the con-

tents of this volume provide an incredibly valuable

and vital resource. The work of these contributors

will enable our profession to more readily step for-

ward and engage in research and clinical endeavors

aimed at reducing both terrorist threats and the ac-

companying psychological consequences. Although

I rue the need for this excellent resource, I remain

grateful for it.

Gerald P. Koocher


March 23, 2006

viii Foreword


I, along with millions of others who watched

the events of September 11, 2001, unfold, felt

the immediate shocking impact of the terrorist

attacks—all the more so as my son frequently

traveled on that fateful flight from Boston to San

Francisco and could have easily been on the plane

that terrible day. As a clinical psychologist, I im-

mediately volunteered my services to the American

Red Cross (ARC). While awaiting an assignment to

go to Manhattan, I completed the required ARC

Disaster Mental Health Level 1 training to work at a

disaster site. As both a scientist and a practitioner, I

was astonished to learn that scientifically validated

methods were not being used for training, and the

need to provide responders, victims proximally and

remotely affected with the best possible psycholo-

gical tools to deal with this horror became evident

and provided a challenge for me.

While awaiting any available opening for an

ARC assignment to go back to New York City, I

took it upon myself immediately to go to New York,

and without identifying myself in any way, in-

formally assessed the situation as best I could. An

insight soon emerged. These people had attacked

not just the United States of America, but my Dad’s

‘‘home.’’ For my father, Moses Bongar, was a ‘‘true

New Yorker’’ (and though he traveled far and wide,

New York City was always there in his soul). Before

my trip, I was honored to be invited as a special-

ist in clinical emergencies and crises to come to

Washington, D.C. to discuss disaster mental health

and its role with regard to 9/11 with Dr. Bernadine

Healy, the head of the American Red Cross. After

spending several days in New York City, and being

astonished at the incredible resilience of this re-

markable city and its people, I was able to meet at

some length with Dr. Healey and her senior aid at

ARC headquarters. In this meeting, I emphasized

the critical role of the American Psychological As-

sociation, through its Disaster Response Network

(DRN), and the efforts of Dr. Russell Newman and

senior DRN staff who served as vital resources that

stood ready to work closely with the ARC and its

then head of disaster mental health, Dr. John


Most importantly, I had a remarkable evening

with the individual whom I consider to be the

foremost authority on suicide terror in the world,

Professor Ariel Merari. It was through this meeting

at the Willard Hotel that I realized how little I and

other interested mental health professionals really

knew about terrorism and what this heinous attack

America would entail in the years to come. That

evening with Ariel changed my life. For Professor

Merari shared with me his vast experience and that

of his Israeli colleagues who have waged battle

against this ghastly sort of event since the founding

of the State of Israel. He quickly convinced me that

America would soon find itself deluged with a

panoply of so-called terrorism experts—all of

whom would be more than willing to provide their

learned opinions (often for a substantial fee). Un-

fortunately, as I had already learned decades ago,

one good scientific study is worth a thousand

‘‘learned opinions.’’ Thus, Professor Merari inspired

me to coordinate the first ever American-based

international conference on the psychology of ter-

rorism. Science, rather than ‘‘opinion,’’ would be

the heart and soul of this endeavor. I would also be

remiss in not mentioning another remarkable, ac-

complished Merari, Professor Dalia Merari, whose

sage counsel helped me focus on what would be

of most interest and value in the applied sphere.

My colleagues at the first North Atlantic Treaty

Organization conference on the prevention of sui-

cide terror, organized by Professors Ariel Merari

and Scott Atran, and held in Lisbon in 2004 were

ever in my mind as we headed for the finish line. In

particular, I wish to acknowledge Dr. Simon Wes-

ley and Professor Atran for their generous efforts to

educate me on the nuances and vital dimensions

of both basic and applied science after such evil

events. London and Madrid proved their pre-

science. At the NATO conference I also learned

how science and its cutting edge applications can

be best mobilized through teamwork and discus-

sion. At several dinners, I was fortunate enough to

be educated in the complexities of how science can

impact assessment, risk management and inter-

vention by a wise and wonderful colleague, Major

General Issac Ben-Israel.

It is crucial to note that neither the initial

conference in Palo Alto on the psychology of ter-

rorism nor this book could ever have come to

fruition without the faith and support of a truly

remarkable woman, Joan Bossert of Oxford Uni-

versity Press (OUP). For it was Joan and the other

leaders at OUP who, without missing a beat, im-

mediately recognized that such a conference was

not only timely, but represented a sea change in

how psychological science and its application

would be the key to understanding the role that

psychology would play in making a difference in

how we assess, manage, treat, and prevent the

inevitable psychological trauma that is inherent in

any human-created mass casualty event.

Thanks to Joan and to her dedicated colleagues

and staff at OUP for guidance and assistance in

preparing this massive missive. It is essential to

acknowledge the magnificent role that OUP’s Jo-

seph Zito, Jennifer Rappaport, Mallory Jensen, and

Anne Enenbach played in making this book a


I would be remiss in not acknowledging the

critical additional financial support for the con-

ference that was solicited by President Allen Calvin

of the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology and,

in particular, wish to thank Racky Newman and her

foundation and Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Temple

Emanu-El for support of this event.

This book also owes a great debt to the input

and wise counsel of Col. Larry James of the United

States Army; an equal debt is owed to Captain

Elizabeth Holmes of the United States Naval

Academy (and to my colleagues Brad Johnson and

Rocky Lall). I would also like to thank and ac-

knowledge Dr. Patrick DeLeon for his sage coun-

sel. I also wish to thank my colleagues Drs. Paul

Stockton, Phillip Zimbardo, Larry Beutler, and

James Breckenridge for their dedicated work in

crafting a marvelous course on the psychology of

terrorism at the United States Naval Postgraduate

School (NPS) in Monterey, California. Professors

often dream of having a class of students so dedi-

cated, so wise, and most importantly, so motivated

to learn that teaching is not a mere pleasure, but

a life-changing event. The first class in the NPS

Master’s degree program in Homeland Security

humbled all five of us with their amazing range of

intellect, experience and talents (both individually

and collectively). You know who you are and I, for

one, will be forever grateful for the experience of

being your student and your professor.

Any book of this magnitude rises or falls on the

perseverance, resiliency and good spirits of one’s

senior support staff. Laura Pratchett, my graduate

student assistant from my PGSP-STANFORD

doctor of psychology program, functioned at the

level of a junior colleague rather than a beginning

graduate student (here her training in Scotland as a

solicitor brought a laser beam focus to this old

professor’s tome). My former graduate students

Drs. Glenn Sullivan and Eric Crawford also insured

that the conference from which this work sprung

x Acknowledgments

was run like a Swiss watch (a Rolex for that matter).

I also want to acknowledge that Dr. Sullivan will

carry the torch on my own work on suicide terror

long after I have sailed off to retirement. I am also

indebted to my personal assistant, Briana Breen, for

her perseverance, resiliency and consistent good

spirits in getting this book completed through

her role as a senior coordinator. Briana tirelessly

endured ‘‘herding cats’’—especially yours truly.

From a personal standpoint, I also wish to

acknowledge the incredible support of Professor

Larry Beutler, my beloved colleague and writing

partner of so many years—Larry was always there

and his gimlet editorial eye suffuses many of the

chapters herein. Blanche Dubois in the Tennessee

Williams masterpiece, A Street Car Named Desire,

once remarked that ‘‘I have always depended on the

kindness of strangers.’’ More than 20 years ago,

Professor Phillip Zimbardo, already a legend as

teacher of psychology, most generously recom-

mended to his publisher that a young colleague

be asked to review a critical chapter or two in his

classic introductory text. That young professor

Bongar (now grown a bit long in the tooth) hopes

that 20 years from now, if he is lucky, he will have

the energy, intellectual mastery and drive that Phil

continues to demonstrate to the world. Professors

lucky enough to have many years of mentoring

doctoral students know that if one is extremely

lucky, one has a few super stars, destined early on

to surpass their professor’s own research and sci-

entific accomplishments. It is clear that my col-

league and former doctoral student Dr. Lisa Brown

is already on such a trajectory and her enormous

efforts, along with those of my colleagues Larry,

Phil, and Jim are ever present in this work.

Psychologists who wish to understand the

psychology of terrorism can learn much from our

sibling social sciences, in particular from the dis-

cipline of anthropology. My life-long friend, mo-

ther of our son Brandon, and my former wife, the

noted cultural anthropologist Professor Debbora

Battaglia, who for almost 13 years honored me by

allowing me to accompany her on many of her

professional journeys. For most of my adult life, I

have not been a deeply religious person, but I

continue to thank God every day that our son was

not on that plane.

Most of all, this book is dedicated to my son,

Brandon Fortune Bongar—for so many years you

have been my hero. The reader may wonder about

such an odd place to tell his son this—for both

father and son are old-fashioned guys who are

easily embarrassed about telling each other how

much they love one another. Parents in all cultures

know that the greatest pride is the pride one takes

in the accomplishments of one’s children.

I am always indebted to my family and thank

my Mom, my amazingly gifted and talented sister

Hallie, her husband James White and my Native

American nephew and nieces, my wonderfully

entrepreneurial brother Andrew, his wife Kim and

the boys, and my intrepid sister Debbie and her

children in Israel.

I would also like to thank specifically for their

unflagging support for the National Center on

Disaster Psychology and Terrorism, our dis-

tinguished chair of psychiatry, Alan Schatzberg,

Dean Pizzo of Stanford Medical School, the chair of

our joint doctor of psychology program, Bruce

Arnow, Javaid Sheikh of VAPAHCS, and last but

never least our visionary, President Allen Calvin of

the Pacific Graduate School. I would also like to

thank my friends and colleagues Eric Harris and

Susan Brooks, Wendy and Sy Packman, Ben Patty

and Bennie, Linda Crothers and Dani, my fellow

‘‘Lotus Eaters’’ David Clark, Andrew Slaby, and

Terry Maltsberger, Art and Barbara Frankel, David

and Marilyn Rigler, Don Bersoff, Kirk Hubbard,

Bruce and Diane Ogilvie, and Kevin Murphy. In

addition, since 1978, I have been honored beyond

measure to have as my esteemed friend and col-

league, the current president of the American Psy-

chological Association, Dean Gerald Koocher.

Randy Travis, a famous American country-

western balladeer, once sang the lyrics ‘‘your heroes

will help you find good in yourself, your friends

won’t desert you for somebody else.’’ Thank you



and JPJ, LV, CP, JP, GN, and SW.

For over twenty five years I have been privileged

to be a scientific fellow among a remarkable band of

brothers and sisters, The Explorers Club, who have

‘‘pushed the limits for more than a century’’—thank

you for allowing this ‘‘shrink’’ to learn that ‘‘home

is where when you go there, they have to take

you in.’’

While my colleagues Lisa, Larry, Phil, and

Jim kindly and generously put their names and


considerable skills into this volume, as a bluewater

sailor with thousands of miles under my keel, I

know that to escape chaos, in the end someonemust

take full responsibility as the ‘‘skipper’’ for all that is

contained herein. I fully accept such responsibility,

and I trust that the readers of this book will soon

realize that all chapter authors involved in this

project strove at every juncture to provide the in-

tended audience with the most accurate, useful and

scientifically sound chapters possible. In particular I

am indebted to Professors Tony Taylor and Douglas

Paton of New Zealand for inviting me to give a

plenary address on the psychology of terrorism to

the New Zealand Psychological Society—the best

(and most honestly critical audience) I have ever

addressed. I am honored to have had the chance to

work with every contributor to this volume and

hope that each reader will find that the assembled

chapters meet both their professional and personal


Finally, to the sunshine of my life: John, Gordo,

Frank, Las Vegas Larry, M, Jeff, Joel, Sarah, Robyn

The Wonder Dog, to Donna Olsen Satterfield, my

former internship supervisor who for 30 years has

been my best friend, and last but never least, first

among equals, toMy Funny Valentine, Cookie (who

taught me the real meaning of true love that lasts

forever—it was always you from the start).

xii Acknowledgments



Gerald P. Koocher vii

Contributors xv

I The Psychology of Terrorism

1 The Psychology of Terrorism: Defining

the Need and Describing the Goals 3

Bruce Bongar

2 Psychological Issues in Understanding

Terrorism and the Response to

Terrorism 13

Clark McCauley

3 The Need for Proficient Mental Health

Professionals in the Study of

Terrorism 32

Larry E. Beutler, Gil Reyes, Zeno Franco, and

Jennifer Housley

4 War Versus Justice in Response to

Terrorist Attacks: Competing

Frames and Their Implications 56

Clark McCauley

II Terrorism

5 The Staircase to Terrorism:

A Psychological Exploration 69

Fathali M. Moghaddam

6 Terrorism and the Media 81

Joel N. Shurkin

7 What Is Terrorism? Key Elements and

History 87

Scott Gerwehr and Kirk Hubbard

8 Psychological Aspects of Suicide

Terrorism 101

Ariel Merari

9 The Strategy of Terrorism and the

Psychology of Mass-Mediated

Fear 116

JamesN. Breckenridge and PhilipG. Zimbardo

III Consequences of Terrorism

10 The Role of Religion, Spirituality, and

Faith-Based Community in Coping

With Acts of Terrorism 137

Timothy A. Kelly

11 Psychological Consequences of Actual

or Threatened CBRNE Terrorism 153

Glenn R. Sullivan and Bruce Bongar

12 Psychological Weapons of Mass

Disruption Through Vicarious Classical

Conditioning 164

Dennis D. Embry


13 Near- and Long-Term Psychological

Effects of Exposure to Terrorist

Attacks 175

Susan E. Brandon and Andrew P. Silke

14 The Response of Relief Organizations to

Terrorist Attacks: An Overview

of How the Red Cross and Other Relief

Organizations Work in Conjunction

With Other Agencies 194

John A. Clizbe and Susan Hamilton

15 Understanding How Organizational

Bias Influenced First Responders

at the World Trade Center 207

Joseph W. Pfeifer

16 Warfare, Terrorism, and

Psychology 216

L. Morgan Banks and Larry C. James

IV Assessment and Treatment

17 Terrorism Stress Risk Assessment and

Management 225

Douglas Paton and John. M. Violanti

18 Evidence-Based Interventions for

Survivors of Terrorism 247

Josef I. Ruzek, Shira Maguen, and Brett T. Litz

19 Neurobiological and Behavioral

Consequences of Terrorism:

Distinguishing Normal From

Pathological Responses, Risk Profiling,

and Optimizing Resilience 273

Rachel Yehuda, Richard Bryant, Joseph Zohar,

and Charles R. Marmar

20 Older Adults and Terrorism 288

Lisa M. Brown, Donna Cohen, and

Joy R. Kohlmaier

21 Children and Terrorism: A Family

Psychoeducational Approach 311

Maureen Underwood, John Kalafat, and

Nicci Spinazolla

22 Cultural Considerations: Caring for

Culturally Diverse Communities

in the Aftermath of Terrorist

Attacks 338

David Chiriboga

23 The Psychological Consequences of

Terrorist Alerts 357

Rose McDermott and Philip G. Zimbardo

V Prevention and Psychological

Problems in Reaction to Acts of


24 Defusing the Terrorism of

Terror 373

A. J. W. Taylor

25 Psychological Resilience in the Face of

Terrorism 400

Lisa D. Butler, Leslie A. Morland,

Gregory A. Leskin

26 Promoting Resilience and Recovery in

First Responders 418

Richard Gist

27 Integrating Medical, Public

Health, and Mental Health Assets

into a National Response

Strategy 434

Dori B. Reissman, Stephan G. Reissman,

and Brian W. Flynn

28 Reflections on the Psychology of

Terrorism 452

Laura Pratchett, Lisa M. Brown, and

Bruce Bongar

Appendix: Resources in Psychology

of Terrorism 459

Matteo Bertoni and Brynne Johannsen

Glossary 467

Index 475

xiv Contents



Bruce Bongar is Calvin Professor of Psychology at

the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology and

Consulting Professor of Psychiatry and Behavio-

ral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medi-

cine. He founded and is the executive director of

the National Center on Disaster Psychology and

Terrorism. Along with Larry Beutler, the Director

of the Palo Alto Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) of

the Office of the Surgeon General of the United

States, Professor Bongar recently volunteered his

services and has joined the senior staff of the San

Mateo County Coastside Medical Reserve Corp

(MRC). Professor Bongar, along with his close

colleague Professor Ariel Merari, of Tel Aviv

University, will be undertaking an international

collaborative study to attempt to scientifically un-

derstand and prevent acts of suicide terror such as

those that occurred on 9/11 and the bombings in

London and Madrid—a study that grew out of

the first NATO conference on the prevention of

suicide terrorism—organized by Merari and Scott

Atran. Dr. Bongar is an authority on suicide and

life threatening behaviors and on clinical and legal

standards of care. He founded the Oxford Uni-

versity Press Clinical Psychology Series and is the

winner of both the Shneidman award for early

career achievement and Dubin award for lifetime

career achievement in the scientific understanding

of suicide from the American Association of Sui-

cidology, and is past president of Section VII,

Clinical Emergencies and Crises, of the Division of

Clinical Psychology (Division 12) of the American

Psychological Association. Professor Bongar is a

fellow of the American Psychological Association,

the Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine, and the

American Psychological Society. A practicing clin-

ical psychologist and psychotherapist for almost

30 years, Dr. Bongar is a licensed psychologist, a

chartered clinical psychologist of the British Psy-

chological Society, and a Diplomate of the American

Board of Professional Psychology.

Lisa M. Brown is an Assistant Professor in the

Department of Aging and Mental Health, Florida

Mental Health Institute, and the Department of

Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, University of

South Florida. Brown is interested in how adults

cope with adverse personal or societal life events.

Her research on mental health and disasters has

evolved from her longstanding interest in the


effects of adverse events and pathological condi-

tions on the mental and physical health of older

adults. Brown and her colleague John A. Schinka

have recently completed a longitudinal study that

examines the effects of the 2004 and 2005 hurri-

canes on a cohort of elderly Floridians. She is cur-

rently evaluating the effectiveness of a mental health

intervention that was developed to reduce hurri-

cane related distress and put into practice state-

wide after the 2004 hurricane season. Along with

Kathryn Hyer, Brown is examining the response

and recovery of long-term care facilities during

disasters and working to develop policy and best

practices to protect institutionalized adults.

Larry E. Beutler is the William McInnes Dis-

tinguished Professor of Psychology at Pacific

Graduate School of Psychology (PGSP), and is a

Consulting Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral

Sciences at Stanford University School of Medi-

cine. He is also a Visiting Professor of Homeland

Security and Defense at the Naval Post-Graduate

School in Monterey and the former Chair of the

Ph.D. Program and Director of Clinical Training at

Pacific Graduate School of Psychology. Beutler has

published over 20 scholarly books and 350 sci-

entific articles and papers on psychological as-

sessment, training, and treatment. He is a Past

President of the Society for Clinical Psychology

(Division 12, APA), the Division of Psychotherapy

(APA), and the International Society for Psy-

chotherapy Research.

James N. Breckenridge is the Associate Director of

the Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Policy,

Research, and Education on Terrorism. He retired

recently from his positions as Chief of the Psy-

chology Services at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto

Health Care System. Breckenridge is also Professor

of Psychology at the Pacific Graduate School of

Psychology, and Director of Training of the PGSP-

STANFORD Psy.D. Consortium, and Consulting

Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

at Stanford University School of Medicine. He

teaches graduate courses in the psychology of

terrorism at the Center for Homeland Defense and

Security at the Naval Post-Graduate School, where

he is a Distinguished Senior Fellow. Breckenridge

is also a Fellow of the American Psychological

Association and is chair-elect of the Veterans Af-

fairs section of Division 18 (Public Service). He

recently received the Division’s National Out-

standing Researcher Award for his work in health

economics, risk adjustment, and other statistical

modeling approaches to healthcare utilization. The

Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for

Health recognized Dr. Breckenridge in 2005 for

his Robert Wood Johnson funded research on

national patterns of intensive care and palliative

care alternatives.

Philip G. Zimbardo is internationally recognized

as the ‘‘voice and face of contemporary psychology’’

through his widely seen PBS-TV series, Discovering

Psychology, his media appearances, best-selling

trade books on shyness, and his classic research,

the Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo has

been a Stanford University professor since 1968,

having taught previously at Yale, NYU, and Co-

lumbia University. He is now an Emeritus Professor

but is still teaching more new and intense under-

graduate courses. He has been given numerous

awards and honors as an educator, researcher,

writer, and service to the profession. Most recently

he was awarded the 2005 Havel Foundation Prize

from the Czech Republic for his lifetime of research

on the human condition. Among his more than 350

professional publications and 50 books is the old-

est current textbook in psychology, Psychology and

Life, going into its 18th edition. His current re-

search interests are in the domain of experimental

social psychology with a scattered emphasis on

everything and anything interesting to study from

time perspective to political psychology. Zimbardo

is currently enmeshed in his major opus, Zimbardo

is past President of the Western Psychological As-

sociation (twice), President of the American Psy-

chological Association, the elected Chair of the

Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP) re-

presenting 63 scientific, math and technical asso-

ciations (with 1.5 million members), and is now

Chair of the Western Psychological Foundation

and President of the Philip Zimbardo Foundation

that collects funds for college scholarships and

computers for children in his ancestral Sicilian

village town of Cammarata. Zimbardo is also the

director of a new terrorism center sponsored jointly

by Stanford and the Naval Postgraduate School,

The Interdisciplinary Center for Policy, Education,

and Research on Terrorism (CIPERT).

xvi Contributors


Col. L. Morgan Banks, PhD

PsychologicalApplicationsDirectorate, Ft. Bragg,NC

Larry E. Beutler, PhD, ABPP

Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA

National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism

Bruce Bongar, PhD, ABPP, FAPM

Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, Palo Alto, CA

Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences,

Stanford University School of Medicine,

Stanford, CA and

National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism

Susan Brandon, PhD

Department of Psychology, Yale University, New

Haven, CT

James N. Breckenridge, PhD

Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA

Lisa M. Brown, PhD

Aging and Mental Health Department,

Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health

Institute, University of South Florida,

Tampa, FL and

National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism

Richard Bryant, PhD

Department of Psychology, University of New

South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Lisa D. Butler, PhD

Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences,

Stanford University School of Medicine,

Stanford, CA

David Chiriboga, PhD

Aging and Mental Health Department, Louis de

la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute,

University of South Florida, Tampa, FL

John A. Clizbe, PhD

American Red Cross, Washington, DC

Donna Cohen, PhD

Aging and Mental Health Department, Louis de

la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute,

University of South Florida, Tampa, FL

Dennis D. Embry, PhD

PAXIS Institute, Tucson, AZ

Brian W. Flynn, EdD, RADM, U.S. Public

Health Services, Ret.

Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress,

Uniformed Services University of the Health

Sciences, Bethesda, MD

Zeno Franco

Pacific Graduate School of Psychology,

Palo Alto, CA

Scott Gerwehr

Defense Group Inc., Center for Intelligence

Research and Analysis, Santa Monica, CA

Richard Gist, PhD

Department of Psychology, University of Missouri–

Kansas City, Kansas City, MO

Principal Assistant to the Director, Kansas City Fire

Department, Kansas City, MO

Susan Hamilton, PhD

American Red Cross, Washington, DC

Jennifer Housley

Pacific Graduate School of Psychology,

Palo Alto, CA

Kirk M. Hubbard, PhD

Operational Assessment Division, Central In-

telligence Agency, Washington, DC

Larry James, PhD

Department of Psychology, Tripler Army Medical

Center, Honolulu, HI and

National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism

John Kalafat, PhD

Graduate School of Applied and Professional

Psychology, Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ

Timothy A. Kelly, PhD

Fuller Graduate School of Psychology, Pasadena,


Gregory A. Leskin, PhD

National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Dis-

order, VA

Palo Alto Healthcare System, Palo Alto, CA

Joy Kohlmaier, PhD

Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health

Institute, University of South Florida,

Tampa, FL

Brett T. Litz, PhD

National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress

Disorder, Behavioral Science Division,

Boston, MA

Shira Maguen, PhD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Program, San

Francisco Veterans Administration Medical

Center, San Francisco, CA

Charles R. Marmar, MD

San Francisco Department of Veterans Affairs

Medical Center, San Francisco, CA


Clark McCauley, PhD

Psychology Department, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn

Mawr, PA

Rose McDermott, PhD

Political Science Department, University of Cali-

fornia, Santa Barbara, CA

Ariel Merari, PhD

Psychology Department, Tel Aviv University, Tel

Aviv, Israel and

National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism

Fathali M. Moghaddam, PhD

Psychology Department, Georgetown University,

Washington, DC

Leslie Morland, PsyD

National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Dis-

order, Veterans Affairs Pacific Island Healthcare

System, Honolulu, HI

Douglas Paton PhD, CPsychol

School of Psychology, University of Tasmania,

Launceston, Tasmania, Australia and

National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism

Joseph W. Pfeifer

Fire Department of New York, NY

Laura Pratchett, LLB (Hons)

Pacific Graduate School of Psychology–Stanford

PsyD Consortium, Palo Alto, CA

Dori Reissman, MD

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

Atlanta, GA

Stephan G. Reissman, PhD, CEM

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

Atlanta, GA

Gil Reyes, PhD

School of Psychology, Fielding Graduate

University, Santa Barbara, CA

Josef I. Ruzek, PhD

National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Dis-

order, VA Palo Alto Health Care System, Palo

Alto, CA

Joel Shurkin

National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism

Baltimore, MD

Andrew Silke, PhD

School of Law, University of East London, Strat-

ford, London, England

Nicci Spinazzola, EdS, LMFT, LPC

Richard Hall Community Mental Health Center,

Somerville, NJ

Glenn R. Sullivan, PhD

Pacific Graduate School of Psychology,

Palo Alto, CA and

National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism

A. J. W. Taylor

School of Psychology, Victoria University of

Wellington, Wellington, NZ

Maureen Underwood, LCSW

Morristown, NJ

John M. Violanti, PhD

School of Public Health and Health

Professions, Social and Preventative Medicines,

State University of New York–Buffalo,

Buffalo, NY

Rachel Yehuda, PhD

Psychiatry Department, Mount Sinai School of

Medicine, New York, NY and

Traumatic Stress Studies Division,

Mount Sinai School of Medicine and

Bronx Veterans Affairs Medical Center,

New York, NY

Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD

Psychology Department, Stanford University,

Stanford, CA

Joseph Zohar, MD

Psychiatry Department, Chaim Sheba Medical

Center, Ramat Gan, Israel

xviii Contributors

I The Psychology of Terrorism

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1 The Psychology of Terrorism

Defining the Need and Describing the Goals

Bruce Bongar

Terrorism is about one thing: Psychology. It is the psychology of fear.

Philip G. Zimbardo, personal communication, April 2004

The past decade has witnessed a dramatic trans-

formation in the nature and use of terrorism. These

changes have brought into high relief the need for

better psychological and social responses to ter-

rorism and man-made disasters. It is important

to note that a major strategic intent of modern

terrorists is to create huge numbers of secondary

psychological casualties by means of large-scale

physical attacks. The catastrophic acts of Septem-

ber 11, 2001, and their aftermath have forced

military, medical, and psychological experts to re-

evaluate their understanding of mass casualty ter-

rorism. Given the relative newness of the discipline,

we believe there is a great need for a text that covers

aspects of psychology relevant to terrorism.

Definitional Issues

In 48 A.D., a Jewish sect called the Zealots carried

out terrorist campaigns to force an insurrection

against the Romans in Judea. These campaigns

included the use of assassins—‘‘sicarii,’’ or dagger

men—who would infiltrate Roman-controlled

cities, stab Jewish collaborators or Roman le-

gionnaires with a ‘‘sicae’’(dagger), kidnap members

of the staff of the Temple Guard to hold for ransom,

or use poison on a large scale. These assassins were

an eleventh-century offshoot of a Shia Muslim sect

known as the Ismailis, who believed that dying

in the process of their assault was an act of self-

sacrifice and guaranteed them a pathway into

heaven. By contrast, terrorist organizations today

are often much larger, more loosely connected net-

works of full-time and part-time activists, and this

anonymity removes inhibitions to inflict broad, in-

discriminate damage (Hoffman, 2001).

The English word terrorism comes from the

régime de la terreur that prevailed in France from

1793 to 1794, when a French revolutionary,

Maximilian Robespierre, proclaimed that ‘‘Terror

is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, in-

flexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it

is not so much a special principle as it is a con-

sequence of the general principle of democracy

applied to our country’s most urgent needs.’’

McDermott and Zimbardo (this volume) tren-

chantly point out that terrorism is not about war in

any traditional sense of destroying the material

resources of an enemy nation and taking over that

country; instead, terrorism is fundamentally about

psychology. Terrorist acts are designed strategi-

cally to incite terror and fright in civilian popula-

tions. They further note that terrorists in most


instances are neither crazy nor irrational—though

their acts may be evil in the extreme. Many au-

thorities have also found that there is neither a

specific terrorist psychological profile nor a sin-

gular psychopathological condition.

Crenshaw (2000) has emphasized this defini-

tional dilemma and pointed out that the concept of

terrorism is not well defined, that contradictions

occur, that terrorism is a highly politicized term

used to describe the behavior of oppositional for-

ces, and that the category of terrorism includes

diverse practices that range from kidnappings to

bombings intended to create mass casualties. Fur-

thermore, he notes that there is ongoing political

pressure to define terrorist behavior in terms of

psychopathology, and he clearly suggests that the

lack of extensive, reliable interview data or empiri-

cal testing has made it difficult to draw dependable

and valid inferences. He concludes that, despite the

political climate, personality factors and psycho-

pathologies are not specific to terrorists and there

is little evidence of gender differences; instead, ra-

ther than individual factors, group dynamics within

close units with shared ideologies and solidarity

play a much larger role. In 2002 Shamir and Shi-

kaki published the findings of their study, which

examined the psychological processes applied by

terrorists and terrorist organizations to justify their

violence. They maintain that, ‘‘although there is no

consensus over what terrorism is, most people seem

to believe that terrorism is bad and should be era-

dicated’’ (541).

Contemporary Terrorism

The primary goal of terrorism is to disrupt society by

provoking intense fear and shattering all sense of

personal and community safety. The target is an

entire nation, not only those who are killed, injured,

or even directly affected.

Hall, Norwood, Ursano, Fullerton,

and Levinson, 2002

In a lengthy review on terrorism in the Washington

Quarterly, Scott Atran (a research scientist at the

National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and

at the University of Michigan) has pointed out that

most Americans currently feel no safer from ter-

rorism, that they are more distrustful of many long-

standing allies, and that they are increasingly

anxious about the future. He cited a survey released

in the early spring of 2004 by the nonpartisan

Council for Excellence that found that more than

three-quarters of Americans expect theUnited States

to be the target of a major terrorist attack in the near

future. A clear reality focus for such widespread

anxiety and fear was noted:

One distinct pattern in the litany of terrorist

atrocities is that there has been an increasing

interest in well-planned attacks designed to net

the highest numbers of civilian casualties.

Charting data from the International Policy In-

stitute for Counter-Terrorism, Robert Axelrod, a

political scientist at the University of Michigan,

observes that a very few terrorist attacks account

for a very large percentage of all casualties. Not

only does this trend call for anticipating attacks

with ever broader political, economic, and so-

cial effects, it also seems to point to an eventual

suicide attack using chemical, biological, or

nuclear weapons. Although that may take some

time to plan effectively, long-term planning has

proven to be Al Qaeda’s hallmark. ‘‘God has

ordered us to build nuclear weapons.’’ (Atran,

2004, p. 70)

This extensive review also underscored a

common misconception in the U.S. administration

and media spin on the war on terrorism—namely,

that terrorists are evil, deluded, or homicidal

misfits who thrive in poverty, ignorance, and an-

archy. Atran further stated that

such a portrayal lends a sense of hopelessness to

any attempt to address root causes because

some individuals will always be desperate or

deranged enough to conduct suicide attacks.

Nevertheless, as logical as the poverty-breeds-

terrorism argument may seem, study after study

shows that suicide attackers and their suppor-

ters are rarely ignorant or impoverished. Nor are

they crazed, cowardly, apathetic, or asocial. The

common misconception underestimates the

central role that organizational factors play in

the appeal of terrorist networks. A better un-

derstanding of such causes reveals that the

challenge is actually manageable: the key is not

to profile and target the most despairing or

deranged individual but to understand and

undermine the organizational and institutional

appeal of terrorists’ motivations and networks.

(Atran, 2004, p. 73)

4 The Psychology of Terrorism

It is also useful to remember that the attacks

on September 11, 2001, were intended to cause far

more deaths and injuries than they actually did.

We know from the testimony of the 1993 World

Trade Center bombers that terrorist planners be-

lieved the buildings would topple when attacked,

not cascade down upon themselves; the original

intent was to spread death and injury among

countless inhabitants of Lower Manhattan and not

merely among those who worked in the targeted

skyscrapers. As British prime minister Tony Blair

has observed, modern terrorists ‘‘have no moral

inhibition on the slaughter of the innocent. If

they could have murdered not 7,000 [sic] but

70,000 does anyone doubt they would have done

so and rejoiced in it?’’ (Blair, 2001). The al-Qaeda

leadership had met several years previously and

explored attacking nuclear power facilities in

the United States (but actually had some qualms

about the terrorist act ‘‘getting out of control

and decided not to do that for now’’ [Blair, 2001]).

When directly queried by a journalist who inter-

viewed them in Pakistan about what ‘‘for now’’

meant, a senior correspondent for Al Jazeera (an

Arabic-language television station in Qatar) said,

‘‘for now, means for now!’’ (obviously leaving the

door open for future planning for such assaults;

Blair, 2001). Credible intelligence sources have also

discovered that the same group responsible for

9/11 were at least actively trying to secure mate-

rials for either a radiological dispersion device

and/or chemical or biological agents that could be

used to attack U.S. targets (both in the United

States and abroad).

In addition, terrorism authorities such as Ariel

Merari of Tel Aviv University have been warning

of the threat of ‘‘megaterrorism’’ since the early

1990s. The goal of megaterrorists is not to achieve

political ends but simply to kill enormous num-

bers of ‘‘enemy’’ civilians. An example of this

brand of terrorism is the May 23, 2002, attempt

to detonate the Pi Gilot fuel depot in Tel

Aviv; had the terrorists succeeded, an estimated

20,000–40,000 civilians living nearby would have

been killed (Dunn, 2002). Given the practical and


or explosive—a single act of megaterrorism

could easily claim the lives of 100,000 innocent


This hyperhomicidal form of terrorism is not

restricted to al-Qaeda operatives. In 1995 mem-

bers of the apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyō man-

aged to kill only 12 (and not 12,000) people in the

Tokyo subway because of luck and inexperience,

not moral or tactical constraint. This same orga-

nization had previously purchased a sheep farm

in western Australia in order to mine uranium

and construct a nuclear bomb (Stern, 1999). Only

fortuitous intervention by Japanese law enforce-

ment forestalled a much larger tragedy. Even after

the dismantling of Aum Shinrikyō, a myriad of

millennial cults that hope to provoke the apoc-

alypse through terrorism remain in our midst

(Lifton, 1999).

Psychological Impact

It is impossible to say anything that is able to give a

true idea of it to those who did not see it, other than

this, that it was indeed very, very, very dreadful, and

such as no tongue can express.

Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year

The heinous events of September 11, 2001, have

forever changed our awareness of the impact of mass

casualty terrorism. Ariel Merari (personal commu-

nication, January 30, 2003) has stated that the only

factors constraining the terrorists who seek to de-

stroy us are practical and technical, not political or

moral. Among the lessons learned by Merari and

others on the front lines is that the strategic intent

of modern terrorists is to create huge numbers of

secondary psychological casualties bymeans of large-

scale physical attacks. In the 1970s it was often re-

peated that terrorists ‘‘want a lot of people watching,

not a lot of people dead’’; today it is more accurate to

say that terrorists want a lot of people dead—and

even more people crippled by fear and grief.

Government and military officials acknowl-

edge that we are currently unprepared to care for

the large numbers of medical and psychological

casualties that would result from an attack invol-

ving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and /

or bioterrorism. National authorities such as Leon

E. Moores, a physician at the Walter Reed Army

Medical Center, have calculated that the number

of casualties from a WMD attack would be in the

thousands but that the long-lasting psychological

consequences would have a devastating affect on

millions of people.

Military psychologists have long known that

fear, stress, and exhaustion cause more casualties

5The Psychology of Terrorism

than do bombs and bullets. The ratios of psycho-

logical to physical casualties can be enormous; for

every one death directly caused by an Iraqi Scud

missile attack on Israel during the Gulf War,

there were 272 hospital admissions resulting from

clinical psychological emergencies. The March 20,

1995, sarin attack in the Tokyo subway killed 12

people and caused more than 4,000 nonaffected

individuals to go to area hospitals, often with psy-

chogenic symptoms of chemical injury (World

Health Organization, 2001).

Clearly, the impact on society can be much

greater than initial casualty rates might imply.

The long-term psychological impact of the use or

even threat of WMD is difficult to predict.

Changes in daily activity, depression and suicide

rates, and economic impact can last for years or

even decades, and current disaster experts have

no models to predict the ultimate need for psy-

chological assessment or treatment services.

Many experts contend, based on the Israeli ex-

perience and other similar venues (e.g., Northern

Ireland) that the strain on the medical resources

and psychological strength of a society could

potentially be crippling. (Moores, 2002)

At present, the psychological science needed to

provide proper and effective treatment for victims

of horrendous events such as September 11 and

for future potential terrorist events (including the

use of WMD) simply does not exist. Despite a

wealth of information about psychological assess-

ment and intervention following severe individual

trauma (e.g., combat, rape), natural disasters, and

airplane crashes, for example, there is no wide-

spread scientific or clinical consensus regarding

the efficacy of these treatment interventions with

people who are directly affected by a terrorist at-

tack. A similar scarcity of scientific data exists

regarding appropriate treatments specifically de-

signed for people not directly exposed to, but

struggling to cope with, actual or threatened ter-

rorist acts. Obviously, such effects are magnified

by the 24/7 news cycle and the widespread avail-

ability of Internet connectivity.

Treatment of Victims of Terror

In the aftermath of September 11, an urgent need

arose for the services of highly trained psycholo-

gists and other mental health professionals in

treating thousands of victims, rescuers, and their

families. Sadly, the effort to deliver quality

mental health services was largely scattered, dis-

organized, and understaffed and involved mostly

well- meaning but inadequately trained mental

health professionals. The insufficient training of

those who rushed to help was not entirely their

own fault; little training is available in disaster

mental health services (or in the psychological

response to acts of terrorism), and even less (if

any) training is available in treatment protocols

that have scientific, empirical support for their

efficacy. It is important—and chilling—to note

that some authorities (Rose, Bisson, & Wessely,

2002; Van Emmerick, Kamphuis, Hulsbosch, &

Emmelkamp, in press) have concluded that pop-

ular models of disaster mental health response

(e.g., critical incident stress debriefing) are po-

tentially harmful to victims of terrorist acts.

Critical Incident Stress Debriefing

Devilly and Cotton (2004) have critically reviewed

the literature on critical incident stress debriefing

(CISD) and made a powerful conclusion:

It is surprising, perhaps, that CISD has become

so universally accepted despite the fact that

there is no data from randomized clinical trials

demonstrating its efficacy as a clinical

intervention. . . . Indeed, as noted earlier, two

recent studies suggest that CISD is either in-

effective or actually worsens PTSD [posttrau-

matic stress disorder] symptoms instead of

preventing the later development of PTSD, as is

generally believed. Obviously, much more re-

search is needed. As we ask ourselves,

however, . . . how CISD could have attracted so

many strong adherents in the absence of con-

vincing data, the answer may lie in the low

prevalence of PTSD among individuals exposed

to natural disasters. . . . If most people exposed

to natural disasters will never develop PTSD,

then most people exposed to natural disasters

who receive CISD will never develop PTSD. The

pertinent question, therefore, is whether in-

dividuals most at risk to develop PTSD follow-

ing acute traumatization will have more favor-

able outcomes if they receive CISD. Clearly we

must move beyond clinical impressions and

descriptive studies to rigorous randomized trials

6 The Psychology of Terrorism

if we hope to learn whether CISD can actually

prevent the later development of PTSD among

acutely traumatized individuals.(p. 35)

In their critical review of CISD, Devilly and

Cotton (2004) also extensively emphasized the

work of Litz, Gray, Bryant, and Adler (2002) and

Rose, Bisson, and Wessely (2002):

1. It appears that there is sufficient evidence to

recommend that psychological debriefing not

be provided to individuals immediately after

trauma. . . .There is consensus, however, that

providing comfort, information, support, and

meeting people’s immediate practical and

emotional needs play useful roles in one’s

immediate coping with a highly stressful event

(Litz et al., 2002).

2. There is no current evidence that psychologi-

cal debriefing is a useful treatment for the

prevention of posttraumatic stress disorder

after traumatic incidents. Compulsory de-

briefing of victims of trauma should cease

(Rose et al., 2002).

Devilly and Cotton carefully examined the reasons

CISD might be harmful and found five major areas

of concern:

1. the lack of choice

2. poor timing

3. retraumatizing the victim of terror

4. vicarious traumatization

5. superficiality (Devilly & Cotton, 2004, pp.


Last, even given a more balanced observation

drawing on the other side’s more clinical material,

It seems that what can be definitively and strongly

said is that the research done so far has not

convincingly demonstrated that critical incident

stress debriefings are useful in preventing post-

traumatic stress disorder or other pathological

reactions to trauma. A question that remains

unanswered is whether or not debriefing has

beneficial effects that to date have not been

measured. (Devilly and Cotton, 2004, pp. 39–40)

Additional Research Issues

In 1999 the National Research Council and the In-

stitute of Medicine, in an attempt to address the

threat of chemical and biological attacks, produced

several recommendations for the direction of fu-

ture research. These organizations identified several

‘‘areas of concern’’ in which immediate progress was

necessary. It is important to note that little, if any,

meaningful work has so far been published in any of

these areas (Table 1.1):

In 2005 the American Psychological Associa-

tion’s primary instrument for disseminating profes-

sional news (APA Monitor, February, 2005) reported

on the outcome of a conference that convened in

November of 2004, where more than 100 partici-

pants from federal, state, and local government

Homeland Security and Defense entities and from

major research institutions and universities came

together to discuss the possible development of a

curriculum in homeland security that would reflect

the contributions of psychology and other behavioral

sciences. Suggestions and discussion topics included

the following:

1. risk assessment, perception, and communica-


2. human behavior and social dynamics (e.g.,

motivation, culture, values) in disasters

3. human-centered design of the technologies

involved in homeland security

4. decision-making dynamics such as crisis and

stress management

5. the need for psychologists to study the content

domains of homeland security from a beha-

vioral and social science perspective

6. the realization that one’s sense of security is a

psychological state

Murphy has also proposed that

A true understanding of the psychology of ter-

rorism includes: (1) advance knowledge of how

and why individuals become attracted to

terrorist groups and organizations and [the de-

velopment of] interventions to reduce the like-

lihood that individuals will join such groups,

(2) advance knowledge about the relationships

between terrorists and terrorist groups and or-

ganizations, and [the] use [of] that knowledge

to develop ways of influencing and disrupting

the functioning of these groups, (3) [increasing]

our understanding of the ways individuals and

groups react to terrorist events, to the antici-

pation of terrorism and to counterterrorism

strategies, with the goal of limiting the negative

7The Psychology of Terrorism

effects of terrorism and negative reactions to

counterterrorism efforts, (4) develop[ing] ef-

fective methods of communicating information

about terrorism risks to policy makers, first

responders and the public in ways that are

consistent with the best underlying behavioral

science (risk perception, communication tech-

niques, social influence) and [developing mate-

rials] that are informative to and understood by

recipients, and (5) build[ing] resilience among

the potential targets of terrorism and develop[ing]

methods of limiting the success of terrorists in

spreading fear, anxiety and alarm. (2004, p. 5)

Furthermore, Murphy (2004) has pointed out

that the most important weapon for a terrorist is not

a gun or a bomb but rather the uncertainty, fear,

and alarm that terrorist attacks and the threat of

those attacks produce. He emphasizes that an im-

portant vulnerability of terrorists is not the techni-

cal wizardry of intelligence services but rather that

fact that terrorists always depend on others—other

members of their own groups, members of allied

groups, the societies in which they live and operate,

family, friends, acquaintances—and are therefore

open to attack via the social networks that sustain

them. Murphy concludes that, given the importance

of social and psychological factors in understanding

and combating terrorism and its effects, the poten-

tial importance of the behavioral and social sciences

in the war on terror is clear.

The present book is the direct product of an

international conference held in the fall of 2002.

This conference, which brought together some of

the foremost national and international authorities

on the psychology of terrorism (almost all of whom

are authors of their respective chapters in this

book) had the following as its goals:

1. designing a strategy and making re-

commendations on how to evaluate and

deliver scientific, empirical treatment

interventions for the victims of terrorism

and their rescuers

2. training current and future mental healthcare

professionals in the effective use of these


3. conducting scientific research on the psychol-

ogy of terrorism that will assist governmental

and community agencies in preventing, pre-

paring for, and recovering from mass casualty


4. organizing and training rapid-response teams

of professional clinicians that will respond

immediately and effectively in the event of

future national crises and emergencies

5. most importantly, emphasizing the role of

psychological science (and not mere opinion)

in our understanding of the psychological di-

mensions of acts of terror

Tactical and Strategic Perspectives

Psychology can also contribute to our under-

standing of terrorist motivations and recruitment

8 The Psychology of Terrorism

Table 1.1. Recommendations of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine

Training: Identify resource material on chemical and biological agents, stress reduction after other traumas, and disaster

response services; enlist the help of mental health professional societies in developing a training program for their

members. The key to success in this attempt will be in offering continuing education credits and certification for mental

health providers trained in chemical and biological attack response. (Breckenridge et al. 2003 have secured

funding from the Office of the Surgeon General to provide training models, but this is still only one such funded

training venue.)

Screening and Assessment: Identify suitable psychological screening methods for use by mental health providers

and possibly first responders, differentiating adjustment reactions after chemical and biological attacks from more

serious psychological illness (e.g., panic disorder, PTSD, psychosis, depression) and organic brain impairment

from chemical or biological agents. Conduct research to identify trauma characteristics and behavior patterns that

predict whether long-term disability will be necessary.

Communication: Develop health education and crisis response materials for the general public, including specific

communication on chemical or biological agents. Additional information is needed on risk assessment and threat

perception by individuals and groups and on risk communication by public officials, especially the roles of both the

mass media and the Internet in the transmission of anxiety (or confidence). Some information is available in EPA

studies of pollutants and toxic waste, but little or no systematically collected data exist on fears and anxieties related to

the possibility of purposefully introduced disease.

techniques, which can provide a basis for in-

novative tactical and strategic-level counterterrorism

programs. A comprehensive understanding of the

psychology of terror will also help to establish

a rational and defensible prioritization of potential

terrorist targets in the United States and abroad

based on the extent of the psychological impact

created by an attack. In addition, there are pre-

liminary indications that it may be possible to detect

behavioral patterns and physical characteristics, such

as gait and facial expression, of suicide bombers as

they approach a target (Merari, personal commu-

nication, July 2004). These indicators could provide

security forces at the intended site of attack with a

brief warning and an opportunity for interdiction.

Such research could also have broader prevention

benefits and include knowledge of the terrorists’

psychological makeup and motivations, which

would provide a basis for information operations

programs to dissuade them from volunteering for a

mission or persisting in it. Such tactical programs

based on initial results in Israel have already helped

increase the number of suicide candidates who have

aborted their mission.

From a strategic perspective, psychological

research can advance the development of programs

to decrease support for terrorist attacks within

communities that generate such incidents. More

generally, studies in the psychology of terrorism

will support efforts by the United States to win

‘‘the war of ideas’’ and attack adversary recruitment

efforts at the strategic level. It may also be possible

to utilize technical means to detect potential ter-

rorists, including suicide bombers, before they

strike. Basic and applied research into the psy-

chology of terrorism that examines behavioral

patterns and physical characteristics may well lead

to methods that directly support attack prediction

and prevention (Atran, 2004).

Brief Perspective on the Israeli Experience

Pines (2004) has stated that ‘‘life in Israel is very

stressful. Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has

gone through five major wars. Even during times

of peace, soldiers are killed while protecting the

borders, and civilians live with a constant threat

of terrorist activities. People’s bags are checked

whenever they enter public places and periodically

terrorist bullets are fired at civilians and bombs

explode. In recent years suicide bombers started

exploding themselves in populated areas causing

death and injury’’ (p. 69).

Cowen (2005) has reported on the ideas of

Danny Brom, the director of the Israel Center for

the Treatment of Psychotrauma, who stated that

‘‘as to terrorism we are not talking about PTSD;

we are talking about an attack on the fabric of

society. . . .We have to develop resiliency-building

services.’’ Cowen says that Brom also suggested

that the educational system could be an alternative

delivery system for mental health services if proper

testing and training are provided and that, at the

end of the day, we will become a stronger society

as the result of attempts to weaken us. Danieli,

Brom, and Sills (2005) have also emphasized the

importance of fostering a community’s capacity

for resilience, the centrality of traumatic grief, the

need for multicultural understanding in services

and treatment, and for proactive community or-

ganization in the face of terrorism.

Pines (2004) has further commented that

‘‘people who live in a country that was established

on the ashes of the holocaust, who confront reg-

ularly the death and injury of young soldiers pro-

tecting its borders, and of civilians under terrorist

attacks, are more acutely aware of death and con-

sequently of the significance of their own life’’

(p. 70). She cites the work of Bleich, Gelkopf, and

Solomon (2003), who found that Israelis reported

lower levels of PTSD than do Americans living in

New York City after the terrorist attack of Sep-

tember 11. She points out that the lowest levels of

PTSD were reported among settlers in the occu-

pied territories, who feel that living where they do

is a calling. However, it is not the mere living in

Israel but the existential significance attached to

it that keeps them there (Pines, 2004, p. 75).

Prevention Issues

At a 2004 NATO conference on the prevention of

suicide terrorism (organized by Scott Atran and Ariel

Merari and sponsored by the NATO Office of Sci-

ence and Technology), Simon Wessely of the British

Institute of Psychiatry suggested that, when psy-

chological weapons lose their novelty, they lose their

primary potency. Wessely believes that it is vital that

the public receive sound and sensible information

9The Psychology of Terrorism

that is accurate and reassuring. It is also potentially

dangerous to (even inadvertently) amplify responses

to biological and chemical weapons (e.g., inves-

tigators who are clad in ‘‘space suits’’) (Wessely,

Hyams, & Bartholomew, 2001). Moreover, he con-

tends that thepublic’s general level of fear and anxiety

may remain high for years, exacerbating preexisting

psychiatric disorders (Wessely et al., 2001; Wessely,

personal communication, June 2004). Hall et al.

(2002) have described an additional role for psy-

chological science and practice in preparing a com-

munity for possible terrorist attacks by focusing their

attention on the risks of collective behaviors (e.g.,

panic andmass hysteria) ormass psychogenic illness.

They maintain that psychologists can play a role in

educating the authorities and the public about the

risks and containment of panic.

Pape (2003) has argued that terrorism itself

is not a form of psychopathology and, in fact,

contends that terrorism—and in particular suicide

terrorism—can be seen as a logical strategic deci-

sion by organizations. Pape drew this conclusion

after examining information from all of the com-

pleted suicide terrorist attacks between 1980 and

2001 and then inferring that we can reasonably

conclude that suicide terrorism results in the

achievement of the desired outcomes and that it is

therefore a mistake to assume that suicide terror-

ism is irrational.

Hall and his colleagues have posited that ter-

rorism is the most disturbing kind of disaster be-

cause it is caused not by natural, technological,

or accidental forces but by deliberate, human

malevolence (Hall et al., 2002). They assert that

the most psychologically taxing factor of terrorism

is living in a heightened state of fear and alert that

an indiscriminate and undetermined threat will

strike without warning in the foreseeable future.

Hoffman (2001) particularly mentions the work of

Barbera, Macintyre, and De Atley (2001), who, after

the sarin attack in the Tokyo subway, found that

73.9% of the 5,000 people seeking treatment were

suffering from psychological effects such as shock,

emotional upset, or a psychosomatic complaint.

Hoffman (2001) further speculated on the limita-

tions in our current understanding of terrorist be-

havior and stated that it is generally assumed that

terrorist groups are more likely to imitate previous

successful attacks than to develop innovative new

ideas. However, no imitations of the Aum Shinrikyō

attack have been attempted, perhaps because of the

challenges illustrated by the relative lack of success

by even such a well-funded and well-trained ter-

rorist group (Hoffman, 2001).

Flynn (2004) emphasizes that, although we

currently have ideas about how to treat people’s

psychopathological responses, we do not yet have

intervention strategies for dealing with nationwide

stress reactions. Flynn further suggests that this

lack of information resulted in a missed opportu-

nity that could have ‘‘increased social support,

promoted positive coping behavior, and built po-

sitive cohesion among diverse groups’’ (2004, p.

165). Flynn also says that, in the future, mental

health professionals should be aware that our role

involves an acceptance of the fact that pathologies

are not the only area of study and that we should

expand our scope to understand resiliency me-


Stein et al. (2004) have examined the re-

lationship between psychology and terrorism and

described the latter as essentially a psychological

attack on a society’s social capital: ‘‘In this way,

terrorism is fundamentally different from other

community-wide traumatic events. . . .The natural

course of reactions following a terrorist attack may

be broader and more prolonged than reactions to

other disasters because a goal of terrorism is to

create such reactions’’ (p. 106). Hoffman (2001)

has stated that the true goal of terrorist attacks is

to ‘‘rend the fabric of trust that bonds society’’ and

to elicit ‘‘irrational, emotional,’’ and repressive

countermeasures. Terrorists seek not only to in-

flict physical damage to their victims but also to

leverage that damage to accomplish broader poli-

tical goals, ranging from specific policy changes to

mass panic and public disaffection from existing

government authorities. ‘‘The primary goal of ter-

rorism is to disrupt society by provoking intense

fear and shattering all sense of personal and com-

munity safety. The target is an entire nation, not

only those who are killed, injured, or even directly

affected’’ (Hall et al., 2002, p. 2).

It is also crucial not to extrapolate too broadly

from the field of disaster mental health to the

newly emerging area of the psychology of terror-

ism. Flynn has pointed out that ‘‘research is not

nearly as extensive and complete as it needs to be

and we are far too dependent on extrapolation from

other types of traumatic events’’ (2004, p. 164).

An excellent example of how different warn-

ings of terrorism are from the traditional warnings

10 The Psychology of Terrorism

of impending natural disasters is presented by

Zimbardo and Kluger (2003), who underscore the

need for effective psychological science in ex-

amining the color-coded level of alert—green-

blue-yellow-orange-red—employed by the U.S.

government as an early warning system for the

public. They have noted obvious flaws in the

system—especially the fact that the current system

creates anxiety without providing instruction on

how to remain safe. Instead of being a useful

warning device, the color-coded warning system,

they maintain, has ‘‘a profoundly negative impact

on our individual and collective mental health . . . a

‘pre-traumatic stress syndrome’ and its effect on

our day-to-day lives is debilitating’’ (Zimbardo &

Kluger, 2003, p. 34). Furthermore, that system is

counterproductive in that it provides vague in-

formation, which serves only to increase fear in the

public (which, ironically, is the goal of terrorism;

Zimbardo & Kluger, 2003).


The emerging field of the psychology of terrorism

thus ranges from first response to basic science, from

the epidemiological to the cross-cultural to the case

study, and from controlled clinical trials to rigorous

qualitative methodologies. In the following chapters

we address the goals of the various conferences and

groups that have sought to define this newly emer-

ging area. Within these chapters we present the

newest findings on treatment and clinical response

protocols. We also explore the theory and history of

terrorism and examine the larger cultural and social

psychological dimensions of this new field. The

authors of the subsequent chapters also explore a

wide range of subjects, such as the role of national,

state, and local agencies and volunteer groups in

responding to terrorist threats, military response,

psychological consequences of terrorism, special

populations, prevention, training, and research.

The hope is that this volume can fill the need for

a comprehensive resource for mental health clin-

icians, medical care providers, researchers, educa-

tors, and others who respond to acts of terrorism.

The primary audience will be mental health and

primary care providers (specifically, psychologists,

psychiatrists, emergency and primary care physi-

cians, crisis intervention counselors, social workers,

public sector nonprofit agencies such as the Red

Cross, and undergraduate and graduate-level college

and university students. However, we also believe

that there will be an important secondary audience

that includes police departments, fire departments,

emergency medical personnel, military personnel,

local elected officials responsible for preparing for

and responding to terrorist threats, and federal,

state, regional, and local government agencies.


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physical health effects of the 1995 sarin attack in

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turmoil: Psychological and social consequences of

ecological disasters (pp. 149–162). New York:

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12 The Psychology of Terrorism

2 Psychological Issues in

Understanding Terrorism and

the Response to Terrorism

Clark McCauley

This chapter begins with a brief effort to put mod-

ern terrorism in context. Thereafter, the chapter is

divided into two main sections. The first deals with

psychological issues involved in understanding the

perpetrators of terrorism, including their motiva-

tions and strategies. The second deals with the U.S.

response to terrorism, including issues of fear and

identity shift in reaction to the events of September

11, 2001. I cannot offer a full review of the lite-

rature related to even one of these issues, and for

some of them there is so little relevant literature

that I can only point in the general directions that

research might take. In using a very broad brush, I

apologize in advance to scholars whose knowledge

and contributions are not adequately represented

here. A little theory can be a dangerous thing,

especially in the hands of a nonspecialist in the

relevant theory. But the events of 9/11 warrant

some additional risk taking in connecting psycho-

logical research to our understanding of the origins

and effects of terrorism.

Terrorism as a Category of Violence

Violence and the threat of violence to control

people is an idea older than history, but the use of

the word terror to refer to political violence goes

back only to the French Revolution of the 1790s.

Threatened by resistance within France and foreign

armies at French borders, the revolutionaries un-

dertook a Reign of Terror to suppress the enemy

within. This first violence to be called terrorism had

the power of the state behind it. Terrorism today is

usually associated with political violence perpe-

trated by groups without the power of the state. Few

of these nonstate groups have referred to themselves

as terrorists, although prominent exceptions include

the Russian Narodnaya Volya in the late 1800s and

the Zionist Stern Gang of the late 1940s. Most

nonstate terrorists see themselves as revolutionaries

or freedom fighters.

State terrorism was not only first, it also con-

tinues to be more dangerous. Rummel (1996) es-

timates that 170 million people were killed by

government in the twentieth century, not including

34 million who died in battle. Most of the civilian

victims were killed by their own government or,

more precisely, by the government controlling the

area in which the victims were living. Stalin, Mao,

and Hitler were the biggest killers (42 million, 37

million, 20 million respectively), with Pol Pot’s

killing of 2 million Cambodians coming in only

seventh in the pantheon of killers. By comparison,


killing by nonstate groups is miniscule. Rummel

estimates that 500,000 were killed in the twentieth

century by terrorists, guerillas, and other nonstate

groups. State terrorism is thus greater by a ratio of

about 260 to 1. Worldwide, Myers (2001) counts

2,527 deaths from terrorism in the 1990s. Three

thousand terrorist victims on September 11 is thus

a big increment in the killing done by terrorists, but

that event does not change the scale of the com-

parison: State terrorism is by far the greater danger.

Despite the origin of the term terrorism in ref-

erence to state terror and despite the preeminence

of state terror in relation to nonstate terror, terrorism

today is usually understood to mean nonstate ter-

rorism. Nonstate terrorism includes both antistate

terror and vigilante terror, but it is usually antistate

terrorism that is the focus of attention—violence

against recognized states by small groups without

the power of a state. Most definitions of antistate

terrorism also include the idea of violence against

noncombatants, especially women and children,

although the suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine

barracks in Beirut in 1984 is often referred to as

terrorism, as is the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

Antistate terrorism cannot be understood out-

side the context of state terrorism. Compared with

the nineteenth century, the twentieth century saw

massive increases in state power. The modern state

reaches deeper into the lives of citizens than ever

before. It collects more in taxes, and its regula-

tions, rewards, and punishments push further into

work, school, and neighborhood. The state culture

is thus ever harder to resist; any cultural group that

does not control a state is likely to feel in danger

of extinction. But resistance to state culture faces

state power that continues to grow. In the context

of growing state power, those who would contest

against the state are likely to feel increasingly


Much has been written about how to define

antistate terrorism, but I generally agree with those

who say the difference between a terrorist and a

freedom fighter lies mostly in the politics of the

beholder (see McCauley, 1991, and McCauley,

1993, for more on this issue). The psychologi-

cal question is how members of a small group

without the power of a state become capable of pol-

itical violence that includes violence against non-

combatants. In the remainder of this chapter I

follow common usage in referring to antistate ter-

rorism simply as ‘‘terrorism.’’

Terrorist Motivations

People become terrorists in many different ways

and for many different reasons. Here I simplify in

order to consider three kinds of explanation of the

9/11 attacks: They are crazy, they are crazed by

hatred and anger, or they are rational within their

own perspective. My argument is that terrorism

is not to be understood as pathology and that

terrorists emerge out of a normal psychology of

emotional commitment to cause and comrades.

Terrorism as Individual Pathology

A common suggestion is that there must be some-

thing wrong with terrorists. They must be crazy or

suicidal or psychopathological. Only someone de-

void of moral feelings could do the cold-blooded

killing that a terrorist does.

The Search for Pathology

Thirty years ago this suggestion was taken very

seriously, but thirty years of research has found

little evidence that terrorists are suffering from

psychopathology. This research has profited by

what now amounts to hundreds of interviews with

terrorists. Some are captured and interviewed in

prison. Some active terrorists can be found in their

home neighborhoods, if the interviewer knows

where to look. And some retired terrorists are

willing to talk about their earlier activities, parti-

cularly if these were successful. Itzhak Shamir and

Menachem Begin, for instance, moved from anti-

Arab and anti-British terrorism to leadership of the

state of Israel. Interviews with terrorists rarely find

any disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical

Manual of Mental Disorders.

More systematic research confirms the interview

results. Particularly thorough were the German stu-

dies of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Although the ter-

rorists had gone underground and their locations

were undisclosed, their identities were known. Ex-

cellent German records provided a great deal of in-

formation about each member. Pre- and perinatal

records, pediatric records, preschool records, lower-

school records, grade-school records, high-school

records, and university records (most had had

some university education)—all of these were

combed for clues to understanding the trajectory to

terrorism. Family, neighbors, and classmates—all

those who had known an individual before the leap

14 The Psychology of Terrorism

to terrorism—were interviewed. A comparison

sample of people from the same neighborhoods,

matched for gender, age, and socioeconomic sta-

tus, was similarly studied. The results of these

investigations fill several feet of shelf space but are

easy to summarize. The terrorists did not differ

from the comparison group of nonterrorists in any

substantial way; in particular, the terrorists did not

show higher rates of any kind of psychopathology.

Terrorists as Psychopaths

Some have suggested that terrorists are antisocial

personalities or psychopaths. Psychopaths can be in-

telligent and very much in contact with reality; their

problem is that they are socially and morally defi-

cient. They are law breakers, and they are deceitful,

aggressive, and reckless in disregarding the welfare

of others. They do not feel remorse for hurting

others. Just as some people cannot see color, psy-

chopaths cannot feel empathy or affection for others.

Explaining terrorism as the work of psycho-

paths brings a new difficulty, however. The 9/11

attackers were willing to give their lives in the

attack. So far as I am aware, no one has ever

suggested that a psychopath’s moral blindness can

take the form of self-sacrifice. In addition, psy-

chopaths are notably impulsive and irresponsible.

The mutual commitment and trust that is evident

within each of the four groups of attackers and in

the cooperation among the groups is radically in-

consistent with the psychopathic personality.

It is possible that a terrorist group might re-

cruit a psychopath for a particular mission if the

assignment requires inflicting pain or death with-

out the distraction of sympathy for the victims, but

the undertaking would have to be a one-person

job, something that requires little or no coordina-

tion and trust. And it would have to offer a rea-

sonable chance of success without suicide.

The Case Against Pathology

Of course, there are occasional lone bombers

or lone gunmen who kill for political causes, and

such people may indeed suffer from some form of

psychopathology. A loner like Theodore Kaczyn-

ski, the ‘‘Unabomber,’’ who sent out letter bombs

in occasional forays from his wilderness cabin,

may suffer from psychopathology. However, ter-

rorists who operate in groups, especially those that

can organize successful attacks, are very unlikely

to suffer from serious psychopathology.

Indeed, terrorism would be a trivial problem if

only those with some kind of psychopathology

were terrorists. Rather, we have to face the fact that

normal people can be terrorists and that we our-

selves are capable of terrorist acts under some

circumstances. This fact is already implied in re-

cognizing that military and police forces invol-

ved in state terrorism are all too capable of killing

noncombatants. Few would suggest that the broad

range of soldiers and police involved in such

killing must all be suffering some kind of psy-


Terrorism as Emotional Expression

On October 11, 2001, when asked at a press

conference why people in the Muslim world

hate the United States, President Bush expressed

amazement and replied, ‘‘That’s because they don’t

know us.’’ President Bush is not the only one to

accept the idea that the 9/11 attacks were an ex-

pression of hatred. ‘‘Why do they hate us?’’ has

been the headline of numerous stories and edi-

torials in newspapers and magazines. Despite the

headlines, there has been little analysis of what

hatred means or where it comes from.

Hatred and Anger

The surprising fact is that, although a few psy-

choanalysts have discussed hatred, very little psy-

chological research has focused on hate or hatred.

Gordon Allport (1954) briefly mentioned hatred in

writing The Nature of Prejudice, and Marilyn Brewer

(2001) has asked, ‘‘When does in-group love be-

come out-group hate?’’ However, empirical research

on hatred, particularly research that distinguishes

it from anger, is notably absent. In contrast, there

is a large and well-developed literature on the

emotion of anger. Does hatred mean anything

more than strong anger? An example suggests that

hatred may be different. A parent can be angry

with a misbehaving child, angry to the point of

striking the child. Nevertheless, even caught up

in that violence, the parent would not hate the


A few differences between anger and hatred

show up in the way these words are used in ev-

eryday speech. Anger is hot, whereas hatred can be

cold. Anger is a response to a particular incident or

offense; hatred expresses a longer-term relation of

antipathy. We sometimes talk about hatred when

15Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism

we mean only strong dislike, as in ‘‘I hate broc-

coli,’’ but even this usage suggests the sense of a

general and unwavering dislike, a dislike without

exceptions, and perhaps even the wish that broc-

coli would be erased from every menu.

In The Deadly Ethnic Riot, Donald Horowitz

(2001) offers a distinction between anger and ha-

tred that is consistent with the language just con-

sidered. Horowitz quotes Aristotle as follows: ‘‘The

angry man wants the object of his anger to suffer in

return; hatred wishes its object not to exist’’ (p.

543). This distinction begs for a parallel distinction

in offenders or offenses, one that can predict when

an offense will lead to anger and when to hatred.

One possibility (see also Brewer, 2001) is that an

offense that includes long-term threat is more

likely to elicit the desire to eliminate the offender.

The emotional reaction to threat is fear. Thus hatred

may be a compound of anger and fear, or, as

Sternberg (2003) suggests, a variable blend of

disgust, anger-fear, and contempt.

Another perspective is offered by Royzman,

McCauley and Rozin (2004), who suggest that hate

is not an emotion or a blend of emotions but rather

an extreme form of negative identification. Nega-

tive identification means feeling bad about the

successes of others; negative identification means

feeling good about the successes of others. Thus

the hater feels joy or pride when the target of hate

is losing, hurting, or weakening, but feels anger,

fear, or humiliation when the target of hate is

winning, gaining, or strengthening. Similarly love

is an extreme form of positive identification, and

the lover can feel either positive or negative emo-

tions depending on what is happening to the loved

one. As extremes of the human capacity for iden-

tification, hate and love are the occasions of ex-

periencing many different emotions depending on

the situation of the one loved or hated.

Whether or not hate is an emotion, hate has

some relation to anger and research on anger may be

able to help us understand the behavior of terrorists.

The Psychology of Anger

Explanation of terrorism as the work of people

blinded by anger is at least generally consistent

with what is known about the emotion of anger. In

particular, there is reason to believe that anger gets

in the way of judgment. In Passions within Reason,

Robert Frank (1988) argues that blindness to self-

interest is the evolutionary key to anger. If each

person acted rationally on self-interest, the strong

could do anything they wanted to the weak. Both

would realize that the weak cannot win, and the

weaker would always defer to the stronger. How-

ever, anger can lead the weaker to attack the stron-

ger despite the objective balance of forces. The

stronger will win, but will suffer some costs along

the way, and the possibility of these costs restrains

the stronger and improves the bargaining position

of the weaker.

This perspective suggests an evolutionary ad-

vantage for people for whom anger can conquer

fear. The result should be a gradual increase in

the proportion of those who are capable of anger.

Everyday experience suggests that, under certain

circumstances, most people are capable of anger.

What are those circumstances, that is, what are the

elicitors of anger?

There are basically two theories of anger (Sa-

bini, 1995, pp. 411–428). The first, which comes

to us from Aristotle, says that anger is the emo-

tional reaction to insult—an offense in which

someone is not accorded due respect or status. The

second, which emerged from experimental re-

search with animals, says that anger is the emo-

tional reaction to pain, especially the pain of frus-

tration. Frustration is understood as the failure to

receive an expected reward. These theories ob-

viously have a great deal in common. Respect that

is expected but not forthcoming creates a painful

frustration. For our purposes, the two theories

differ chiefly in their emphasis on material welfare.

Insult is subjective, a social judgment, whereas at

least some interpretations of frustration include

objective poverty and powerlessness as sources of

frustration that can lead to anger. This interpreta-

tion of frustration-aggression theory was popular

at the 2002 World Economic Forum, where many

luminaries cited material deprivation as the cause

(or at least an important cause) of violence aimed

at the West (A. Friedman, 2002).

Individual Frustration and Insult

The immediate difficulty of seeing the 9/11 terror-

ists as crazed with anger is the fact, much cited by

journalists and pundits, that they were not ob-

viously suffering from frustration or insult. Mo-

hammed Atta came from a middle-class family

in Egypt, studied architecture in Cairo, traveled

16 The Psychology of Terrorism

to Hamburg, Germany, for further studies in archi-

tecture, and had a part-time job doing architectural

drawings for a German firm. His German thesis, on

the ancient architecture of Aleppo, was well re-

ceived. According to Thomas Friedman’s (2002)

inquiries, several of the other 9/11 pilot leaders

came from comparable middle-class backgrounds

with similar threads of personal success.

The origins of the 9/11 terrorist leaders are thus

strikingly different from those of the Palestinian

suicide terrorists that Ariel Merari studied in Israel

for decades (Lelyveld, 2001). The Palestinians were

young, male, poor, and uneducated. Their motiva-

tions were manifold but sometimes included the

several thousand dollars awarded to the family of a

Palestinian martyr. The amount is small by Western

standards but enough to lift a Palestinian family out

of abject poverty, including support for parents and

aged relatives and a dowry for the martyr’s sisters.

It is easy to characterize these suicide terrorists as

frustrated by poverty and hopelessness, with frus-

tration leading to anger against Israel as the per-

ceived source of their problems.

More recent studies, however, consistently

conclude that terrorists and suicide terrorists are

not generally poor or uneducated. Rather they

have education and prospects at least average, of-

ten higher than average, in relation to the group

they come from (Atran, 2003; Krueger & Mal-

eckova, 2002; Pape, 2005). It seems that the

middle-class origins of the 9/11 leadership are not

unusual and that personal frustration associated

with poverty, poor education, and unemployment

is not a useful explanation of terrorism.

If not angry about personal frustrations and

insults, terrorists may yet be angry about frustra-

tions and insults their group has suffered.

Group Frustration and Insult

In the Handbook of Social Psychology, Kinder (1998)

summarizes the accumulated evidence that poli-

tical opinions are only weakly predicted by narrow

self-interest and more strongly predicted by group

interest. The poor do not support welfare policies

more than others, young males are not less in fa-

vor of war than others, and parents of school-age

children are not more opposed than others to

busing for desegregation. Rather it is group interest

that is the useful predictor. Sympathy for the

poor predicts favoring increased welfare. Sym-

pathy for African Americans predicts support for

busing and other desegregation policies. Unless

self-interest is exceptionally large and clear cut,

voters’ opinions are not self-centered but group


Similarly, Kinder recounts evidence that poli-

tical action, including protest and confrontation,

is motivated more by identification with group

interest than self-interest. ‘‘Thus participation of

black college students in the civil rights movement

in the American South in the 1960s was predicted

better by their anger over society’s treatment of

black Americans in general than by any discontent

they felt about their own lives. . . .Thus white

working-class participants in the Boston antibus-

ing movement were motivated especially by their

resentments about the gains of blacks and profes-

sionals, and less by their own personal troubles’’

(Kinder, 1998, p. 831).

Group identification makes sense of sacrifice

by people who are not personally frustrated or

insulted. The mistake is to imagine that self-

sacrifice must come from personal problems, ra-

ther than identification with group problems. This

error rests in ignorance of the fact that many

twentieth century terrorists have been people from

comfortable circumstances, people with options.

The Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, the Red

Brigade in Italy, the Weather Underground in the

United States—these and many other post–World

War II terrorist groups consisted mostly of people

with middle-class origins and middle-class skills

honed by at least some university education

(McCauley & Segal, 1987). Explaining self-sacrifice

as a result of personal problems is no more per-

suasive for terrorists than for Mother Theresa or

U.S. Medal of Honor winners.

The power of group identification is thus the

foundation of intergroup conflict, especially for

large groups, where self-interest is probably max-

imized by free riding, that is, by letting other group

members pay the costs of advancing group welfare

that the individual will profit from. Here I am

briefly asserting what I elsewhere argue for in more

detail (McCauley, 2001).

The explanation of terrorists’ sacrifice as a fit

of anger overcoming self-interest can now be re-

formulated in terms of anger over group insult and

group frustration. The potential origins of such

anger are not difficult to discern.

17Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism

Insult and Frustration as Seen by Muslims

(and Others)

From Morocco to Pakistan lies a belt of Muslim

states in which governments have police and

military power but little public support. The gulf

between rich and poor is deep and wide in these

countries, and government is associated with

Western-leaning elites for whom government, not

private enterprise, is the source of wealth. Political

threat to the state is not tolerated; imprisonment,

torture, and death are the tools of the state against

political opposition. As the Catholic Church in

Poland under Communism came to be the prin-

cipal refuge of political opposition, so funda-

mentalist Muslim mosques are the principal refuge

of political opposition to government in these


In this conflict between Muslim governments

and Muslim peoples, the United States and other

Western countries have supported the govern-

ments. When the Algerian government was about

to lose an election to the Islamic Salvation Front in

1992, the government annulled the election, and

Europeans and Americans were glad to accept

the lesser of two evils. Western countries have sup-

ported authoritarian governments of Egypt, Jor-

dan, and Pakistan with credits and military

assistance. U.S. support for Israel against the Pa-

lestinians is only one part of this pattern of sup-

porting power against people.

Al-Qaeda is an association of exiles and re-

fugees from the political violence going on in

Muslim countries. Long before declaring jihad

against the United States, Osama bin Laden was

attacking the house of Saud for letting U.S. troops

remain in the holy land of Mecca and Medina after

the Gulf War. Fifteen of the 9/11 terrorists ori-

ginally came from Saudi Arabia, although most of

them seem to have been recruited from the Muslim

diaspora in Europe. The United States has become

a target because it is seen as supporting the gov-

ernments that created the diaspora. The United

States has, in effect, stumbled into a family feud. If

this scenario seems strained, consider the parallel

between Muslims declaring jihad on this country

for supporting state terrorism in Muslim countries,

and the United States declaring war on any country

that supports terrorism against it.

It is important to recognize that it is not only

Arab and Muslim countries in which U.S. policies

are seen as responsible for terrorist attacks against

the United States. In an International Herald Tri-

bune-Pew poll of 275 ‘‘opinion makers’’ in 24

countries, respondents were asked how many or-

dinary people think that U.S. policies and actions

in the world were a major cause of the 9/11 attack

(Knowlton, 2001). In the United States only 18%

of respondents said that many people think this; in

23 other countries an average of 58% said most or

many people hold this opinion. In Islamic coun-

tries 76% said most or many think this, and even

in Western European countries 36% said most or

many people agree. Americans do not have to ac-

cept the judgments of other countries, but we will

have to deal with them.

Anger or Love?

If group identification can lead to anger as a result

of frustrations and insults suffered by the group, it

remains to be determined whether there is any

evidence of such emotions in the 9/11 terrorists.

Our best guide to the motives of those who carried

out those attacks is the document found in the

luggage of several of the attackers. Four of the five

pages of this document have been released by

the FBI, and Makiya and Mneimneh (2002) have

translated and interpreted them. I am indebted to

Hassan Mneimneh for his assistance in under-

standing this document.

The four pages are surprising for what they do

not contain. There is neither a list of group frus-

trations and insults nor a litany of injustice to

justify violence. ‘‘The sense throughout is that the

would-be martyr is engaged in his action solely to

please God. There is no mention of any communal

purpose behind his behavior. In all of the four

pages available to us there is not a word or an

implication about any wrongs that are to be re-

dressed through martyrdom, whether in Palestine

or Iraq or in ‘the land of Muhammad,’ the phrase

bin Laden used in the al-Jazeera video that was

shown after September 11’’ (Makiya and Mneim-

neh, 2002, p. 21). Indeed, the text approvingly

cites a story from the Hadith, the collection of

sayings and actions attributed to the Prophet and

his companions, about Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and

son-in-law of the Prophet, who is spat upon by an

infidel in combat. The Muslim holds his sword

until he can master the impulse for vengeance—an

individual and human motive—and strikes only

when he can strike for the sake of God.

18 The Psychology of Terrorism

Rather than anger or hatred, the dominant

message of the text is a focus on the eternal. There

are many references to the Koran, and the voca-

bulary departs from seventh-century Arabic only

for a few references to modern concepts such as

airport and plane (and these modern words are

reduced to one-letter abbreviations). To feel con-

nection with God and the work of God and to

experience the peace of submission to God’s will—

these are the imperatives and the promises of

the text. Invocations and prayers are to be offered

at every stage of the journey: the last night, the

journey to the airport, boarding the plane, takeoff,

seizing control of the plane, and welcoming death.

The reader is reminded that fear is an act of wor-

ship due only to God. If killing is necessary, the

language of the text makes the killing a ritual

slaughter with vocabulary that refers to animal

sacrifice, including the sacrifice of Isaac that

Abraham was prepared to offer.

Judging from this text, the psychology of the

9/11 terrorists is not one of anger or hatred or

vengeance. The terrorists are not righting human

wrongs but acting with God and for God against

evil. In the most general terms, this is a psychology

of attachment to the good rather than a psychology

of hatred for evil. Research with U.S. soldiers in

World War II found something similar; hatred of

the enemy was a minor motive in combat perfor-

mance, whereas attachment to buddies and not

wanting to let them down was a major motive

(Stouffer et al., 1949). This resonance with the

psychology of combat—one that is usually treated

as normal psychology—again suggests the possi-

bility that terrorism and terrorists may be more

normal than we usually recognize.

Terrorism as Normal Psychology

The trajectory by which normal people become

capable of doing terrible things is usually gradual,

perhaps imperceptible to the individual. This is

among other things a moral trajectory, such as

Sprinzak (1991) and Horowitz (2001) have de-

scribed. In too-simple terms, terrorists kill for the

same reasons that groups have killed other groups

for centuries. They kill for cause and comrades,

that is, with a combination of ideology and in-

tense small-group dynamics. The cause that is

worth killing for and dying for is not abstract but

personal—a view of the world that makes sense of

life and death and links the individual to some

form of immortality.

The Psychology of Cause

Most people believe in something more important

than life. We have to because, unlike other ani-

mals, we know that we are going to die. We need

something that makes sense of our life and our

death, something that makes our death different

from that of a squirrel lying by the side of the road.

The closer and more immediate death is, the more

we need the group values that give meaning to life

and death. These include the values of family, re-

ligion, ethnicity, and nationality—the values of our

culture. Dozens of experiments have shown that

thinking about death—especially their own—leads

people to embrace the values of their culture more

strongly (Pyszcznski, Greenberg, & Solomon,


These values do not have to be explicitly re-

ligious. Many of the terrorist groups since World

War II have been radical-socialist groups with

purely secular roots: the Red Brigade in Italy, the

Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, the Shining

Path in Peru, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Animal

rights and environmental issues can be causes that

justify terrorism. For much of the twentieth cen-

tury, atheistic communism was such a cause. Thus

there is no special relation between religion and

violence; religion is only one kind of cause in

which people can find an answer to mortality.

What is essential is that the cause should have

the promise of a long and glorious future. History

is important in supporting this promise. A cause

invented yesterday cannot easily be seen to have a

glorious and indefinite future. Moreover, the his-

tory must be a group history. No one ever seems to

have had the idea that she or he alone will achieve

some kind of immortality. Immortality comes as

part of a group: family group, cultural group, re-

ligious group, or ideological group. A good parti-

cipant in the group, one who lives up to its norms

and contributes to the group, will to that extent

live on after death as part of the group. The mean-

ing of the individual’s life is the future of the cause,

embodied in the group that goes on into the future

after the individual is dead.

The Psychology of Comrades

The group’s values are focused to a personal in-

tensity in the small group of like-minded people

19Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism

who perpetrate terrorist violence. Most people

belong to many groups—family, coworkers, neigh-

borhood, religion, country—and each of these has

some influence on individual beliefs and behavior.

Different groups have different values, and the

competition of values reduces the power of any

one group over its members. However, members of

an underground terrorist cell have put this group

first in their lives, dropping or reducing every

other connection. The power of this one group is

now enormous and extends to every kind of per-

sonal and moral judgment. This is the power that

can make violence against the enemy not just ac-

ceptable but necessary.

Every army aims to do what the terrorist group

does: link a larger group cause with the small-group

dynamics that can deliver individuals to sacrifice.

Every army cuts trainees off from their previous

lives so that the combat unit can become their fa-

mily, their fellow soldiers become their brothers,

and their fear of letting down their comrades be-

comes greater than their fear of dying. The power of

an isolating group over its members is not limited to

justifying violence. Many nonviolent groups also

gain power by separating individuals from groups

that might offer competing values. Those that use

this tactic include religious cults, drug treatment

centers, and residential schools and colleges. In

brief, the psychology behind terrorist violence is

normal psychology; it is abnormal only in the in-

tensity of the group dynamics that link cause with


Some commentators have noted that the 9/11

terrorists, at least the pilot leaders, spent long

periods of time dispersed in the United States.

How could the intense group dynamics typical of

underground groups be maintained in dispersal?

There are two possible answers. The first is that

physical dispersal is not the same as developing

new group connections. It seems that the dis-

persed terrorists lived without close connections to

others outside the terrorist group. They did not

take interesting jobs, become close to coworkers,

or develop romantic relationships. Although living

apart, they remained connected to and anchored

in only one group—their terrorist group.

The second possibility is that group dynamics

can be less important to the extent that the cause—

its ideology—is more important. As noted pre-

viously, the pilot leaders of the 9/11 terrorists were

not poor or untalented; they were men with a

middle-class background and education. For

educated men, the power of ideas may substitute

to some degree for the everyday reinforcement of a

like-minded group. Indeed, the terrorist document

referred to earlier is a kind of manual for using

control of attention to control behavior, and this

kind of manual should work better for individuals

familiar with the attractions of ideas. Probably both

possibilities—a social world reduced to one group

despite physical dispersal and a group of in-

dividuals for whom the ideology of cause is un-

usually important and powerful—contributed to

the cohesion of the 9/11 perpetrators.

The Psychology of Cult Recruiting

Studies of recruiting for the Unification Church (UC)

provide some insight into differences in vulerability

to the call of cause and comrades (McCauley &

Segal, 1987). Galanter (1980) surveyed participants

in UC recruiting workshops in Southern California

and found that the best predictor of who becomes a

member was the answer to a question about how

close the person feels to people outside the Uni-

fication Church. Those with outside attachments

were more likely to leave, whereas those without

outside connections were more likely to join. This is

the power of comrades.

Barker (1984) surveyed participants in Uni-

fication Church recruiting workshops in London

and found that the best predictor of who becomes

a member was the answer to a question about

goals. Those who said they were looking for ‘‘some-

thing but I don’t know what’’ were more likely to

join. This is the power of cause, a group cause that

can give meaning to one’s life. Terrorist groups,

like cult groups, cut the individual off from other

contacts and are particularly attractive to those

without close connections and the meaning that

comes with group anchoring. Only those who have

never had the experience of feeling cut off from

family, friends, and work will see this kind of

vulnerability as a type of pathology. The rest of us

will feel fortunate that we did not at this point in

our lives encounter someone recruiting for a cult

or terrorist group.

The Psychology of Crisis

The psychology of cause and comrades is multi-

plied by a sense of crisis. Many observers have

noted an apocalyptic quality in the worldview

of terrorists. Terrorists see the world precariously

20 The Psychology of Terrorism

balanced between good and evil, at a point where

action can bring about the triumph of the good.

The ‘‘end times’’ or the millennium or the triumph

of the working class is near or can be made near by

right action. Action—extreme action—is required

immediately for the triumph of the good and the

defeat of evil. This ‘‘ten minutes to midnight’’

feeling is part of what makes it possible for normal

people to risk their lives in violence.

Consider the passengers of the hijacked flight

that crashed in western Pennsylvania. The pas-

sengers found out from their cell phones that hi-

jacked planes had crashed into the World Trade

Center. They had every reason to believe that their

plane was on its way to a similar end. Unarmed,

they decided to attack the hijackers and sacrificed

their lives in bringing the plane down before it

could impact its intended target, which was pro-

bably the Pentagon or the White House. When it is

ten minutes to midnight, there is little to lose and

everything to gain.

The sense of crisis is usually associated with an

overwhelming threat. In the case of the 9/11 ter-

rorists it seems to be fear that fundamentalist

Muslim culture is in danger of being overwhelmed

by Western culture. The military and economic

power of the West and the relative feebleness of

once-great Muslim nations in the modern era are

submerging Muslims in a tidal wave of individ-

ualism and irreligion. It is attachment to a view

of what Muslims should be—and fear for their

future—that are the emotional foundations of the

terrorists. They do not begin from hatred of the

West but from love of their own group and cul-

ture, which they believe is in danger of extinction

from the power of the West.

Similarly, the United States, mobilized by

President Bush for a war against terrorism, does

not begin from hatred of al-Qaeda but from love of

country. Mobilization includes a rhetoric of crisis

and of impending threat from an evil enemy or,

more recently, an ‘‘axis of evil.’’ America’s anger

toward al-Qaeda, and perhaps more broadly to-

ward Arabs and Muslims, is not an independent

emotion but a product of patriotism combined

with a crisis of threat.

The Psychology of the Slippery Slope

The sense of crisis does not spring full blown upon

a person. It is the end of a long trajectory to ter-

rorism, a trajectory in which the person moves

slowly toward an apocalyptic view of the world

and a correspondingly extreme behavioral com-

mitment. Sprinzak (1991) has distinguished three

stages in this trajectory: a crisis of confidence, in

which a group protests and demonstrates against

the prevailing political system with a criticism that

yet accepts the system’s values; a conflict of legiti-

macy, in which the group loses confidence in re-

form and advances a competing ideological and

cultural system while moving to angry protest and

small-scale violence; and a crisis of legitimacy, in

which the group embraces terrorist violence against

the government and everyone who supports it.

Whether as someone joining an extreme group or

as a member of a group that becomes more ex-

treme over time, the individual becomes more

extreme in a series of steps so small as to be nearly

invisible. The result is a terrorist who may look

back at the transition to terrorism with no sense of

ever having made an explicit choice.

Psychology offers several models of this kind

of slippery slope (see McCauley & Segal, 1987, for

more detail). One is Milgram’s obedience experi-

ment, in which 60% of subjects are willing to

deliver the maximum shock level (‘‘450 volts XXX

Danger Strong Shock’’) to a supposed fellow sub-

ject in a supposed learning experiment. In one

variation of the experiment, Milgram had the ex-

perimenter called away on a pretext, and another

supposed subject came up with the idea of raising

the shock one level with each mistake from the

‘‘learner.’’ In this variation, 20% went on to deliver

maximum shock. The 20% yielding cannot be at-

tributed to the authority of the experimenter and

is most naturally understood as the power of self-

justification acting on the small increments in

shock level. Each shock delivered becomes a rea-

son for giving the next higher shock because the

small increments mean that the subject has to see

something at least a little wrong with the last shock

if there is something wrong with the next one. A

clear choice between good and evil would be a

shock generator with only two levels, 15 volts and

450 volts, but the 20% who go all the way never

see a clear choice between good and evil.

Another model of the terrorist trajectory is

more explicitly social psychological. Group ex-

tremity shift, which is the tendency for group

opinion to become more extreme in the direction

initially favored by most people, is currently un-

derstood in terms of two mechanisms: relevant

21Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism

arguments and social comparison (Brown, 1986,

pp. 200–244). Relevant arguments theory explains

the shift as a result of individuals hearing new

arguments in discussion that are biased in the in-

itially favored direction. Social comparison theory

explains the shift as a competition for status in

which no one wants to fall behind in supporting

the group-favored direction. In the trajectory to

terrorism, initial beliefs and commitments favor

action against injustice, and group discussion

and in-group status competition move the group

toward more extreme views and more extreme


The slippery slope is not something that hap-

pens only in psychology experiments and foreign

countries. Since 9/11, there have already been

suggestions from reputable people that U.S. se-

curity forces may need to use torture to get in-

formation from suspected terrorists. This is the

edge of a slope that leads down and away from the

rule of law and the presumption of innocence.

Terrorism as Strategy

Psychologists recognize two kinds of aggression:

emotional and instrumental. Emotional aggression

is associated with anger and does not calculate

long-term consequences. The reward of emotional

aggression is hurting someone who has hurt you.

Instrumental aggression is more calculating—it in-

volves the use of aggression as a means to other

ends. The balance between these two in the be-

havior of individual terrorists is usually not clear

and might usefully be studied more explicitly in

the future. The balance may be important in de-

termining how to respond to terrorism: emotional

aggression should be less sensitive to objective

rewards and punishments, and instrumental ag-

gression more sensitive.

Of course, the balance may be very different in

those who perpetrate the violence than in those

who plan it. The planners are probably more in-

strumental because they are usually thinking about

what they want to accomplish. They aim to inflict

long-term harm to their enemy and to gain lasting

advantage for themselves.

Material Damage to the Enemy

Terrorism inflicts immediate damage in destroying

lives and property, but terrorists hope that the

long-standing costs will be much greater. They

want to create fear and uncertainty far beyond the

victims and those close to them. They want their

enemy to spend time and money on security. In

effect, the terrorists aim to lay an enormous bur-

den on every aspect of the enemy’s society, one

that transfers resources from productive purposes

to antiproductive security measures. The costs of

increased security are likely to be particularly high

for a country like the United States, where an open

society is the foundation of economic success and

a high-tech military.

The United States is already paying enormous

taxes of this kind. Billions more dollars are going to

the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon, the National Security

Agency, and a new bureaucracy for the Depart-

ment of Homeland Security. Billions are going to

bail out the airlines, to increase the number and

quality of airport security personnel, and to pay the

National Guard stationed at airports. The costs to

business activity are perhaps even greater. Long

lines at airport security points and fear of air travel

have cut both business and holiday travel. Hotel

bookings are down, urban restaurant business is

down; in short, all kinds of tourist businesses are

down. Long lines of trucks at the Canadian and

Mexican borders are slowed for more intensive

searches, and the delays necessarily contribute to the

cost of goods transported. The Coast Guard and the

Immigration and Naturalization Service now focus

on terrorism and have decreased their attention to

the drug trade. I suspect that the expenses of in-

creased security and the war on terrorism will far

outrun the costs of the losses at the World Trade

Center and the reparations to the survivors of those

who died there.

Political Damage to the Enemy

In the longer term, the damage terrorism does to

civil society may be greater than any dollar costs

(see McCauley, this volume). The response to

terrorism inevitably builds the power of the state

at the expense of the civil society. The adage that

‘‘war is the health of the state’’ is evident to anyone

who tracks the growth of the federal government

in the United States. The Civil War, World War I,

World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War,

the Gulf War, and now the war against terrorism—

in every war the power of government grows in

direction and extent never recovered when the

conflict is over.

22 The Psychology of Terrorism

Polls taken in the years preceding the terrorist

attack on September 11 indicate that about half of

adult Americans saw the federal government as a

threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citi-

zens. No doubt fewer would say so in the after-

math of those attacks, a shift consistent with the

adage that ‘‘war is the health of the state.’’ If more

security could ensure the safety of a nation, how-

ever, the Soviet Union would still be with us. It is

possible that bin Laden had the Soviet Union in

mind in an interview broadcast by CNN. ‘‘Osama

bin Laden told a reporter with the Al Jazeera net-

work in October that ‘freedom and human rights

in America are doomed’ and that the U.S. govern-

ment would lead its people and the West ‘into an

unbearable hell and a choking life’ ’’ (Kurtz, 2002).

Mobilizing the In-Group

Terrorists particularly hope to elicit a violent re-

sponse that will assist them in mobilizing their

own people. A terrorist group is the apex of a

pyramid of supporters and sympathizers. The base

of the pyramid is composed of all those who sym-

pathize with the terrorists’ cause even though they

may disagree with the violent means they use. In

Northern Ireland, for instance, the base of the

pyramid is all those who agree with ‘‘Brits out.’’ In

the Islamic world, the base of the pyramid is all

those who agree that the United States has been

hurting and humiliating Muslims for fifty years.

The pyramid is essential to the terrorists for cover

and for recruits. They hope that a clumsy and

overgeneralized strike against them will hit some

of those in the pyramid below them. The blow will

enlarge their base of sympathy, turn the sympa-

thetic but unmobilized to action and sacrifice, and

strengthen their own status as leaders at the apex.

Al-Qaeda had reason to be hopeful that U.S.

strength could help them. In 1986, for instance,

the United States attempted to reply to Libyan-

supported terrorism by bombing Libya’s leader,

Khaddafi. The bombs missed Khaddafi’s residence

but hit a nearby apartment building and killed

numerous women and children. This mistake was

downplayed in the United States but was a public

relations success for anti-U.S. groups across North

Africa. In 1998, the United States attempted to

reply to al-Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. embassies in

Africa by sending cruise missiles against terror-

ist camps in Afghanistan and against a supposed

bomb factory in Khartoum. It appears now that the

‘‘bomb factory’’ was in fact producing only medical


A violent response to terrorism that is not well

aimed is a success for the terrorists. The Taliban

did their best to play up U.S. bombing mistakes in

Afghanistan but were largely disappointed. It ap-

pears that civilian casualties of U.S attacks in Af-

ghanistan number somewhere between 1,000 and

3,700, depending on who is estimating (Bearak,

2002). Although Afghan civilian losses may thus

approach the 3,000 U.S. victims of 9/11, it is clear

that U.S. accuracy has been outstanding by the

standards of modern warfare. Al-Qaeda could still

hope to profit by perceptions of a crusade against

Muslims if the United States extended the war

on terrorism to Iraq, Iran, or Somalia. In 2006, as

this chapter goes to press, the U.S. presence in

Iraq seems to have done all that Al-Qaeda could

hope for.

U.S. Reaction to 9/11: Some Issues of Mass Psychology

In this section I consider several psychological is-

sues raised by the U.S. reaction to the terrorist at-

tacks of September 11, 2001. Has the United States

been terrorized? What kinds of identity shifts may

have occurred after 9/11?

Fear After 9/11

There is little doubt that the events of 9/11, soon

followed by another plane crash at Rockaway

Beach, made Americans less willing to fly. In early

2002, air travel and hotel bookings were still sig-

nificantly below the levels recorded in the months

before the attacks. Beyond the fear of flying, Amer-

icans evidently became generally more anxious

and insecure. At least some law firms specializing

in the preparation of wills and trusts saw a big

increase in business after 9/11. Gun sales were up

in some places after that date, suggesting a search

for increased security broader than the threat of

terrorism. Owning a gun may not be of much help

against terrorists, but, at least for some people, a

gun can be a symbol and reassurance of control

and personal safety. Pet sales were also reported up

in some places after the September attacks. Again,

a pet is not likely to be of much help against ter-

rorists, but, at least for some, a pet may be

23Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism

an antidote to uncertainty and fear. A pet offers

both an experience of control and the reassurance

of unconditional positive regard (Beck & Katcher,


It is tempting to interpret a big decrease in air

travel as evidence of a substantial increase in fear,

but it may be that even a small increase in fear can

produce a large decrease in the willingness to fly.

When the stakes are high, a small change in risk

perception can trigger a large decrease in one’s in-

clination to bet. Indeed, decreased willingness to

fly need not imply any increase in fear. Some may

already have been afraid of flying and found 9/11

not a stimulus to increased fear but a justification

for acting on fears had previously been ridiculed

and suppressed. Thus it may be only a minority

who felt an increased fear of flying after 9/11.

Myers (2001) has offered four research gen-

eralizations about perceived risk that can help

explain the increased fear of flying after 9/11. We

are biologically prepared to fear heights, we par-

ticularly fear what we cannot control, we fear im-

mediate more than long-term and cumulative dan-

gers, and we exaggerate dangers represented in

vivid and memorable images. All of these influ-

ences can help explain the fear of flying, but only

the last one can explain the reason that fear of

flying increased after 9/11. Fear of heights pre-

ceded 9/11. On entering a plane, every passenger

gives up control, and the immediate risk of

climbing on a plane is little affected by four or five

crashes in a brief period of time.

Myers notes, however, that the risks of air

travel are largely concentrated in the minutes of

takeoff and landing. This is a framing issue: Do air

travelers see their risk in terms of deaths per pas-

senger mile—which makes air travel much safer

than driving—or do they see the risk as deaths per

minute of takeoff and landing? With the latter

perspective, air travel may be objectively riskier

than driving.

Still, Myers may be correct in focusing on the

importance of television images of planes slicing

into the World Trade Center, but the importance

of these images may have more to do with control

of fear and norms about expressing it than with the

actual level of fear. Myers reports a 1989 Gallup

poll concerning commercial aviation that indicates

that, even before 9/11, 44% of those willing to fly

were willing to admit they felt apprehensive about

flying. It is possible that this anxiety is controlled

by a cognitive appraisal that flying is safe, and the

images of planes crashing interfere with this ap-

praisal. This interpretation is similar to the ‘‘safety

frame’’ explanation of how people can enjoy the

fear arousal associated with riding a roller coaster

or watching a horror film (McCauley, 1998b).

If the safety frame is disturbed, the fear con-

trols behavior, and, in the case of air travel, people

are less willing to fly. One implication of this in-

terpretation is that, for at least some people, gov-

ernment warnings of additional terrorist attacks

in the near future would make no difference in

the level of trepidation experienced—vivid crash

images may release the latent fear no matter what

the objective likelihood of additional crashes.

Acting on the uneasiness experienced is a se-

parate issue. Warnings of future terrorist attacks

may affect the norms of acting on a fear of flying,

that is, the warnings may reduce social pressure to

carry on business as usual and lessen ridicule for

those who are afraid of flying. Fear of flying is an

attitude, and social norms undoubtedly have much

to do with determining when attitudes are ex-

pressed in behavior (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980).

Indeed, the impact of government warnings

and increased airport security are very much in

need of investigation. President Bush was in the

position of trying to tell Americans that they

should resume flying and that new airport security

measures made flying safe again, even as security

agencies issued multiple warnings of new terrorist

attacks. These warnings had the peculiar quality

of being completely unspecific about the nature

of the threat or what to do about it. The possible

downside of such warnings is suggested by re-

search indicating that threat appeals are likely to

be repressed or ignored if they do not include

specific and effective action to avoid the threats

(Sabini, 1995, pp. 565–566). Even the additional

airport security measures may be of dubious value.

It is true that many Americans seemed reassured

to see army personnel with weapons stationed in

airports, although the objective security value of

troops with no training in security screening is by

no means obvious. But if there is any value to the

framing interpretation of increased anxiety, then

adding military security at airports may actually

increase travelers’ apprehension. Vivid images of

armed troops at airports may actually undermine

rather than augment the safety frame that controls

the fear of flying.

24 The Psychology of Terrorism

Differences in security procedures from one

airport to another can also exacerbate fear. A jour-

nalist from Pittsburgh called me not long after new

security procedures were introduced at U.S. air-

ports. His newspaper had received a letter to the

editor written by a visitor from Florida, a letter ex-

coriating the Pittsburgh airport for inadequate se-

curity. The writer had been frightened because she

was asked for identification only once on her way to

boarding her return flight from Pittsburgh, whereas,

in boarding the Florida flight to Pittsburgh, she had

been stopped for identification five times.

Fear of flying is not the only apprehension to

emerge from 9/11. Survivors of the attacks on the

World Trade Center (WTC), those who fled for

their lives that morning, may still be fearful of

working in a high-rise building and afraid even of

all of the parts of Lower Manhattan that were as-

sociated with commuting to and from the WTC.

Many corporate employees who escaped the WTC

returned to work in new office buildings in

northern New Jersey. In these new settings, some

may have been retraumatized by frequent fire and

evacuation drills that associated their new offices

and stairwells with the uncertainties and fears

of the same environment at the WTC. For these

people, the horror of the WTC may have been a

kind of one-trial traumatic conditioning experi-

ment, with follow-up training in associating their

new work place with the old one. Their experience

and their fears deserve research attention.

A small step in this direction was a December

2001 conference at the University of Pennsyl-

vania’s Solomon Asch Center for the Study of

Ethnopolitical Conflict. The conference brought

together eight trauma counselors from around the

United States who had been brought in to assist

WTC corporate employees returning to work in

new office spaces. Several potentially important

issues emerged at the conference. Perhaps most

important is that the counselors were selected

and directed by corporate employee assistance pro-

grams with more experience in physical health

than mental health problems. Thus the counselors

were all contracted to use critical incident stress

debriefing techniques with everyone they assisted;

at least officially, no room was left for a counselor

to exercise independent judgment about what

approach might best suit a particular situation.

Similarly, because the counselors were seen as

interchangeable resources, a counselor might be

sent to one corporation on one day and to a dif-

ferent corporation the next day, even as another

counselor experienced the reverse transfer. The

importance of becoming familiar with a particular

corporate culture and setting, the personal con-

nection between individual counselor and the

managers that control that setting, and the trust

developed between counselors and people needing

assistance and referral in that setting—these were

given little attention in the organization of coun-

seling assistance. It appears that the experience of

the counselors working with WTC survivors has

not yet been integrated with the experience of

those working with survivors of the Oklahoma

City bombing (Pfefferbaum, Flynn, Brandt, &

Lensgraf, 1999). There is a long way to go before

we are able to develop anything like a consensus

on ‘‘best practice’’ for assisting survivors of such


In sum, fear after 9/11 includes a range of fear

reactions, including fear of flying by those with

no personal connection to the WTC, more general

anxieties associated with death from uncontrollable

and unpredictable terrorist attacks, and specific

workplace fearfulness among those who escaped

the WTC attacks. These reactions offer theoretical

challenges that can be of interest to those interested

in understanding the relation between risk appraisal

and fear (Lazarus, 1991), as well as to those who

are interested in the commercial implications of

public fears.

Cohesion After 9/11: Patriotism

After 9/11, all over the United States, vehicles and

homes were decorated with the U.S. flag. Walls,

fences, billboards, and emails were emblazoned

with ‘‘God bless America.’’ Clearly, the immediate

response to the attacks was a sudden upsurge in

patriotic expression. The distribution of this phe-

nomenon across the country could be a matter of

some interest. Was the new patriotism greater in

New York City than elsewhere? Did it decline in

concentric circles of distance from New York? Was

it greater among blue-collar than white-collar fa-

milies? Was it greater for some ethnic groups than

for others? Was it stronger in cities, possibly per-

ceived as more threatened by future terrorist at-

tacks, than in suburbs and small towns?

The attacks of 9/11 represent a natural ex-

periment relevant to two prominent approaches to

25Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism

conceptualizing and measuring patriotism. In the

first approach, Kosterman and Feshbach (1989)

distinguish between patriotism and nationalism.

Patriotism is love of country and generally consid-

ered a good thing; nationalism is a feeling of

national superiority that is regarded as a source of

intergroup hostility and conflict. Schatz, Staub, and

Lavine (1999) offer a distinction between critical

and uncritical patriotism. Critical patriotism refers

to love of country expressed as willingness to cri-

ticize its policies and its leaders when these go

wrong; uncritical patriotism refers to love of

country coupled with a rejection of criticism—‘‘my

country right or wrong.’’ Critical patriotism is ac-

counted the good thing, and uncritical patriotism

the danger.

Thus both approaches distinguish between

good and bad forms of patriotism, and both offer

separate measures of these forms. That is, there is a

scale of patriotism and a scale of nationalism, and

there is a scale of critical patriotism and a scale of

uncritical patriotism. In both approaches, there is

some evidence that the two scales are relatively

independent. Some people score high on patri-

otism, for instance, but low on nationalism. Simi-

larly, some people score high on critical patriotism

and also score high on uncritical patriotism (an

inconsistency that seems to bother those taking the

scale less than it bothers theorists).

What happened to these different aspects of

patriotism among Americans after 9/11? Since in-

creased cohesion is known to increase conformity

and pressure on deviates, one might expect that

patriotism, uncritical patriotism, and nationalism

increased, whereas critical patriotism decreased.

Another possibility is that scores on these measures

were unchanged after 9/11 but that identification

with the country increased in relation to other di-

rections of group identification. That is, Americans

rating the importance of each of a number of

groups—country, ethnic group, religious group,

family, school—might rate country higher in rela-

tion to other groups.

It seems likely that both kinds of patriotism

increased, both scores on the patriotism scales and

ratings of the relative importance of country. If so,

additional questions arise. Did nationalism and

uncritical patriotism increase more or less than the

‘‘good’’ forms of patriotism? Was the pattern of

change different according to geography, educa-

tion, or ethnicity?

Cohesion After 9/11: Relations in Public

News reports immediately after 9/11 suggested a

new interpersonal tone in New York City. Along

with shock and fear came a new tone in public

interactions of strangers, a tone of increased po-

liteness, helpfulness, and personal warmth. Several

reports suggested a notable drop in crime, espe-

cially violent crime, in the days that followed 9/11.

It would be interesting to know whether these

reports can be substantiated with more objective

measures of social behavior in public places

(McCauley, Coleman, & DeFusco, 1978). Did the

pace of life in NYC slow after the attacks? That is, did

people on the streets walk more slowly? Did eye

contact between strangers increase? Did commercial

transactions (e.g., with bus drivers, postal clerks,

supermarket cashiers) include more personal ex-

changes? Did interpersonal distance in interactions

between strangers decrease? This research will be

hampered by the absence of relevant measures from

NYC in the months before 9/11, but measures taken

now could lay the foundation for assessing change

if the U.S. suffers future terrorist attacks.

Cohesion After 9/11: Minority

Identity Shifts

A few reports have suggested that minority groups

experienced major changes of group identity after

9/11. Group identity is composed of two parts:

private and public identity. Private identity is the

way in which the individuals think of themselves

in relation to groups they belong to. Public identity

is how people believe others perceive them.

Public Identity Shift for Muslims and Arabs

The attacks of 9/11 produced an immediate effect

on the public identity of Arabs, Muslims, and

those, like Sikhs, who can be mistaken by Amer-

icans for Arab or Muslim. Actual violence against

members of these groups seems mercifully to have

been rare, with 39 hate crimes reported to the New

York City Police Department in the week ending

September 22 but only one a week by the end

of December (Fries, 2001). Much more frequent

has been the experience of dirty looks, muttered

suggestions to ‘‘go home,’’ physical distancing, and

discrimination at work and school (Sengupta,

2001). Many Arab Americans and Muslims say

they have been afraid to report this kind of bias.

26 The Psychology of Terrorism

Americans’ reactions to Muslims and Arabs

after 9/11 pose a striking theoretical challenge.

How is it that the actions of 19 Arab Muslims

can affect Americans’ perceptions of the Arabs and

Muslims that they personally encounter? The ease

with which the 19 were generalized to an im-

pression of millions should amaze us; ‘‘the law of

small numbers’’ (Tversky & Kahneman, 1971), in

which small, unrepresentative samples are accepted

as representative of large populations, has not been

observed in research on stereotypes. Indeed, the

difficulty of changing stereotypes has often been

advanced as one of their principal dangers.

Of course, not every American accepted the

idea that all Arabs are terrorists, but even those who

intellectually avoided this generalization sometimes

found themselves fighting a new unease and sus-

picion toward people who looked Arabic. Whether

on the street or boarding a plane, Americans seem

to have had difficulty controlling their emotional

response to this newly salient category. It seems

unlikely that an attack by 19 Congolese terrorists

would have the same impact on perceptions of

African Americans. Why not?

One possible explanation of the speed and

power of the group generalization of the 9/11

terrorists is that humans are biologically prepared

to essentialize cultural differences of members of

unfamiliar groups. Gil-White (2001) has suggested

that there was an evolutionary advantage for in-

dividuals who recognized and generalized cultural

differences so as to avoid the extra costs of inter-

acting with those whose norms do not mesh with

local norms. This perspective suggests that we may

have a kind of default schema for group perception

that makes it easy to essentialize the characteristics

of a few individuals encountered from a new group.

To essentialize means to see the unusual character-

istics of the new individuals as the product of an

unchangeable group nature or essence. Previous

familiarity with the group, a preexisting essence for

the members, could interfere with this default;

consequently, African terrorists would not easily

lead to a generalization about African Americans.

It would be useful to know more about the

experience of Muslims and Arabs in the United

States after 9/11, not least because those who ex-

perience bias may become more likely to sym-

pathize with terrorism directed against the United

States. Interviews and polls might inquire not only

about the respondents’ personal experiences of

bias but also about their perception of what most

of the members of their group experienced. As

elaborated earlier, the motivation for violence may

have more to do with group experience than per-

sonal problems.

Public Identity Shift for African Americans

The attacks of 9/11 may also have produced an

effect on the public identity of African Americans.

Their sharing in the costs and threats of terrorist

attack may have strengthened their public status

as Americans. Several African Americans have

suggested that the distancing and unease they of-

ten feel from whites they interact with was

markedly diminished after 9/11. The extent and dis-

tribution of this feeling of increased acceptance by

white Americans could be investigated in inter-

views with African Americans. Again, the distinc-

tion between personal experience and perception

of group experience may be important in esti-

mating the political impact of 9/11 on African


Finally, an issue of great practical importance

is that of understanding the public identity of

Muslim African Americans as a minority within a

minority. This group is likely to have faced con-

flicting changes after 9/11, with increased accep-

tance as African Americans on the one hand and

decreased acceptance as Muslims on the other. The

distinctive attire of African American Muslims,

particularly that of the women of this community,

makes them readily identifiable in public settings.

With the attire goes a community lifestyle that also

sets this minority apart from other African Amer-

icans. Thus, public reactions to Muslim African

Americans should be very salient in their experi-

ence, and researchers with entrée to their com-

munity could investigate this experience. Again,

the distinction between the personal experiences

of individual respondents and perceived group

experience may be important.

One way to learn about shifts in the public

identities of minorities is to study changes in the

mutual stereotyping of majority and minority. Ste-

reotypes are today generally understood as percep-

tions of probabilistic differences between groups,

differences that may include personality traits,

abilities, occupations, physique, clothing, and pre-

ferences (McCauley, Jussim, & Lee, 1995). Thus,

researchers might ask both minority and majority

group members about whether and how 9/11

27Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism

changed their perceptions of the differences be-

tween majority and minority.

Perhaps even more important for under-

standing the public identity of minorities would be

research that asks about metastereotypes. Metaste-

reotypes are perceptions of what ‘‘most people’’

believe about group differences. Although little

studied, metastereotypes may bemore extreme than

personal stereotypes; there is some evidence that

individuals believe that most people see more

marked differences between in-groups and out-

groups than they do (Rettew, Billman, & Davis,

1993). The public identity of the minority might

thus be measured as the average minority in-

dividual’s perception of what ‘‘most people’’ in

the majority group see as the differences between

minority and majority. Related metastereotypes

might also be of interest: the average minority in-

dividual’s perception of what most minority mem-

bers believe about majority-minority differences,

the average majority member’s perception of what

most majority members believe about these dif-

ferences, and the average majority member’s per-

ception of what most minority members believe

about these differences.

The attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath offer

a natural experiment in conflicting pressures on

public identity. Research on the public identities

of minorities could enliven theoretical develop-

ment even as the research contributes to gauging

the potential for terrorist recruitment in groups—

Muslim Arabs in the United States, Muslim African

Americans—that security services are likely to

see as being at risk for terrorist sympathies. In

particular, public identity shifts for Muslim African

Americans will be better understood by compar-

ison with whatever shifts may obtain for African

Americans who are not Muslim.

Private Identity Shifts

Private identity concerns the beliefs and feelings

of an individual about a group that person is part

of. The most obvious shifts in private identity are

those already discussed as shifts in patriotism. Pa-

triotism is a particular kind of group identification,

that is, identification with country or nation, and

increases in patriotism are a kind of private identity

shift. This obvious connection between national

identification and patriotism has only recently be-

come a focus of empirical research (Citrin, Wong,

& Duff, 2001; Sidanius & Petrocik, 2001).

Here I want to focus on shifts in the private

identities of minorities. As with public identity

shifts, the three minority groups of special interest

are Muslim Arabs living in the United States,

African Americans, and Muslim African Amer-

icans. For each group, research can focus on

changes since 9/11 in their feelings toward the

United States and feelings toward their minority

group. What is the relation between changes in

these two private identities? It is by no means

obvious that more attachment to one identity

means less attachment to others, but in terms of

behavior there may be something of a conservation

principle at work. Time and energy are limited,

and more behavior controlled by one identity may

mean less behavior controlled by others. We have

much yet to learn about the relation between more

particularistic identities, including ethnic and re-

ligious identities, and overarching national iden-


Group Dynamics Theory and Political


Public reaction to terrorist attacks is strikingly

consistent with results found in research with

small face-to-face groups. In the group dynamics

literature that began with Festinger’s (1950) the-

ory of informal social influence, cohesion is at-

tachment to the group that comes from two kinds

of interdependence. The obvious sort of inter-

dependence arises from common goals of material

interest, status, and congeniality. The hidden in-

terdependence arises from the need for certainty

that can be obtained only from the consensus of

others. Agreement with those around us is the

only source of certainty about questions of value,

including questions about good and evil and

what is worth living for, working for, and dying


It seems possible that identification with large,

faceless groups is analogous to cohesion in small

face-to-face groups (McCauley, 2001). A scaled-up

theory of cohesion leads immediately to the im-

plication that group identification is not one single

thing but a number of related things. Research has

shown that different sources of cohesion lead to

different types of behavior. Cohesion based on

congeniality, for instance, leads to groupthink,

whereas cohesion based on group status or mate-

rial interest does not (McCauley, 1998a).

28 The Psychology of Terrorism

Similarly, various sources of ethnic identifica-

tion may lead to different behaviors. Individuals

who care about their ethnic group for status or

material interest may be less likely to sacrifice for

the group than members who care about their

group for its social reality value—for the moral

culture that makes sense of the world and the in-

dividual’s place in it. Research on the effects of

9/11 on group identities might try to link various

measures of group identification with different be-

haviors after 9/11: giving blood or money, com-

munity volunteer work, will revisions, changed

travel plans, and more time spent with one’s fa-

mily. The distinctions between patriotism and

nationalism and between critical and uncritical

patriotism are steps in this direction.

Research on group dynamics has shown that

shared threat is a particularly potent source of

group cohesion; similarly, the threat represented

by the 9/11 attacks seems to have heightened feel-

ings of patriotism and national identification in the

United States (Moskalenko, McCauley, & Rozin,

2006). Research also shows that high cohesion

leads to an acceptance of group norms, respect for

group leaders, and pressure on deviates (Duckitt,

1989). Similarly, the U.S. response to the 9/11

attacks seems to have included a new respect for

group norms (less crime, more politeness), new

respect for group leaders (President Bush, Mayor

Giuliani), and a new willingness to sanction de-

viates (hostility toward those who sympathize with

Arabs and Muslims; Knowlton, 2002).


In the first part of this chapter, group dynamics

theory was the perspective brought to bear in un-

derstanding the power of cause and comrades in

moving normal people to terrorism. In particular

I suggested that the power of a group to elicit sa-

crifice depends upon its terror-management value,

which is another way of talking about the social

reality value of the group.

Group dynamics research and the psychology

of cohesion also provide a useful starting point for

theorizing the origins and consequences of group

identification, including many aspects of public

reaction to terrorism. Terrorism is a threat to all

who identify with the group targeted, and at least

the initial result of an attack is always increased

identification—heightened cohesion—in the group

attacked. The nonobvious quality of this idea is

conveyed by the many unsuccessful attempts to

use air power to demoralize an enemy by bombing

its civilian population (Pape, 1996).

In sum, I have argued that both origins and

effects of terrorist acts are anchored in group dy-

namics. Along the way I have tried to suggest how

the response to terrorism can be more dangerous

than the terrorists.


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31Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism

3 The Need for Proficient Mental

Health Professionals in the Study

of Terrorism

Larry E. Beutler Gil Reyes Zeno Franco Jennifer Housley

The disciplines of psychology that are devoted to the

understanding of terrorism and the treatment of

victims of terrorism are new and generally rely

on extrapolation of knowledge from related fields.

However, while this strategy is effective in begin-

ning the process of illuminating this poorly re-

searched domain, it is also problematic. Not only

have many of the conventional treatments used with

victims and responders proven to be less effective

than conventionally thought when applied to trauma

generally (Litz, Bryant, & Adler, 2002), but serious

questions have also been raised about whether

treatments that work for those exposed to civil,

natural, or even military-related disasters will work

equally well with someone who has been exposed

to the systematic and planned acts of terrorists.

For example, incidence rates of symptoms that

are suggestive of posttraumatic stress disorder

(PTSD) seem to be quite situation specific and

vary from one type of trauma to another. The most

widely cited figure representing PTSD in military

populations derives from the National Vietnam

Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS), which

determined the likelihood of PTSD among those

who served during the Vietnam years to be about

30%, regardless of whether they were exposed

to combat (Marlowe, 2001; Wessely & Jones, in

press). In contrast, the most reliable figures re-

presenting PTSD in the general population, fol-

lowing the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001,

places the incidence rate at about 4%, which in-

dicates virtually no effect from 9/11. The incidence

rates of PTSD-like symptoms are higher in areas

that were directly affected by the terrorist attacks.

In the New York City area, the estimated rates

hover at about 11% and are noticeably lower

in Washington, DC (Schlenger, Caddell, Ebert,

Jordan, Rourke, et al., 2002). These latter results

suggest that the prevalence rates approximate

those reported by the NVVRS studies only in the

immediate aftermath of 9/11 and among those di-

rectly affected. Even here, the rates of PTSD symp-

toms decline quickly over time, returning to

normative levels within 6 months to a year (Galea

et al., 2003; Resnick, Acierno, Holmes, Dammeyer,

& Kilpatrick, 2000).

Because of such disparities between terrorist-

initiated trauma and other forms of civilian and

military trauma, many questions have been raised

in the field of trauma response about whether

established treatments for civilian PTSD are

appropriate for terrorist-initiated traumas. These

concerns also stimulate questions about who might

then provide the treatment. Is it sufficient for one


to have been trained in the use of widely practiced

treatments for civil and military PTSD? An affir-

mative answer to this question fails to consider

both the fundamental differences present in the

nature of response to terrorism as a particular

traumatic event and the associated differences that

terroristic events may portend in the required

treatment regimens.

This chapter explores what is currently known

about how terrorism impacts victims in unique and

probably more profound ways than other forms

of catastrophic disaster, builds a theoretical fra-

mework that explores the way in which terrorism

specifically impacts traumatization and recovery,

and considers the effective treatment of victims of

and first responders to terrorist attacks. From these

starting points, we then identify the particular skills

that constitute expertise in this arena, an approach

that contrasts with the more common procedure of

evaluating one’s expertise on the basis of training,

experience, and knowledge. The objective of these

considerations is to question the nature of expertise

and training that might be advantageous for those

who treat the victims of terrorist attacks. The com-

prehensive view of terrorism and related trauma

presented here form a foundation for the creation

of expertise that may be central for mental health

professionals working in this field. Such a foun-

dation of knowledge should begin to guide both

clinical practice and research.

Terrorism Versus Disasters: Differential Psychological Response

The intentionality of an act of terrorism serves as

a signal contributor, differentiating the responses

of victims of a natural disaster from those of victims

of a terrorist attack. The implication of intentional

malevolence, which can neither be effectively pre-

dicted nor prevented, and the concomitant feelings

of uncertainty, distrust, and loss of control that

follow are fundamentally different from the ex-

perience of fear associated with a naturally occur-

ring disaster—even if the disaster is serious and

large scale. Whereas one can prepare for an earth-

quake or a hurricane, the nature of a terrorist act is

likely uncertain and defies effective preparation.

The most insidious forms of terrorism, such as

the use of biological weapons, may be impossible

to detect even after an attack occurs, leaving one

fearful of an almost omnipresent danger in the

environment. The fear generated by terrorist at-

tacks extends into the most basic reaches of the

human mind, activating systems that have been

fundamental to our survival but long unused, and

this may cause reactions that undermine one’s

emotional and mental well-being.

One of the difficulties of developing the ability

to predict and manage victims’ responses to ter-

rorism is the unavailability of systematic, empirical

research on the events that immediately follow a

terrorist attack (Neria, Suh, & Marshall, 2004). By

nature these attacks are infrequent and unexpected

events and do not provide researchers with an

opportunity to systematically observe the response

of victims and create well-designed studies to ex-

amine effective treatment. Instead, behavioral sci-

entists who are interested in the aftereffects of this

form of violence have two basic options. They can

respond with a hurriedly constructed inquiry im-

mediately following a mass-casualty event. Alter-

natively, they can search for analogous events that

have a higher base rate of occurrence and greater

predictability and thus offer greater experimental

control. In order to bridge this gap between the

available information and the knowledge that is

needed to illuminate this developing area in psy-

chology, we present findings drawn from both the

relatively small body of literature dealing specifi-

cally with the psychological sequelae of terrorist

attacks, as well as a broader range of findings from

other events that have been carefully selected to be

as analogous to terrorism as possible.

Psychological Responses to Terrorism

A few large-scale studies examining the fear and

psychological symptoms associated with the dis-

tress caused by the 9/11 attacks have been pub-

lished. Additionally, findings from incidents that

share the fundamental elements of terrorism, in-

cluding malevolent intent, unpredictability, the

threat of future attack, and the possibility of envi-

ronmental contamination, provide insight into this

unique area of study. Analogous events run the

gamut from very serious incidents involving nu-

merous casualties and mass panic (e.g., the cesium

137 release and panic in Goiania, Brazil, in 1987),

in-garrison military incidents (e.g., the attack on

Pearl Harbor), and individual or small-group

events (e.g., domestic and gang violence) to the

33The Need for Proficient Mental Health Professionals in the Study of Terrorism

absurd (e.g., the panic caused by the ‘‘War of the

Worlds’’ broadcast in 1938). These comparable

incidents allow us to examine the ways in which

the fear produced by terrorism differs from ‘‘fated’’

events such as natural disaster.

To understand psychological distress and the

symptoms associated with trauma, we must first

understand the fundamental psychological pro-

cesses that underlie fear and threat assessment.

Exposure to any disaster, whether generated by

humans or occurring naturally, can be expected to

deeply impact the cognition, affect, and physical

functioning of those who are in the path of the

catastrophe. However, we suggest that the inten-

tional nature of terrorism essentially alters these

perceptions. We argue that these differences are

seen in the development of causal attributions that

are employed to explain the event, in the heuristics

that may bias perception of it, and in risk assess-

ments that assist us in estimating ongoing and

future threats.

It appears that terrorist attacks differ systemat-

ically across each of these domains when compared

to natural disasters or accidental traumatization.

Moreover, preexisting vulnerabilities, as well as

peritrauma and posttrauma risk factors, are central

to predicting which people will recover normally

from a terrorist event and which will experience

interrupted or delayed recovery. These elements

are developed in the following sections, and later

in the chapter they are integrated into a model that

describes threat assessment and its relationship to

psychological trauma.

Causal Attributions

The sense of causal understanding found after

many natural disasters is often absent in the wake

of a terrorist attack. The dynamics of a hurricane,

tornado, accidental plane crash, or earthquake re-

present events that are easily understood by

the public. Furthermore, clear causal attributions

about the event can be drawn, and expectations

about the location, progression, and duration of

the event are generally known or can be reasonably

estimated (Slovic, 2002). Based on experience of or

prior education about the disaster, first responders

and potential victims can typically consider an im-

pending event with a sense of what to expect and

the actions they can perform to mitigate the si-

tuation. In the worst-case scenario, an evacuation

plan can be devised. Importantly, the lack of

malicious intent allows even those who are directly

impacted to gradually delimit the event and to

understand it as an unpleasant, though funda-

mentally ‘‘normal,’’ part of life.

Conversely, the causal attributions drawn from

a terrorist event are much less orderly. Almost

by definition, these acts are designed to invoke

a pervasive fear of an unknown, unpredictable,

yet intentional threat. Where a naturally occurring

disaster is almost always bound by time or geo-

graphic location, terrorism is not similarly de-

limited. Paul Slovic (2002), an expert in the field

of risk perception, notes that the most feared forms

of terrorism, such as chemical or biological attack,

are ‘‘emergencies [that] contaminate in ways that

never seem to end’’ (p. 425). To the victims, the

event has no apparent closure.

Further, whereas natural disasters are generally

understood as the work of ‘‘fate’’ or an ‘‘act of God,’’

the only causal attributions that can be drawn from

terrorist activity is the malevolent intent of a human

agent, and often this agent is unknown to the vic-

tims. Thus, the exact message and rationale for the

assault are usually unclear to the immediate vic-

tims, and the intended message is generally not

meant for them specifically. Rather, the objective of

the assailants is to incite fear in the general popu-

lation in order to draw the attention of political

leaders (Pfefferbaum, Pfefferbaum, North, & Neas,

2002). The immediate causal attributions are based

on the limited knowledge that the event is delib-

erately caused and malevolent in nature. Thus, a

victim’s abilities to understand, anticipate, plan for,

and delimit the event are seriously impaired.

Without the availability of clear event con-

tingencies, victims are faced with several key ques-

tions for which no clear answers are immediately

available, such as (1) Who was the intended target?

(2) Do I fit the target profile? (3) What is the like-

lihood of another attack? And, if so, (4) What fur-

ther attack methods may be employed? Without

the ability to explain the event and without clear

answers to questions used to evaluate immediate

personal danger, a victim or witness to a terrorist

event is left with little sense of personal control

or agency. The result may be a profound sense of

helplessness and defeat.


Because of the salience of the event and the un-

predictability of terrorism, both direct victims and

34 The Psychology of Terrorism

those secondarily exposed are likely to respond

disproportionately to event-related stimuli, placing

them at greater risk for increased fear, anxiety, and

possible psychological difficulty. The analysis of

risk, formally referred to as risk assessment by re-

searchers in this field, is a function that humans

have instinctively performed long before recorded

history (Slovic, 2002). Natural selection produced

a refined system that enabled people to incorporate

information of many types, analyze it based on

past experiences, and produce an affective reaction

capable of governing our behavior. This form of

risk assessment, called experiential risk assessment,

is considered to be ‘‘intuitive, automatic, and fast’’

(Slovic, 2002, p. 425). Research on fear-related

stimuli has demonstrated that people precon-

sciously attend to threatening information (Ohman,

Flykt, & Esteves, 2001). Operating largely outside

of consciousness and relying primarily on recalled

visual information and associative thoughts, experi-

ential risk assessment produces simple emotions—

a ‘‘gut feeling’’ about a given event (Slovic, 2002,

p. 425).

This form of reasoning is a powerful and

generally useful behavioral motivator. However,

the emotionally charged images, feelings, physical

consequences, and media attention that are typical

outcomes of terrorist events may create an over-

whelming fear and anxiety in both the direct vic-

tims and those secondarily exposed through the

media (Pfefferbaum et al., 2002). Because experi-

ential risk assessment is rapid and largely auto-

matic, it relies on the availability heuristic and is

vulnerable to the base rate fallacy, giving more

weight to recent, easily imagined, and highly

arousing events and overestimating their future

likelihood (Chapman & Harris, 2002; Slovic &

Weber, 2002). Although these systems may in-

itially play a vital role in a person’s survival, the

salience of the stimuli related to terrorism also

plays into a fundamental signal-processing bias in

human risk assessment that may short-circuit the

system, resulting in the elicited fears and anxieties

continuing beyond the point of utility and poten-

tially putting the victim at risk for PTSD or other

serious psychological difficulties.

Risk Assessment

Currently, very few models exist that specifically

describe the factors involved in risk perception as

applied to terrorism. Initial efforts to provide a

model of fear in these situations suggest that two

factors may be central to understanding how

people assign affective values to terrorist incidents.

The first factor can be described as dread risk,

a continuum beginning with low-dread events,

which are seen as controllable, not catastrophic,

decreasing in risk over time, and generating little

risk for future generations (Slovic &Weber, 2002).

Conversely, high-dread events are viewed as hav-

ing a high mortality rate, being globally cata-

strophic and inescapable, and increasing in risk

over time.

A second factor is unknown risk, which begins

at the low-risk level with well-understood, ob-

servable, non-novel events (Slovic &Weber, 2002).

If an event is high on the unknown risk dimen-

sion, it is characterized by having delayed or per-

sisting effect and being a novel threat that is poorly

understood (Slovic & Weber, 2002). Using this

model, Slovic and Weber provide a two-dimensional

chart with unknown risk on the Y axis and dread

risk on the X axis. Earlier research by Slovic allows

a wide variety of different threatening events to

be placed in this two-dimensional space, in which

events that fall in quadrant I are viewed as the

most threatening. Examples of things found at the

extreme end in quadrant I include DNA technol-

ogy, radioactive waste, nuclear reactor accidents,

and nuclear fallout (earlier work by Slovic as cited

in Slovic & Weber, 2002).

Because we are most concerned with the psy-

chological consequences of these events and the

role of mental health response in combating se-

quelae such as PTSD, depression, and drug abuse

following a mass-casualty event, it may be help-

ful to translate the model proposed by Slovic and

Weber (2002) into terminology that is typically

used by disaster psychologists and first responders.

Doing so helps us determine what constitutes an

‘‘expert’’ who can provide discriminating help to

the victims of mass terrorism.

In addition to the factors already proposed by

Slovic, we also suggest an additional factor that has

not been carefully explored—the role of perceived

malevolent intent—to round out this matrix and

to lend further assistance to the professional who

attempts to establish priorities for effective inter-

vention. In analyzing the psychological risk in-

volved in a terrorist attack, psychologists, social

workers, other mental health professionals, and

first responders may be assisted by evaluating the

35The Need for Proficient Mental Health Professionals in the Study of Terrorism

following dimensions: (1) the scale of the attack

(dread risk); (2) proximity to the attack (dread

risk); (3) perceived personal threat (dread risk);

(4) the type of weapon used (unknown risk); (5)

duration of threat (unknown risk); and (6) the

nature of the malevolent intent (adapted from

Slovic & Weber, 2002). In general, as the value of

each of these dimensions increase, the risk of

psychological harm also rises.

Terrorism and Traumatization

Throughout this chapter we address concerns re-

lated to different two populations: the general

public exposed to a major terrorist event and the

first responders, including firefighters, police offi-

cers, emergency medical technicians, military per-

sonnel, and other relief workers. Although some of

the considerations for each distinct population

overlap, we approach them as having fundamental

differences in training, expectations, and support

systems that cause them to differ in initial re-

sponse, later assessment of trauma symptoms, and

final recovery. Some of the key concepts that de-

scribe the process of traumatization may serve as

an underpinning for understanding what first re-

sponders experience. However, when undertaking

to treat first responders, clinicians should incor-

porate the information that is specific to this po-

pulation in the assessment, planning, and delivery

of treatment.

General Public

One of the keys in understanding the variations

in anxiety created by external events is the un-

derstanding of the adaptive and evolutionary sig-

nificance of these responses. Wakefield (1992)

emphasizes the role of evolutionary events as a

central theme in behavior. This perspective asserts

that every behavior has evolutionary significance.

That is, it increases the probability of the survival

of the species. In the case of anxiety, arousal likely

serves to motivate and activate an organism to

prepare itself for danger and thus reduces the

chances of premature death. Various levels of

arousal promote vigilance and reflect the levels of

danger expected by the organism.

However, at some point, when the danger is

unpredictable and uncontrollable, as in the case of

terrorism, the result may be a level of arousal that

is no longer adaptive but rather is dysfunctional.

The resulting panic no longer ensures survival and

instead actually places the organism at risk for self-

injury and accident by virtue of the disorganized,

goal-directed behavior that accompanies this hy-

peraroused state. Hyperarousal caused by a terrorist

attack may dispose the majority of the exposed

population to an initial adaptive fear response.

However, a smaller number of people may begin

showing symptoms of acute stress disorder (ASD),

and a subset of this group may progress to PTSD.

In fact, research performed after the Oklahoma

City bombing demonstrated that feeling nervous or

afraid immediately following the bombing was the

best single affective predictor of later PTSD onset

(Tucker, Pfefferbaum, Nixon, & Dickson, 2000).

A powerful example of how we respond to risk

assessments that seem particularly threatening and

how these assessments play into maladaptive hy-

perarousal can be drawn from the Israeli experi-

ence during the Gulf War. Two retrospective

studies of the rates of physical and psychological

illness during 18 discreet attacks involving 39

missile explosions in Israel (Bleisch, Dycian, Ko-

slowsky, Solomon, & Wiener, 1992) have shown

that 27% of hospital admissions were due to un-

necessary atropine (a chemical warfare antidote)

injections, presumably due to stress reaction or

mishandling of the atropine injectors. Addition-

ally, a substantial increase in acute anterior wall

myocardial infarction and sudden out-of-hospital

deaths (as compared to five control periods) was

also noted (Meisel et al., 1991). Hospital staff de-

termined that about 43% of hospital admissions

during this time were for psychological rather than

physical symptoms (Bleisch et al., 1992). Inter-

estingly, the rates of heart attack and sudden death

attenuated rapidly after the initial attacks, sug-

gesting that most people had adjusted to the new

threat fairly rapidly (Meisel et al., 1991).

The SCUD missile attacks in Israel were in-

itially feared to contain chemical weapons, but only

conventional warheads were actually used (Bleisch

et al., 1992). Even though the media overly dra-

matized the likelihood of mass exposure to che-

mical or biological agents in Israel, it is critical

that disaster mental health providers and first re-

sponders view the use and even the threat of

nonconventional weapons as a special situation

that may elicit a particularly strong fear response in

the public (Slovic &Weber, 2002), generate a great

many psychological casualties, produce a high rate

36 The Psychology of Terrorism

of false positive reports of exposure (Pastel, 2001),

and rapidly overwhelm public health resources. The

risk of evoking a particular type of fear-generated

response, known as outbreaks of multiple un-

explained symptoms (OMUS), tends to increase

when unconventional weapons are introduced into

the threat matrix (Pastel, 2001).

The concept of OMUS reflects a modern in-

terpretation of the more traditional descriptions

of ‘‘mass psychogenic illness’’ and ‘‘mass hysteria’’

(Pastel, 2001, p. 44). In general, OMUS occur in

response to an unobservable environmental con-

tagion, real or imagined, and are denoted by a

host of somatic symptoms with no apparent phy-

sical cause (Pastel, 2001). Unlike classic mass

panic, OMUS occur relatively frequently (Small,

Propper, Randolph, & Eth, 1991) and can be very

costly to both the government and private sectors.

The effects of OMUS are often reinforced by

mass media, rumor, and highly visible response

interventions and subsequent investigation. Ex-

amples of OMUS include those that surfaced at

Three Mile Island and during the Alar-poisoning

panic (Pastel, 2001). In each of these cases, broad-

cast and /or print media played a central role in

inciting fear.

While most cases of OMUS yield compara-

tively harmless results, the picture becomes much

more complex in the event of a bona fide terrorism

act or an accident involving a chemical, biological,

radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) device. For ex-

ample, the radiological poisoning of 249 people in

Goiania, Brazil, in 1987 from contact with scrap

metal that was contaminated with cesium 137

resulted in more than 5,000 unexposed people

(of the 125,800 screened) demonstrating physical

symptoms (Pastel, 2001). The symptoms these

5,000 unexposed people exhibited were very

similar to those of the much smaller number

of people who were sickened by actual radiation

poisoning. This phenomenon made it difficult to

differentiate between the two groups. In the case of

a possible CBRN incident, the previously used

terms for OMUS (e.g., mass hysteria) seem parti-

cularly inappropriate since the syndrome may be

viewed as a powerful self-protective mechanism

that encourages flight from an area containing

an unknown pathogen. It is plausible that OMUS

and their concomitant social components, such as

‘‘psychological contamination’’ (Pastel, 2001), may

have an evolutionary component that served to

generate fear and stimulate flight in the event of

unexplained illness or death.

In addition to the fear and anxiety produced

by a mass-casualty event, by creating an event that

is unbounded by time (and potentially unbounded

by geography), terrorism also removes factors that

are assumed to be central to healthy mental func-

tioning, such as a sense of predictability, agency,

and control. Research on Holocaust survivors has

demonstrated that victims made considerably fewer

attributions of internal control and many more

external control attributions as compared to simi-

lar control participants (Suedfeld, 2003). In more

recent disasters, including the Chernobyl reactor

accident and the Loma Prieta earthquake, even

those who were not directly victimized experi-

enced a degradation of the optimistic bias that

many researchers believe to be important in

maintaining mental health (Weinstein, Lyon, Roth-

man, & Cuite, 2000). Similarly, people who were

close to large-scale tornado damage but were

not directly impacted show significantly lower

usage of self-protecting biases, many more intrusive

thoughts about future tornados, a lowered per-

ception of control over the damage caused by these

events, increased feelings of personal vulnerability,

and more feelings of anxiousness and depression

in response to related stimuli (Weinstein et al.,


So far we have primarily considered the af-

fective and cognitive components of trauma in

response to terrorism. While closely related to the

perception of anxiety, the physical aspects of a

terrorist attack—including both physical exposure

and immediate somatic response—must also be

considered by practitioners who seek to assist

victims effectively in the aftermath of such an event.

Clear evidence was found demonstrating that

physical injury was one of the most predictive

factors in later onset of PTSD following the Okla-

homa City bombing (Tucker et al., 2000). The

immediate physical response of those directly ex-

posed, such as increased heart rate and trembling,

has also been shown to be substantially correla-

ted with PTSD and subclinical PTSD symptoms

(Tucker et al., 2000).

Although we generally assume that proximity

to and the magnitude of an event are related

to the likelihood of later psychological difficulty

(Weinstein et al., 2000), PTSD symptoms follow-

ing large-scale events are evidently not correlated

37The Need for Proficient Mental Health Professionals in the Study of Terrorism

with proximity to the worst levels of destruction or

exposure to greater loss of life (Goenjian et al.,

2001). In a study of PTSD symptoms and de-

pression in adolescent victims following Hurricane

Mitch in Nicaragua, investigators found that the

majority of victims’ subjective exposure ratings

‘‘did not follow a dose-of-exposure pattern’’

(Goenjian et al., 2001, p. 792). Moreover, no sig-

nificant correlation was found between those in

the most badly damaged city where the greatest

loss of life had occurred and victims in a

nearby city that was not as severely impacted

(Goenjian et al., 2001). The authors of this study

suggest that a ceiling effect may occur when the

severity of the event is sufficiently great, with the

result that physical proximity becomes a less im-

portant factor in the development of mental health


While the precise mechanisms through which

human intent to cause harm operates on risk

perception and fear have not been fully explicated,

the events of 9/11 and other intentional tragedies

clearly differ from both natural disaster and un-

intended mass-casualty events. Paul Slovic states

that ‘‘a startling feature of the September 11 attacks

and the subsequent anthrax exposures and deaths

is the degree to which a handful of determined

individuals, in a very short time, so greatly dis-

rupted the world’s most powerful nation’’ (2002,

p. 425).

Any major disaster, whether caused by nature,

unintentional human error, or intentional mal-

evolence, is likely to result in profound physical

injury, immediate fear, and potential long-term

psychological difficulties. However, we argue that

the combination of the perception of human in-

tentionality, the lack of ability to generate a co-

herent set of expectations, the persistence of an

unknown threat, and the ubiquity of the threat all

serve to differentiate terrorism from other mass-

casualty events. These differences fundamentally

alter human perceptions of the event, increasing

their salience and heightening their arousal com-

ponents. In view of this, we suggest that the fear

generated by terrorism may be more persistent and

more potent in generating psychological sequelae

than other forms of disaster.

First Responders

Thus far we have addressed victims and their

treatment. However, first responders can, and

probably should, be included in what we refer to

as victims of terrorist attacks. To a large extent,

they cannot be distinguished from the immediately

targeted bystanders who are the usual victims.

Next to the immediate victims of an attack, first

responders are the first to see its aftermath and are

those who are called upon immediately to manage

the situation and treat those affected. However,

just because they may not be directly affected by

the initial terrorist action, they are still susceptible

to the aftermath and thus suffer many of the same

illnesses and symptoms that the victims they are

treating may develop.

The first responder population is broad. Gen-

erally speaking, they are the professionals and vo-

lunteers who arrive first on the scene following

a terrorist attack or are on the front line in caring for

victims. Some obvious examples include police of-

ficers, firefighters, and ambulance personnel. Oth-

ers include emergency room staff, hazmat teams,

military personnel, utility crews, and volunteers.

Both victims and first responders share certain

characteristics within the context of terrorist events.

First responders, like the general population, are

subject to the unpredictability of the event and

the difficulty in simulating an exact replica during

training exercises and, of course, can experience

strong emotional reactions. Each population uti-

lizes an array of coping strategies to deal with the

trauma they witness. Treatments for psychological

conditions resulting from exposure to trauma over-

lap between the general population and the first

responders. Additionally, just as there are different

cultures present among the general population,

different cultures are present among first respon-

ders. These features contribute to how a terrorist

event is appraised, what coping style is used, and

how frequently treatment is sought if psychological

harm is identified.

Moreover, each first responder population has

a ‘‘culture’’ that is unique to their profession and

that is shaped both by the services they provide

and by their level of investment in these services.

These factors contribute to the type of psycholo-

gical impacts that result from emergency scenes.

For example, although firefighters and police of-

ficers both respond to emergency scenes, there

are fundamental differences in their roles. A fire-

fighter’s role is acute in nature and medically

oriented; they have little opportunity for ongoing

contact with victims following an emergency.

38 The Psychology of Terrorism

In contrast, because the role that police officers

play extends beyond the emergency scene, they

may have more contact with victims in postcrisis

situations. Thus firefighters have a culture that

centers around the acute care of victims, whereas

that of police officers centers around continual


Key differences between populations of victims

and first responders must be considered by the

knowledgeable professional who intervenes. First

responders have responsibilities in disaster situa-

tions, whereas victims may not. For example, first

responders must identify and address the effects of

disasters on the general population and may utilize

coping strategies that are unique to their trades

both in type and intensity. The health and safety of

others depend on the health and skill of the first

responders. This charge carries with it emotions

such as the fear of failure, which in turn can affect

the way in which first responders deal with trauma


Addressing each population based on its un-

ique culture can assist us in identifying barriers

to predicting susceptibility to mental health diffi-

culties, determining which method of prevention

might be most useful, choosing an effective ap-

proach to mental health education and training,

and learning which type of intervention may be

called for.

The Effects of Exposure to Terrorism

In this section we build upon the topics presented

in the prior two portions of the chapter to round

out a model that helps explain the fundamental

psychological differences between intentional acts

of terrorism and natural disasters and how they set

the stage for either normal or interrupted recovery.

A more comprehensive perspective on the psy-

chological sequelae of terrorism and their treat-

ment will enable us to begin constructing effective

mental health measures and allocate limited re-

sources in an emergency more efficiently, as well as

manage the incredibly high cost of response to and

recovery from terrorism. We argue that the basic

psychological and physical responses to terrorism,

such as the affective components of fear, are later

processed through an increasingly complex matrix

involving causal attributions, heuristics, and risk

assessment. These more complex activities rely

heavily on cognition and memory and, as such,

may be deeply impacted by preexisting risk factors

that cue trauma-related recollections. In the fol-

lowing sections, we consider both preexisting and

posttrauma risk factors that influence the devel-

opment of psychological effects following a terrorist


Risk Factors: General Public

Several vulnerability factors have been associated

with higher rates of PTSD-like symptoms in ret-

rospective studies and include prior exposure, par-

ticularly early in life, to violence or other major

traumatic events, gender (females are at greater

risk for chronic PTSD), age (younger victims are

generally at greater risk), intelligence, concurrent

mood disorder, neuroticism, and a low level of

social support (Litz, Gray, Bryant, & Adler, 2002;

McNally, Bryant, & Ehlers, 2003). Several attempts

have been made to demonstrate that these vul-

nerability factors cause higher levels of PTSD symp-

toms through prospective studies, and the results

have largely supported the initial retrospective

findings (McNally et al., 2003). These results

have largely been derived from pre- and post-

deployment testing of troops and have demon-

strated that those with more serious PTSD

symptoms scored lower on IQ tests (and that IQ

does not change after deployment), were more

likely to have personality traits of hypochondriasis,

psychopathic deviate, paranoia, and femininity

based on Minnesota Multiphasic Personality In-

ventory (MMPI) scores, and exhibited more nega-

tivism toward their deployment (McNally et al.,

2003). Litz et al. (2002, p. 114) state that ‘‘It has

become axiomatic that prior exposure to poten-

tially traumatizing events (PTEs) is a risk factor

for chronic PTSD stemming from a subsequent

PTE.’’ Prior exposure is represented in affect laden

memories that are activated by a current event

or trauma, and then serve to exacerbate and sen-

sitize the individual to that event. These incipient,

internal cues from memory may be important

features that reduce the capacity for adapting and


For example, in determining which factors

precipitate PTSD and explain why some people

develop it and others, similarly exposed, do not,

Dalgleish (2004) concludes that PTSD is a joint

function of at least three separate aspects of cog-

nitive representation. These include the presence

39The Need for Proficient Mental Health Professionals in the Study of Terrorism

of associative networks in which prior stressors ac-

tivate remembered and rehearsed cognitive path-

ways; verbal or prepositional representations; and

schemas or preexisting beliefs about oneself and

others. Memories and associational pathways alone

are insufficient to account for the variations in re-

sponse. Also needed is a language system through

which these events are processed and the activation

of self-related schemas that lend themselves to feel-

ings of helplessness and hopelessness.

In addition to the risk factors thatmay be present

prior to a traumatic event, several factors have been

identified that may serve as peri- and posttraumatic

markers for future psychological difficulty:

1. People with many or very severe ASD symp-

toms that appear 1–2 weeks following a trau-

matic event. Particular attention should be

given to these people if these symptoms are

comorbid with high rates of rumination. This

appears to be one of the best, simplest, and

most straightforward screening methods cur-

rently available.

2. People who experience high levels of physical

symptoms, such as a rapid heart rate, after

having been removed from the trauma stimu-

lus. These types of measures may be particu-

larly useful for Emergency Medical

Technicians (EMTs) and physicians.

3. People who experience ASD or PTSD symp-

toms in conjunction with signs of clinical de-

pression are at higher risk for developing

chronic PTSD.

4. People who display a high level of active

avoidance or precautionary symptoms

5. People who make maladaptive attributions

about their symptoms

6. People with serious physical injuries as

result of the trauma event

7. People with low levels of social support?

(list adapted from Litz et al., 2002; McNally et al.,


Risk Factors: First Responders

Again, the risk factors for the general public serve

as a foundation for understanding the vulner-

abilities of first responders. However, a number of

specific psychological risk factors should be con-

sidered for members of special response teams,

including characteristics of the event itself, such as

type, timing, and the destructive agent used. These

can affect the stress level of first responders in

different ways. For example, because they are con-

sidered more preventable, human-induced events

precipitate stronger feelings of anger and blame

than natural disasters. Paton (1996) states that

events that occur during nighttime hours are per-

ceived as more threatening than those that occur

during the day.

Another factor related to timing is the degree

of uncertainty associated with a threat. The events

of 9/11 can serve as an example since it was un-

clear whether additional attacks were forthcoming.

A related stressor has to do with whether there was

warning before the disaster. In addition, Paton

states that ‘‘invisible’’ threats, such as chemical or

radiation hazards, may elicit more reaction than

visible threats such as flooding. Finally, the greater

the number of threats associated with the disas-

ter, the greater the reaction felt by emergency

workers. The 9/11 catastrophe illustrates how one

incident can yield multiple threats. Fires, the col-

lapse of buildings, death, suffering, and health

hazards were just a few of the many threats that

both victims and first responders faced during that


A second grouping of the stressors identified

by Paton (1996) involves the perceptions of the

events by the first responders and the way in

which their ability to do their jobs is affected.

Having insufficient opportunity for effective ac-

tion, knowing the victims and/or their families,

receiving additional job-related responsibilities,

and having to meet increased emotional, physical,

and time demands can all trigger additional stress

for first responders. Lack of adequate resources

can negatively affect their ability to perform

their jobs and can thus also result in stress. In

addition, unrealistic expectations can make re-

covery from trauma more difficult (McCammon,

Durham, Jackson, & Williams, 1988). Another

complicating factor is the degree and duration of

emotion suppression following an emergency si-

tuation (McCammon et al., 1988).

The third group of stressors relays the im-

portance of the organizational structure in which

the first responders are working. Changes to this

structure can result in additional stress. For ex-

ample, interagency coordination difficulties, con-

flicts, or failure can have adverse effects on the

emotional and functional capabilities of emergency

40 The Psychology of Terrorism

workers, and feelings of inadequacy and help-

lessness can ensue. Emotions such as these can

hamper workers’ ability to perform their job suc-

cessfully and efficiently. There are many roles that

need fulfilling in disaster situations, and constantly

having to change roles, such as going from saving

someone’s life to speaking with the media, can put

extra strain on first responders as well.

Although there may be little one can do to

affect the time, type, or nature of a future terrorist

attack or other unforeseen disaster situation, some

of these stressors can likely be reduced through

training and preparedness work. For example,

establishing firm roles and responsibilities, pro-

viding sufficient resources, ensuring adequate le-

vels of staffing for shift rotations, and requiring

additional preparatory training may all contribute

to supporting a first responder in the line of duty

and assisting in reducing the degree of stress felt in

such a situation.

A Proposed Model of Threat Assessment

and Trauma

Based on the more detailed understanding of fear

and threat assessment developed in the preceding

sections, we suggest a model of terrorist response

that addresses six major factors grouped into three

time categories:

1. Peritrauma and immediate posttrauma phase

Factor 1. initial (objective) threat assessment

Factor 2. immediate physical response

Factor 3. immediate affective response

2. Assessment phase (posttrauma)

Factor 4. mediators (prior traumatization,

other risk factors, training, etc.) (these im-

pact factor 5)

Factor 5. cognition and memory (these im-

pact factor 6)

Factor 6. subjective threat assessment

3. Resolution phase (continuing)

Either the individual continues to feel

threatened and experiences ongoing symp-

toms, or the threat is downgraded and the

symptoms begin to abate.

By being familiar with these factors, a practi-

tioner can begin to categorize the experiences a

victim has had and construct a comprehensive

treatment plan in case the person’s natural re-

covery process fails. To synthesize the information

presented earlier and to explain the model, we

suggest the following hypothetical timeline:

First, immediately following a terrorist attack,

affected individuals must assess the objective

threats in the environment, including perso-

nal physical injury, exposure, physical

symptoms of shock, observing injury to oth-

ers, witnessing death, and fearing for the

survival of one’s family members.

Second, both during and after a mass-casualty

event, these objective threats may generate the

immediate affective responses of fear and

anxiety. As people move from the experience

of the traumatic event into recovery, they

begin to process the event more deeply.

During this assessment phase, risk factors for

PTSD, such as exposure to prior trauma, be-

come increasingly salient and may deeply

impact the cognitions and memories related

to the event. Similarly, resiliency factors may

be important at this stage in shielding the

individuals from what otherwise might lead to

problematic thought and memory patterns

revolving around the event. It is also at this

assessment stage that causal attributions and

heuristics may be applied, both of which rely

heavily on cognitive and memory processes.

Thus, mediators such as risk and resiliency

factors, along with cognition and memory, are

central to a victim’s subjective (or secondary)

threat assessment. Terrorist attacks may be

particularly powerful in influencing the

secondary appraisal of fear-related stimuli

because they elicit thoughts that revolve

around threat persistence (unboundedness),

malevolence, and fear of the unknown (CBRN

devices, etc.).

Finally, in the resolution phase, a victim’s fear

and psychological symptoms either begin or

abate as their subjective threat assessment

wanes. However, if the subjective threat as-

sessment does not decrease, the individual

may be at risk for developing ASD or PTSD.

Normal Versus Interrupted Recovery

Practitioners should remain aware that, even in

normal recovery, many psychological and physical

symptoms associated with the traumatic event

may be present and can persist for some time (Litz

et al., 2002). However, if one’s response to the

41The Need for Proficient Mental Health Professionals in the Study of Terrorism

trauma is normal and the individual has the usual

sources of support and resilience, recovery may

be relatively rapid, and the victim may return to

baseline in days or weeks. Alternatively, the as-

sessments, modulators, and risk factors may dis-

pose a person to be traumatized to such a degree

that resilience is impaired, and the normal re-

storation of mental health may be delayed or in-


Furthermore, research on disaster victims has

not always shown congruent symptoms across all

event types (Brewin, Andrews, Rose, & Kirk, 1999;

Goenjian et al., 2001; Morgan, Grillon, Lubin, &

Southwick, 1997), and differences in correlations

between the age of the adults and distress in vic-

tims and first responders have also proven difficult

to pin down. Some studies have found that older

rescue workers and victims tend to be more re-

silient in the face of disaster, while others have

found that older victims are most at risk, and still

others have demonstrated that those in their

middle years are most likely to be affected (Tucker

et al., 2000). Similarly, we can expect that different

types of terrorist attacks will result in nuances

in healthy and pathological recovery.

The types of psychological trauma and other

after effects that are associated with major mass-

casualty events include PTSD, ASD, major de-

pressive disorder (MDD), burnout, anxiety, sleep

disorders, and drug and alcohol abuse. In some

rare instances the practitioner should also be pre-

pared to handle OMUS (Bleisch et al., 1992; Pastel,

2001; Tucker et al., 2000). We briefly describe the

clinical diagnostic criteria for each of these dis-

orders (or theoretical formulations for trauma-

related syndromes not listed in the Diagnostic and

Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-

TR)) as well as how they manifest in postdisaster


However, the majority of what remains of this

chapter focuses on treating acute stress disorder

and preventing chronic PTSD since these two as-

sociated conditions encapsulate the central pro-

blems associated with the trauma exposure with

which mental health practitioners must deal and

are the general focus of the literature on the psy-

chology of catastrophic events. We also highlight

these disorders because their treatment among

victims of mass-casualty events is poorly under-

stood and because the efficacy of the treatments

that have been used to date are hotly debated by

researchers and theorists in the field of trauma


Specific Disorders Associated With

Mass-Casualty Terrorist Events

The following descriptions of psychological dis-

orders that may occur after exposure to a mass-

casualty event are drawn from the DSM-IV-TR,

except where noted, and we have used the language

employed there in order to ensure congruity be-

tween these paraphrased descriptions and the actual

diagnostic criteria for the disorders. The descrip-

tions are intended for informational purposes only.

We refer the reader to the DSM-IV-TR for more

details, specific symptoms, and formal diagnostic



According to the DSM-IV-TR, posttraumatic stress

disorder may occur following exposure to an ex-

tremely traumatic stressor when a person has di-

rectly witnessed situations that result in actual or

threatened mortality or physical injury and the

individual’s response to this situation includes a

strong affective component of intense fear, help-

lessness, and/or horror. One ormore cardinal symp-

toms of reexperiencing, three or more symptoms

of avoidance and/or numbing, and two or more

symptoms of increased arousal are needed to meet

the full clinical criteria. The symptoms must be

present for at least 1 month and are considered

to be acute if the symptoms last for less than

3 months; they are considered chronic if they

persist for more than 3 months. Children may

present slightly differently, especially with regard

to reexperiencing, with repetitive play that is

thematically related to the trauma event and night-

mares with no specific content. Trauma reenactment

in younger children may be common.


Acute stress disorder is largely similar to PTSD

but is shorter in duration and focuses more on

the dissociative symptoms than PTSD does (Bre-

win et al., 1999). The DSM-IV-TR suggests that

ASD ‘‘is the development of characteristic anxiety,

dissociative, and other symptoms that occur within

one month after exposure to an extreme stressor.’’

Symptoms must last at least 2 days before diagnosis

42 The Psychology of Terrorism

can be made. As with PTSD, the victim must both

witness an event that threatened or resulted in

serious physical harm to the victim or others and

present an intense affective response including

fear, helplessness, or horror. Three or more dis-

sociative symptoms must be present, one or more

reexperiencing symptoms must occur, and notable

avoidance, anxiety, or arousal symptoms are re-

quired for this diagnosis


A major depressive episode is diagnosed following

a period of 2 or more weeks in which an individual

reports a depressed mood or anhedonia toward

most normal activities. Depression is generally

associated with a set of vegetative symptoms, such

as sleeping difficulties and lethargy. Thoughts about

personal worthlessness and suicide often occur.

Especially in mass-casualty situations, symptoms

related to bereavement should be separated from

a potential diagnosis, and treatment should speci-

fically address bereavement concerns if the indi-

vidual has lost close relatives or friends. Depression

has frequently been reported among those who

were subjected to the terrors of 9/11 (Galea et al.,



Although not a DSM-IV-TR category, burnout can

nonetheless result from high-stress occupational

situations and can detrimentally affect job perfor-

mance. It is helpful to consider burnout as both a

process and a result. A person who experiences

burnout may progress through different stages,

and the symptoms are similar to those of stress,

anxiety, and depressive disorders. Eventually, after

experiencing prolonged levels of high stress and

anxiety, an individual may socially withdraw and

become apathetic and possibly resentful. Follow-

ing this stage, the person may become depressed

and exhibit many of the classic signs of depression.

In addition to anxiety and depression, substance

abuse is also associated with burnout. Burnout

is preventable and can often be identified by the

individual once provided with education about the



Subclinical anxiety symptoms may be quite com-

mon after a mass-casualty event. Evidence suggests

that feeling afraid or anxious immediately after a

large-scale disaster may increase the risk for an

onset of PTSD. However, the clinical diagnosis of

generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) requires that

the symptoms be present most of the time during a

6-month period. Those who suffer from GAD find

it difficult to control their worry and exhibit at

least three of the following symptoms: restlessness,

fatigue, impaired concentration, irritability, muscle

tension, sleep disturbance (either in falling asleep,

staying asleep, or sleeping restfully). In children,

only one of these symptoms is necessary to meet

clinical diagnostic criteria.

Sleep Disorders

A diagnosis of primary insomnia is indicated

when an individual has difficulty falling or stay-

ing asleep or experiences nonrestorative sleep for

a period of 1 month or more. Primary insomnia

causes serious distress in important life functions

and is not due to biologically based sleep pro-

blems such as apnea or circadian rhythm upset. In

trauma-exposed people, nightmare disorder may

also occur. This is typified by repeated awakenings

from sleep with detailed recall or extended and

extremely frightening dreams, usually involving

threats to personal survival, security, or self-

esteem. The nightmares must cause significant

difficulty in some aspect of life functioning to meet

clinical criteria and must not occur during the

course of another disorder, such as PTSD.

Drug Abuse and Dependence

Because of the wide variety of drugs that may be

abused or for which dependence may develop,

we concentrate here on the general criteria for

substance abuse and dependence. Clinicians who

suspect specific forms of drug use in trauma-

exposed clients should refer to the DSM-IV-TR for

further information. Due to the ubiquity of and ease

in obtaining alcohol, clinicians should be particu-

larly alert for signs of alcohol abuse in trauma vic-

tims. The criteria for substance abuse include a

maladaptive pattern of substance use that leads to

one or more of the following domains: failure to

fulfill major obligations at work, school, or home;

recurrent use of the substance when its ingestion

puts the individual at risk for physical harm; legal

difficulties related to the use of the substance; and

continued use of the substance despite social or

relational problems associated with intoxication.

These criteria must be met within the space of a

43The Need for Proficient Mental Health Professionals in the Study of Terrorism

12-month period. As with depression, drug abuse

is particularly likely to increase following terror

attacks, judging from the results of follow-ups on

9/11 victims (Vlahov et al., 2002).


Outbreaks of multiple unexplained symptoms are

not part of the DSM-IV-TR taxonomy of psycho-

logical disorders. Instead, this is a phenomenon

that has been periodically observed in response

to specific environmental factors. OMUS has been

referred to as ‘‘mass anxiety’’ or ‘‘mass hysteria’’ in

earlier formulations; however, because the phe-

nomenon is probably an evolutionary response to

a potential unknown, invisible pathogen, it should

not be viewed as an inherently dysfunctional re-

sponse (Pastel, 2001). OMUS may generate real

somatic symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea,

rashes, and breathing difficulty, which are difficult

to distinguish from symptoms of actual exposure

to a CBRN device (Pastel, 2001). The phenomenon

is also denoted as ‘‘psychological contamination’’

or the ‘‘social transmission’’ of symptoms (Jones,

Craig, Hoy, & Gunter, 2000; Small et al., 1991).

Typically, OMUS occur in environments where

a potential pathogen causes one person to feel

ill; then a number of other people report similar

symptoms without being similarly exposed (Small

et al., 1991). The phenomenon is viewed as a

social and psychological response to potential

environmental contamination, often in the absence

of actual threat or personal exposure, resulting in

somatic symptoms that quickly spread through the

affected population and are usually transient but

may recur with exposure to the location of the

initial illness (Small et al., 1991).

Current Intervention Approaches and Myths of Treatment

The most frequently used model for reducing

trauma in an attempt to prevent PTSD and other

serious psychological consequences is critical in-

cident stress debriefing (CISD) (Litz & Gray, 2004).

This model was developed by Jeffery Mitchell in

the early 1980s and was originally designed to

provide comprehensive stress management ap-

proaches for use with first responders (Mitchell,

1983). The system later evolved into a broader

individual and community intervention framework

known as critical incident stress management

(CISM) (Litz & Gray, 2004). The CISD system has

been used as the sole treatment intervention for

numerous police and fire departments throughout

the country for the better part of the last two dec-

ades (Litz & Gray, 2004).

With the increasing popularity of CISD, the

absence of alternative treatments, and the pur-

ported benefits of the intervention, many govern-

ment agencies, not-for-profit relief organizations,

and private corporations felt compelled to offer

it following traumatic incidents and often made

attendance compulsory for victims. Thus, CISD

evolved from an intervention specific to emergency

responders to one that became the standard of care

for nearly all victims of disasters, even though it

was not originally designed for use with the gen-

eral public. Mitchell argues that it is not appro-

priate for civilian casualties who have been directly

impacted by a disaster (those with serious injury or

who have experienced the death of a relative), and

there is little empirical evidence to support its use

in this more general context (Litz & Gray, 2004).

As originally formulated, CISD was intended

to be a single-session group intervention. Within

the treatment group, a mental health professional

trained in CISD leads a discussion that follows a

seven-step progression: (1) introduction; (2) fact

phase (in which the event is re-created through the

participants’ stories); (3) thought phase (in which

the participants describe their thoughts during

the crisis); (4) reaction phase (in which the par-

ticipants may experience catharsis); (5) symptom

phase (in which each participant’s current symp-

toms are discussed); (6) teaching phase (in which

symptoms are normalized through psychoeduca-

tion); and (7) reentry phase (event closure; re-

ferrals are given as necessary) (Everly & Mitchell,

1999). The CISD model suggests that the inter-

vention should take place as soon as possible fol-

lowing a traumatic event, typically within 24–72


The treatment model focuses primarily on

talking through the trauma and reliving the emo-

tional experiences of the event in a protected en-

vironment (Litz & Gray, 2004). When conducted

with police officers, firefighters, or other first re-

sponders, the CISD groups are usually formed

with prestanding units who experienced the same

44 The Psychology of Terrorism

event. The theoretical framework of CISM suggests

that the sharing of the experience assists in the

normalization of symptoms and provides a frame-

work for reliving the event through the multiple

perspectives of the participants.

Myth: Talking It Through Prevents


Until recently, common wisdom within the trauma

treatment community held that ventilating the

victim’s emotions immediately following the event

was requisite in preventing the later onset of PTSD.

However, there is increasing empirical evidence to

suggest that early treatment for trauma may inter-

fere with the mind’s natural healing processes (Gist

& Lubin, 1999; Litz et al., 2002; McNally et al.,

2003; Rose, Bisson, & Wessley, 2001). In fact,

there is some suggestion that interventions that

focus heavily on the emotional reliving of the event

in the days immediately following the tragedy may

actually put people who might otherwise recover

normally at increased risk for PTSD (Rose et al.,

2001). After a traumatic event, an individual ty-

pically experiences dissociative symptoms, such as

emotional numbing, detachment, reduced aware-

ness, derealization, and depersonalization. These

symptoms may actually be normal, healthy reac-

tions to highly stressful events (McNally et al.,

2003). Dissociation may in fact serve as a tem-

porary buffer, allowing an individual to process

stressful information without attending to the

events in consciousness. However, the CISD model

encourages mental health professionals to pierce

this protective veil and reintroduce the power-

ful emotional reaction to the trauma as soon as


The CISD intervention model has recently

come under increased scrutiny for several reasons.

Litz & Gray (2004) list a number of concerns with

the CISD approach. First, at a theoretical level, the

debriefing seems to not consider the natural course

of psychological healing that takes place for most

people following trauma. Second, most of the stu-

dies examining the CISD model have been au-

thored by the group that developed it and have not

been replicated in other settings. Third, the ma-

jority of the studies of CISD suffer from critical

methodological flaws. Fourth, the CISD model was

originally developed for the treatment of first

responders, and the originator of the CISD inter-

vention has suggested that it may not be appro-

priate for the general public. Finally, alternative

approaches have not been extensively developed

and empirically examined as comparisons to the

CISD model.

As a result of this increased interest, three

major meta-analyses of the CISD treatment system

were undertaken and have recently been published

(Litz & Gray, 2004). These reviews examine the

relatively few randomized controlled trials (RCTs)

probing the efficacy of CISD that are available. We

consider two of these meta-analyses in detail. The

first was conducted by Rose, Bisson, & Wessely in

1998 as part of a Cochrane Review. This study was

subsequently updated in 2001 and served as the

first major review of RCTs of the efficacy of the

CISD treatment system.

Using established search criteria, the authors

of the Cochrane Review identified 11 studies that

involved the use of single-session psychological

debriefing with participants who had recently been

exposed to a trauma. All of the interventions used

a variation of emotional recounting of the event.

The authors of the review also noted that the

quality of most of the studies was poor (Rose et al.,

2001). The Cochrane Review poses some com-

pelling and disturbing questions about the use of

CISD and related treatment systems.

These meta-analyses found no quantitative

support for the contention that single-session

debriefing leads to a reduction in PTSD risk. The

report also entertains the possibility that this type

of early intervention may instead hinder recovery

and increase the risk of chronic PTSD. Two of the

long-term follow-up studies included in the review

found that those receiving a single treatment fol-

lowing a traumatic event had worse prognoses for

mental health difficulty as compared to the con-

trols. Further, Rose and his colleagues found that

debriefing did not reduce other psychological dif-

ficulties associated with exposure to trauma, in-

cluding depression and anxiety (Rose et al., 2001).

The authors of the review suggest that single-

session psychological debriefing treatments may

suffer from the following problems that reduce

this intervention’s efficacy: (1) The interventions

may be too short; (2) the follow-up may be too

short to show results; (3) the treatment timing

may be incorrect; and (4) the idea of debriefing

45The Need for Proficient Mental Health Professionals in the Study of Terrorism

may have been incorporated into contemporary

culture, rendering formalized intervention un-

necessary. Each of these possibilities warrants fur-

ther investigation.

The review by Rose et al. (2003) hypothesizes

reasons for the observed negative or null outcomes

with single-treatment interventions. The first is the

suggestion that those who experience shame or

guilt reactions in response to a traumatic event

may be at risk when only a single, emotion-laden

treatment is provided and further exploration

of these emotions is not offered. Second, psy-

chological debriefing may attach an unnecessary

stigma to the normal recovery symptoms observed

in trauma victims. Rose and colleagues note that

‘‘Debriefing, by increasing awareness of psycholo-

gical distress, may paradoxically induce distress in

people who would otherwise not have developed

it’’ (Rose et al., 2003, p. 9). Finally, the authors

of this review argue that psychological debriefing

may be problematic because it subscribes to the

dubious notion that all victims experience the

traumatic event and progress through recovery in a

fairly uniform manner. These hypotheses should

serve as the basis for future research examining

both the efficacy and the possible dangers of

single-session, emotion-driven treatment systems

for trauma.

A second set of meta-analyses performed by

Litz and his colleagues (2002) sought to confirm

and expand upon the findings of the Cochrane

Review. These analyses examined the results of

six RCTs involving psychological debriefing. The

inclusion criteria for this meta-analysis differ

somewhat from those found in the review by Rose

et al. (2001). However, the same pattern of results

emerged. The findings confirmed that psycholo-

gical debriefing provided no more relief of symp-

toms than could be expected with natural recovery

over time. A small difference in effect size indicated

that psychological debriefing may result in greater

levels of PTSD symptoms following treatment.

However, Litz and colleagues caution against in-

terpreting these findings or those of the study by

Rose et al. (2001) as providing definitive evidence

of negative side effects with the use of this treat-

ment approach (Litz et al., 2002).

As a result of the mounting evidence showing

that CISD may not be as effective as hoped, one of

the leading researchers in the field of acute stress

treatment has concluded that, ‘‘Contrary to the

conclusions of advocates of CISD/CISM, there is

no sufficiently rigorous empirical support for the

use of CISD/CISM in the secondary prevention of

chronic PTSD. Controlled studies reveal it to be

therapeutically inert when applied to individuals’’

(Litz & Gray, 2004, p. 101). In light of these

findings, a conference convened by the National

Institute of Mental Health concluded that CISD

should not be used as an intervention with trauma

victims, a view seconded by the British National

Health Service (Litz & Gray, 2004). In response,

dramatic shifts in the world of trauma intervention

have begun to occur as several major insurance

agencies have discouraged large organizations from

hiring CISD counselors to provide this interven-

tion because it is increasingly viewed as prior art,

no longer the standard of care, and a lawsuit risk

(Yandrick, 2004).

Myth: Most People Are at Risk

One of the common misconceptions about ter-

rorism and trauma is the expectation that a large

proportion of the affected population will develop

full-blown PTSD symptoms in the months fol-

lowing the event (McNally et al., 2003). In fact, the

general public and even direct victims appear to

be surprisingly resilient. In the wake of what was

arguably the most significant act of terrorism in

peacetime, the events of September 11, 2001,

surprisingly few people used the psychological and

other support services offered by the 9,000 pro-

fessional and paraprofessional counselors who

were rushed to New York following the tragedy

(McNally et al., 2003). The Project Liberty pro-

gram, a federally funded initiative designed to

provide counseling to affected New Yorkers, esti-

mated that 25% of the city’s inhabitants would

need counseling and prepared to meet the need for

psychological services for a staggering 2.5 million

victims, yet just slightly more than half a million

city residents used these services (McNally et al.,


In fact, in summarizing PTSD prevalence data

gathered by several researchers following the 9/11

attacks, McNally and colleagues (2003) stated that,

while predictions of significant distress surged, the

actual rates of PTSD symptoms ranged from just

7.5% to 20% in the general public who had been

near Ground Zero at the time of the attacks. Four

months later, a similar study with participants

46 The Psychology of Terrorism

living near the World Trade Center site found that

the proportion of the population experiencing

PTSD-like symptoms dropped to 1.7% (McNally

et al., 2003). One national study of PTSD preva-

lence following 9/11 found slightly higher num-

bers, with 17% of the sample meeting criteria 8

weeks after the attacks and falling to 5.8% after 6

months (Litz & Gray, 2004). Similarly, estimates

of PTSD rates in Israeli civilians (ostensibly due to

ongoing terrorist activity) found that between

2.7% and 9.4% of respondents met the criteria for

PTSD (depending on the stringency of the inclu-

sion criteria). Only 5.3% felt they needed to seek

professional treatment for stress related to terrorist

activity, while more than 60% of the participants

reported feeling that their lives were threatened

(Bleisch, Gelkopf, & Solomon, 2003).

Several studies following the 9/11 tragedy

found similar results, and a number of researchers

in the field have suggested that, even though many

people may initially exhibit stress symptoms, this is

a fundamentally normal process, and most people

recover from the trauma without the high rate of

chronic psychological illness that was initially pre-

dicted (Litz et al., 2002; McNally et al., 2003).

Furthermore, while a high proportion of people

who were representatively sampled across the na-

tion endorsed items indicating that they had ex-

perienced stress-related symptoms following the

events of 9/11, there is little evidence to suggest

that the majority of those who were exposed

through the media were at risk for developing PTSD

(Pfefferbaum et al., 2002). Moreover, those with

severe symptoms immediately after a major trau-

matic event are no more likely to develop chronic

PTSD than those who experience lesser symptoms

(McNally et al., 2003). These findings, as well as the

progression of recovery they suggest, should be

central to our understanding of the human re-

sponse to intentional mass-casualty events.

What Mental Health Professionals Need to Know About Intervention

Based on mounting evidence that single-session

psychological debriefing treatments provide no

benefit and may even hinder the recovery process,

researchers and clinicians have become increas-

ingly interested in developing and using alterna-

tive treatment systems with disaster-traumatized

individuals. These interventions differentiate be-

tween immediate response, which occurs in the

hours following a terrorist event, and the more

long-term treatment of people who have residual

symptoms. Together they compose the content of

the knowledge that mental health practitioners

should apparently have as they anticipate providing

care to survivors.

Do’s and Don’ts in the Immediate

Aftermath of Terror

Mental health professionals must be trained to

respond to disasters such as terrorist attacks with a

broader range of skills than that required in the

office practice of psychotherapy. Various initiatives

have been set in motion to provide them with the

tools they need to treat these victims.

Various recommendations have been made for

how best to intervene with those at psychological

risk following terrorist events. CISD is no longer a

treatment intervention one should use lightly or

simply because one has been instructed to do so.

Newer approaches derived from empirically based

treatments are becoming available for the emer-

gency mental health responder. In the remainder

of this chapter, we present a brief overview of

current recommendations. However, additional

research-based information is forthcoming and

practitioners should view this effort as an initial

effort to build the ground work for future work.

Mental healthcare workers should actively seek out

new information as it becomes available because

of the fledgling nature of this field. For example,

the area of psychological first aid (PFA) appears to

be gaining strength as an alternative to CISD, and

research findings in this area should inform prac-

tice as they become available.

Emerging treatments focus on the unique as-

pects of victims of terrorism. Thus, treatment con-

ceptualizations are becoming more specific and

refined. For example, despite the developing belief

among researchers in this field that early psycho-

logical intervention may be contraindicated, this

does not imply that no support should be offered

to individuals immediately following a trauma

event. To the contrary, social support has been

repeatedly shown to help prevent chronic PTSD,

and, perhaps more importantly, negative social

contacts immediately following a critical incident

appear to increase the risk of PTSD (McNally et al.,

47The Need for Proficient Mental Health Professionals in the Study of Terrorism

2003). Further, feelings of nihilism and despair

that are associated with chronic PTSD are best

addressed by assisting the client to build (or re-

build) a strong social support network through

reengagement in social activities (Miller, 2002).

Psychological First Aid

Borrowing from a model developed to treat re-

fugees, it appears that the most important first step

in psychological treatment is to reestablish a sense

of safety and to provide basic services such as food,

shelter, and contact with loved ones. Miller (2002)

states that, immediately after a trauma event, ‘‘Phy-

sical care is psychological care.’’ This approach,

termed ‘‘psychological first aid,’’ is not envisioned as

a treatment program (Litz et al., 2002). Psycholo-

gical first aid differs from psychological debriefing

models in that its primary focus is the provision of

physical comfort and psychoeducation to normalize

symptoms; in short, it puts in place a referral system

for people who feel the need for more assistance.

Also contrary to the CISD model, Litz and his col-

leagues (2002) state that ‘‘This position recogni-

zes that most people do not suffer from PTSD [or

more accurately ASD] in the immediate days after

an event; rather the majority of people will have

transient stress reactions that will remit with time’’

(p. 128).

Through the use of psychological first aid, the

practitioner is also able to strengthen preexisting

social networks that may encourage more natu-

ral debriefing (e.g., with family members or co-

workers), approaches that have been found to often

be more effective and better received than overt,

practitioner-led debriefing (Gist & Lubin, 1999).

Finally, this approach also allows the psychologist,

social worker, or other mental health professional

to passively monitor the progression of recovery

and to enable them to flag those who are at high

risk for PTSD, monitor them, and step in as needed.

While psychological first aid provides an ap-

propriate framework for general intervention,

Bryant & Harvey (2000, p. 84) note that ‘‘There is

now convergent evidence that approximately 80%

of individuals who are diagnosed with ASD sub-

sequently suffer chronic PTSD.’’ In light of this

finding, effective, early interventions are needed

for the subset of victims who fail to recover natu-

rally. If a reduction in symptoms is not apparent

after an appropriate period of time, which is

assumed to be 1–2 weeks (Litz & Gray, 2004),

the practitioner should begin considering more

aggressive intervention.

Minimum Intervention Guidelines

for Responding to Victims and

Rescuers During Crises

It is imperative that the ways in which we help crisis

victims reflect the best scientific knowledge avail-

able. However, because of the nature of science,

what we know and what we can recommend are

always changing. Because of the way that scientific

information accumulates, we are likely to find out

more quickly when something does not work than

when it does. Thus, we have learned many things

from scientific research that we initially believed

should have been helpful, yet some have turned out

to be ineffective and even harmful (Gist &Woodall,

2000; Litz et al., 2002; Rose, Bisson, & Wessely,

2001; Rose, Brewin, et al., 1999; Rose, Wessely, &

Bisson, 1998). At the same time, we are finding that

many of the commonsense procedures and fun-

damental ways of providing assistance are surpri-

singly helpful to people in crisis.

Despite the extensive instruction that is fre-

quently offered and the treatments that are accepted

as if their use represents factual and scientifically

derived knowledge, actual scientifically generated

and supported knowledge about what best to do in

the immediate wake of trauma is quite limited.

There are, however, some general guidelines that

can be derived from research studies. We have

compiled these into a straightforward list of basic

do’s and don’ts for the clinician who is seeking

to assist victims and rescuers in the first hours

and days following a major community crisis. These

recommendations represent the best knowledge

that is available at the present time.

Things to Do

The following points offer some guidance as to

specific actions and approaches a clinical practi-

tioner can engage in to provide effective support

following a terrorist attack or similar mass-casualty


1. Remember that effective first response comes

not from your role as a healer but rather from

your role as one who provides comfort, direct

support, and useful information. You are most

48 The Psychology of Terrorism

effective as a source of accurate information,

immediate guidance, and direct assistance with

the needs and demands of the present. If

victims have lost their home, it is far more

important to reduce the immediate feelings of

stress by providing shelter than it is to listen

empathically to the feelings of helplessness

that loss entails. In the face of loss and threat,

it is also more effective to provide immediate

calming and instrumental care than to en-

courage early ventilation and catharsis.

2. Get your hands ‘‘dirty’’—get into the field—in

order to make sure that physical and medical

needs are addressed. It is very helpful in later

contacts to have met people first in these set-

tings and to have initially provided immediate

and pragmatic forms of help before attempting

to offer more personal levels of support.

3. Provide information and guidance at very

practical levels. Arm yourself with as much

information as you can garner and commu-

nicate it clearly and systematically to those you

encounter. Relate your information clearly,

using only fully authoritative sources (do not

be a vehicle for rumors and misinformation).

4. Establish a working relationship with the cli-

ent. Make sure that your role is understood

and that the client has given permission for

you to assist. Make known your identity, cre-

dentials, relationships to other organizations

(e.g., Red Cross, employer of rescue person-

nel) very clearly, and establish the objectives

for the encounter. Do not proceed unless the

individual is willing to accept your help.

5. Ensure that physical and safety needs (e.g.,

medical, shelter, food) are provided before

addressing the emotional impacts of the

trauma. Keep the initial focus on meeting

basic needs and preserving stamina.

6. Provide a clearly defined objective and end

point for the contact and relationship. Tell

people what to expect. Most of the time, you

will need to provide one or more direct re-

ferrals for subsequent assistance. Ensure that

the options your provide reflect a wide range

of possibilities.

7. Emphasize the client’s strengths rather than

weaknesses or deficits. Provide reassurance

(‘‘this will pass’’; ‘‘you will get through this’’)

and maintain a sense of calm. If handouts or

written information are used, these materials

should be carefully structured to promote ex-

pectations of resilience and recovery rather

than providing laundry lists of pitfalls and


8. Direct victims and rescuers to community re-

sources that offer comfort and assistance.

Connect victims with sources of aid that will

provide direct and continuing support (e.g.,

family, community, faith-based resources).

9. Rescuers are critically affected by the tendency

to identify with victims and to the effects of

exhaustion—help them to establish and

maintain boundaries, pace their efforts and

expectations, and control emotions during

protracted encounters.

10. Work with a companion whenever possible,

and let the coworker help you maintain per-

spective and objectivity.

Things to Avoid

The following points offer some guidance as to

specific actions and approaches a clinician should

avoid following a terrorist attack or similar mass-

casualty event:

1. Emotion-focused debriefing in the immediate

aftermath of trauma—by its many labels, in-

cluding psychological debriefing (PD), CISD,

and multiple stressor debriefing (MSD)—has

not been shown to be effective in preventing

later difficulties and may even cause problems

to become entrenched or more severe over

time. ‘‘Debriefing,’’ as used here, includes any

approach that involves (a) revisiting and re-

constructing the details and feelings associated

with the traumatic event and any of the fol-

lowing additional procedures: (b) encourage-

ment to explore and deepen one’s

reexperiencing of the emotion-laden events;

(c) normalization of reactions, especially ele-

ments of negative feelings; and (d) education

regarding the signs and symptoms of PTSD.

While doing these things often seem to be a

good idea, the evidence is strong and accu-

mulating that these are aspects of help giving

that should be avoided during the initial stages

of trauma reaction.

2. Some examples of other treatments that are

frequently used but whose effects have not yet

been demonstrated scientifically to be helpful

include reexposure therapy, eye movement

49The Need for Proficient Mental Health Professionals in the Study of Terrorism

desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR),

thought field therapy (TFT), acupuncture, and

various patent remedies. Cognitive therapy

(CT) has been found to be effective in high-

risk populations and in those whose problems

persist beyond the initial reaction, but even

this approach should be avoided during the

immediate aftermath period. Any continuing

‘‘treatment’’ should be used only if indicated by

careful evaluation.

3. Avoid being the primary focus for the provi-

sion of assistance and emotional or social

support. Healthy resolution may ultimately

depend on fostering a sense of self-efficacy and

mastery of the threat and challenge. The

greatest risk to helpers and clinicians may be

‘‘overhelping,’’ or what some have called ‘‘the

tyranny of urgency.’’ This is the tendency to go

too far in helping people do what they need to

do for themselves or even doing for them what

can best be done by their own families and

reference groups.

4. The vast majority of those who are exposed to

even severe trauma will not experience PTSD

and will recover through their own resources

and in their own time. Thus, it is important to

respect the natural recovery process and to

avoid presuming that someone needs profes-

sional mental health assistance. Be ‘‘invisibly

supportive.’’ People recover at different rates

and by different means. Let victims set their

own pace, talk about things that are important

to them, and seek their own space. Some

people need a period of withdrawal; beyond

this, it is important that victims feel empow-

ered to take some steps on their own in order

to gain a sense of personal agency. Do not

push them to discuss—before they are ready—

or to do something that they are reluctant

to do.

5. Do not be too formal. Don’t carry or wear the

badges of distance, such as a clipboard or a

white coat, which might mark you as a ‘‘re-

moved,’’ clinical observer. Respect the client’s

privacy and keep the relationship open.

Follow-Up Treatment

In the weeks following a traumatic incident, most

people will recover in response to psychological

first aid and the minimalist treatment. Most people

are very resilient and do not need long-term as-

sistance. However, during the first days and weeks

following a crisis it is difficult to reliably distin-

guish those who will have prolonged difficulty and

those who will not. A clinician should not attempt

to make formal mental health assessments until 2

or more weeks have passed. Nonetheless, a brief,

initial screening, as long as it does not interfere

with providing immediate physical and medical as-

sistance, along with support, encouragement, and

comfort, might help identify those who should be

recontacted after a few weeks and considered for

more prolonged treatment.

Initial Screening

Screening of risk factors can be accomplished with

four basic, relatively unobtrusive queries:

1. Have the individuals experienced other intense

exposures or instances of trauma (has anything

like this happened before)?

2. Is there any history of prior mental health

treatment or of circumstances for which the

individuals or others thought treatment should

have been sought?

3. Do the individuals have at least one other

person with whom they can talk and share

their problems? Has doing so seemed pro-

ductive and helpful in the past?

4. Were the individuals exposed (in their judg-

ment) to particularly gruesome or disturbing

aspects of this event?

Follow-Up Evaluation

Persons experiencing lingering difficulties after the

initial impact has passed (generally 2–6 weeks)

should be evaluated for further mental health as-

sistance within the context of an established pro-

fessional relationship. These services are generally

best provided by agencies and professionals within

the local community, where enduring therapeutic

relationships can be developed.

Where further treatment is indicated, empiri-

cally supported, conservative approaches such as

CT spread across four or five sessions should

be among the primary considerations. Therapists

attempting longer-term interventions should seek

specific training and supervision in these ap-

proaches and especially in their application to trau-

matic exposure. Case management that includes

social work and systems advocacy should also be

50 The Psychology of Terrorism

considered as a critical adjunct to ensure that con-

tinuing or emergent instrumental needs continue to

be supportively addressed. If more intensive follow-

up is indicated by the persistence of debilitating

anxiety after a few weeks, there are several treat-

ments that have been found to be useful for re-

storing normal functioning.

Prolonged Exposure

While the CISD model relies on a single-exposure

intervention, more rigorously constructed short-

term interventions involving imaginal exposure

over a number of sessions have demonstrated sig-

nificant reductions in PTSD symptoms (Bryant &

Harvey, 2000). These findings were identified in

studies of traumatic reactions to sexual and non-

sexual assault, and lowered rates of PTSD were

found during a 3-month follow-up after cessation

of treatment. However, although this intervention

approach appears to be effective in reducing

symptoms for some people, initial studies indicate

that these results occur in only about half of the

victims who are treated (Bryant & Harvey, 2000).

Based on preliminary findings, in vivo exposure

may also be an effective treatment for PTSD pre-

vention; however, little systematic research has

been undertaken in this area (Bryant & Harvey,

2000). Prolonged exposure (PE) techniques are

typified by recalling the traumatic event for a per-

iod of not less than 50 minutes. The approach aims

to completely activate the fear-related memories

of the event long enough to cause habituation to

the stimulus (Bryant & Harvey, 2000).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Based on the limited literature currently available,

elements of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and

PE appear to be the most appropriate tools in

the reduction of initial stress symptoms and ASD

symptoms and in the prevention of chronic PTSD

(Litz et al., 2002). The key features of CBT and PE

treatment that may assist a trauma victim typically

include elements from PE and include imaginal ex-

posure to trauma-related memories, graduated in

vivo exposure to avoided situations, cognitive re-

structuring, and homework tasks to support the

therapeutic process (Bryant & Harvey, 2000; Litz

et al., 2002). One of the critical components of this

approach is that the intervention is carried out

multiple times over several weeks, allowing a

supported processing of the event (Litz & Gray,

2004). Under the watchful eye of a trained prac-

titioner, serious issues that may be left unidentified

and unresolved in a single session may be detected

and addressed. Initial controlled trials have de-

monstrated that when CBT and PE techniques are

used with ASD patients, the intervention drama-

tically reduces PTSD rates at follow-up, with only

15% of the participants continuing to meet criteria,

compared to 67% in a supportive counseling con-

trol condition (Bryant & Harvey, 2000). While

CBT combined with PE is perhaps the best ap-

proach currently known, care should be taken

if the patient is acutely traumatized, suicidal, ex-

periencing concomitant mental health problems,

or under stress because of continued exposure.

The powerful effects of exposure therapy may over-

whelm these clients, leading them to drop out of

therapy (Bryant & Harvey, 2000).

Other Treatment Considerations

The field of trauma treatment has received in-

creasing attention from a wide variety of re-

searchers and theorists in psychology and related

fields since the events of September 11, 2001.

While much of the research currently under way

will explore the efficacy of various components of

psychological debriefing, CBT, and other ‘‘talk

therapies,’’ pharmacological interventions are also

being examined. Some research has pointed to

continued physical arousal symptoms following the

removal of victims to safety as an indicator of risk

for PTSD onset. Based on this model, some have

suggested that pharmacological interventions that

suppress the sympathetic nervous system response,

such as propranolol (a beta-blocker), may be ef-

fective in disrupting the immediate fear response

and, in turn, serve to lower the risk of PTSD. While

this is just one emerging treatment model, it illus-

trates that practitioners need to remain vigilant as

new research informs a changing standard of care.

Special Considerations for First Responders

A common perception of emergency personnel

is that they are somehow stronger people, both

emotionally and physically, than most and that this

51The Need for Proficient Mental Health Professionals in the Study of Terrorism

strength allows them to do their jobs and remain

unaffected by the tragedy and trauma they witness.

Their attraction to their professions seems to sug-

gest a solid personality that responds quickly and

appropriately in emergency situations. However,

even if these perceptions are rooted in fact, emer-

gency response workers are still subjected to re-

peated stress. Exposure to mass-casualty incidents,

repeated exposure to stressful situations, and al-

ways being on alert for the next call can contribute

to potential psychological injury over the course of a

career or in the aftermath of a disaster. These ad-

verse effects can come in various forms and include

emotional, cognitive, and somatic effects. However,

there are certain identified resilience mechanisms

and coping strategies that can assist in buffering

against such adverse effects.

Efforts to assist first responders have empha-

sized intervention techniques, but attention should

also be focused on preparatory strategies to pro-

mote adaptation and minimize impact prior to a

mass-casualty event (Paton, 1996). Emergency re-

sponse workers are often involved in repeated

training for various aspects of their jobs. Two of

the goals of training are practice and preparation—

practice in using problem-solving abilities in novel

situations and preparation for doing one’s job and

for knowing what to expect while doing it.

Training is often considered in the functional

perspective of engaging in and practicing job-related

duties. But performing these responsibilities some-

times extends beyond one’s capacity to accomplish

functional tasks, such as starting an intravenous (IV)

injection. A professional must be mentally able to

follow through with those tasks in a disaster situa-

tion and maintain a state of psychological health

over the long term in order to ensure an extended

career in the emergency response field.

Predisaster psychology training could benefit

emergency response workers, for example, by

helping them determine what psychological stres-

sors they are susceptible to and learn how to

recognize when victims, their coworkers, or they

themselves are experiencing adverse psychological

effects. Such instruction can also help them learn

to communicate effectively with others and to

practice coping mechanisms to deal with such

stress. Also, training provided to desensitize

emergency response personnel to situations they

might encounter could provide benefits through

increasing their familiarity with the associated

environmental factors and emotional reactions.

For example, prebriefings on what to expect were

associated with adaptive capabilities in FEMA

workers and assisted in mitigating the stress of

understanding what they were about to go through

in responding to an emergency (Garcı́a, 2003).

This implies that briefing first responders on what

to expect at an emergency scene could assist by

desensitizing them and therefore reduce the stress

associated with responding to an emergency scene.

Additional training might include educating re-

sponse workers about the mental health resources

available through their employer and in their


While those who do not work in the field of

trauma or death and dying may find the humor

of emergency personnel morbid and distasteful, it

serves a valuable purpose in relieving stress and

helping them transition from one call to the next.

Studies on the use of humor by emergency person-

nel have shown that, among experienced para-

medics, humor was ranked higher than other coping

mechanisms, including talking with friends and fa-

mily, socializing, going out, and exercising (Rosen-

berg, 1991). Pretrained subjects in Rosenberg’s

study stated that humor relieved tension and served

as a tool by which they could cognitively and emo-

tionally refocus themselves to regain perspective and

even transcend a situation. Experienced paramedics

said that humor provides a mental break and assists

them in returning to a normal state of mind. In

addition, those paramedics who used humor less

showed higher levels of stress. Subjects of this study

also communicated that humor has limits and that

overreliance on it to the exclusion of other coping

mechanisms is counterproductive.

In a study on leisure coping used by police and

emergency response workers, it was found that

leisure coping and both short- and long-term stress

coping are positively related (Iwasaki, Mannell,

Smale, & Butcher, 2002). This relationship extends

beyond the benefits of general coping. Coping with

short-term stress includes stress reduction, and

coping with long-term stress includes benefits as-

sociated with both physical and mental health.

Leisure activities also seem to benefit emergency

response workers through mood regulation, tem-

porary escape from job-related stress, companion-

ship with friends and family, and the fostering

of feelings of empowerment, perceived control, and

a positive attitude toward life.

52 The Psychology of Terrorism

Firefighters and police officers, as well as other

emergency response professionals, experience a

strong bond both within individual departments

and across the country. When the news that fire-

fighters in New York City had perished during the

9/11 crisis reached firefighters on the West Coast,

the emotions felt for their ‘‘fallen brothers’’ were

profound. Many tears were shed among this group

of tough workers, and those who were not sent

to Ground Zero confronted feelings of helpless-

ness, grief, and despair. Departments around the

country implemented ‘‘boot collections’’ (using fire

boots to hold the donations) at public places to

send money to the families of their ‘‘brothers.’’

Departments held moments of silence for the fire-

fighters who had lost their lives. The bond felt

between professionals in their respective fields is

arguably a strong one, and it may assist emergency

response professionals in coping with trauma in

that they rarely experience it alone.

McCammon and colleagues (1988) questioned

emergency response workers about the frequency

with which they used particular coping mechan-

isms in response to two disaster situations. In the

case of an explosion at an apartment building,

behaviors they deemed helpful included remind-

ing themselves that things could be worse, looking

at the situation realistically, being more helpful to

others, thinking about the meaning of life following

the event, and talking to others about the incident.

Acknowledgments. This research was performed

while the third author (Zeno Franco) was on appoint-

ment as a U.S. Department of Homeland Security

(DHS) fellow under the DHS Scholarship and Fellow-

ship Program, a program administered by the Oak

Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for

DHS through an interagency agreement with the U.S.

Department of Energy (DOE). Oak Ridge Associated

Universities ORISE is managed by DOE contract

number DE-AC05–000R22750.

All of the opinions expressed in this chapter are

the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the policies

and views of DHS, DOE, or ORISE.


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55The Need for Proficient Mental Health Professionals in the Study of Terrorism

4 War Versus Justice in Response

to Terrorist Attacks

Competing Frames and Their Implications

Clark McCauley

Often lost in discussion of the September 11, 2001,

attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) is the

fact that a very similar attack, with similar moti-

vation and related perpetrators, occurred eight

years earlier. On February 16, 1993, a truck bomb

in the basement parking garage of the WTC killed

six, injured hundreds, and damaged property to

the extent of half a billion dollars. The bomb was

designed to topple one of the towers into the other

and to bring both towers down. The man behind

this plan, Ramzi Yousef, noted regretfully that if he

had had a little more funding his design would

have succeeded and killed tens of thousands (Kirk,

2002). The U.S. response to this attack was police

work and prosecution. After trials and convictions,

six Arab men are in U.S. prisons, and a seventh

person is still being sought.

On September 11, 2001, a second attack on

the World Trade Center brought down the Twin

Towers and caused nearly 3,000 deaths. The 9/11

perpetrators were similar in origins and moti-

vation to the 1993 perpetrators; indeed one of

the planners of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh

Mohammed, is Ramzi Yousef ’s uncle. Despite the

similarity of the attacks, the U.S. response was

strikingly different. Rather than criminal justice

proceedings, the U.S. response was a war on

terrorism. ‘‘On September the 11th, enemies of

freedom committed an act of war against our coun-

try. . . .Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but

it does not end there. It will not end until every

terrorist group of global reach has been found,

stopped and defeated’’ (Bush, 2001).

Within the rhetoric of war, however, there has

been frequent recourse to the rhetoric of criminal

justice. ‘‘Whether we bring our enemies to justice or

justice to our enemies, justice will be done. . . .We

will come together to give law enforcement the

additional tools it needs to track down terror here

at home’’ (Bush, 2001; White House Press Office,


The rhetoric of justice and the rhetoric of war

may appear complementary, as in the often-

debated qualifications of ‘‘just war.’’ But closer

inspection indicates that these two kinds of rhetoric

instantiate two very different frames for under-

standing the nature of the terrorist threat and the

appropriate response to it. In this chapter I explore

the inconsistent and even contradictory implica-

tions of these frames, and I suggest that more em-

phasis on the criminal justice frame offers some

important advantages for what all of us agree will

be an extended U.S. effort to secure itself from

terrorist attacks.


Framing and Human Judgment

The power of framing effects has been demon-

strated in two decades of research in psychology

and economics. Perhaps the most famous demon-

stration is Tversky and Kahneman’s (1981) ‘‘Asian

disease problem.’’ Several hundred people were

randomly divided into two groups, so that the two

groups would on average be very similar. Each

group was given a different problem.

Problem 1. Imagine that the United States is

preparing for an outbreak of an unusual Asian

disease, which is expected to kill 600 people.

Two alternative programs to combat the disease

have been proposed. Assume that the exact

scientific estimates of the consequences of the

programs are as follows:

Program A: If Program A is adopted, 200

people will be saved.

Program B: If Program B is adopted, there is

a one-third probability that 600 people will be

saved and a two-thirds probability that no one

will be saved.

Which of the two programs would you favor?

Tversky and Kahneman (1981) found that

72% of the group reading Problem 1 favored Pro-

gram A. The prospect of saving 200 lives with

certainty was more attractive than the probability

of a one-in-three chance of saving 600 lives.

Problem 2. The second group read the same

story of the threat of Asian disease but with

different program options.

Program C: If Program C is adopted, 400

people will die.

Program D: If Program D is adopted, there

is a one-third probability that nobody will die

and a two-thirds probability that 600 people

will die.

Which of the two programs would you favor?

Surprisingly, 78% of the group reading Pro-

blem 2 favored Program D. The prospect of 400

people lost for certain was worse than the prob-

ability of a two-in-three chance of losing 600. The

surprise value of the difference in the results for

the two problems is that they offer exactly the

same alternatives, except that Problem 1 is framed

as gain (people will be saved) and Problem 2 is

framed as loss (people will die). The results in-

dicate that the participants in this study preferred

certainty to risk when comparing gains but pre-

ferred risk to certainty when comparing losses.

These results opened a gold rush of studies to

learn more about when and how different frames

can affect human judgment in ways that are,

statistically at least, mysterious or even irrational

(Shafir & Le Boeuf, 2002). One indication of the

significance of this research is that Kahneman’s

work on framing effects was cited in the award

of his Nobel Prize in economics in 2002. The de-

monstrated power of framing effects is the foun-

dation for the argument of this chapter, namely,

that war and justice may have importantly different

implications for how the United States responds to

terrorist threats.

A Framing Analysis of the Difference Between 1993 and 2001

One way to think about the results of the Asian

disease problem is that most people prefer a sure

gain to a chance of larger gain (‘‘risk averse for

gain’’) but prefer a chance of losing nothing to a

certainty of losing something (‘‘risk seeking for

loss’’). This understanding can be applied to the

problem of terrorism if we assume that, after 9/11,

terrorism was expected to kill 600 American civi-

lians the following year. As with most applica-

tions of formal models, this analysis excludes many

complications, including the loss of lives—both

foreign civilians and U.S. military—associated with

the war on terrorism. In defense of this exclusion, it

might be argued that U.S. leaders and U.S. citizens

do not weigh these lives as heavily as civilian deaths

in the United States.

If we translate 600 lives threatened by Asian

disease into 600 lives threatened by terrorism, the

effect of framing as gain versus framing as loss will be

as follows. Two antiterrorism programs are available:

criminal justice andwar. Presented in terms of saving

lives, criminal justice promises for certain to save

200 lives from terrorism, whereas war has a chance

of saving all 600 lives. Presented in terms of lives

lost, criminal justice gives up 400 lives for certain,

whereas war offers a chance of losing no lives to

terrorism. If we focus on saving lives and if we are

risk averse for gains, wewill prefer criminal justice to

war as the response to terrorism. However, if we

focus on lives lost and if we are risk seeking for loss,

we will prefer war to criminal justice.

57War Versus Justice in Response to Terrorist Attacks

One might argue about how the probabilities

should change as we move from the Asian disease

threat to the terrorist threat, but the point survives

that framing the response to terrorism in terms

of saving lives is likely to favor criminal justice,

whereas framing it in terms of lives lost is likely

to favor war. It is not difficult to see how, im-

mediately after 9/11, with 3,000 deaths fresh and

personalized in the televised suffering of relatives

and friends of the dead, the predominant framing

was in terms of lives already lost and lives to be

lost in future terrorist attacks. This framing in turn

favored war as the response to the 9/11 attacks.

In contrast, the six deaths caused by the 1993

attack on the WTC did not rise out of the everyday

death toll of car accidents and homicides. As at-

tention to the 1993 deaths was small, the framing

of the response to terrorism was less about lives

lost and more about saving lives by bringing the

terrorists to justice.

Thus research on framing can help explain

why criminal justice was the predominant frame

for the U.S. response to the terrorist attack on the

WTC in 1993, but war was the predominant frame

for the response to a 9/11 terrorist attack similar to

the one in 1993 in all but the death toll. Never-

theless, the rhetoric of bringing enemies to justice

remains available in public discourse in the United

States, mixed with and sometimes submerged

in the rhetoric of the war on terrorism (Bush,

2005), and it is useful to draw out the divergent

implications of these two frames. Whereas Roth

(2004) brought a human-rights framework to this

comparison, I focus on the psychological im-

plications of war and criminal justice in response

to terrorism.

Justice Versus War: In the Beginning

The beginning of a criminal justice response to

terrorism is the specification of a violation of

the criminal code. Charges are brought against

defendants, if necessary against criminals unknown

until investigation uncovers the identity of the per-

petrators. Once identified, the criminal defendants

are brought to trial, and a jury determines their guilt

or innocence.

In the case of the 1993 attack on the WTC,

four suspects were apprehended within a month of

the blast. They went on trial in a federal court on

September 13, 1993. The trial lasted 6 months,

with the presentation of 204 witnesses and

more than 1,000 pieces of evidence. On March 4,

1994, the jury convicted the four defendants—

Mohammed Salameh, Nidal Ayyad, Mahmud

Abouhalima, and Ahmad Ajaj—on all 38 counts

against them. On May 25, 1994, a judge sentenced

each defendant to 240 years in prison and a

$250,000 fine.

On February 7, 1995, authorities in Pakistan

arrested Ramzi Yousef, who was then extradited

to the United States. On November 12, 1997,

Yousef was found guilty of masterminding the

1993 bombing, and on January 8, 1998, he was

sentenced to life in prison without parole. In a

related case, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, a blind

cleric who preached at mosques in Brooklyn and

Jersey City, was sentenced to life imprisonment on

October 1, 1995, for conspiracy to bomb New

York City landmarks (not specifically for the 1993

WTC bombing, however).

In contrast, the beginning of a war is typically

a declaration from one government to another that

a state of war exists between them. The casus belli

does not usually require investigation or discovery;

an attack or ultimatum is typically the clear occa-

sion of war. In the case of al-Qaeda, the declaration

of war against the United States is usually identi-

fied with a May 26, 1998, news conference in

which Osama bin Laden appeared with the two

sons of Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the spiritual

leader of those convicted of the 1993 attack on

the World Trade Center. Within 11 weeks of the

declaration, al-Qaeda attacked U.S. embassies in

Kenya and Tanzania with bombs that killed 224

people, including 12 Americans.

The U.S. response was not a declaration of war

against al-Qaeda but a campaign to kill al-Qaeda

members and to destroy their bases, notably by

cruise missile attacks on al-Qaeda bases in Afgha-

nistan. It was only after the 9/11 attacks that Pres.

George W. Bush declared war on terrorism, not

just on al-Qaeda but on all terrorists with inter-

national reach. The logic of the extension was that

any terrorist group with international reach was

an ally or a potential ally of al-Qaeda.

The expansive definition of enemies in the war

on terrorism points to a notable difference between

war and criminal justice. The beginning of a crim-

inal justice response to war is precise and limited

in requiring the specification of criminal code

58 The Psychology of Terrorism

violations and of particular individuals accused of

these violations. Even conspiracy charges have to

be substantiated by evidence of some material link

between the conspirator and a criminal act, planned

or accomplished. In contrast, a declaration of war

designates a group enemy—typically a nation—and

often more than one nation joins the list of enemies

as alliances come into play. The war on terrorism is

larger than a war on al-Qaeda, and the expansion

of enemies is typical after a declaration of war.

In sum, those who were sought for the 1993

WTC attack were individuals; those who were

sought for the 2001 WTC attack were an ill-

defined group of Arabs and Muslims—al-Qaeda—

and terrorist groups everywhere.

Criminals Versus Combatants

This difference in specificity leads immediately to

another difference: the labeling of the enemy. The

targets of criminal justice are criminals, that is,

lawbreakers, norm breakers, individuals who are

not generally seen as typical of the group they come

from. The United States has criminal gangs, in-

cluding those that are predominantly Italian, pre-

dominantly Colombian, predominantly Russian,

and predominantly Chinese. It is true that some

prejudicial association between such gangs and

their larger ethnic group is often made in public

images and occasionally found even in political

discourse, but in general the association is weak.

Americans do not generally feel hostility toward

or discriminate against Italians because there is a

Cosa Nostra.

In contrast, war is typically declared on a state

that is seen to represent a people or a nation. The

last war formally voted by the U.S. Congress was

against Germany and Japan. When it is not easy to

specify a nation-representing state, even violence

that looks like war does not get a formal declaration

of war. The U.S. military presence in Korea was

formally a ‘‘police action’’ under UN auspices, the

Vietnam War was properly the ‘‘Vietnam Conflict’’

insofar as the U.S. Congress never declared war,

and the U.S. intervention in Panama in 1989 was to

safeguard 35,000 American citizens there from a

drug-trafficking tyrant, Gen. Manuel Noriega. The

war-making power of the U.S. president as com-

mander in chief no longer requires a formal

declaration of war from the U.S. Congress. Never-

theless, the rhetoric of war calls on the ideal case in

which the enemy is a state and its people.

When enemy combatants represent a national

or ethnic group, that whole group is seen as the

enemy or at least as having a tendency and po-

tential to serve the enemy. After the United States

declared war on Japan, Japanese civilians could be

rounded up without trial and put in detention

camps for years. Similar if lesser actions were taken

against Italian Americans after the United States

declared war on Italy in World War II. In England,

World War I made it expedient for the royal family

to give up its identity as the House of Hanover

to become the House of Windsor.

There is a parallel in the war on terrorism.

After identification of the 9/11 attackers as Muslim

Arabs, a wave of hostility and even occasional

violence was visited on many in the United States

who were identified (in some cases incorrectly—

Sikhs, for instance) as Arab or Muslim (Arab Amer-

ican Institute, 2002; Kaplan, 2006). This hostility

contributed to the war on terrorism insofar as it

helped support the roundup and imprisonment,

without charges, hearing, or habeas corpus, of

nearly a thousand Arab and Muslim noncitizens

living in the United States (Parker & Fellner,

2004). In another way, however, this group-level

attribution of suspicion and responsibility was

counterproductive: It hindered U.S. security forces

seeking information and assistance against terror-

ists from Arab and Muslim citizens of the United


Thus the difference between criminal and

combatant is clear in this respect: Criminals are

atypical and soldiers are representative. Criminals

act in their own interest; soldiers act for their na-

tion. It is an irony of the war on terrorism that war

implies combatant status for the terrorists and re-

sponsibility for terrorist acts to those the terrorists

claim to represent. Understood as criminals, ter-

rorists represent only themselves, and those they

claim to represent can be asked to help apprehend


Small Versus Large Enemy

Along with the difference between criminal and

combatant comes an implication about the size

of the enemy. In war, an enemy state usually

represents millions of citizens and commands

59War Versus Justice in Response to Terrorist Attacks

significant armed forces. Thus a declaration of war

is a declaration against a very large enemy. The

argument for war against terrorism is that even a

small number of terrorists can use modern tech-

nology (fully fueled aircraft in the case of the 9/11

attacks) to inflict horrendous damage. Without

denying this argument, it is important to note that

the war on terrorism can give an exaggerated im-

pression of the size of the terrorist enemy.

Even if we think of al-Qaeda as more a fran-

chise than a state or corporation, it probably does

not amount to more than 5,000 people worldwide.

Perhaps 18,000 went through the al-Qaeda train-

ing camps in Afghanistan before these were de-

stroyed, and perhaps one-quarter of these are

still alive, connected, and committed to violence

(Robb, 2004). A network of 5,000 would be large

for a criminal conspiracy (such as the Cosa Nostra

in the United States perhaps), but tiny by the

standards of wartime enemies. Declaring war on

terrorism conduces to seeing terrorism as larger

than it actually is. This bias plays well for the

terrorists, raising their self-esteem and their status

among those who sympathize with the cause they

claim to advance.

Competing Priorities Versus Survival

A declaration of war is a declaration of mortal threat,

an announcement of the utmost danger that calls for

the utmost sacrifice. A criminal justice procedure is

business as usual. Violent criminals are indeed a

threat to society but not one that calls for national

mobilization. One implication of declaring war on

terrorism is that the threat to the United States is

a danger to national interest that can go as far as

endangering the survival of the nation.

This difference is important because engaging

a mortal threat brings a massive shift in priorities.

A declaration of war implies that, until it is won,

the war has top priority. All other values and

priorities are put on the back burner until the war

is over. The public agenda is fighting the war, and

any cost is acceptable in the context of asking

young people to pay the ultimate price. The war

gets first and unlimited call on resources of money,

time, and talent; political preferences are formed

around policies and personalities in terms of their

perceived value for prosecuting the war. The pre-

dictable result of external threat is an increase in

patriotism that is experienced as the exhilarating

warmth of unity, common values, common pur-

pose, and common sacrifice (LeVine & Campbell,

1972, pp. 31–32).

In contrast, the criminal justice system has to

compete with many other public interests and

priorities. Even if the public perceives that crime is

a major and escalating problem, criminal justice

does not automatically take first place in the allo-

cation of public resources. Political leaders often

compete on the basis of what they promise to do

about crime and criminals and what resources

the criminal justice system should have. However,

they seldom claim, at least in the United States,

that crime is the only problem. It is almost always

linked to problems of education, jobs, housing,

and welfare policy, and these issues compete with

the criminal justice system for resources in re-

sponding to crime.

It is difficult in a democracy to maintain a state

of war indefinitely. Other priorities begin to re-

assert themselves; the mobilizing advantage of war

sooner or later begins to fade. This has been the

fate, in the United States, of the ‘‘war on poverty’’

and the ‘‘war on drugs.’’ Thus the war on terrorism

is ill adapted to a long-term strategy against ter-

rorism. Unfortunately, there is every reason to

believe that terrorism is a long-term problem. It is

not a group or a cause but a strategy, one that has

been around for millennia (e.g., the Jewish sicarii

of the first century AD). No one is predicting how

long the war on terrorism will take, only that it

will last as long as it takes.

Police Work Versus Combat: Expertise

War on terrorism asserts a military response to

terrorism. This has implications with regard to the

expertise deployed. Military forces are trained

to fight an enemy military: Find them, fix them,

destroy them. From the evidence of Napoleon’s

campaigns, von Clausewitz developed his famous

treatise, On War: ‘‘To sum up: of all the possible

aims in war, the destruction of the enemy’s armed

forces always appears as the highest’’ (von Clause-

witz, 1989, p. 99). This perspective encouraged a

clear distinction between combatants, men in uni-

form, and noncombatant civilians—a distinction

that has been eroding since the French Revolution

(McCauley, 2005).

60 The Psychology of Terrorism

Here the focus is on military expertise. Modern

armed forces are composed of highly specialized

components with a ratio of tail to tooth that is

perhaps ten to one, that is, ten people in logistics

and coordination for each one at risk in combat.

Land, sea, and air forces depend on complex in-

formation systems to focus intricate and powerful

weapon systems against the enemy. These systems

are essential in fighting another modern army but

relatively ill suited for fighting terrorists who

emerge from and disappear back into civilian pop-

ulations. The difficulties of even the best-trained

army in fighting terrorism and insurgency are evi-

dent in the U.S. experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In both places, overwhelming military power has

not yet been able to find and destroy the enemy.

Fighting terrorism effectively is more like police

work than military combat. Effective police work

requires understanding a local culture, knowing the

details of social and physical geography in a local

area, developing local relationships, and cultivating

local sources of information. This kind of expertise

is very different from integrated arms and large-

scale logistics. It is no disgrace to a modern army

to recognize that it is ill prepared for police work

or the kind of economic and community develop-

ment work that can support effective police work.

At a minimum, effective police work requires

speaking the local language, but learning foreign

languages is not typically a high priority in military


Beyond the local level, the story is similar. Inter-

national cooperation is crucial for fighting interna-

tional terrorists. Putting together patterns of indi-

vidual behavior and networks of contacts requires

sharing intelligence across borders—something at

least as difficult as sharing between the FBI and the

CIA within the United States. International police

cooperation is a better model of this kind of sharing

than international military cooperation; police and

security services are more likely than the military to

have useful information about individual terrorists

and terrorist groups.

It is worth noting briefly that, along with the

difference in expertise of those fighting crime and

those fighting war, there is also a difference in

the expertise of those studying crime and those

studying war. Researchers who focus on crime are

generally based in sociology and criminology,

whereas researchers who study war are more often

from political science and psychology. In particular,

the criminal justice framing of response to terror-

ism points to untapped potential in understanding

terrorism with data and theory from criminology

(LaFree & Dugan, 2004).

Police Work Versus Combat: Values

Procedurally, the criminal justice system has to deal

explicitly with the values of privacy and civil rights.

Police and district attorneys can always imagine

how their work would be forwarded and public

safety improved by changes in procedure or law

that would give them greater access to citizens’ fi-

nancial, health, telephone, and travel records or

greater leeway in interrogation and use of the re-

sults of interrogations. Defense attorneys can al-

ways imagine how clients’ rights can be enlarged or

protected against the procedures sought by police

and district attorneys. Judges are required to ima-

gine both sides. Perhaps the most important aspect

of the criminal justice system is that it brings people

from the same training—law school—to an in-

stitutionalized competition of public interest in

security with private interest in individual rights.

Indeed, many lawyers have the opportunity to

work both sides of this competition during their

professional careers—as prosecuting attorney at

one time and as defense attorney at another time.

In contrast, the military has no professional

experience of balancing competing values. The

military hierarchy is consistent and unidimensional.

Winning is the only value. MacArthur’s Message

From the Far East, memorized by every West Point

cadet, is paradigmatic: ‘‘From the Far East I send

you one single thought, one sole idea—written in

red on every beachhead from Australia to Tokyo—

There is no substitute for victory!’’ In the U.S. mili-

tary, it is a kind of cross-cultural experience to work

with another branch of the armed services: army

officers working with air force or navy officers, for

instance. There is no parallel to the competition of

perspectives that exists for attorneys; there is no

career path for officers to serve first in fighting U.S.

enemies and then to serve the enemy fighting the

United States.

The criminal case against the perpetrators of the

1993 WTC bombing brought prosecuting and de-

fense attorneys to a contest in which both sides

came from the same professional preparation, and

the contest included a negotiation of individual

61War Versus Justice in Response to Terrorist Attacks

rights versus the public’s right to security. The war

against terrorism has no such balancing act; the

officers who plan and command and the soldiers

who follow are little practiced in representing the

perspective or rights of the enemy. This, in brief,

is the story of the violations of human rights of

prisoners at Abu Ghraib and likely of prisoners at

Guantanamo as well. Police are required to practice

every day the rights of suspects; soldiers are not

similarly practiced in the rights of prisoners.

Nor are soldiers drilled in the rights of non-

combatants. The distancing phrase for civilian ca-

sualties ofmilitary campaigns is ‘‘collateral damage.’’

The U.S. military in Afghanistan was, by modern

standards, unusually successful in avoiding civilian

casualties. Yet approximately 3,000 civilians were

killed in the U.S. campaign that defeated and dis-

persed the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies in Af-

ghanistan (Herald, 2002). It is not only fire power

that kills civilians. Increased mortality associated

with the U.S.-led embargo of Iraq between 1990

and 1998 is estimated to have included at least

100,000 deaths among Iraqi children under 5 years

of age (Garfield, 1999). Modern war would be im-

possible if killing noncombatants were strictly

proscribed and prosecuted.

In short, war brings a unidimensional scale of

value in which nothing can compete with the value

of winning, whereas criminal justice brings an

institutionalized and well-practiced competition

of values. In time of war, talk about money cost

or opportunity cost or human-rights cost is un-

patriotic; in the criminal justice system, these costs

can be counted in the balance of competing values

and priorities.

Judicial Error Versus Collateral Damage

Terrorism is the warfare of the weak, the strategy of

those who cannot win by conventional means and

who see their cause as sinking toward extinction

(McCauley, 2002). Terrorists have many goals:

publicity for their cause, a recovered sense of power

and agency against the power that is crushing them,

and revenge and justice against those who have

done terrible things to their friends and their cause.

Less commonly recognized is the terrorist goal that

is essential for the survival of a terrorist group:

mobilization of sympathizers to increased support

and increased action for the cause the terrorists

claim to represent. A terrorist group is only the apex

of a pyramid in which the base is all who agree with

the terrorist aims even if they do not agree with the

attacks on civilians that are the hallmark of ter-

rorism (McCauley, 2002). For the Irish Republican

Army, for instance, the base of the pyramid has

been all those who agree with ‘‘Brits out.’’ As-

cending in the pyramid, numbers decrease but

commitment, risk taking, and support for killing

civilians increase.

The terrorists cannot survive without the cover,

information, money, and new recruits that come

from the pyramid. Anything that cuts off the

terrorists from the pyramid is a mortal threat;

anything that increases mobilization of the base of

the pyramid behind terrorist leadership is a suc-

cess. Here is where the strategy of jujitsu politics

enters the contest between terrorists and the state.

The best scholars (Crenshaw, 2002) and the most

thoughtful terrorists (Marighella, 1970) recognize

that a crucial terrorist goal is to provoke a state

response that will mobilize the uncommitted

among those who sympathize with the terrorists’

goals. As jujitsu is the art of using the opponent’s

strength against him, so jujitsu politics is the art

of provoking the enemy to a response that will

mobilize support against them.

For terrorists, the promise of a military re-

sponse is that military values do not give much

attention to collateral damage. In Bombing to Win,

Robert Pape (1996) reviews twentieth-century

military thinking about using aerial bombing to

destroy the morale of enemy civilians. Sometimes

this thinking goes as far as explicitly aiming for the

mass killing of civilians; sometimes it goes only

so far as recognizing the impossibility of avoiding

killing them. Such thinking has not disappeared, as

mentioned earlier in relation to the civilian casual-

ties in Afghanistan. Such casualties continue as

the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan continues. Si-

milarly, the U.S. occupation of and war on terror-

ism in Iraq cannot avoid civilian casualties. The

increase in hostility toward theUnited States in polls

in Islamic countries provides the foundation for

increased support and more recruits for al-Qaeda.

In contrast, the criminal justice response to

the 1993 bombing brought five of six indicted

perpetrators to trial but provided no warrant for

punishing their friends and neighbors. The crim-

inal justice system also makes mistakes, but these

62 The Psychology of Terrorism

are more likely to lead to imprisoning the wrong

people than to killing the wrong people. A crimi-

nal justice response to terrorism offers terrorists

a much smaller opening for jujitsu politics.

Justice Versus War: In the End

As war has an official and explicit beginning, so it

should have an official and explicit end. There

is unconditional surrender (World War II) or ne-

gotiated surrender (World War I) or at least a truce

agreement to mark the end of war. Even wars that

are described as police actions or humanitarian in-

terventions have an end. The KoreanWar stalemate

ended in a truce, and the VietnamWar ended with a

peace treaty, the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and the

fig leaf of an international control commission to

ensure the peace. It is worth noting that the Vietnam

War was the longest the United States has fought,

enduring from 1964 to 1973.

In contrast, the criminal justice system faces a

problem without end. No one expects that crime

will be exhausted or beaten or that it will surrender.

No one expects that crime will sign a peace treaty or

even a truce. There has never been a society with-

out rules or one without sanctions for violation of

those rules. What it lacks in mobilizing power the

criminal justice system makes up in staying po-

wer. Police, prosecuting attorneys, defense attor-

neys, judges, and prisons together constitute a

criminal justice system that is expected to go on

indefinitely into the future, along with the criminal

acts that they respond to.

The criminal justice response to the 1993 at-

tack on the WTC continues today. One of the

suspects, Abdul Rahman Yasin, was interviewed

shortly after the bombing, provided useful infor-

mation, was released, took flight to Iraq, and has

not been seen since. He is still a wanted man, as

the criminal justice response to the 1993 attack

grinds on. The war on terrorism that began after

9/11 also continues. It remains to be seen how

long this war can be maintained before competing

interests and values undermine its vigor.


It is time to summarize the implications of war and

justice with a view toward evaluating the relative

strengths and weaknesses of these two frames for

the U.S. response to a continuing terrorist threat.

War has a clear beginning and a clear and not-

too-distant end; criminal justice is a never-ending

effort to control and ameliorate a problem that will

not go away. War targets a unified enemy group—

a people or a nation; criminal justice targets in-

dividual perpetrators of criminal acts. War recog-

nizes the enemy as large and dangerous; criminal

justice makes the enemy small and tawdry. War

puts every other public interest and value on the

back burner; criminal justice has to compete for

resources year after year in the national scale of

priorities. War puts the military in charge of re-

sponse; criminal justice puts lawyers and police in


The differences between legal and military sub-

cultures bring other important differences. Military

professionals are focused on winning as the single

scale of value; police, prosecutors, defense attor-

neys, and judges are experienced in balancing the

public’s right to security against individual and

civil rights. Military mistakes often get people kil-

led, including enemy civilians; criminal justice

mistakes put the wrong people behind bars but

seldom put innocents into coffins. Military mis-

takes mobilize terrorist sympathizers behind ter-

rorist leadership; criminal justice mistakes are

smaller and can be redressed with retrial and

compensation. The collateral damages from mili-

tary strikes and military occupation of foreign

lands are a rich contribution to jujitsu politics;

criminal justice operations and mistakes offer less

opportunity for advancing the terrorist cause.

Despite its limitations, war offers unique ad-

vantages over criminal justice as a response to ter-

rorism. War produces the warmth and direction of

national unity behind national leaders. War brings

resources against terrorism that are difficult to

justify or funnel through the criminal justice sys-

tem. War brings at least the perception that ev-

erything possible is being done to prevent future

terrorist attacks. In general, war has the status of a

heroic response to a mortal threat; criminal justice

is government business as usual. War can reach

directly and quickly to foreign bases and foreign

support for terrorism that cannot be reached—or

only slowly reached—with the forces of criminal


Unfortunately, no one today predicts that the

war on terrorism will end anytime soon. The

63War Versus Justice in Response to Terrorist Attacks

command and control capacity of al-Qaeda has

been degraded as the leadership has been killed,

captured, or driven into deep hiding places. The

current and continuing dangers of terrorist attack

are more a matter of local franchise operations in a

corporation that has lost its headquarters. Under

these conditions, some of the advantages of the

war on terrorism have begun to fade. The attention

and priority given to the war on terrorism cannot

last indefinitely, military occupations in foreign

lands cannot be maintained indefinitely, blank

checks of support to foreign governments for at-

tacks on their own ‘‘terrorists’’ cannot be honored

indefinitely, and the government’s reach into the

lives of U.S. citizens cannot deepen indefinitely. In

sum, war is not an effective response to a chronic


This is a lesson that the United States has had

multiple opportunities to learn. Previous efforts

to harness the rhetoric and unity of war against

chronic problems have been notably unsuccessful.

The U.S. war on poverty never came to victory or

even truce, and the gap between rich and poor

may even be growing. The U.S. war on drugs went

so far in military stylistics as to appoint a com-

mander in chief or czar, but drug trafficking and

drug abuse are not vanquished and perhaps not

even weakened.

Against a chronic threat of terrorist attack, the

U.S. response might usefully give increased sal-

ience to the criminal justice frame. Criminal justice

does not glorify the terrorists and their cause. Cri-

minal justice does not stereotype an ethnic or re-

ligious group as the enemy and avoids losing the

cooperation of the communities the terrorists claim

to represent. Criminal justice does not undermine

the balance of public security and civil rights in

the United States and thus preserves a civil society

worth defending from terrorism (Hirshon, 2002).

Perhaps most important, criminal justice does not

lead to the collateral damages and foreign occu-

pations that are the lifeblood of terrorist mobili-

zation against the United States.

Some movement in this direction may be vi-

sible. In Germany, Mounir el Motassadeq was con-

victed in 2003 of involvement in the 9/11 plot, but

his verdict was overturned when an appeals court

ruled that his trial was unfair because the United

States refused to produce testimony from terrorism

suspects in U.S. custody. In August 2005, el

Motassadeq was sentenced to seven years in prison

as a member of a terrorist organization. And in

Spain, twenty-four Muslim men suspected of being

members of Al Qaeda went on trial in April 2005,

three of them accused of providing support for the

9/11 attacks. Prison terms were handed down in

September 2005, though charges related to 9/11

were not sustained. Zacarias Moussaoui, the only

person facing trial in the United States in connec-

tion with the 9/11 attacks, pleaded guilty to parti-

cipating in an al-Qaeda conspiracy. The penalty

phase of his trial is going on as this chapter goes to

press in March 2006.

It appears, then, that the criminal justice sys-

tems of Western countries are capable of engaging

al-Qaeda’s terrorists. Criminal justice may be slower

than the war on terrorism, but it may be surer in

reaching terrorist perpetrators.

For many, however, the crucial argument

against a criminal justice response to terrorism is

that criminal justice failed miserably on 9/11. Pre-

mise: Bringing the 1993 perpetrators to trial, con-

viction, and incarceration did not save the United

States from the attacks of 9/11. Conclusion: The

war on terrorism is the stronger medicine re-

quired. The answer to this argument is straightfor-

ward. Criminal justice has not failed when crime is

not eliminated; it fails only when crimes are not

solved and criminals are not put away. No one ar-

gues that the war on terrorism has failed because

terrorist alerts continue. To a modern democratic

state, terrorist threat is not a mortal peril, not like a

severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic

but more like a recurring flu. Criminal justice can

be the treatment of choice for a chronic terrorist


Acknowledgments. I thank Gary LaFree for his care-

ful reading of this chapter and suggestions for im-

proving it. I am grateful also for research opportunities

provided by Bryn Mawr College and the Solomon Asch

Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the

University of Pennsylvania. Preparation of this chapter

was supported by the United States Department of

Homeland Security through the National Consortium

for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism

(START), grant number N00140510629. However, the

opinions expressed in this chapter are those of the

author and do not necessarily reflect views of the U.S.

Department of Homeland Security.

64 The Psychology of Terrorism


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II Terrorism

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5 The Staircase to Terrorism

A Psychological Exploration

Fathali M. Moghaddam

Despite notorious disagreements about the defini-

tion of terrorism (Cooper, 2001) and claims that

‘‘one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom

fighter,’’ there is general agreement that terrorism

has become a monstrous problem in many parts of

the world and that every effort must be made to end

it. For the purposes of this discussion, terrorism

is defined as politically motivated violence that is

perpetrated by individuals, groups, or state-sponsored

agents and intended to bring about feelings of terror

and helplessness in a population in order to influence

decision making and to change behavior. Terrorism is

depicted in this discussion as a problem, especially

because many major international terrorist groups

work to weaken rather than to strengthen democ-

racy and because terrorism distracts people and

resources from paths blazed by growing grassroots

pro-peace, pro-democracy movements in different

parts of the world. Contemporary terrorism is par-

ticularly dangerous because terrorists might gain

access to weapons of mass destruction (Gurr &

Cole, 2002). Terrorism is often strongly influenced

by ideology, but it can also be carried out for ma-

terial gain (to benefit one’s family, for example).

Psychologists have a vitally important respon-

sibility in combating terrorism because, first, the

actions of terrorists are intended to bring about

specific psychological experiences—terror and help-

lessness (Moghaddam & Marsella, 2004); second,

terrorism often has harmful psychological conse-

quences (Danieli, Engdahl, & Schlenger, 2004;

Wessells, 2004); and third, subjectively inter-

preted values and beliefs often serve as the most

important basis for terrorist action (Bernholz,

2004). Psychologists are contributing in important

ways to a better understanding of terrorism, as well

as more effective coping with its individual and

communal health consequences (Crenshaw, 2000;

Danieli, Brom, & Waizer, in press; Galea, Ahern,

Resnick, Kilpatrick, Bucuvalas, et al., 2002; Hor-

gan & Taylor, 2003; Moghaddam & Marsella,

2004; North, Nixon, Shariat, Mallonee, McMillen,

et al., 1999; North, Tivis, McMillen, Pfefferbaum,

Spitznagel, et al., 2002; North & Pfefferbaum,

2002; Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2003;

Robbins, 2002; Schlenger, Caddell, Ebert, Jordan,

Rourke, et al., 2002; Schuster, Stein, Jaycox, Col-

lins, Marshall, et al., 2001; Silke, 2003; Silver,

Holman, McIntosh, Poulin, Gil-Rivas, 2002; Ste-

phenson, 2001; Stout, 2002). However, there is an

urgent need for greater attention to the social and

psychological processes that lead to terrorist acts.

A better understanding of terrorism is essential

for the development of more effective policies to


combat this global problem. Critical assessments

of the available evidence suggest that there is little

validity in explanations of terrorism that assume

a high level of psychopathology among terrorists

(Ruby, 2002) or that terrorists come from eco-

nomically deprived backgrounds or have little

education (Atran, 2003). Clearly, explanations in-

tended to reduce the causes of terrorism to dis-

positional, intrapersonal factors are too simplistic,

despite the serious efforts made to profile terrorists

(e.g., Fields, Elbedour, & Hein, 2002), as are

explanations that are founded only on the mate-

rial conditions in which terrorism takes place, des-

pite attempts to identify demographic and socio

economic factors associated with terrorism (e.g.,

Ehrlich & Liu, 2002). The present discussion

is intended as a modest contribution toward a

more dynamic, comprehensive account of the so-

cial and psychological processes leading to terror-

ism. A central proposition is that terrorism can best

be understood through a focus on the psychological

interpretation of material conditions and the op-

tions seen to be available to overcome perceived

injustices, particularly injustices in the procedures

through which decisions are made (Tyler & Huo,


The Stairway to the Terrorist Act

Toward a more in-depth understanding of terror-

ism, it is useful to envisage a narrowing stairway

leading to a terrorist act at the top of a building. The

stairway leads to higher and higher floors, and

whether people remain on a particular floor de-

pends on the doors and spaces that they imagine

open to them on that floor. The fundamentally

important feature of the situation is not only the

actual number of floors, stairs, rooms, and so on but

more importantly, in some contexts, how people

perceive the building and the doors they think are

open to them. As people climb the stairway, they

see fewer and fewer choices, until the only possible

outcome is the destruction of others, or oneself, or

both. This kind of ‘‘decision tree’’ conceptualization

of behavior has proved to be a powerful tool in

psychology. For example, Latané and Darley

(1970) conceptualized helping behavior as the

outcome of five choice points that lead an in-

dividual to either help or not help others in an


Two points need to be clarified at the outset

about the staircase metaphor. First, the metaphor

is intended to provide a general framework within

which to organize current psychological knowl-

edge and to help direct future research and policy;

it is not intended as a formal model to be tested

against alternatives. Metaphors have proven highly

useful in psychological science (e.g., in concep-

tualizing intelligence; see Sternberg, 1990) and can

play a constructive role in better understanding the

roots of terrorism. Second, the staircase metaphor

is intended to apply only to behavior encompassed

by terrorism as defined earlier in this discussion; it

is not intended to apply to other types of minority

influence tactics.

Ground Floor: Psychological Interpretation

of Material Conditions

A puzzle arises when the economic and educa-

tional backgrounds of terrorists are considered:

Poverty and lack of education become problematic

as explanations for terrorist acts. In the West Bank

and Gaza, support for armed attacks against Israeli

targets tends to be greater among Palestinians with

more years of education (Krueger & Maleckova,

2002). A British army document discussing the

Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in 1978,

at a time when armed attacks by the PIRA had

reached a peak, stated that ‘‘there is a stratum of

intelligent, astute and experienced terrorists who

provide the backbone of the organization. . . .Our

evidence of the calibre of rank and file terrorists

does not support the view that they are mindless

hooligans drawn from the unemployed and un-

employable’’ (in Coogan, 2002, p. 468). Similarly,

poverty and lack of education were not found to be

characteristic of captured terrorists associated with

al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia (Singapore Ministry of

Home Affairs, 2003) or of Osama bin Laden or the

al-Qaeda members who perpetrated the tragedy of

9/11 (Bodansky, 2001). Clearly, absolute material

conditions do not account for terrorism; otherwise,

acts of terrorism would be committed more by the

poorest people living in the poorest regions, and

this is not the case.

Psychological research points to the funda-

mental importance of perceived deprivation. The

seminal research of Stouffer and others on military

personnel during World War II demonstrated that

there is not necessarily an isomorphic relationship

70 Terrorism

between material conditions and subjective ex-

perience: Members of the U.S. Army Air Corps

expressed less satisfaction with military life com-

pared to some other units, despite the higher rate

of promotions in that branch of the military

(Stouffer, Suchman, De Vinney, Star, & Williams,

1949). Similarly puzzling was the fact that African

American soldiers stationed in the North often

expressed less satisfaction than those stationed

in the South. The concept of relative deprivation

was introduced to explained such trends: The

higher rate of promotions in the air corps raised

expectations and created more dissatisfaction for

those who were not promoted, and African Amer-

icans in the North had higher expectations about

equal treatment. Half a century of psychological

research underlines the importance of subjective

perceptions of feelings of deprivation (Collins,


Particularly relevant to terrorism is Runciman’s

(1966) distinction between egoistical deprivation,

in which individuals feel deprived because of their

position within a group, and fraternal deprivation,

which involves feelings of deprivation that arise

because of the position of an individual’s group in

comparison with other groups. Research evidence

suggests that fraternal deprivation is under certain

conditions a better predictor of feelings of dis-

content among minorities than is egoistical depri-

vation (Dion, 1986; Guimond & Dubé-Simard,

1983), and in some cases such feelings translate

to collective action (Martin, Brickman, & Murray,

1984). Gurr’s (1970) theoretical formulation and

subsequent research (e.g., Crosby, 1982) suggest

that fraternal deprivation is more likely to arise

when group members feel their path to a desired

goal—one that their group deserves and others

possess—has been blocked. For example, in the

case of terrorism, especially important could be a

perceived right to independence and the retention

of indigenous cultures for a society, a perception

that other societies have achieved this goal, and

a feeling that, under present conditions, the path

to this goal has been obstructed (by Americans,

for example). Of course, such perceptions may be

influenced by deep prejudices (Moghaddam,

1998, ch. 10).

The literature on collective mobilization also

underlines the importance of subjective percep-

tions (Taylor & Moghaddam, 1994). From the

French Revolution (Schama, 1989) to the Iranian

Revolution (Arjomand, 1988) and other collective

uprisings in modern times, it is perceived and re-

lative injustices rather than absolute deprivation

that coincide with collective nonnormative action

(Miller, 2000). Perceptions of injustice may arise

for a variety of reasons, including economic and

political conditions and threats to personal or col-

lective identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1986; Taylor,

2003). Perceived threat to identity is of central

importance in the case of religious fundamenta-

lists because of the unique ability of religion to

serve identity needs (Seul, 1999) and the feeling

that increasing globalization, secularization, and

Westernization are undermining traditional non-

Western ways of life. Identity threat is also of deep

concern to broader segments of non-Western po-

pulations, particularly the youth, who often grap-

ple with the ‘‘good copy problem’’ (Moghaddam &

Solliday, 1991), the feeling that the very best they

can achieve is to become a ‘‘good copy’’ of the

Western model of women and men propagated by

the international media—a ‘‘good copy’’ that can

never become as good as the original.

Minority groups have different resources avail-

able for meeting the challenge of the good copy

problem (for example, the development of alter-

native media and educational systems, political

opposition groups, or cultural institutions that

allow for the evolution of alternative identities).

However, in most Islamic societies of the Near and

Middle East, local dictators have shut down all of

these possibilities, and the only remaining avenue

for the development of alternative identities is the

mosque. It is only in the mosque that alternative

political and cultural voices, as well as religious

ones, can find an outlet, and it is only in the

mosque that the young can meet the challenge of

the good copy problem.

Radical elements have also been attracted to the

mosque, using the monopoly of the mosque to gain

privileged access to the young. Not surprisingly,

the source of the greatest number of terrorist at-

tacks against the West are the two countries where

the mosque has a monopoly and where national

identity is most directly positioned as Islamic:

Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest sites, and

Pakistan, which gained independence from India in

1947 on the basis of its ‘‘Islamic character.’’ Thus,

in these societies particularly, the only institution

available for voicing dissatisfaction and trying to

overcome the good copy problem is the mosque.

71The Staircase to Terrorism

At the ‘‘foundational’’ ground floor, then, what

matters most is perceptions of fairness. Someone

may be living in extremely poor, crowded condi-

tions in Bombay and not feel unjustly treated de-

spite the opulent living conditions of others in the

city; however, another person may be living in

relatively comfortable conditions in Riyadh but feel

very unjustly treated. A number of those who feel

unjustly treated become motivated to search fur-

ther for options to address their grievances.

First Floor: Perceived Options

to Fight Unfair Treatment

People climb to the first floor and try different

doors in search of solutions to what they perceive as

unjust treatment. Two psychological factors shape

their behavior on the first floor in major ways: first,

perceived possibilities for personal mobility to im-

prove their situation (Taylor & Moghaddam, 1994)

and, second, perceptions of procedural justice

(Tyler, 1994).

A first key question is, are there doors that

could be opened by talented persons motivated to

make progress up the societal hierarchy? Plato (The

Republic, book three, 415b–d) warned of the in-

evitable collapse of a society that does not allow

for the rise of talented people to the top of the so-

cial hierarchy and correspondingly the downward

mobility of those who lack talent but are the off-

spring of those in power. This idea received ela-

boration in elite theory (Pareto, 1935) and is

central to modern psychological theories of inter-

group relations (Taylor & Moghaddam, 1994).

Evidence suggests that the survival of even ap-

parently rigid hierarchical systems, such as the cast

system of India, is aided by some level of social

mobility, albeit informal (Scrinivas, 1968). A

variety of research evidence suggests that when

paths to individual mobility are seen to be open,

there is far less tendency to attempt nonnormative

actions (e.g., Tyler, 1990; Wright, Taylor, & Mo-

ghaddam, 1990).

This is probably because of a strong human

tendency to want to believe that the world is just

and that one’s personal efforts will be rewarded

fairly (Lerner, 1980). Research on equity theory

endorses the view that people strive for justice and

feel distressed when they experience injustice (see

the classic work of Adams, 1965, and Walster,

Walster & Berscheid, 1978, as well as more recent

formulations such as Brockner&Wiesenfeld, 1996).

However, the equity tradition also underlines the

vital role of psychological interpretations of justice

and the need for policy makers to understand local

cultural practices and ideas—‘‘the native’s point of

view’’—in justice. When local cultural interpreta-

tions lead to a view that the in-group is being

treated fairly, there is greater likelihood of support

for central authorities.

The availability of avenues for participating

in decision making is a key factor in perceived jus-

tice and support for authorities (Tyler, 1994). In-

dependent of the outcomes of judicial processes

(distributive justice) and the explanations that

authorities provide for their decisions and the

considerations they show to the recipients of de-

cisions (interactional justice), the research of Tyler

(Tyler, 2001; Tyler & Huo, 2002) demonstrates

that the major factor in perceived legitimacy and

willingness to abide by government regulations

is how fair people perceive the decision-making

process to be (procedural justice). Although much

of the research on procedural justice has been

conducted in Western societies, there is solid evi-

dence in support of basic universals in perceived

rights and duties (Doise, 2002; Moghaddam &

Riley, in press) and strong reasons to believe that

procedural justice also plays a central role in many

and perhaps all major non-Western societies.

A primary influence on procedural justice is

participation in decision making (Tyler & Huo,

2002). Opportunities for voice and participation in

decision making are lacking in many parts of the

world, as evidenced by UN ‘‘human development’’

reports (e.g., ‘‘The spread of democratization ap-

pears to have stalled, with many countries failing

to consolidate and deepen the first steps toward

democracy and several slipping back into author-

itarianism. Some 73 countries—with 42% of the

world’s people—still do not hold free and fair

elections, and 106 governments still restrict civil

and political freedoms’’; United Nations Develop-

ment Programme, 2002, p. 13). It is clear that low

income is no obstacle to democracy and that a

region with an enormous deficit in democracy is

the Middle East and North Africa. The democratic

movements that have influenced the lives of hun-

dreds of millions of people in Latin America and

parts of Africa and Asia have yet to have a serious

impact on Islamic societies of the Middle East

and North Africa. There is general agreement that

72 Terrorism

options for voice, mobility, and participatory de-

mocracy are particularly lacking in Saudi Arabia,

the country of origin for many of the most influ-

ential terrorist networks currently active on the

world stage (Schwartz, 2002).

This is not, of course, a justification for at-

tempting the wholesale transplantation of Western-

style democracy to non-Western societies, but there

is a need to support contextualized democracy, a socio-

political order that allows participation in decision

making and social mobility through the utilization

of local, culturally appropriate symbols and strate-

gies. Contextualized democracy needs to proceed

with attention to the details of the cultural context

in non-Western societies (see Moghaddam, 2002,

particularly Chapters 2 and 3), such as that of Shi’a

Islam (Moghaddam, 2004). Contextualized democ-

racy should be given the highest priority in coun-

tries such as Saudi Arabia, where a combination of

repression and corruption (see, for example, Abur-

ish, 1995) leaves minimal options for any kind

of public expression of dissatisfaction and partici-

pation in meaningful decision making. Psychologi-

cal theories (Taylor & Moghaddam, 1994) suggest

that a range of possible interpretations will arise

among people in this situation, including displace-

ment of aggression; those who vehemently blame

others (e.g., ‘‘America—the Great Satan’’) for their

perceived problems climb the stairs to the second


Second Floor: Displacement of Aggression

Terrorism involves acts of violence against civilians

and others who are only indirectly involved in the

power struggle among the terrorists, governmental

authorities, and others. Attacks on civilians often

involve displaced aggression. Of course, displaced

aggression can be verbal and indirect. Most of the

people who climb up to the second floor do not

undertake physical aggression; rather, they limit

themselves to verbal attacks. However, some of

them go beyond verbal displacement of aggression,

often through the influence of their leaders.

Such displacement of aggression was discussed

extensively by Freud (1921, 1930) and has a un-

iquely important role in his account of intergroup

relations (see Taylor & Moghaddam, 1994, ch. 2).

The explanatory power and contemporary re-

levance of displaced aggression are underlined by

ongoing research (Marcus-Newhall, Pederson,

Carlson, & Miller, 2000; Miller, Pederson, Ear-

lywine, & Pollock, 2003). According to Freud, the

role of displaced aggression must be understood

in the larger context of intergroup processes.

Freud’s account of displaced aggression in

intergroup relations gives particular importance to

three factors, the first of which is the role of lea-

ders. In Freud’s group psychology, leaders play

an important role in redirecting negative emotions

within the group onto others outside the group.

He argued that it is always possible to ‘‘bind to-

gether a considerable number of people in love as

long as there are other people left over to receive

the manifestations of their aggressiveness’’ (1930,

p. 114). Second, Freud gives importance to the

targets of displacement. Such targets are not ran-

domly selected; rather, according to Freud, they

are dissimilar outsiders. Third, Freud points to the

in-group cohesion that results from out-group

threat. By highlighting threats from dissimilar out-

siders, leaders increase in-group cohesion and

strengthen their own support base.

Related to Freud’s analysis, a strategy widely

adopted by leaders for dealing with dissatisfactions

among populations in some part of the world is

anti-Americanism (e.g., see Atran, 2003, p. 1538).

For example, Rushdie (2002) has argued that anti-

Americanism is serving to deflect criticism away

from governments in the Middle East:

As always, anti-US radicalism feeds off the

widespread anger over the plight of the

Palestinians. . . .However . . . anti-Americanism

has become too useful a smokescreen for Mus-

lim nations’ many defects—their corruption,

their incompetence, their oppression of their

own citizens, their economic, scientific and

cultural stagnation.

In such contexts, those who develop a readi-

ness to physically displace aggression and actively

seek out opportunities to do so eventually climb

the stairs to the third floor in search of ways to take


Third Floor: Moral Engagement

Terrorist organizations arise as a parallel or sha-

dow world, with a parallel morality that justifies

‘‘the struggle’’ to achieve the ‘‘ideal’’ society by

any means possible. From the perspective of the

mainstream, terrorists are ‘‘morally disengaged,’’

73The Staircase to Terrorism

particularly because of their willingness to commit

acts of violence against civilians. However, from

the perspective of the morality that exists within

terrorist organizations, terrorists are ‘‘morally en-

gaged,’’ and it is the government and its agents

who are ‘‘morally disengaged.’’ The terrorist orga-

nization becomes effective by mobilizing sufficient

resources (McCarthy & Zald, 1977) to persuade

recruits to become disengaged from morality as

defined by governmental authorities (and often by

the majority in society) and morally engaged in the

way morality is constructed by the terrorist orga-

nization (for a related discussion, see Bandura,

2004). In the context of the Islamic world, terrorist

organizations have fed on interpretations of Islam

that laud what outsiders see as acts of terrorism

but terrorists depict as martyrdom (Davis, 2003;

Gold, 2003; Rashid, 2002). While the struggle for

control over the ‘‘correct’’ interpretation of Islam is

for the most part public (Donnan, 2002), the ter-

rorist organizations that have evolved according

to an ideology of martyrdom are secretive.

Recruits are persuaded to become committed

to the morality of the terrorist organization through

a number of tactics, the most important of which

are isolation, affiliation, secrecy, and fear. Studies

of terrorist organizations and their networks

(e.g., Alexander & Swetman, 2002; Coogan, 2002;

Kaplan & Marshall, 1996; Rapoport, 2002; Sage-

man, 2004) reveal that, even when terrorists con-

tinue to live their ‘‘normal’’ lives as members of

communities, their goal is to develop their parallel

lives in complete isolation and secrecy. Recruits

are trained to keep their parallel lives a secret even

from their wives, parents, closest friends, and all

others around them. The illegal nature of their

organization, perceived harsh governmental mea-

sures against them, and perceived lack of open-

ness in society all contribute to their continued

isolation and the sense of affiliation with other

in-group members. In essence, terrorist organiza-

tions become effective by positioning themselves

at two levels: at the macrolevel, as the only option

toward reforming society (they point to alleged

government repression and dictatorship as proof

of their assertion), and at the microlevel, as a

‘‘home’’ or in-group for disaffected individuals

(mostly young, single males), some of whom are

recruited to carry out the most dangerous missions

through programs that often have a very fast


Fourth Floor: Categorical Thinking and

the Perceived Legitimacy of the

Terrorist Organization

After a person has climbed to the fourth floor and

entered the secret world of the terrorist organiza-

tion, there is little or no opportunity to leave alive.

In most cases new recruits in the first category, who

will be relatively long-term members, become part

of small cells, typically of four or five persons each,

with access to information only about the other

members in their own cell. In the second category,

the foot soldiers who are recruited to carry out

violent attacks and to become suicide bombers, the

entire operation of recruitment, training, and im-

plementation of the terrorist act may take no more

than 24 hours. Within those 24 hours, the re-

cruited member is typically given a great deal of

positive attention and treated as a kind of celebrity,

particularly by the recruiter (who stays by his side

constantly) and by a charismatic cell leader.

The cell structure of terrorist organizations

may have first been widely adopted among guerilla

forces fighting dictatorships in Latin America in

the mid-twentieth century and is designed to limit

infiltration and discovery by antiterrorist agents. By

the late 1960s and early 1970s, the cell structure

was being copied by most terrorist organizations,

including those operating in Western societies

(e.g., Coogan, 2002, p. 466). Often it is informal

friendship networks and a need to belong that binds

people to such cells (Sageman, 2004). Immersion

in secret small-group activities leads to changes

in perceptions among recruits: a legitimization of

the terrorist organization and its goals, a belief

that the ends justify the means, and a strengthening

of the categorical ‘‘us versus them’’ view of the


Social categorization is a powerful psycholo-

gical process (McGarty, 1999) that can lead to

in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination

even when the basis of categorization is trivial in

a real-world context (Taylor & Moghaddam, 1994,

Chapter 4). A categorical ‘‘us versus them’’ view

of the world is one of the hallmarks of terrorist

organizations and the people attracted to them

(Pearlstein, 1991; Taylor, 1988). Western psy-

chological literature has identified right-wing

authoritarians as having a categorical viewpoint

(Altemeyer, 1988a, 1988b), but in the world

context, religious fundamentalism may be more

74 Terrorism

directly related to an ‘‘us versus them’’ viewpoint

among both Easterners (Alexander, 2002) and

Westerners (Booth & Dunne, 2002). Just as Isla-

mic fundamentalists have labeled the United States

the ‘‘Great Satan,’’ leading evangelist Christians in

the United States have backed the view that ‘‘Islam

was founded by . . . a demon-possessed pedophile’’

(Cooperman, 2002). This ‘‘us versus them’’ think-

ing from the West has played into the hands of

fundamentalists abroad, particularly Saudi Wah-

habism (Gold, 2003) and the radical form of Shi’i

Islam, as represented by Hizballah in Iran and

Lebanon, for example (Shapira, 2000). Of course,

a categorical ‘‘us versus them’’ viewpoint is not

sufficient to lead to terrorism; another important

element is a belief in the terrorist organization as

a just means to an ideal end.

Commitment to the terrorist cause strengthens

as the new recruit is socialized into the traditions,

methods, and goals of the organization. More than

a century of research on social influence (Mo-

ghaddam, 1998, Chapters 6 and 7) suggests that

conformity and obedience are very high in the cells

of terrorist organizations, where the cell leader re-

presents a strong authority figure and noncon-

formity, disobedience, and disloyalty receive the

harshest punishments. The recruits at this stage

face two uncompromising forces: From within the

organization, they are pressured to conform and to

obey in ways that will lead to violent acts against

civilians (and often against themselves); from out-

side the organization, especially in regions such as

the Middle East and North Africa, they face gov-

ernments that do not allow even minimal voice and

democratic participation in addressing perceived

injustices. These dictatorial governments are seen

as puppets of world powers, particularly the United

States—a perception endorsed by a variety of in-

ternational critics (Scranton, 2002).

During their stay on the fourth floor, then,

individuals find their options have narrowed

considerably. They are now part of a tightly con-

trolled group that they cannot exit from alive.

Fifth Floor: The Terrorist Act and

Sidestepping Inhibitory Mechanisms

Terrorism involves acts of violence against civi-

lians, often resulting in numerous deaths. The ex-

periences of professional military units demonstrate

the intensive programs required to train soldiers to

kill enemy soldiers (Grossman, 1995) and raise the

question as to how terrorist organizations train

their members to carry out the act that kills in-

nocent civilians. The answer is found in two psy-

chological processes that are central to intergroup

dynamics (Brown & Gaertner, 2001). The first

involves social categorization (of civilians as part of

the out-group), and the second involves psycho-

logical distance (through exaggerating differences

between the in-group and the out-group).

First, the categorization of civilians as part of the

out-group matches the pattern of secrecy practiced

by terrorist organizations; recruits to terrorist orga-

nizations are trained to treat everyone, including ci-

vilians, outside their tightly knit group as the enemy

(Sageman, 2004). Newspaper headlines such as

‘‘terrorist blast kills three innocent bystanders’’ have

little meaning from the perspective of terrorist or-

ganizations because of the particular way in which

they have categorized the world into ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’

and because of their perception that anyone who is

not actively resisting the government is a legitimate

target of violence. Besides, by attacking civilian tar-

gets, social order might be disrupted, and the ter-

rorist act could serve as a spark to get people to

‘‘recognize the truth’’ and revolt against authorities

(this was even assumed by the Oklahoma City

bombers; see Linenthal, 2001). Thus, from the point

of view of terrorist organizations, acts of violence

against civilians are justified because civilians are part

of the enemy, and only when civilians actively op-

pose the targeted ‘‘evil forces’’ will they no longer

be the enemy. The perception of civilians as part

of the enemy helps explain how terrorists sidestep

what Lorenz (1966) termed ‘‘inhibitory mechan-


Lorenz (1966) has argued that inhibitory me-

chanisms serve to limit intraspecies killing. For

example, when two wolves fight, it usually be-

comes clear fairly soon that one of them is stron-

ger, with the result that the weaker wolf signals

defeat by moving back and showing signs of sub-

mission. The aggression of the winner is inhibited

by the signals of submission; thus the winner does

not continue to attack and attempt to seriously

injure or kill the loser. Inhibitory mechanisms

also evolved to influence human behavior; crime

statistics (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2002)

show that most killings of humans by humans take

place through the use of guns and other weapons

that allow killing from a distance and enable the

75The Staircase to Terrorism

sidestepping of inhibitory mechanisms potentially

triggered through eye contact, pleading, crying, and

other means (also see discussion of weapons and

homicide in Smith & Zahn, 1999). Lorenz (1966)

argued that among humans, inhibitory mecha-

nisms have been bypassed through modern weap-

ons, which allow an attacker to destroy a target from

a long distance away.

The case of terrorist attacks suggests that in-

hibitory mechanisms can also be effectively cir-

cumvent by psychological distance, perhaps similar

to the distancing that takes place between a rapist

and the victim, particularly through the rapist’s

adoption of cultural myths about rape (see Burt,

1980, and readings in Searles & Berger, 1995).

Terrorists often operate in tight physical proximity

to their human targets, particularly in the case of

suicide bombers, so they could potentially be in-

fluenced by the kinds of pleading and other signals

that typically trigger inhibitory mechanisms.

However, two key factors serve to sidestep these

mechanisms during terrorist attacks. First, by

categorizing the target, albeit civilians, as ‘‘the

enemy’’ and exaggerating differences between in-

group and out-group, terrorists psychologically

distance themselves from the other humans they

intend to destroy. Second, the victims seldom be-

come aware of the impending danger before the

attack actually occurs, so they do not have an

opportunity to behave in ways that might trigger

inhibitory mechanisms.

Some Policy Implications

In this final section I highlight four important

policy implications arising from the stairway me-


1. Prevention Must Come First

The stairway metaphor has an overarching policy

implication that is familiar to psychologists who

are researching and practicing in mental health:

Prevention is the long-term solution to terrorism.

This is in line with a model of mental health that is

integral to a larger public health care system and

that provides broad-based services.

Policies to combat terrorism should con-

centrate on changing conditions for people si-

tuated at the foundation level of the stairway, with

the aim of achieving a situation in which the

general population rightly feels that it lives in a just

society. This long-term policy should go hand in

hand with short-term strategies to deal with the

small number of individuals who have already

climbed to the top of the stairway and are active in

terrorist organizations. However, there needs to be

a shift away from an almost complete preoccu-

pation with secretive counterterrorism units and

measures, away from a total concern with hunting

for the ‘‘bad apples,’’ and away from a naive re-

liance on improved technology and superior mili-

tary might as the way to defeat terrorism. Such

a policy shift may appear risky, but in practice

it provides the best long-term safeguard against


2. Procedural Justice Toward

Contextualized Democracy

Psychological research clearly highlights the im-

portant role that procedural justice can play in

bringing about contextualized democracy. Local

cultural practices and symbolic systems need to be

incorporated and used to enable more legal op-

portunities for voice and mobility, as well as to

influence perceptions of these opportunities. Such

policies must include women and other minorities

in the decision-making process. It is particularly in

this regard that support is needed for democratic

processes even when they contradict local tradi-

tions, such as a tradition of allowing only a very

limited role for women in the public sphere (as is

still the case in much of the Middle East and North

Africa). In this regard, special attention must be

given to the relationship between educational ave-

nues and opportunities for voice and mobility.

3. Educating Against Categorical

‘‘Us Versus Them’’ Thinking

In order to help bring about greater voice and

mobility in societies such as those in the Middle

East and North Africa, it is important to appro-

priately frame the fight against terrorism and par-

ticularly the way in which we categorize the social

world. As people climb up the stairway, their ca-

tegorization of the world into ‘‘us versus them,’’

‘‘the forces of good versus the forces of evil,’’ and

so on becomes more prominent and rigid. The

challenge is to prevent such an inflexible style of

76 Terrorism

categorization from becoming the norm at the

foundation level, where most of the people are

situated. A starting point for implementing this

policy is to avoid—and indeed to combat—a ca-

tegorization of the world into ‘‘us versus them’’ and

‘‘good versus evil.’’ Such categorization only en-

dorses the views of fundamentalists and increases

the probability of more people climbing up the

stairway to commit terrorist acts. This requires a

major policy shift in a number of countries. In the

United States, despite assurances by some mem-

bers of the Bush administration that ‘‘there is no

war against Islam,’’ the rhetoric of ‘‘you are either

with us or against us’’ has played into the hands

of fundamentalists.

4. Interobjectivity and Justice

To strengthen a shared worldview on justice,

rights, and duties, we must implement policies

to influence interobjectivity, the understandings

shared within and between cultures (Moghaddam,

2003). These policies can build on a foundation of

probable psychological universals in justice but

must also take into consideration the perceptions

among many non-Western people that their in-

digenous identities are threatened as a result of

increasing globalization and Western influence.

These types of policies with global implications

require working through—and being supportive

of—international organizations such as the United


Concluding Comment

Ultimately, terrorism is a moral problem with

psychological underpinnings; the challenge is to

prevent disaffected youth and others from becom-

ing engaged in the morality of terrorist organiza-

tions. A lesson from the history of terrorism in the

Middle East and other parts of the world is that

this moral problem does not have a technological

solution and is therefore at odds with the con-

temporary tendency to try to find technological

solutions to moral dilemmas (Moghaddam, 1997).

More sophisticated technology and increased force

will not end terrorism in the long term. Despite the

often-repeated declaration that the ‘‘war on terror

will be a long one,’’ policies for ending terrorism

have been more short-term strategies, often driven

by political needs rather than by scientific under-

standing. The focus of policies for the most part has

been on people who have climbed all the way up

the stairway and are already committed to carry-

ing out terrorist acts. Policies aimed at these in-

dividuals do not address the foundational problem

at the bottom of the stairway, involving the vast

majority of people. Basic issues at the foundational

level need to be addressed by guiding principles,

including how the majority perceive fairness, open-

ness, and voice opportunities in their societies and

how they are influenced by leaders to see the source

of their problems as external and to displace ag-

gression onto out-group targets. As part of a policy

shift, a categorization of the world into ‘‘us versus

them’’ needs to be avoided.

Acknowledgments. I am grateful to anonymous re-

viewers for comments made on an earlier draft of this



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80 Terrorism

6 Terrorism and the Media

Joel N. Shurkin

The media find themselves in a dysfunctional po-

sition relative to terrorism. On the one hand, they

must report terrorist attacks as they happen. On the

other, they are part of the reason these incidents

occur in the first place. For members of the media,

the situation raises interesting, difficult, and com-

plex professional and ethical problems. The fact is

that the media are crucial in determining the ge-

neral community’s reaction to terrorism. Fortu-

nately, the media seem to understand that.

When the World Trade Centers were attacked

on September 11, 2001, the common refrain among

journalists was that nothing like this had hap-

pened before and that the usual journalistic pro-

cedures and rules were inadequate. Undoubtedly,

like most Americans, they were stunned. The story

had astounding scope. A quick visit to an almanac

would show that on any business day as many

as 20,000 people could be in the two buildings at

one time. The number of casualties was beyond

imagination or more than the heart could bear,

as the mayor of New York said. It was the first

attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor, but this

time it was not on a Hawaiian island but in Man-

hattan, the media center of the country—if not

the Western world—and it was seen live—on


The attack was planned on exactly that

premise—that the media would cover the story

with the immediacy it deserved. That’s probably

why the attack was in two parts. The first plane

hitting the first building got everyone’s attention.

When the second plane struck, the cameras were

on, and billions of people watched it live in their

homes. While later replays of the event were

edited somewhat, those watching live saw bodies

fall from the towers, people who had jumped or

been pushed, tumbling in space against the beau-

tiful autumn sky. No one knew how many people

were still in the building when they so gracefully

and awfully collapsed. The sight could not have

been more horrible. That, of course, was exactly

what the terrorists wanted, but the television

networks could not turn off the cameras, photo-

graphers could not avert their lenses, and reporters

could not turn away. Whatever else anyone can say

of the attacks, they were brilliantly conceived with

the media in mind.

This dichotomy made the attacks perhaps the

most difficult reporting assignments in modern

journalistic history. That the media did as well as

they did is a tribute to them—and a lesson.

Most of the media believed that what hap-

pened that day had no precedent. In fact, it did


have. Although the nuclear accident at Three Mile

Island was not terrorism, many of the same issues

were raised then. And if journalists thought it

would be a while before they were confronted with

the same issue, they were mistaken.

Handmaiden to Terrorism

Without the media, there would likely be no

modern terrorism. Palestinian terrorists know that

the Israeli and the world press will cover every

bombing, particularly of civilian targets. If it did

not, there would be no political point in blowing

up a bus. Historically, the terrorists do not fancy

themselves murders but martyrs for a cause, al-

though with the rise of the new religious fanaticism

that may well be changing (Council on Foreign

Relations, 2004). In a free society that almost

guarantees that publicity, the dominant image re-

quires publicity and the media.

Studies agree that a symbiotic relationship ex-

ists between the terrorists and the media. In its most

cynical form, the image is of terrorists using the

media as a conduit for their message and the media

using the terrorists for dramatic stories (Lockyer,

2003). Terrorism has been called political ‘‘theater,’’

and that’s how terrorists view it. A nineteenth-

century anarchist called it ‘‘propaganda by deed’’

(Council on Foreign Relations, 2004). If terrorism

can be defined as violence that is designed to deliver

a message, the media are the messenger. Experts are

divided on whether the publicity always helps the

terrorists’ cause, with some pointing out that their

message plays differently to different audiences.

As the Palestinians have discovered, in public opi-

nion the method overshadows the message after a


It goes without saying that virtually all editors

and reporters would rather not have these stories

to cover, and all of them understand they are being

used. They are aware that the language they em-

ploy in these stories is crucial—politicizing lan-

guage was not an idea invented by George Orwell.

Words have meanings beyond those found in the

dictionary. Janny de Graaf (Schmid and de Graaf,

1982) has argued that, when journalists interview

subjects, they are more inclined to use the subject’s

wording, whether it comes from a terrorist cell

or a government. For instance, when is a ‘‘terrorist’’

a ‘‘guerilla’’? Who is a ‘‘murderer’’ and who a

‘‘freedom fighter’’? Israelis view Palestinian bom-

bers as terrorists, while Palestinians point out that

Menachem Begin, a former prime minister of Israel

and something of a national hero, used a similar

technique against the British to win Israel’s in-

dependence. The difference is who won and who

got to write the history.1

Three Mile Island and the Precedent of Reporting the Threat of Disaster

From a journalistic point of view, there was pre-

cedent for 9/11, a huge story that could have been

made worse by the media if they had acted irre-

sponsibly. The precedent was set 33 years earlier at

Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant in Penn-

sylvania. No terrorism was involved, merely human

incompetence, but the media were placed in the

awesome position of having to report a complex

story with insufficient information and having to

get it right.

I was science editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer

at the time and faced the problem head on. The

confusion we confronted easily matches the con-

fusion reporters faced on 9/11—confusion that

had been deliberately created. And, if we got the

story wrong, there might be unwarranted panic

or people would be placed in danger that could

have been avoided.

Three Mile Island sits on an actual island in the

middle of the Susquehanna River, south of Harris-

burg, Pennsylvania. It was operated by a medium-

sized utility, Metropolitan Edison, which in retro-

spect was probably too small for the responsibility

of running a nuclear power plant. On March 28,

1979, because of operator error, the plant began a

partial meltdown.

The Associated Press relayed the first word of

the incident after the company reported a minor

radioactive release from the plant. Throughout

the morning, news from the company continued to

portray the event as minor, but after a few hours it

was clear that something unusual was happening.

The media, including the Inquirer, were un-

prepared for the event. Like many science reporters,

I had avoided writing about nuclear energy be-

cause, after a subconscious cost-benefit analysis,

I had concluded that the aggravation created by

proponents and opponents of nuclear energy—

on the phone and in the mail—outweighed the

82 Terrorism

benefits of doing the stories.2 Hence, although I

had written about how these plants worked and

knew something of the technology, I was about to

be blindsided by a story well beyond my expertise.

When I reported for work that morning and

asked one of the editors whether he needed any

help, I was told the political reporters at the state

capital could handle the story. I was skeptical but

went back to my seat and waited. Within a few

hours, the reporters in Harrisburg were screaming

for help. They had no idea what was happening at

the plant and were getting no information from the

company. I was sent to Middletown, Pennsylvania,

the community nearest to the plant. When I got

there, I found that every other newspaper was

going through a similar process, with editors as-

suming the story was a simple one, requiring no

expertise and only later shipping out their science


The most serious problem was a lack of reli-

able and creditable information. At first, Metro-

politan Edison simply refused to be of any help, at

least in part because the officials there had no clue

what was happening within the containment ves-

sels of the reactors. Then the lawyers apparently

took over, and the company’s small information

machinery simply shut it down. The Inquirer even

tape-recorded a conversation that took place be-

tween the company and the employees of a public

relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, which had been

brought in to help them with the emergency, as

they conspired to prevent information from leak-

ing. They produced a press kit that contained no-

thing useful and set up a telephone number that

was specifically designed to be eternally busy.

Even the federal government played along.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) set up

a trailer outside the press center, and the infor-

mation officer set up a system so he would not have

to give out information. Not only was the press

excluded from information, but so was the state

government, which had the final responsibility for

the public’s safety.

In one of history’s great ironies, 13 days before

the incident at Three Mile Island, Hollywood

had released a film starring Jane Fonda, The China

Syndrome, in which a reactor goes wild and threat-

ens everything around it.3 The movie was play-

ing in Middletown at the time. In the film, a cha-

racter says the meltdown could wipe out most of

central Pennsylvania. And that is exactly the pro-

blem that was facing the media at Three Mile


Richard Thornburg, then governor of Penn-

sylvania, called the president of the United States

and demanded that someone produce informa-

tion that he could use—and, by extension, that

the press could use. The NRC sent a man named

Harold Denton to Middletown to act as a con-

duit between the public and the government.

The information—such as it was—finally began

to flow.4

Still, reporters faced serious questions. The

extent of the danger from the radiation was con-

troversial in the extreme in the scientific com-

munity, one of the reasons the stories were so

contentious. Some reputable scientists held that

any radiation at all imposed a danger of cancer on

the public; others said that only a certain level was

dangerous. As a competent reporter, you could

predict the answers you would get by knowing

whom to call. So, whom do you call?

Several days into the accident, a bubble of

hydrogen built up in the reactor and threatened to

explode—a calamity in the making, one that could

indeed have endangered most of central Pennsyl-

vania. No one could predict what would then

happen. What do you say? If you report that the

reactor is likely to explode, you will set off a panic.

And what if it didn’t explode? If you say everything

is under control or the danger is minimal and it

then blows up, a lot of people who could have fled

would be in the path of the radiation.

The general, unspoken consensus was that we

had to play it straight and with moderation, giving

the information we had clearly and calmly and with

as much context as possible, and let people decide

for themselves what to do. I called experts on ra-

diation I knew to be moderates who would give

me unruffled, measured responses. This in itself

was a problem. Readers, who apparently expected

experts to have answers, began flooding the news-

paper editors with complaints about our less-than-

specific information. They wanted experts who told

them whether something was dangerous; they did

not want stories that straddled the fence. In 35

years of journalism, it was the most profound

professional decision I ever had to make. We ac-

tually sat, discussed the matter, and decided how

to write the stories (Sandman & Paden, 1979a,

1979b). That almost never actually happens in the

field. Reporters usually act on instinct.

83Terrorism and the Media

I suspect that similar discussions occurred in

newsrooms all over the country on 9/11 and for

the same reasons. Because information was scarce

and unreliable, it was difficult for everyone to com-

prehend exactly what was happening, only that it

was gigantic and the potential enormous. What

other buildings were being attacked and by whom?

Word came quickly of the attack at the Pentagon,

but rumors of another at the State Department

proved untrue even after they were reported in

the major media. How many planes were still in

the sky carrying terrorists? The FAA had reports

of dozens; in fact, there was only one. Was the

United States under a general attack, or were

New York and Washington the only targets?

Should people panic? Were they safe? With bil-

lions of viewers—including a vast proportion of

the American public—watching, reporters had to

think before they wrote in ways they had not often

done before.

Anthrax and the Media as the Target

It happened again quickly. This time the media

were the target, and it was terrorism. Again ob-

structions were placed between reporters and the

information they needed. As with Three Mile Is-

land, this new development became a primer for

the government on how not to handle terrorism

(Ricchiardi, 2001).

Within weeks of 9/11, a terrorist struck again.

To this day, no one knows who the perpetrator

was, but the first victim was Robert Stevens, 63, a

photo editor at a supermarket tabloid published by

American Media in Florida. The official response

only fueled the panic, especially after Stevens died.

Part of the difficulty was that the weapon of choice

was anthrax, a disease so obscure that virtually

no one knew much about it.

That most of the targets were in the media was

a cunning ploy. As Ricchiardi wrote, ‘‘If you want

to scare the wits out of America, scare journalists

first.’’ The attacks were brought by the U.S. mail

right into newsrooms.

‘‘If you were a terrorist with only a small

amount of anthrax, you want to send it to the

people who would get you on the evening news—

people at the news tabloid, a news anchor, a po-

litician,’’ said Kyle Olson, a terrorism expert

(quoted in Ricchardi, 2001).

Once the disease was identified, all of the in-

formation was shut down. NBC’s Robert Bazell

said, ‘‘all the government agencies including NIH

and CDC were told not to talk. They were trying to

develop a model where all the information came

from a central source (Thomas, 2003). Meanwhile,

of course, no information was getting out. Rick

Weiss of the Washington Post was less kind. He

described the policy as ‘‘One department, one voice.

But that one voice is busy right now, so please

leave a message’’ (quoted in Thomas, 2003). The

process was similar to that adopted by the NRC

and Metropolitan Edison: Pretend you are giving

out information when in fact you are doing noth-

ing of the sort.

Information was the first casualty. Confusion

reigned. The Bush administration urged Americans

to go about their business; meanwhile, the FBI was

predicting new attacks.

Journalists had ‘‘no precedent, no strategy

to deal with rapid-fire breaking news of infection

by killer germs, no ready-made pool of experts’’

(Ricchiardi, 2001,). Part of the problem was a lack

of personnel, with one public relations person

initially assigned to answer questions. That person

recorded more than 135 messages a day, and there

likely were still more calls that were simply not

logged. Between October 4 and October 18, the

media office reported 2,229 calls. Many more (an

average of 230 calls a day) went unreported. By

October 14, five more public information officers

(PIOs) had been brought in to handle the load.

Getting one of the PIOs on the phone did

not solve reporters’ problems, however. They

were usually referred elsewhere and then to CDC in

Atlanta—an unproductive circle. Meanwhile, as the

attacks spread by mail to other news media, in-

cluding the office of NBC’s Tom Brokaw, and as the

U.S. Postal Service gradually shut down, coverage

exploded. Some of the cable news channels went ‘‘all

anthrax all the time’’ (Thomas, 2003). At this junc-

ture, another plague erupted, just as it had on 9/11,

and many instant experts appeared, many (if not

most) of whom had no idea what they were talking

about. One channel produced an ‘‘expert’’ who re-

peatedly referred to the anthrax ‘‘virus,’’ when a ba-

cillus in spore form is actually what causes anthrax.

By October 15 it was obvious to everyone that

the public needed more information—and needed

it accurately and quickly. CDC brought in another

10 PIOs. By October 18 it was able to produce an

84 Terrorism

extensive, multipurpose press release confirming

that a postal worker in New Jersey had contracted

the disease. Information went up on the Web and

in Spanish. Real information began to replace bad;

Gresham’s Law of Journalism had been reversed.

The next time we might not be so lucky. An-

thrax is a disease that is relatively hard to spread.

Had it been variola, the smallpox virus, we would

not have had several weeks to get our act in order.

The anthrax attack killed 5 of the 11 people who

became infected. More than 2,000 hoaxes and false

reports emptied government buildings and shut

down post offices. Most of the terrorism experts

feared that the worst could come at any moment.

‘‘I think the press has been prudently cautious

in reporting the story and therefore helped the

country understand that there is no need to be

panic-stricken about this,’’ said Robert Giles, cura-

tor of the Nieman Foundation, when the scare was

over (quoted in Ricchiardi, 2001).

How Did the Media Do?

In these difficult episodes, the American media did

surprisingly well. Even the most free swinging

sobered up. The main problem they had was not

of their making; rather, it was bureaucracies—

government and industrial—that were keeping in-

formation they needed from them. Of course, in the

case of 9/11, reporters were confronting a situation

that was so gigantic that useful information was

impossible to ascertain.

A study by the Pew Research Center for the

People and the Press, made after 9/11, showed that

the press’s image was improved by the coverage it

provided of the attacks (Pew Research Center for

the People and the Press, 2001). However, there was

some unhappiness with a number of the practices

the press had engaged in, and the somewhat mel-

low attitude of the public has probably wafted

away (Pew Research Center for the People and the

Press, 2002). According to the 2001 study, the

Pew Center reported that, after the attack, 47% of

respondents thought news organizations were po-

litically biased, compared with 59% in early Sep-

tember. Additionally, more people thought the

media tried not to be biased (26% after the attack

versus 35% in early September). More than half still

thought the media had tried to cover up their mis-

takes, however. More than a third believed jour-

nalists and reporters help society solve its problems,

and half felt the media get in the way.

The study also found that the public could not

get enough of the news.

Another effect of 9/11 was that the media, in

some regard, sobered up. Before the attack, with

news coverage sliding inexorably toward trivia, ce-

lebrity news, and junk medicine at the cost of re-

porting serious news—particularly international

news—one result was a reversal of that trend, at

least for a while.

Rosenstiel reported that, right after the attack,

‘‘the war on terrorism has caused a colossal shift

in the news people see on network television’’

(Rosenstiel, 2001). The networks were producing

more traditional hard news than they had in dec-

ades. The news agenda on the networks was more

reminiscent of the 1970s than the 1990s, but that

expansion was limited. The new interest was in the

war on terrorism, not in the broad world beyond

that subject. Even Rosenstiel admitted, however,

that the sobering up might be just a temporary re-

action. A year later, Althaus reported that everything

was unfortunately back to normal (Althaus, 2002).


1. Part of the problem may be the lack of neutral

words to describe these acts. The Israeli govern-

ment and many Zionists have been in a decades-

long battle with the British Broadcasting Company

over the terminology the BBC uses to describe events

in the Middle East (Honest Reporting, 2004) Thirty

years ago in New York I had a similar battle as news

editor for Reuters, when the London office removed

the word ‘‘terrorist’’ from every story about airplane

hijackers, claiming it was politically charged and

inappropriate for customers in the area.

2. That there are stories like that is one of the

great secrets of journalism. Abortion is another ex-

ample. All that printing stories does is excite the

readers and viewers who care passionately one way

or the other. They do not change anyone’s mind.

Hence, many reporters do the stories only when they

have to.

3. The ‘‘China syndrome’’ is an engineering

construct in which a nuclear reactor melts

down through the floor of the containment vessel

and keeps going. It would, in theory, eventually

hit groundwater and explode. But, taken to the

extreme, it would then keep going—all the

way to China.

85Terrorism and the Media

4. Thornburg eventually recommended that preg-

nant women leave the area.


Althaus, S. (2002, September). American news con-

sumption during times of national crisis. PS:

Political Science and Politics, 35(3), 517–521.

Council on Foreign Relations. (2004). Islam in a

changing world. Retrieved April 19, 2006, from

changing _world.html.

Honest Reporting. (2004, January 14). BBC’s selective

sensitivity. Retrieved April 19, 2006, from http://


Lockyer, A. (2003, August 18). The relationship

between media and terrorism. Canberra: Austra-

lian National University. Retrieved April 19,

2006, from


Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

(2001, November 28). Terror coverage boosts

news media’s image. Retrieved April 19, 2006,


———. (2002, August 4). News media’s improved

image proves short lived. Retrieved April 19, 2004,


.php3?ReportID¼159. Ricchiardi, S. (2001, December). The anthrax enigma.

American Journalism Review, 23(10), 18–23.

Rosenstiel, T. (2001, November). Before and after:

How the war on terrorism has changed the news

agenda, network television, June to October 2001.

Retrieved January 8, 2006, from http://www


Sandman, P.,&Paden,M. (1979a, July–August). AtThree

Mile Island. Columbia Journalism Review, 43–58.

———. (1979b, July–August). The ‘‘Inquirer’’ goes for

broke. Columbia Journalism Review (sidebar), 48–49.

Schmid, A. P., & de Graaf, J. (1982). Violence as

communication: Insurgent terrorism and the Western

news media. London: Sage.

Thomas, P. (2003, Spring). The anthrax attacks: A

journalist assesses what went wrong in coverage

of this story. Nieman Reports, 11–14.

86 Terrorism

7 What Is Terrorism?

Key Elements and History

Scott Gerwehr Kirk Hubbard

Laqueur (1987) defines terrorism as the illegiti-

mate or extranormal use of violence against non-

combatants to achieve political ends. Although there

are innumerable definitions of terrorism, they all

bear some resemblance to Laqueur’s definition, and

particularly this notion that the ends cannot be

reached directly by the means. Indeed, a key dif-

ference between military activities (e.g., guerrilla or

special operations) and acts of terror is that ter-

rorism takes place ‘‘on a stage’’ with an audience in

mind (Rubin & Friedland, 1986; Jenkins, 1975).

Unlike most guerrilla attacks or special operations,

an act of terrorism is usually of little military value

but instead ‘‘sends a message’’ to the target audi-

ence, for example, in drawing attention to a his-

torical grievance or discrediting hated authorities

(Schmid, Jongman, & Stohl, 1988). Even the most

horrific of recent terrorist acts—Kenya and Tan-

zania in 1998, Washington and New York in 2001,

Madrid in March 2004—are insignificant in mili-

tary terms. They are, however, powerful and vivid

messages from terrorist groups writ in blood and


Delivering such a message in a shocking,

sensational fashion is meant to catalyze political

change, and it is inarguable that dramatic politi-

cal change has been spawned by these acts. Ter-

rorism can therefore be seen as a form of social

influence, employing acts of extranormal violence

(instead of leaflets or loudspeakers, for example) to

influence a target population’s emotions, motives,

objective reasoning, perceptions, and ultimately,

behavior. Social influence is normally instantia-

ted in tools and techniques such as rumor, social

proof, radio and television broadcasts, posters, and

graffiti. However, violence itself can be a dramatic

medium for changing attitudes and perceptions.

Nothing in the definition of social influence pro-

hibits the consideration of extranormal violence as

a tool of attitude and behavioral change. Thus a

well-timed bit of sabotage that disables a banking

system may bolster an effort to worsen an already

shaky economic situation. Similarly, direct action

that prevents police or fire-fighting personnel from

responding to an explosion may help discredit

those two agencies. In sum, virtually any form of

violence may be pressed into the service of social

influence so long as the goal is to manipulate a

target audience’s perceptions, cognitions, and ac-

tions. Terrorism fits the description. Hoffman

(1998) states:

Terrorism is specifically designed to have far-

reaching psychological effects beyond the


immediate victim(s) or object of the terrorist

attack. It is meant to instill fear within, and

thereby intimidate, a wider ‘‘target audience’’

that might include a rival ethnic or religious

group, an entire country, a national government

or political party, or public opinion in

general. . . .Through the publicity generated by

their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the

leverage, influence and power they otherwise

lack to effect political change on either a local or

an international scale.

Sudden, shocking acts of extranormal violence

are the medium for producing these psychologi-

cal effects, and this is a potent means of commu-

nicating. There is ample historical precedent to

support this assertion (Bell, 1978; Downes-Le

Guin & Hoffman, 1993). For example, the Reagan

administration felt compelled to facilitate the re-

lease of more than 700 Shiite prisoners from Israeli

prisons in exchange for the 39 Americans aboard

TWA 847, which was hijacked in 1985. Why?

After more than 2 weeks of intense coverage by the

news media, there was widespread support among

the American public for a nonviolent quid pro quo

ending. This domestic pressure (a deliberate and

explicit goal of the hijackers) proved irresistible to

the Reagan administration.

There are many such historical examples of

terrorism producing political change through so-

cial influence, and these examples will inelucta-

bly lead to future imitators. The presence of so

many potential targets, civilians, and news media

is a powerful attractant to would-be terrorists,

and they are virtually guaranteed a wide audience

both domestically and internationally for their


Social Influence Campaigns

Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than

a thousand bayonets.

General Burnod, Military Maxims of Napoleon

For our purposes, we may state that a social

influence campaign is generally characterized by

the following features:

� One individual, group, or government (A) communicates with another person, group, or

government (B) on multiple occasions.

� The communications from A to B are purpo- sive: They are meant to galvanize specific

changes in attitudes and behaviors. That said,

they may operate directly or indirectly (i.e.,

propagated in some fashion through a third

party or mediated through another cognitive

process). � The communications from A to B are discrete and finite and can be characterized by a

channel or medium of communication.

Although widespread understanding and ap-

preciation of the importance of social influence

campaigns spans the historical record, their scien-

tific study dates from the pioneering work of Carl

Hovland and his colleagues during and after World

War II (the famous ‘‘Yale model’’ of persuasion,

based on learning theory). Since that time much

excellent work has been done, and we draw on it

in examining the particulars of historical terrorism.

The Yale model of social influence can serve at least

as a broad-strokes description of the structure of a

large-scale persuasion attempt (for how an audience

internalizes and processes it, we incorporate more

recent scientific work, such as Petty and Cacioppo’s

Elaboration Likelihood Model). As the following

discussion points out, many terrorist campaigns can

be usefully thought of in these terms, and specific

acts of terrorism can be thought of as the individual

communications in the course of a social influence

campaign. A noteworthy qualifier to this character-

ization is the fact that these communications have

decidedly different intentions and are meant to

reach multiple populations.

There are two broad dimensions of the Yale

model: the process of persuasion and the variables

of persuasion. As the Yale model suggests (Hov-

land, Janis, & Kelley, 1953; many subsequent re-

ports), a look at the process of any social influence

attempt will reveal six stages (exposure, attention,

comprehension, acceptance, retention, and trans-

lation) that must be navigated to successfully per-

suade a target audience. When examining the out-

comes of the persuasion attempt, there will be four

types of independent variable (source, message,

target, and channel).

A Process View of Social Influence

� Exposure. The first stage required to translate influence into desired action is exposure. In

88 Terrorism

general, exposure requires that the message

reach the audience; for example, an elaborate

radio campaign is useless if the target audience

does not listen to the station that broadcasts

the communication. To achieve the intended

psychological objectives, a communicator must

transmit the persuasive message through the

correct channel to the appropriate audience

(by appropriate, we mean the audience that

can directly or indirectly produce the desired

response). � Attention. Even if the message is transmitted through the correct channels, the appropriate

audience still might not notice it. Attention can

sometimes be difficult to achieve. The world is

a noisy place: New messages compete with

contradictory information and sheer back-

ground noise, which can drown out an

otherwise persuasive communication.2 The

message should be crafted to pierce this sur-

rounding noise and suit the channel through

which it is transmitted (Klapper, 1960). � Comprehension. An influence campaign must ensure that the intended audience understands

the persuasive communication. This requires

the communicator to craft and deliver the

message in a culturally appropriate manner,

employing syntax, images, words, concepts,

and intentions that are tailored to the audi-

ence. Notably, a message that is linguistically

or idiomatically ill suited will likely fail and

may even be counterproductive (Eagly, 1974).

This stage poses a significant hurdle for ter-

rorism in terms of social influence. � Acceptance. The target audience must not only comprehend the message but also accept it.

Indeed, a well-crafted message can be trans-

mitted, noticed, and comprehended but still

trigger instant rejection by audiences if it is not

articulated to gain their acceptance (Chaiken,

1987; Chaiken, Liberman, & Eagly, 1989;

Petty and Cacioppo, 1986). One example of

how this rejection might occur involves the

inappropriate use of schemas.3 A widely dis-

seminated message advertising a bounty on a

wanted fugitive might seem entirely reasonable

to the sender, but to a target audience the very

notion of a bounty (i.e., the ‘‘bounty’’ schema)

may invoke all manner of negative—even

taboo—associations relating to hospitality

norms, kinship ties, and group affiliation,

which in turn leads to quick and decisive re-

jection of the message. This stage is perhaps

the single most important obstacle in the way

of terrorism as a vector of social influence. � Retention. Even an influential message must have a durable effect on the target audiences;

‘‘durable’’ here means that the audience re-

members the persuasive message long enough

for the desired behavior to emerge at a propi-

tious time (Hovland, Lumsdaine, & Sheffield,

1949). Notably, the retention requirements of

an influence campaign depend on its objec-

tives. A few minutes may be long enough to

galvanize the surrender of a hostage taker

holed up in a barricaded house, but a few years

may be needed to reduce monetary support to

a government or a popular social movement.

In the context of terrorism, a clear example of

success in navigating the retention stage is the

train bombings in Madrid in March 2004. This

act of terror took place 3 days before a national

election and utterly eclipsed all other issues in

the race for the following 3 days. The shocking

and horrific acts, which the public interpreted

as a punishment for Spanish support of the

U.S. invasion of Iraq, indisputably affected the

outcome of the election. � Translation. Translation entails cognitive change leading to behavioral change or the

translation of perception into action. For

translation to occur, an unobstructed path

must exist for a changed attitude to result in

altered behavior (see, for example, Darley &

Batson, 1973). The target audience may truly

experience a change in attitude, yet be re-

strained by repressive societies and/or author-

itarian leaders. The literature on social

psychology indicates that circumstances

strongly influence actual decision making.4

Thus, influence attempts have a greater possi-

bility of success if they are conducted in an

environment that facilitates the translation of

changes in attitude into changed behavior.

This sequence represents a view of the process

of a social influence campaign. Another view of

social influence comes from Smith, Lasswell, and

Casey (1946), who state that the outcomes of any

persuasion attempt are dependent upon the char-

acteristics of four types of independent variable:

source, recipient, message, and medium. There is

89What Is Terrorism?

significant interplay between these categories and

the particulars of the process described earlier.

� Source. The apparent origin of a message can matter significantly in how it is received by an

audience. Relevant data about the originator of

the communication include factors such as

credibility (Kelman & Hovland, 1953; Husek,

1965), authority (McGuire, 1969; Bochner &

Insko, 1966), likeability and attractiveness

(Chaiken, 1979), similarity to the recipient

(Byrne, 1971; Goethals & Nelson, 1973),

trustworthiness (Andreoli & Worchel, 1978),

and perceived profit motive (Hovland & Man-

dell, 1952). � Recipient. Several characteristics of a target audience can weigh heavily in how the mes-

sage is perceived and processed. These vari-

ables include motivation (Petty, Harkins, &

Williams, 1980), issue involvement (Petty &

Cacioppo, 1979), and culture (Eagly & War-

ren, 1976). � Message. As many of these sequential steps imply, the content and nature of a message will

figure prominently in its ultimate effect. The

relevant qualities of a message can include

salience and vividness (Taylor & Fiske,

1975), emotional content (e.g., fear; see Janis

& Feshbach, 1953; Leventhal, 1970), the

number of arguments (Calder, Insko, &

Yandell, 1974; Norman, 1976), and

others. � Medium. The medium plays an important role in delivering and mediating the effects of the

actual message. Some media are particularly

effective vectors of persuasive communica-

tions, while others lend themselves less to this

function. Among the characteristics that matter

in the choice of medium are style (e.g., audio

versus video; see Chaiken & Eagly, 1976),

setting (e.g., one on one versus group; see

Burnstein & Vinokur, 1977), and nonverbal

accompaniment (Harper, Weins, & Matarazzo,


In the following sections we highlight social

influence variables in historical cases of terrorism

to help us understand when and how terrorism is

effective. Our argument is that the requirements

for effective social influence are virtually identical

to those for successful terrorism (in the sense of

achieving the stated political aims).

Terrorism as Social Influence

Kill one, warn a thousand.

Chinese proverb

It is not possible to adequately treat all histori-

cal terrorismwithin a single section of a single chap-

ter. Moreover, the very word terrorism was coined

by Edmund Burke to describe state terror: the

government’s ‘‘reign of terror’’ in revolutionary

France (1793–1794). In fact, Robespierre opined

that ‘‘Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt,

severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of

virtue.’’ These views clearly differ quite markedly

from how the word is commonly used today

(to denote a criminal atrocity perpetrated against

noncombatants for political and /or ideological

ends). In this chapter we do not embrace either

view of terrorism. Instead we examine terrorism as

a persuasive instrument of marginal, revolutionary,

or nonstate groups seeking significant political

change (not perpetuating the status quo). We

sample the space of historical terrorism for illus-

trations of the violence-as-social-influence theme,

and we argue that this perspective on terrorism is

applicable and fruitful in helping us to understand

the rise and fall of terrorist campaigns in all times

and places.

Terrorist acts by definition include some key

aspects of persuasive communication, as we have

already outlined:

� Transmission and propagation. The nature of the international news media virtually guarantees

that target audiences will be exposed to the

terrorists’ message (step 1 of the Yale model).

The proliferation of and competition among

news outlets has created a 24-hour news cycle

in order to satisfy the public’s appetite for

sensational news and competitive advantage

(i.e., items not possessed by competitors). This

means that, day or night, virtually anywhere in

the world, there will be a near-instantaneous

transmission of news of terrorist acts to mil-

lions of viewers, listeners, and readers—with a

subsequent multiplication as coverage con-

tinues or is rebroadcast.

� Vividness. By their shocking nature, terrorist acts capitalize on the salience effect (Nisbett &

Ross, 1980), ensuring that target audiences pay

attention to the message (step 2 of the Yale


90 Terrorism

� Fear Content. Horrifying acts of murder and mayhem are exemplars of fear-based commu-

nication. A fear-based message can be very

persuasive when calibrated correctly (Le-

venthal, 1970; Rogers & Mewborn, 1976; Ro-

gers, 1983): It must clearly depict the possible

consequences of not heeding the message and

the likely avoidance of those consequences if

the message is heeded; moreover, the audience

must perceive itself as able to act upon the

message. Terrorists can often raise or lower the

level of fear at will (e.g., by phoning or not

phoning in a threat before setting off a bomb),

which gives them control over most of these

factors. � Dual processing. Terrorist acts are both simple and complex messages: The violence is usually

accompanied by lengthy manifestos or state-

ments advocating the terrorist group’s ideology

(e.g., Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of

jihad against the United States). The terrorist

act and any accompanying statement may be

processed both by peripheral and central

routes (the Elaboration Likelihood Model of

Petty and Cacioppo [1996]). By this we mean

that an act of terrorism can be a persuasive

communication whether it is thought about

systematically (e.g., reading a terrorist mani-

festo and evaluating its merits) or heuristically

(e.g., witnessing an act of terror on TV and

interpreting it as evidence of the current gov-

ernment’s fragility and illegitimacy). This

greatly furthers the goal of communicating

with multiple audiences through a single dis-

crete act. � Credibility and power. Terrorism usually occurs at the initiative of a terrorist group. By this we

mean that the terrorist group can turn the

violence on or off and choose the timing, place,

and manner of attacks. This is probably suffi-

cient to establish the group as a credible source

and thus an important contributor to the per-

suasiveness of its message among those who

are processing it peripherally.5

� Authority and legitimacy. Wielding the power of life and death can place the terrorist group in

the same cognitive frame as the government it

opposes, a goal uppermost in the minds of

many terrorist groups. They would like to be

seen as an authority equivalent-but-adversary

to the organization they oppose (and thus the

agent of the people they purport to represent),

while those same governments or authorities

would like to depict the terrorists as criminal

lunatics at the fringes of society, representing

no one. This is not an idle struggle: With a

perception of authority comes very real power

to persuade (Hofling, Brotzman, Dalrymple,

Graves, & Pierce, 1966; Milgram, 1974; Peters

& Ceci, 1982; Blass, 1991, 1999). � Stoking ‘‘avoidant’’ motivation. To the target audience among whom political change is to

be catalyzed, the message of terrorism is one

that emphasizes loss and suffering (e.g., obey

us, or we will wreak more havoc and carnage

upon you). Persuasion attempts that empha-

size loss are more effective than those highlight

gain (Meyerowitz & Chaiken, 1987). Seeking

to prevent losses—‘‘avoidant motivation’’—is a

powerful force for attitude change and action.

The Means of Communication:

Bullets, Not Ballots

Not all violent acts constitute terrorism. For ex-

ample, neither armed robbery nor mercenary

activity would typically qualify as terrorism. The

key element in defining an act as terrorist or not

is its instrumentality. Is the violence meant to ex-

press an idea or serve a political /social /theological

movement, and does it do so by harming civilians?

If so, then, by most definitions, it is terrorism.

When terrorist groups are deciding on a violent

course of action, they always calculate the ex-

pressive or instrumental value of the violence.

Among the types of violent actions that can

be considered terrorist are assassinations, bomb-

ings, kidnapping, torture, and intimidatory vio-

lence (e.g., kneecapping), arson, lynchings, and

virtually any use of weapons of mass destruction

(WMD) against a civilian populace. Aside from

considering how the audience might receive the

‘‘message’’ of a violent act, terrorist groups are

greatly interested in the milieu and how it might

affect the processing of the meaning. This is not an

idle concern. Much scientific work has been done

on environmental factors and how they mitigate

the transmission and impact of persuasive mes-

sages. This can include cognitive load and ambient

noise (Brünken, Steinbacher, Plass, & Leutner,

2002), countermessages (Papageorgis & McGuire,

91What Is Terrorism?

1961; McGuire, 1964), social proof and con-

formity (Latané & Darley, 1970; Latané & Nida,

1981; Tesser, Campbell, & Mickler, 1983; Wooten

& Reed, 1998), and time pressure (Petty, Wells, &

Brock, 1976).6 Terrorist groups go to great lengths

to exert control over the environment in which

their message is transmitted and received; for ex-

ample, they provide journalists with firsthand vi-

deotapes of attacks in order to ensure that their

version—not the government’s version—of events

dominates the airwaves. All in all, with regard to

other forms of social influence, it is the variables

associated with the target audience that matter

most in the psychological effect of terrorism.

The Target Audiences: At Whom

Is Terrorism Aimed?

There will always be multiple audiences for any act

of terrorism. In broad theoretical terms, these can

be thought of in two distinct categories: the group

on whose behalf the act is carried out (the con-

stituency) and the group against whom the act is

directed (the enemy). In practice, there will be

some nuances and third-party effects, which is to

say that some audiences may be proxies for others

(e.g., attacking McDonald’s as a symbol of the

United States) or mediate the message in some way

(e.g., attacking the UN to intimidate a wide array

of international actors). That said, the effectiveness

of a terrorist campaign—as is the case in any social

influence campaign—is directly related to how well

the author of the violent communication knows

the target audience. Specifically, the critical knowl-

edge is the way in which the target audience

processes information and acts upon it.

The Constituency: The Group or Population for

Whom the Terrorism Is Conducted

Virtually every group engaged in a campaign of

terror draws support from a broad base of active

and passive supporters; this is Fraserand Fulton’s

pyramidal model (1984). The number of full-time

operatives (the acme of the pyramid) is quite small

compared to the number of people needed to

provide money, intelligence, safe haven, forged

documents, munitions, transportation, and the like

(the base of the pyramid). Moreover, beyond the

active supporters are the vast numbers of like-

minded people necessary to sustain the group over

time and propel the revolutionary movement from

the margins of power to the center. This large

population is perceived as the constituency of any

terrorist group, which desires that the constituency

view the acts of terror in a positive way. Indeed,

the acts of terror are intended to be seen as blows

struck on behalf of the constituency, in its name

and for its betterment. For the Liberation Tigers of

Tamil Elaam, the constituency is the 3–4 million

Tamils chafing under Sinhalese rule on the island

of Sri Lanka. For the Provisional Irish Republican

Army, the constituency is the Catholic majority

living in Northern Ireland. For al-Qaeda, the con-

stituency is Muslims around the world, particu-

larly Sunnis. Examples of simple messages aimed

at the constituency in acts of terror are the fol-


� Only through violent resistance can we ac- complish our ends. Negotiation is capitulation

to tyranny. � Witness that our enemies are not invulnerable and that we are capable of injuring them.

Terrorist groups usually live or die based upon

how well they communicate with their constituency;

it would be fair to state that the power and resilience

of any terrorist group greatly reflects the effective-

ness of the social influence campaign used on its

constituency. As Martha Crenshaw has pointed out

(1981, 1991), when terrorist groups alienate, fail

to motivate, or misread the mandate of the con-

stituency, they are very likely to wither and dissolve.

For example, alienation can occur when the acts of

terror are excessively or wantonly brutal (such as a

white supremacist shooting up a Jewish preschool

and killing several children). Failure to motivate

might take the form of simply receiving insufficient

money or recruits from the constituency: The appeal

for support is falling on deaf ears, as has been the

case for Communist terrorist groups in Europe in

recent years. Misreading the mandate of the con-

stituency is a classic mistake; since the acts of

terror are vicarious blows struck on behalf of the

constituency, they must be aimed where the constit-

uency would like them to fall. Bombings that kill the

constituency’s children are obviously in danger of

misreading the mandate of the constituency (parti-

cularly among secular groups).

The Enemy: The Group or Population Against

Whom the Terrorism Is Conducted

92 Terrorism

Since terrorist groups are almost always incapable

of achieving the military defeat of their adversaries,

the acts of terror must aim at one of Clausewitz’s

‘‘centers of gravity,’’ namely, the political will of the

opposition. In practice this means creating suffi-

cient pain, aversion, or disincentive on the part of

the decision makers in the enemy authority to elicit

political change and even revolution. This is clearly

a tall order, though not at all impossible. In fact,

there are many cases of campaigns of terror ac-

complishing this very thing (e.g., in Palestine

[1948], Algeria [1962], Lebanon [2000], Sri Lanka

[2001], and Spain [2004]). For two reasons it is

usually easier to accomplish this goal in democratic

societies than in authoritarian ones. First, it is easier

to inflict harm on a population than on its leader-

ship. Second, the leadership of democratic socie-

ties is more responsive and subject to the will of

the population than authoritarian societies. Thus,

when terrorism occurs and the population is in-

jured, it is democratic leaders who generally must

concern themselves most with the consequences.

A cunning terrorist group uses acts of violence

to create or exploit fault lines between enemy de-

cision makers and the population they control.

This form of social influence campaign is almost

the exact inverse of the campaign aimed at the ter-

rorist group’s constituency: In the former, the

group is attempting to fracture and fragment

support for the ruling authority and its political

positions (e.g., maintaining a colonial outpost in a

distant land), while in the latter case the group is

trying to draw support from and unify often di-

verse groups and interests (e.g., to eject a colonial

power from native territory). Examples of simple

messages aimed at the enemy in acts of terror may

include the following:

� The colonial government is weak and cannot control its possessions.

� You can expect more of this. The resistance will continue to kill colonial representatives

until they depart. � Since you have placed us all under your yoke, all of the members of the colonial empire will

be made targets.

As we mentioned earlier, the durability and

capability of terrorist groups is often based directly

upon the social influence campaign aimed at their

constituency. The success or failure of the terror-

ism depends upon the effectiveness of the social

influence campaign aimed at the enemy. This

seems obvious, but it is often eclipsed by other

concerns: technology, criminality, rationality, body

counts, and so forth. These elements are import-

ant, but they do not determine the outcome of

terrorist campaigns.

Historical Terrorism

In the following historical survey we highlight

some of the key elements identified in the previous

section, specifically those that are critical to the

outcomes of terrorist campaigns. For a more com-

prehensive and detailed view of terrorism, there are

excellent textbooks and monographs covering

all aspects of historical terrorism, and interested

readers will find some suggested readings in the


Terrorism From Antiquity to World War II

Terrorism as acts of violence by marginal or

revolutionary movements has ancient roots, and,

though the particulars—the weapons and the

causes—have changed, the fundamental nature of

terrorism has not.

A group that would certainly be considered

terrorist by today’s prevailing standards were the

Zealots of first-century Judea. They opposed Ro-

man rule and conspired to topple it. Extreme ele-

ments among the Zealots assassinated Romans

and Roman collaborators in order to catalyze both

a reluctance among the indigenous populace to

work for or with the Romans and to effect a Roman

withdrawal in the long run. What makes these

assassinations terrorist acts and social influence

as we have defined them is the choice of location:

densely populated public areas, such as market-

places. Without a printing press (much less radio,

TV, the Internet, and the like), the only sure way of

quickly communicating a shocking act of violence

to a large number of people was to carry them out

in crowded public spaces. The Zealots knew that

their assassinations would never amount to a tell-

ing or even a painful military blow to the Roman

occupation, but they hoped the acts would

nevertheless bring about the desired political


As we have already stated, there is often more

than one audience for terrorist action; that is,

93What Is Terrorism?

terrorists usually attempt to influence more than

one group at a time with a single violent action.

Zealot violence was a medium of communicating

with distinct target audiences—Romans, their ac-

tual and potential Jewish collaborators, and other

Jews yearning to be relieved of the imperial yoke.

For the Romans, the message was a statement of

dedicated resistance and defiance; for actual and

potential collaborators it was a frightening warn-

ing; for other Jews it was an invitation to rally and a

vicarious act of insurrection. The simplicity and

ardor of the message, delivered in a violent and

shocking manner, elevated the status of the Zealots

from fringe group to leading element of the revolt

against Rome (A.D. 66–70).

The prototype for modern terrorism and ter-

rorists is found in the Narodnaya Volya (People’s

Will) movement of Tsarist Russia in the latter part

of the nineteenth century. The Narodnaya Volya

was composed of anarchists who followed in the

footsteps of prominent antitsarist revolutionaries

such as Mikhail Bakunin and Sergey Nechaev.

While many socialists and anarchists believed

in (peaceful) revolutionary change, Bakunin and

those who followed him felt that violence was the

key to beginning a powerful wave of political chaos

that would shatter the government.

The Narodnaya Volya carried out numerous

assassinations (including that of Tsar Alexander II)

to produce such an effect among the masses and

state agencies; it was not the violence, but rather its

psychological effect, that was their objective. How

was such an outcome to be produced? Just as a key

instrument of terrorism—dynamite—was a pro-

duct of the late nineteenth century, so too was

the second requisite component of terrorism: the

rotary press and the ability to mass-produce in-

expensive pamphlets and newspapers for public

consumption. As Schmid and de Graaf have noted

(1982), for marginal groups bent on catalyzing

political change, the debut of mass media created

an opportunity for ‘‘expressive violence,’’ in which

the savagery and its immediate consequences were

the instrument to an end. In the case of terrorism,

the end is always an extreme form of social influ-

ence: radical change in attitudes and behaviors.

From the Zealots to the Narodnaya Volya,

what makes the terrorist is the terrorism: This is

not an attempt at glibness but rather a recognition

that it is the ‘‘expressive’’ component of ‘‘expressive

violence’’ that transforms terrorism into an act of

persuasive communication. It is ‘‘propaganda by

the deed,’’ as nineteenth-century revolutionary

Paule Brousse termed it in an 1877 article of the

same name. This communication is no less than a

campaign of social influence.

Proxy, Anticolonial, and International

Terrorism: World War II to 1980

Terrorism became commonplace in the decades

following World War II. The major forces driving

this evolution were the Cold War, anticolonialism,

and the growth of international, televised media.

As a result of the Cold War, direct confronta-

tion between the competing superpowers of the

East Bloc and the West was avoided for the ob-

vious reason of preventing a battle that might es-

calate to a nuclear conflict. This led to a booming

market in proxy battles around the globe, replete

with a massive flow of monies and weaponry.

Besides installing and equipping murderous des-

pots with the means to engage in state terror (e.g.,

U.S. support to the shah of Iran), it also led

to the establishment of insurgent armed groups

throughout Latin America, Africa, Europe, and

Asia (e.g., Red Army Faction, Red Brigades). Many

of these groups engaged in a full range of terrorist

actions in the course of their struggles as they

sought to sever the existing government’s re-

lationship with its supporters in the general po-

pulation while building their own base of support

and legitimacy. As proxies for the United States

and the Soviets, these groups were able to generate

international shock waves and gain political ground

among the larger populace as a sure means of

gaining continued support from their sponsor (key


Closely linked to the advent of the Cold War

was the dissolution of colonial empires and the

founding of nationalist groups seeking to expel

foreign masters. In colonial outposts in Latin

America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the

French, English, German, Japanese, and other

empire-building nations suddenly found the

natives restless. In the case of the Germans and

the Japanese, the issue was who would devour the

pieces of their dismembered dominions. For na-

tionalist, anticolonial groups seeking to restore

sovereignty or seize power in their own countries,

the time was ripe, but their resources were limited,

and conventional warfare against the countries that

94 Terrorism

had survived World War II was out of the ques-

tion. Hence the resort to terrorism. Terrorist acts

would be used to force the colonial powers to re-

think the price of ownership while rallying in-

digenous support to the cause.

The final ingredient to the rise of terrorism

in the Cold War/post–World War II period was

the explosion in international media. In the early

nineteenth century, the fastest a message could be

carried depended on the speed of a horse, and its

reach was constrained by the number and range of

the riders. By the late nineteenth century, messages

were propagated instantaneously by wireless. With

the advent of mass radio and then television broad-

casting in the twentieth century came the ability to

inform large numbers of people quickly. Moreover,

the driving force behind much of the new mass

media was a profit motive—and with it a need to

grab and hold audiences. As the journalistic adage

goes, ‘‘Bad news is good news, good news is bad

news, and no news is also bad news.’’ Terrorist acts

are sensational and decidedly bad news and thus

perfect fodder for media outlets seeking sales,

readers, listeners, and viewers.

A prime example of terrorism in this period

is that used by the Zionist groups in Palestine.

As Menachem Begin has recounted in his auto-

biography, The Revolt (1972), Zionist groups stu-

died the British government’s decision-making

process in the battle against Irish separatism and

decided that a campaign of terror in the post–

World War II environment would weaken do-

mestic British support for a colonial presence in

Palestine. Further, these acts of terror would both

galvanize the Jewish population in the quest for

a sovereign Jewish state and drive fearful Arab

residents (Palestinians) into exile. The Zionist

groups reasoned that a campaign of terror would

be broadcast to a British public that was weary

of conflict and war and eager to be relieved of a

distant colonial outpost of little obvious value to

the nation. The Zionists believed that the public

would ultimately pressure the government to pull

out. Indeed, British authorities turned to the UN

for a solution that would relieve them of the in-

creasing human costs of colonial control and thus

became midwife to the civil war that brought about

the state of Israel.

Other examples of terrorist tactics in the post–

World War II period include the urban warfare

fought by the Algerian Front de Libération Natio-

nale (FLN) against their French colonial masters

(1954–1962) and by the Viet Cong against U.S.

invaders during the Vietnam War (1962–1975). In

both cases, small cells of insurgents planted bombs

and threw grenades into areas crowded with com-

batants and noncombatants alike in order to exact

a heavy human toll on the foreign occupiers. This

price would never grow to an amount that the

military decision makers could ill afford, but they

were not the population targeted for influence.

Rather, the cost in human lives brought about by

the terrorism would be transmitted by the inter-

national media to the French and U.S. populations

respectively, who in turn would exert pressure

on their leaders to forego further loss.

The Rise of Religious Terror:

1980 to the Present

Conventional terrorism is violent communication

aimed at a constituent population as well as an

enemy population, but religious terrorism adds

another audience: God. Under this model, terrorist

acts are considered holy acts that are performed

in the name of religious devotion, often to fulfill

sacred edicts or bring about apocalyptic scenarios.

This changes the calculus of terrorism signif-

icantly: Many of the constraints or earthly concerns

that attempted to match the deed to the audience’s

perceptions and cognitions are removed, eclipsed

by the absolutism of religious piety. As Hoffman

has noted (1995), secular or nationalist terrorist

groups act within the prevailing international po-

litical framework and wish to replace the existing

order with another one. Since earthly audiences

are involved, secular terror necessitates some de-

gree of adherence to international norms relating

to proportionality and precision of violence. Not

so for religious terror. ‘‘Winning’’ is not measured

in earthly (political, social, or economic) terms

but rather in theological terms, which tend to be

absolute, uncompromising, and not subject to

normative constraints.7 To religious terrorists,

killing is a sacred act, not a political act.

Terrorism of the religious sort still very much

includes a social influence component, but be-

cause the objective of political or social change

is reduced and the element of religious change

(martyrdom, apocalypse) is introduced, the aspect

of social influence is generally narrowed to polar-

ization and rallying. That is, the rhetoric of

95What Is Terrorism?

religious terrorism is uncompromising and divi-

sive, resulting in faith-based, simplistic, good-

versus-evil arguments. For the faithful or potential

recruits this is an opportunity to join the forces of

good; for those not swayed by the appeal, there is

only confrontation or acquiescence—compromise

is not possible. Consider, for example, the differ-

ence between two large, accomplished terrorist

groups: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)

and Hamas. As a predominately secular, ethnona-

tionalist group, the LTTE is willing to negotiate with

the Sri Lankan government; as a strictly religious

and anti-Zionist group, Hamas is rarely able or in-

clined to find common ground with the Israeli


One superb example of religious terrorism

today is Aum Shinrikyō. Between 1989 and 1995,

this Japanese group murdered roughly 100 people

and injured thousands, with the explicit intention

of starting an apocalyptic war that would kill

millions. Their goal was to usher in a new era that

would see existing civilization destroyed, creating

a blank slate that Aum could then use to create

a utopian successor society. By the time Japanese

authorities bestirred themselves to act against Aum,

it had acquired thousands of zealous members,

finances in excess of $100 million, extensive media

operations, as well as businesses and land holdings

in numerous countries. Aum scientists and en-

gineers had developed, weaponized, and attacked

civilians with anthrax bacillus, botulinum bacillus,

and several types of nerve gas, poisons, and mind-

altering drugs. Moreover, they had avidly been

pursuing nuclear weaponry in the former republics

of the Soviet Union. The leader and founder of

Aum Shinrikyō was Shoko Asahara (born Chizuo

Matsumoto), an undisputed and all-powerful guru,

a self-styled prophet and messiah with an escha-

tological worldview and an unshakable grip on his

followers. The acts of terror conducted by Aum

members were constrained only by the will and

approbation of God (as interpreted and related by


Of course, no discussion of contemporary re-

ligious terrorism can or should avoid al-Qaeda and

its affiliates. To understand the polarizing ideol-

ogy, language, and actions of al-Qaeda, one should

examine the lengthy treatises and polemics issued

by Osama bin Laden and others, including his

‘‘declaration of jihad against the United States’’

(1996), and Ayman Zawahiri’s ‘‘Knight Under the

Prophet’s Banner’’ (2001). An example of this lan-

guage from bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa (an opinion

issued by a Muslim scholar) suffices to illustrate

the principles outlined earlier, namely, that earthly

audiences and norms no longer establish the ap-

propriate guidelines for action:

The ruling to kill Americans and their allies—

civilians and military—is an individual duty for

every Muslim who can do it in every country in

which it is possible to do it. . . .We—with God’s

help—call on every Muslim who believes in

God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with

God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder

their money wherever and whenever you can

find them.

There is clearly little room for empathy, ne-

gotiation, compromise, or hesitation in bin Laden’s

message. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates use sacred vio-

lence as an instrument of social influence, but the

message and its parameters are inflexible and di-

visive. This means the constituency is limited to

Muslims who accept bin Laden’s authority and

reasoning; the enemy population will be everyone

else (most of whom are demonized or devalued

under al-Qaeda’s ideology). The third audience—

the divine—is characterized by al-Qaeda’s theol-

ogy as sanctioning exactly this sort of dichotomous

worldview and the unfettered violence that springs

from it.

Conclusion: The ‘‘Persuasiveness’’ of Terrorist Acts

Terrorism works. It works the way advertising and

marketing work; when an effective social influence

campaign is well designed and well executed and

when externalities do not interfere with or supersede

the persuasion attempt, audiences react as desired.

From the constituency audience, terrorist groups

receive recruits, money, and a wide variety of logis-

tical support. From the enemy audience, terrorist

groups can directly or indirectly wrest political

change, ranging from legitimacy and negotiation to

utter revolution. So, outside of hoping that terrorists

will undo their own cause by overreaching or be

hindered by an environment that disrupts their

campaign, is there anything else that can be done?

The answer is ‘‘yes.’’ Terrorism and terrorist

groups are vulnerable the way other forms of social

96 Terrorism

influence campaigns and their originators are

vulnerable. Consider the hundreds of billions of

dollars that are spent each year on advertising

and marketing campaigns within the United States

alone; some campaigns are poorly constructed, and

some are lost in the noise of the marketplace, but

others are mitigated or effectively neutralized by

competition and countercampaigns. For example,

the six largest cigarette manufacturers together

spent more than $11 billion on domestic adver-

tising in 2001 (‘‘FTC Cigarette Report for 2001,’’

2003). While they clearly do not employ violence

as an instrument of social influence, their goals are

not unlike those of terrorist groups in that they

both perceive an enemy audience and a constitu-

ency audience. Blum (1989) has aptly summarized

these goals of the cigarette manufacturers’ adver-

tising (social influence) campaigns:

� Recruit new smokers (constituency) � Sustain existing smoking ‘‘membership’’ (con- stituency)

� Obtain protection and facilitation from legis- lators and opinion leaders (constituency)

� Associate smoking with positive values and social goods such as personal independence

and self-sufficiency (constituency) � Pull former smokers back in (constituency), or neutralize them as adversaries (enemy)

� Neutralize antismoking forces such as jour- nalists and hostile legislators (enemy)

As powerful and pervasive as cigarette com-

panies’ social influence campaigns are, they can be

undone by countercampaigns and milieu control

(e.g., legislative action). These countermeasures

can work at every step of the Yale process model

(exposure, attention, comprehension, acceptance,

retention, and translation) and each of the Yale in-

dependent variables (source, target, message, and

medium). For example, countercampaigns can

� use fear-based messages (regarding health) to get smokers to quit and nonsmokers to never

start (Insko, Arkoff, & Insko, 1965) � affect the baseline social norms to prevent pro- smoking campaigns from controlling the mili-

eu (Worden & Flynn, 2002) � parasitize pro-smoking ads to reduce their ef- fectiveness (Cialdini, Demaine, Barrett, Sagar-

in, & Rhoads, in preparation). By ‘‘parasitize,’’

we mean employ similar motifs and formats

(e.g., the Marlboro Man) but with reversed

messages. � reduce the credibility and likeability of the cigarette companies and, by association, their

products (Goldman & Glantz, 1998).

These are just a few examples of counter-

campaigns that can be employed against the jug-

gernaut of cigarette advertising. They are made

possible by a careful analysis of the social influence

elements manipulated by cigarette advertising and

marketing campaigns, followed by the subsequent

crafting of disruptive countermeasures suited to

the analysis. We contend that a careful analysis of

terrorism as social influence campaigns will yield a

foundation for psychological countermeasures that

can mitigate or thwart the psychological effects of

terror as they propagate through the population

and the media. These countermeasures can take

the form of more effective risk communication by

governmental agencies, better reporting by jour-

nalists, increased resilience in the population as a

whole, better education of opinion leaders, a dis-

crediting of terrorist groups, and many others.

To illustrate these principles with an example

from successful counterterrorism campaigns, con-

sider the last bullet point above on potential coun-

tercampaigns: reducing the credibility and likeability

of the adversary and, by extension, its activities and

products. This tactic has been used, albeit somewhat

crudely and nonscientifically, in the past against

terrorist groups:

Emilio Aguinaldo, who headed an insurrection

against occupying U.S. forces in the Phi-

lippines at the start of the twentieth century,

was captured and induced to sign an oath of

loyalty to the United States. This greatly

reduced his stature among his constituents,

and the insurrection sputtered soon thereafter.

Abdullah Ocalan, who led the Kurdistan

Workers Party (Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan

[PKK]; 1984–1999) in terrorist acts against

Turkey in order to create an autonomous

Kurdish state, was captured. Turkish autho-

rities induced him to publicly plead for a

ceasefire and for his own life, which dimin-

ished his stature and credibility. As a result,

the PKK’s campaign soon ground to a halt.

Abimael Guzmán, who, during the 1980s, was

the leader of the powerful Sendero Luminoso

97What Is Terrorism?

(Shining Path) group of Peru, was captured in

1992. Paraded before the public in a cage and

induced by the authorities into publicly

pleading for his life and a ceasefire, Guzmán

suffered a tremendous loss of authority and

credibility among his constituency. Within 2

years of his arrest, thousands of Shining Path

guerrillas had turned themselves in under a

government amnesty program.


1. We use the term ‘‘terrorist group’’ to mean

simply any group or institution that carries out acts

of terrorism as we have defined them here. It is

the act and not the ideology that makes terrorists.

Moreover, terrorist acts are aimed at noncomba-

tants alone. Many governments label assaults against

them or their militaries as ‘‘terrorism,’’ but this is in-

accurate and propagandistic: Attacks on govern-

mental or military targets are guerrilla warfare, not


2. For more information, see Drolet and Aaker


3. Schemas are mental arrays of associated

ideas, characteristics, and perceptions. They are used

as cognitive shortcuts to reduce the burden of deep

thinking and to quicken reactions. This periph-

eral (versus central) processing of information

can have great utility—quickly associating smoke

with fire has survival value—but can also be prob-

lematic (Hass, 1981). Racial or ethnic stereotypes

are common examples of harmful schemas.

4. For more information on the how the envi-

ronment affects decision making, see Asch (1953);

Lasswell (1948); Janis (1982); and Petty and

Cacioppo (1986).

5. Source credibility is among the most complex

variables that figure in the outcome of persuasion

attempts. A careful summary of the issues and re-

search can be found in Petty and Cacioppo


6. ‘‘Cognitive load’’ is the significant encum-

brance of an individual’s working memory.

‘‘Ambient noise’’ refers to a low signal-to-noise


7. In an excellent example of this point,

White (2002) points to the lesson taught by the

biblical story of Joshua in the siege of Ai

(Joshua 8:24–28). God orders Joshua to kill

first the warriors of Ai and then every inhabi-

tant of the city—young and old, male and



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100 Terrorism

8 Psychological Aspects

of Suicide Terrorism

Ariel Merari

By a strict definition, a suicide terrorist attack is

an assault that is intended to achieve a political

objective and is performed outside the context of

a conventional war, in which the assailant inten-

tionally commits suicide while killing others. The

self-immolation element makes this form of ter-

rorism substantially different in both its psycholo-

gical foundations and potential consequences from

other terrorist attacks that involve high risk for the


Suicide terrorism constitutes a political and

strategic problem of considerable import. This ob-

servation seems obvious after the September 11,

2001, attacks in the United States. Yet even prior

to the attacks in New York and Washington, sui-

cide attacks had, on some occasions, far-reaching

political consequences. In 1983, attacks against

U.S. and French forces and diplomatic missions in

Lebanon resulted in the evacuation of the Multi-

national Force from that country. This step en-

abled the Syrian de facto takeover of the country

and, in the following years, had a vast influence on

Lebanese domestic and international politics. In

another arena, Palestinian suicidal terrorist attacks

in Israel in 1996 resulted in a change of govern-

ment and had a major deleterious impact on the

Middle Eastern peace process.

Suicide terrorist attacks attract much public

interest and concern. This phenomenon has al-

ways been surrounded by mystery and fear. The

fact that, unlike ordinary self-immolation, terrorist

suicide has been murderous and often directed

against the random public, naturally augments the

feeling of cryptic danger and the need to under-

stand it. In the absence of empirical research

on this phenomenon, the explanations offered

have been quite speculative. The most common

explanations have emphasized cultural factors.

Islamic religious fanaticism has been particularly

popular in this context (Taylor, 1988; Israeli,

1997; Hoffman, 1998). Taylor, for example, typi-

cally included the analysis of suicidal terrorism in a

chapter titled ‘‘fanaticism.’’ He finds the roots of

this behavior in the tradition of the Assassins and

attributes suicidal terrorism to Shiite fanaticism in

particular: ‘‘The forces that gave rise to the Assas-

sins remain and influence the Shi’ites today’’ (p.

109). Similarly, ‘‘the behaviours which we find so

difficult to understand (suicide bombing, for ex-

ample) have their origins in the kind of religious

practice which characterises Islamic fundamental-

ism, and especially shi’iteism’’ (p. 110).

Taylor, however, extends his account to in-

clude political suicides of other societies, notably


Western, such as those by members of the German

Red Army Faction in prison in the 1970s, the Irish

hunger strikes in Maze Prison in 1980 and 1981,

and the Jonestown mass suicide in 1978. His

broader explanation attributes this phenomenon to

social pressure and conformity that characterize

certain societies: ‘‘Both contemporary Shi’ite so-

ciety, and the Japanese society of the time, show

many attributes of intense control, with restric-

tions on extra-societal influences. In many respects

they are as ‘psychologically’ closed as the prisons

which sustained both the Baader-Meinhof and the

IRA suicides’’ (p. 120).

Raphael Israeli (1997) finds the basic ex-

planation of this phenomenon in the Islamic frame

of mind: ‘‘Turning to an Islamic frame of reference

for a definition, and perhaps a diagnosis, would

then appear imperative if we are to comprehend

the underlying motives of this sort of unparal-

leled mode of self-sacrifice’’ (p. 107). However, he

maintains (with no empirical evidence to support

his claim) that personality factors also play a role

in the making of a suicide terrorist. Specifically, he

speculates that suicide bombers share three com-

mon characteristics: They are young and have few

life responsibilities; they are unsuccessful or are

shunned by their family and society, so that they

feel isolated; and they have low self-esteem. Sui-

cide terrorists, according to Israeli, ‘‘may be some-

what depressed and in search of easy solu-

tions to their problems. Unsuccessful, perhaps

self-despising, they find solace in becoming mar-

tyrs, thus almost instantly and mythically trans-

forming frustration into glory, failure into victory

and self-depreciation into public adoration’’

(p. 106).

Other explanations ascribed the phenomenon

to indoctrination, even brainwashing, in the sense

of persuading ‘‘uninformed youth’’ to commit

suicide in the service of their advocated cause

(Post, 2001). In an earlier study (Merari, 1990) I

attributed politically motivated suicide, particu-

larly cases of group suicide such as Massada (AD

73) and the Irish chain suicide of 1980 and 1981,

to situational factors, notably group pressure,

group commitment, and the influence of a char-

ismatic leader, as well as to personality factors.

These explanations are not entirely compatible

with factual evidence that has accumulated on

suicide terrorism.


Several writers have maintained that suicide ter-

rorism is an ancient phenomenon, claiming that it

was used by groups such as the Jewish Sicarii of the

first century and the Muslim hashashin (Order of

Assassins) of the eleventh through the thirteenth

centuries (Sprinzak, 2000; Schweitzer, 2001; Atran,

2003). This claim is erroneous since these groups

carried out attacks that involved great risk for the

perpetrators, sometimes their almost sure death,

but they were not suicide in the strict sense of

self-immolation. As much as recorded evidence is

concerned, true suicide terrorist attacks, in which

the attackers kill themselves while killing others,

are a modern phenomenon. The first recorded case

of a suicide terrorist attack was the car bombing of

the Iraqi embassy in Beirut on December 15, 1981,

although as a methodical terrorist tactic, they were

first used in Lebanon in 1983 by radical Islamic

groups that later formed Hizballah.

A simple count of suicide attacks around the

globe shows an alarming rise in recent years (see

Figure 8.1). Of the 583 suicide attacks that were

carried out around the world from 1981 to 2004,

435 of them (75%) took place between 2000 and


Indeed, since the first wave of suicide attacks

carried out in Lebanon by Hizballah in 1983, this

tactic has been espoused by many other groups

around the globe. These include eight groups in

Lebanon (six of them Lebanese and two Palesti-

nian), four Palestinian groups in Israel’s occupied

territories, two Egyptian groups, the Kurdish La-

bor Party (PKK), the Turkish Revolutionary Peo-

ple’s Liberation Front (a left-wing group), Chechen

rebels, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), Islamic militant

groups in Kashmir, al-Qaeda, a militant Islamic

group in Morocco, and anti-American groups in

Iraq. Most of these have carried out only a small

number of suicide assaults. Only a few have em-

barked on a systematic campaign of suicide attacks

as a central method in their armed struggle. Table

8.1 shows the number of suicide attacks by

country from 1981 through April 2005. The table

also shows the number of people who committed

terrorist suicide, as some attacks have involved

multiple suicide attackers.

So far, suicide attacks have taken place in 30

countries. However, the great majority—nearly

102 Terrorism

88%—have been carried out in only 6 countries:

Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Israel, Turkey, Russia, and Iraq.

In fact, 73% of the world’s tally have taken place in

only 3 countries, namely Sri Lanka, Israel, and Iraq,

and Israel and Iraq alone account for 63% of the

world’s total. These facts highlight an important

characteristic of the nature of the spread of suicide

terrorism as a terrorist tactic. Although the overall

frequency of suicide attacks has been on the rise

since this tactic first appeared in Lebanon in the

1980s, suicide terrorism does not spread in a fashion

similar to the growth rate of the use of new tech-

nologies, such as the Internet or cellular phones.

Rather, it is restricted to places where acute, violent

conflicts are being waged, and in these places, it is

limited to the duration of the acute struggle. It is true,

however, that the likelihood that suicide attacks will

be adopted as a tactic in an insurgent struggle is

greater today than ever before. In this sense it seems

that this tactic has become a trend, especially (but

not exclusively) among militant Islamic groups.

Nevertheless, as demonstrated by the 9/11

events, the frequency of attacks is not the most

important factor in creating the impact of suicide

terrorism. Extremely large numbers of casualties

result when the suicide method is coupled with

other characteristics of the group, namely, the abi-

lity to acquire and use a large quantity of ex-

plosives (or other means of causing mass casual-

ties), the selection of densely populated targets,

and smart planning that makes it possible for the

group to devise original modes of attack and cir-

cumvent defenses.

The Profile of Suicide Terrorists

Descriptions of the profiles of suicide terrorists

relate to two types of data: demographic details and

psychological characteristics. Whereas the demo-

graphic descriptors, such as age and gender, are

relatively easy to obtain, psychological features,

notably personality traits and motivations, are not

readily accessible.

The numerous descriptions of the psycholo-

gical (as distinguished from demographic) char-

acteristics of suicide bombers offered so far have

by and large been speculative, conjecturing from

biographical details (e.g., Hudson, 1999; Wein-

berg, Pedahzur, & Canetti-Nisim (2003); Cronin,

2003; Kimhi & Even, 2004; Holmes, 2005; Ricolfi,

2005). Very few of the reports have been based

on interviews with would-be suicide bombers or

with their families (Andoni, 1997; Hassan, 2001).

1 1 6 2


3 2 5 3 3 6 2 10 9

18 16 8

15 20


61 68














19 81

19 83

19 85

19 87

19 89

19 91

19 93

19 95

19 97

19 99

20 01

20 03


N o

. o f

at ta

ck s


Figure 8.1. Suicide attacks by year.

103Psychological Aspects of Suicide Terrorism

Interviews with would-be suicide bombers were

conducted by nonpsychologists and have not uti-

lized psychological tests. The common conclusion

that suicide bombers are psychologically ‘‘normal’’

should be treated with caution. Whereas acute

psychosis (e.g., schizophrenia or depression) would

probably be detected by a layperson, diagnosing

more subtle personality disorders requires thorough

clinical interviews and personality tests. The pre-

sence of these kinds of disorders is not likely to

be revealed in an interview by nonprofessionals.

Psychological data on suicide terrorists of most

groups have not been published. Since 1983 I

have collected data on suicide terrorism around

the globe from a variety of sources, mainly media

reports that included demographic and biographi-

cal details of suicides, sometimes based on in-

terviews with the suicides’ families. Valuable in-

formation was gained from interviews with jailed

would-be suicides. Particularly useful as a basis

for psychological autopsy was a systematic set of

data on 34 of the 36 Palestinian suicide terrorists

Table 8.1. Number of suicide attacks and attackers by country

and period, as of April 30, 2005

Country Period No. of Suicide Attacks No. of Suicide Attackers

Afghanistan 2001–2004 6 7

Argentina 1992–1994 2 2

Bangladesh 2001 2 4

Bolivia 2004 1 1

China 1998–2002 3 3

Croatia 1995 1 1

Egypt 1993–2005 5 6

India 1991–2001 9 9

Indonesia 2002–2004 4 5

Iraq 1988–2005 256 291

Israel 1988–2005 175 195

Kenya 1998–2002 2 4

Kuwait 1983–1985 2 2

Lebanon 1981–1999 41 41

Morocco 1995–2003 6 13

Pakistan 1995–2004 15 20

Philippines 2003 1 1

Portugal 1983 1 5

Qatar 2005 1 1

Russia/Chechnya 2000–2004 33 40

Saudi Arabia 2001–2004 8 15

Spain 2004 1 7

Sri Lanka 1987–2004 68 113

Tanzania 1998 1 1

Tunisia 2002 1 1

Turkey 1996–2004 25 26

Uganda 1998 1 1

USA 2001 5 20

Uzbekistan 2004 4 6

Yemen 2000–2002 2 4

Total 1981–2005 682 845

Note: Counts of the number of suicide attacks in Sri Lanka vary considerably, presumably because of differences in the definition of a suicide attack.

104 Terrorism

from 1993 to 1998. These data were based on

interviews with family members (parents and sib-

lings) of the suicides. Other data included inter-

views with people who attempted to carry out

suicide attacks but failed and with Hamas and

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) trainers of suicide

bombers. Data on suicide terrorists in Israel after

1998 and on suicide attackers in Lebanon from

1983 to 1989 (almost all of the suicide attacks in

Lebanon took place within this time frame) are

based mainly on media sources (and include some

demographic characteristics), as well as on inter-

views with jailed would-be suicides.

Demographic Characteristics


The mean age of the Lebanese suicide bombers

was 21, and the age range was 16–28. The mean

age of the Palestinian suicides prior to the second

intifada was 22, with a range of 18–38. The age

range of the Palestinian suicides in the current

intifada was somewhat broader (17–53), but the

average remained the same: 22. Two-thirds of

them were between 18 and 23 years old. Pape

(2005:208) reported that the average age of the

LTTE suicides was 21.9. The age range of the fe-

male PKK suicides was 17–27, and the males were

18–40 years old. The mean age of the actual and

would-be male suicides combined was 27 (Ergil,

2001). The age range of the al-Qaeda 9/11 suicides

was reported as 20–33 (Schweitzer and Shay,


Marital Status

Data for the Lebanese sample are lacking, but

clearly almost all of the suicides were single. In

the 1993–1998 Palestinian sample, 31 (91%) were

single (moreover, none of them was engaged to

be married), and three were married (only one of

them had children). During the second intifada

(which started on September 29, 2000, and is

still going on at the time of this writing), the

proportion of married suicide bombers remained

below 10%. By the 1997 Palestinian Authority

(PA) census, the median age at first marriage

was 23 (Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics,

1997). The fact that almost all of the suicides

have been single may suggest that unmarried

persons are more willing to volunteer for suicide


However, in the Palestinian case, it has also been

the policy of the organizations to refrain from re-

cruiting married people for such missions. In a study

of the demographic characteristics of Hizballah

members killed in action (most of them were not

suicides), Hurwitz (1999) found that, of those whose

marital status was known, only 45% were single.

Hurwitz notes, however, that Hizballah’s leadership

preferred to recruit unmarried youth, but this policy

was incongruent with the Lebanese Shiite custom

of marrying young. Martin Kramer (1991) has also

noted that Hizballah’s ‘‘window of opportunity’’ for

recruiting a youngster for military activity was rather

narrow because the Lebanese custom of marrying

young allows the organization only a few years for

training and participation in operations. Thus, al-

though the willingness to embark on suicide mis-

sions is presumably higher among young, unmarried

people, both marital status and age of the suicides

seem to reflect Hizballah’s policy.


In the Lebanese case, 38 of the suicides were males,

and 7 were females (all of the latter were sent by

secular groups). All of the Palestinian suicides

prior to the second intifada were males. This,

however, was a result of the fact that, until re-

cently, the Palestinian organizations that used

suicide attacks were religious groups, which ob-

jected to the use of women in combat missions.

During the second intifada the secular groups of

Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation

of Palestine (PFLP) also espoused suicide attacks.

After Fatah started using women (as well as men)

for suicide missions, the religious PIJ and Hamas

followed suit in a few cases. Nevertheless, the

percentage of females among Palestinian suicide

bombers remained very small, less than 4%. It is

noteworthy that left-wing Turkish and Kurdish

groups, as well as the Tamil Tigers, have used

women as often as men for suicide attacks. In the

PKK, 11 of the 15 terrorist suicides between 1995

and 1999 were women (Ergil, 2001). In the LTTE

there is a special women’s suicide unit, called

‘‘Birds of Freedom’’ (Joshi, 2000), and about one-

third of the suicide attacks have been carried out

by women (Schweitzer, 2001; Chandran, 2001).

Thus, the greater number of male suicides in the

105Psychological Aspects of Suicide Terrorism

Lebanese and Palestinian cases reflects only the

preference of religious Islamic groups.

Socioeconomic Status

Reliable data are available only for the 1993–1998

Palestinian sample. In this study, the economic

level of the suicides’ families was assessed by the

interviewer on the basis of her extensive acquain-

tance with the living conditions of the Palestinians

in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In general,

the economic status of the Palestinian suicides’

families represents a cross-section of the Palesti-

nian society in the Palestinian Occupied Terri-

tories. In the 1993–1998 sample, the 34 families

were distributed as follows: very poor, 12%; poor,

21%; lower middle class, 26%; middle class, 32%;

upper class, 9%.


The education level of the suicides at the time of

their suicidal attack was higher than that of the

general Palestinian society. Of the suicides studied,

26% had at least a partial university education. In

comparison, according to the Palestinian Central

Bureau of Statistics (2002) data, 11.9% of the

general Palestinian population had some education

beyond high school. Table 8.2 shows the dis-

tribution of the suicides’ education level.

Refugees Versus Nonrefugees

Whereas 21% of the Palestinian population in the

Territories live in refugee camps (Arzt, 1997, p.

60; Shavit and Banna, 2001), prior to the second

intifada they were responsible for 56% of the sui-

cides, more than twice their proportion in the

population. Thus, living in a refugee camp should

be regarded as an important contributing factor to

the likelihood of committing a suicide attack. This

phenomenon is true for both the West Bank and

the Gaza Strip: In each of these regions, refugee

camps’ residents are represented among the sui-

cides at more than twice their share of the gener-

al population. Because no relationship has been

found between economic status and participation

in suicide attacks, the influence of being a refugee

is presumably not due to the greater economic

hardship associated with the refugee status. Ra-

ther, it probably reflects the greater militancy of

refugees’ descendents and the greater support for

Hamas and Islamic Jihad among them.


Suicide attacks in Lebanon were initially carried

out by the radical Shiite groups, which eventually

formed Hizballah. For this reason the phenomen-

on of suicide terrorism, especially the Middle

Eastern brand, has been associated in public per-

ception with religious fanaticism. This notion has

also permeated academic writings. However, by

1986 it became clear that nearly two-thirds of the

suicide attacks in Lebanon were carried out by

secular groups (Merari, 1990).

Prior to the second intifada, suicide attacks by

Palestinians were carried out only by militant re-

ligious groups (two-thirds of them by Hamas

and one-third by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad). In

the second intifada (‘‘al-Aqsa intifada’’), two se-

cular groups—Fatah and the PFLP—have also re-

sorted to suicide attacks. By April 2005, these two

secular groups combined had been responsible for

27% of the suicide attacks in the second intifada.

The conclusion that religious fanaticism is

neither a necessary nor a sufficient factor in suicide

terrorist attacks gains further support from the

fact that several other nonreligious groups have

resorted to this tactic. Thus, the Tamil Tigers

(LTTE), a group that has carried out numerous

suicide attacks, is composed of Hindus and moti-

vated by nationalist-separatist sentiments rather

than by religious fanaticism (Hopgood, 2005:47–

48). Suicide attacks have also been carried out by

Marxist (and therefore clearly nonreligious) groups

such as the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish Re-

volutionary People’s Liberation Front.

Table 8.2. Education level of Palestinian suicides and of the general Palestinian population (percentage)

Education No schooling Partial elementary Elementary High school Partial university Full university

Suicides 0 2.9 8.8 62 23.5 2.9

General Population 10.5 29.2 25.3 23.0 11.9

106 Terrorism

Revenge for Personal Suffering

Some observers have suggested that the suicides

have been motivated by the wish to inflict revenge

for suffering that they had personally experienced

(Joshi, 2000; Fisk, 2001). Whereas this explana-

tion is clearly incorrect in the case of the Sep-

tember 11 attackers, it may still be true with regard

to suicide attacks in most other places, such as

Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, and Sri Lanka. This ques-

tion was directly examined in the study of the

1993–1998 Palestinian suicides. In that study, the

suicides’ families were asked about events that

could presumably provide a reason for a personal

grudge. These included the killing of a close family

member by Israeli forces, the killing of a friend, the

wounding or beating of the suicide in clashes with

Israeli soldiers, and the arrest of the suicide.

Analysis of the results suggests that a personal

grudge has not been a necessary factor and appar-

ently not even a major one in initiating the wish to

embark on a suicide mission, although in all prob-

ability it was a contributing factor in some of the

cases. Thus, in only 1 of the 34 cases, a close family

member of the suicide had been killed by Israeli

forces; however, in 15 cases the interviewees men-

tioned that a friend of the suicide had been killed

prior to the suicide mission. In 7 cases a close family

member (a father or a brother) had been jailed. With

regard to the suicide’s personal encounters, in 16 of

the cases the suicide had been beaten or wounded in

clashes with Israeli forces during demonstrations.

Eighteen of the suicides had been jailed, most of

them for short periods of time for minor charges,

such as participation in violent demonstrations.

In assessing these findings as indicative of

personal trauma, one should remember that most

of the Palestinian youth were involved in vari-

ous aspects of the intifada in activities such as

stone throwing, demonstrating, distributing leaf-

lets, painting graffiti, and enforcing strikes. In

other words, this part of the suicides’ personal

history does not distinguish them from the average

Palestinian youngster in the period under consid-

eration. Indeed, 19 of the suicides were described

by their families as ‘‘very active’’ during the in-

tifada, and 8 were described as ‘‘active.’’ In most

cases, therefore, a high level of militancy preceded

a personal trauma, although such trauma might

later add to the already existing hatred and desire

for revenge.

Personality Factors and Psychopathology

In none of the cases did interviews with would-be

suicides or parents and siblings’ descriptions of their

personality and behavior (for complete suicides)

suggest the existence of a major psychopathology.

No evidence was found for hospitalization in a men-

tal institution or outpatient psychological treatment.

Furthermore, the descriptions did not reveal a com-

mon personality type for all or most of the suicides

(however, relying solely on family descriptions was

not a sufficiently sensitive method for characterizing

personality types). Still, significantly, no evidence

was found for the existence of risk factors for suicide.

Three main risk factors are generally recognized in

psychiatry and psychology: the existence of affective

disorders (especially depression), substance abuse,

and a history of suicide attempts (Lester & Lester

1971; Barraclough&Hughes, 1987; Klerman, 1987;

World Health Organization, 1993; Jacobs, Brewer,

& Klein-Benheim, 1999; Linehan, 1999; Miller &

Paulsen, 1999; Moscicki, 1999). None of these was

present among the Palestinian suicides of the 1993–

1998 period. It is, of course, possible that more

sensitive techniques would have revealed more

subtle suicidal ideation in at least some of the ter-

rorist suicides.

Furthermore, existing sociological and psy-

chological theories of suicide seem to be inap-

propriate for explaining suicidal terrorism. A full

survey of the compatibility of suicide theories with

the phenomenon of terrorist suicide is beyond the

scope of this chapter, and I therefore address this

issue rather succinctly. Of the sociological theories,

the one that comes closest to explaining this phe-

nomenon is Durkheim’s concept of altruistic sui-

cide,more specifically, his subcategory of ‘‘optional’’

altruistic suicide (Durkheim, 1951). Optional al-

truistic suicide comprises cases in which suicide is

considered a merit by society but is not obligatory,

such as the Japanese Samurai custom of seppuku,

or hara-kiri.

However, the suitability of Durkheim’s con-

cept to the phenomenon of terrorist suicide is

questionable on several grounds. Durkheim used

the concept of altruistic suicide to characterize

societies, not individuals. He explained the dif-

ferences in the suicide rates of various societies

by the attributes of these societies. He inferred

the motivation for committing suicide from the

107Psychological Aspects of Suicide Terrorism

characteristics of the society to which the suicides

belonged. Thus, he characterized suicides in the

military as ‘‘altruistic’’ because of the characteristics

that he attributed to the army, such as obedience

and a sense of duty. He perceived altruistic suicide

as a stable rather than a situational characteristic

of the society in question. Altruistic suicide char-

acterizes societies that are highly ‘‘integrated,’’ in

Durkheim’s terms (i.e., very cohesive) and there-

fore exert much influence on their members.

Hence, to apply Durkheim’s concept of altruistic

suicide to the phenomenon of terrorist suicide is to

attribute these suicides to the traits of the societies

in which they occurred—a religious group, an

ethnic community, a caste, or a social organization

such as the army.

Terrorist suicide, however, has taken place in

very diverse societies. In addition to the Lebanese

Shi’ites, Lebanese Sunnis, secular Lebanese, Pa-

lestinians, Egyptians, Armenians, Marxist Kurds,

and Tamil Hindus, suicide for a political cause

has also been committed by communist Germans,

Catholic Irish, and Protestant Americans ( John

Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln,

committed suicide after the murder). It can be

argued that the important factor is not the larger

social unit—the ethnic group, religious group, or

nation—but the microsociety of a terrorist group

itself that provides the social milieu amenable to

generating self-sacrificial suicide, in accordance

with Durkheim’s altruistic variety.

Highly cohesive and rigorous, they create rules

of conduct and behavior ethics that members are

expected to abide and live by. Yet, the great ma-

jority of the terrorist groups, regardless of their

structure, have not resorted to suicide attacks at

all. Furthermore, there is no evidence that terrorist

groups, which maintain a particularly strict dis-

cipline and a tight structure, have resorted to

suicide tactics more than the looser groups. On the

contrary: Among the Palestinian groups, the Pop-

ular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

has a much tighter structure and discipline than

Hamas. Yet, the PFLP has generated only a few

suicide attacks, whereas Hamas has carried out


Psychological theories of suicide cannot read-

ily explain the phenomenon of terrorist suicide

either. Psychoanalytic theories view suicide as a

result of an ‘‘unconscious identification of the self

with another person who is both loved and hated.

Thus it becomes possible to treat oneself, or some

part of oneself (typically one’s disavowed body), as

an alien and an enemy’’ (Maltsberger, 1999, p. 73).

While my study did not provide tools for ex-

amining the suicides’ unconscious processes, no

external supportive evidence of this theoretical

explanation of suicide was found either. A more

specific form of this approach was offered by Zil-

boorg (1996), who has stressed the importance of

identification with an important person who died

when the suicide was a child. The data do not

support this theory. In the Palestinian sample, for

instance, only 6 (out of 34) of the suicides lost a

parent prior to carrying out the attack (at ages that

ranged from 2 to 10). It is unlikely, although

theoretically possible, though, that the suicides lost

other psychologically important persons in child-

hood. But these theories would find it hard to

explain the waves of suicide terrorism in the Le-

banese, Palestinian, and Sri Lankan cases, as well

as the episodes of cluster suicides, such as the

September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States,

the Irish hunger strikers in 1981, and the cases

of Palestinian suicide attacks in duo or trio.

Whereas psychoanalytical theories have basi-

cally viewed suicide as aggression (directed in-

ternally), other psychological theories emphasize

the element of despair. In this view, the wish to

commit suicide is almost always caused by intense

psychological pain that is generated by frustrated

psychological needs. Suicide is committed by

those who view it as the best way to stop the pain.

The prevailing emotion of suicides is the feeling

of hopelessness-helplessness (Shneidman, 1985,

1999). Several other researchers (e.g., Farber, 1968;

Beck, Kovacs, & Weissman, 1996) also under-

scored the role of hopelessness in generating the

wish to commit suicide. The greater the feeling

of hope, the less the likelihood of suicide. Hope is

the perceived ability to influence and to be sa-

tisfied by the world. This concept of hope, how-

ever, relates to people’s expected ability to function

within their own social milieu, rather than to a

general communal situation, such as being under

occupation. Lester and Lester (1971, p. 45) noted

in this regard that suicidal people tend to see not

only the present but also the future as gloomy,

expecting to be socially isolated in the future. With

regard to terrorist suicide, however, whereas it can

be argued that at least in some cases the suicide

attacks are motivated by despair that exists at the

108 Terrorism

national or community level and is associated with

frustrated national needs, the families’ interviews

revealed no evidence that those who carried out

the suicide attacks suffered from despair at the

individual level (although it is possible that the

interviews failed to discover more subtle person-

ality characteristics and motivations that would

have surfaced in psychological interviews and tests

administered to the suicides themselves). It is no-

teworthy in this respect that, in times of war, when

the whole community is under duress, suicide

rates tend to go down (Lester & Lester, 1971, pp.


The profiles of the terrorist suicides gleaned

from the interviews did not resemble typical sui-

cide candidates, as described in the literature. By

their family members’ accounts, 47% of the 1993–

1998 Palestinian suicides occasionally said that

they wished to carry out an act of martyrdom, and

44% used to talk about paradise. However, the

young people who eventually committed suicide

had no record of earlier attempts of self-immola-

tion and were not at odds with their family and

friends, and most of them expressed no feelings

of being fed up with life. In the suicides’ notes

and last messages, the act of self-destruction was

presented as a form of struggle rather than as an

escape. There was no sense of helplessness or

hopelessness. On the contrary, the suicide was

presented as an act of projecting power rather than

expressing weakness. It thus seems that most ter-

rorist suicides in the Palestinian sample were not

‘‘suicidal’’ in the usual psychological sense.

Terrorist Groups as Suicide Production Lines

The preceding sections suggest that neither demo-

graphic nor individual psychological characteristics

can in themselves explain the phenomenon of ter-

rorist suicide.

An important clue to understanding the phe-

nomenon of terrorist suicide can be found in the

hunger strike of 10 Irish Republican Army (IRA) and

Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) members in

Belfast’s Maze Prison in 1981. These Irish national-

ists, led by Bobby Sands, starved themselves to death

one after the other when their demand to be re-

cognized as political (rather than common criminal)

prisoners was rejected by the British government.

Although this event does not qualify as an act of

suicidal terrorism because the hunger strikers did

not kill anyone but themselves, it was an act of self-

destruction for a political cause and, as such, can

teach us much about the psychological mechanisms

involved in suicide terrorism.

Self-starvation is an extremely demanding way

to die, much more difficult than the instantaneous

death caused by a self-inflicted explosion. It took

the hunger strikers from 50 to more than 70 days

to die. During that time mothers, wives, and priests

begged at least some of the hunger strikers to stop

their self-destruction (Beresford, 1987). The force

that led them to continue their strike to the very

end, ignoring all pressures, must have been very

strong. What was this force that sustained their

determination? The assumption that all ten were

suicidal persons who happened to be in jail at the

same time is rather implausible. It is also unlikely

that they were motivated by religious fanaticism

and the promise of a place in paradise.

The only way to understand this frightening

demonstration of human readiness for self-sacrifice

is to look at the group’s influence on its individual

members. The suicide was a product of a group

contract that one could not break. The group

pressure in that situation was as strong as the

group pressure that led hundreds of thousands of

soldiers in World War I to charge against enemy

machine gun fire and artillery to almost sure death.

And it was even stronger once the first hunger

striker died. From that point on, the contract to die

could no longer be broken because the person who

could release the next person in line from his

commitment was already dead.

A more comprehensive picture of the process

of making suicide bombers was gained from data

collected on Palestinian suicide terrorists, includ-

ing interviews with trainers for these missions and

surviving would-be suicides. The findings of these

data are supported by circumstantial evidence

from suicide terrorism in other countries. The data

suggest that there are three main elements in the

preparation of a suicide bomber by an organiza-

tion, namely, indoctrination, group commitment,

and a personal pledge.


Throughout the preparation for a suicide mission,

the candidates are subjected to indoctrination by

authoritative members of the group. Although the

109Psychological Aspects of Suicide Terrorism

candidates are presumably convinced from start of

the justification of the cause for which they are

willing to die, the indoctrination is intended to

further strengthen their motivation and to keep

it from dwindling. Indoctrination in the religious

Palestinian groups (Hamas and PIJ) included na-

tionalist themes (Palestinian humiliation by Israel,

stories of Arab glory in the days of Mohammad and

the Caliphate, examples of heroic acts during the

Islamic wars) and religious themes (the act of self-

sacrifice is Allah’s will, and the description of

the rewards guaranteed a place in paradise for


Group Commitment

The mutual commitment of candidates for suicide

operations to carry out a self-sacrificial attack is a

very powerful motivation to stick to the mission

despite hesitations and second thoughts. The chain

suicide of the Irish hunger strikers in 1981 is an

example of this social contract, which is extremely

hard to break (Merari, 1990). A similar situation

exists when several members of a terrorist cell

prepare together for carrying out suicide attacks,

such as the September 11, 2001, attacks in the

U.S., the multiple attacks in Morocco on May 16,

2003, and the London suicide attacks of July 7,

2005. Palestinian suicides are usually recruited and

prepared individually for their mission. Some-

times, however, two or three youngsters decide

jointly to carry out a suicide attack and undergo

the preparations together.

In the LTTE, both male and female suicides

have been trained in special ‘‘Black Tigers’’ units.

Most likely they are also bonded in a social con-

tract to carry out the suicidal mission. In fact, the

power of the group commitment and the inability

to break it formed the basis of the willingness of

the Japanese pilots in World War II to fly on ka-

mikaze missions. The last letters of the kamikazes

to their families, written shortly before they took

off for their last flight, indicated that, although

some of them went on their suicidal attack en-

thusiastically, others regarded it as a duty that they

could not evade (Inoguchi & Nakajima, 1958, pp.


Personal Commitment

Many Middle Eastern groups have adopted a rou-

tine of releasing a videotape to the media shortly

after a suicide attack. In addition, after the

operation, the organization usually presents these

tapes to the suicide’s family as a farewell message.

Typically, in this tape the suicide is seen with rifle

in hand (and, in Islamic groups, a Koran in the

other hand), declaring his intention to go on the

suicide mission. This act is not only meant for

propaganda. It is primarily a ceremony intended

to establish the candidate’s irrevocable personal

commitment to carry out the suicide attack. This

ritual constitutes a point of no return.

Having committed himself in front of a tele-

vision camera (the candidate is also asked at that

time to write farewell letters to his family and

friends, which are kept by the group along with

the videotape for release after the completion of

the mission), the candidate cannot possibly renege

on his promise. In fact, in both Hamas and PIJ,

from that point on, the candidate is formally re-

ferred to as ‘‘the living martyr’’ (al-shahid al-hai).

This title is often used by the candidates them-

selves in the opening sentence of the video state-

ment, which routinely starts this way: ‘‘I am [the

candidate’s name], the living martyr.’’ At this stage,

the candidate is seemingly in a mental state of a

living dead person and has already resigned from


Public Support

The magnitude of public support for suicide op-

erations seems to affect both the terrorist group’s

willingness to use this tactic and the number of

volunteers for suicide missions. Most, if not all,

terrorist groups that have used suicide attacks are

not indifferent to the opinions and attitudes of

what they view as their constituency—the popu-

lation whose interests they claim to serve and

from which they recruit their members. In

choosing tactics and targets, the groups tend to act

within the boundaries of their constituency’s ap-

proval. During the last 6 months of 1995, for ex-

ample, Hamas refrained from carrying out suicide

attacks because its leadership realized that such

actions would not be supported by the Palestinian

population at that time and would thus have had

an adverse effect on the organization’s popularity.

In the Palestinian case, public support for terrorist

attacks against Israel in general and for suicide

attacks in particular has waxed and waned since

the Oslo agreement of 1993, ranging from as low

as 20% support in May 1996 to more than 70% in

110 Terrorism

May 2002 (Center for Palestine Research and

Studies, 2000; Jerusalem Media and Communica-

tion Centre, 2002; Palestinian Center for Policy

and Survey Research, 2002).

The great increase in the frequency of suicide

attacks during the second intifada, al-Aqsa inti-

fada, reflects the greater willingness of Palestinian

youth to volunteer or to be recruited for what the

community generally regards as acts of ultimate

patriotism and heroism. Songs praising the shahids

are the greatest hits, the walls in the streets and

alleys of Palestinian towns in the West Bank and

the Gaza Strip are covered with graffiti applauding

them, and their actions are mimicked in children’s

games. In this atmosphere, not only do the ter-

rorist groups perceive a public license to continue

the suicide attacks, but they also have a constant

flow of youngsters ready to become human bombs.

The role of the preparation of the suicide candidate

is to make sure that the youngsters who, because

of social pressure, have said ‘‘yes’’ to an offer to

become a shahid (or even an enthusiastic volun-

teer) would not have second thoughts and change

their mind.

The importance of public attitude notwith-

standing, it should be emphasized that so far there

has not been even a single case of a person who

carried out a true terrorist suicide attack for a po-

litical cause on an independent, personal whim. In

every case it was an organization that decided to

use this tactic, chose the target and the time, pre-

pared the explosive charge, and arranged the lo-

gistics necessary for getting the human bomb to the

target. Evidently, therefore, the terrorist group’s

decision to use suicide attacks as a tactic and the

group’s influence on the candidates are the key

elements in this phenomenon.

Coping With the Psychological Effects of Suicide Terrorism

Terrorism in general and suicide attacks in parti-

cular constitute a major source of stress. This sec-

tion deals with the ways that potential targets have

adopted to deal with this stress. As Israel has faced

a continuous series of suicide terrorist attacks since

1993, it is an appropriate case in point. Suicide

attacks have exacerbated the Israeli-Palestinian con-

flict and have had a significant adverse political

effect on the peace process. They have also had a

deleterious impact on the economy. This final sec-

tion, however, deals only with their individual

psychological effects and the ways that Israel has

coped with them.

Terrorist events are known to be a source of

psychological trauma. In addition to acute stress

disorder, which appears immediately following

such an event, a longer-term posttraumatic stress

disorder (PTSD) emerges in some of those exposed

to the traumatic event. In a review of several studies

of PTSD among people in various countries who

witnessed a terrorist attack, Gidron (2002) found

an average PTSD rate of 28.2%. Symptoms of

posttraumatic stress disorder may appear not only

among those present at the site of an attack but also

among some of those who consider themselves as

potential victims or who are exposed to the event

through the mass media or personal accounts by

relatives and friends. Studies conducted after the

9/11/ attacks in New York found PTSD symptoms

among people who had not personally witnessed

the attack (Cohen Silver, Holman, McIntosh, Pou-

lin, & Gil-Rivas, 2002; Galea et al., 2002). PTSD

rates were higher among people who lived in

proximity to the site of the attack and therefore felt

a greater direct danger.

Although psychological trauma of civilian vic-

tims of terrorism in Israel has been studied since

the 1970s, interest in this problem has grown since

the 1990s, when suicide attacks became a frequent

occurrence. These attacks intensified in the second

intifada, which started on September 29, 2000.

The nearly 6 years of the intifada (as of this writ-

ing) have been marked by suicide attacks, which

have been the most deadly form of terrorism by

far. Although suicide attacks in this period have

constituted only about 0.5% of the total number

of terrorist attacks, they have accounted for 59%

of the civilian fatalities (Israel Defense Forces,

2003). Suicide attacks are more frightening than

other forms of terrorism not only because they

generate a larger number of victims but also be-

cause these incomprehensible acts of self-sacrifice

seem unstoppable. They create a sense of in-

security and lack of control. An explosive charge

hidden in an innocent-looking package or a

shopping bag can be detected and rendered

harmless, but most of the suicides activate their

charge upon detection. People avoid public places,

such as shopping centers, coffee shops, and buses

because these are the targets of suicide attacks.

111Psychological Aspects of Suicide Terrorism

Surveys conducted in Israel during the recent

quarter century have consistently found a very high

rate of expressed worry of terrorism. Since 1979,

in most of the surveys, more than 70% of repre-

sentative samples of the adult Israeli population

have said that they were ‘‘very worried’’ or ‘‘wor-

ried’’ that they or members of their families would

be hurt in a terrorist attack. The rate of worry

was high even when the intensity of terrorism

was much lower than during the second intifada

(Merari and Friedland, 1980; Arian, 2003, p. 19).

Nevertheless, this high rate of worry is not

necessarily associated with stress disorder. A 2003

survey by Bleich, Gelkopf, and Solomon de-

termined the occurrence of PTSD among Israelis.

The survey was conducted in April and May 2002,

at a time when Israeli civilians were exposed to

frequent suicide attacks. Although more than 60%

expressed a low sense of safety for themselves and

their relatives, the authors found that only 9.4%

met the symptom criteria for PTSD. This low rate

is especially surprising because more than 16% of

the sample reported that they had been directly

exposed to a terrorist attack, and 37.3% had a

family member or friend who had been exposed.

In comparison, in the United States, various sur-

veys found that 10%–20% suffered from several

PTSD symptoms a couple of months after 9/11

(Schlenger et al., 2002; Cohen Silver et al., 2002).

The difference may be explained not only by

methodological variations (e.g., in the length of

time since the exposure to the traumatic event)

but also by a habituation process that has taken

place in the Israeli population. Another possible

explanation is that the Israeli mental health system

is more adept at handling the psychological effects

of terrorist attacks.

Coping with the psychological effects of ter-

rorism in general and suicide attacks in particular

comprises two general categories: (1) preparatory

measures, and (2) intervention after the attack. Pre-

paratory measures include the training of organi-

zations and units involved in responding to actual

or threatened suicide attacks (police, military units

of the homeland command, medical corps, pub-

lic information, etc.). Public knowledge of the

existence of an effective response system and trust

in its committed and professional performance

reduce anxiety and create some sense of control of

a situation that is inherently surprising and un-


Warnings that are based on intelligence in-

formation and concern an actual or intended

launching of a terrorist attack in a certain area are

followed by a massive effort to dissuade or stop the

perpetrator by police and military roadblocks and

searches. This effort is often successful and helps

to reduce the feeling of uncertainty and give the

public a sense of control over the situation. The cre-

dibility of the warnings is highly important for

establishing public trust in the authorities. In the

absence of trust, public responses might have re-

sulted in a paralysis of economic and social activ-

ities. As the suicide bombers target public places,

guards are stationed at the entrances to cafes,

shopping malls, theaters, and schools. These guards

constitute the last line of defense, and some of

them have been killed as they prevented the sui-

cide attacker from getting inside the target build-

ing, thus saving the lives of many people.

Intervention after the attack necessitates the

coordinated action of many organizations. Police,

fire fighters, medical corps, and victim identifica-

tion teams are the first responders on the scene.

Concurrently, hospitals in the area of attack are

alerted and get ready with medical and mental

health teams to take in a large number of casual-

ties. At the same time, the municipalities activate

teams whose task is to inform victims’ families and

provide psychological and social support. Several

studies suggest that social support (by the family

or community) is negatively correlated with post-

traumatic stress (e.g., Solomon, Mikulincer, &

Flum, 1988; Cohen Silver et al., 2002). The ac-

tivity of social services and volunteer organizations

is important mainly in the days and months fol-

lowing the attack.

Persons who suffer acute stress reaction as

well as PTSD patients are entitled to social security

compensation for their loss of ability to work

and to financing for psychological treatment. Fol-

lowing an incident, social security personnel con-

tact psychological patients and invite them to

attend support groups that start a week after the

incident. Those who suffer long-range psycholo-

gical incapacitation get a permanent social security

allowance commensurate with the degree of in-


In conclusion, the Israeli experience suggests

that even a protracted campaign of suicide terror-

ism does not necessarily cause widespread psy-

chological trauma. A credible warning system and

112 Terrorism

trust in the authorities’ effectiveness reduce anxi-

ety. Mental health and social support services may

effectively reduce and limit the psychological

trauma associated with direct or indirect exposure

to terrorist attacks.

Acknowledgment. I would like to thankNasra Hassan,

who conducted the interviews.


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115Psychological Aspects of Suicide Terrorism

9 The Strategy of Terrorism and the

Psychology of Mass-Mediated Fear

James N. Breckenridge Philip G. Zimbardo

Throughout the history of violent conflict, ad-

versaries have resorted to terrorism when their

opponents’ superior material and military assets

prohibited a direct struggle for strategic goals. Acts

of terror, especially suicide terrorism, represent a

growing transnational threat due specifically to the

psychological advantages terrorism possesses

in modern asymmetrical warfare. Modern terrorism

derives this tactical advantage from its reliable abi-

lity to evoke disproportionate fear and to create an

enduring, pervasive apprehension of threat. Ter-

rorists appear to have a keen, intuitive appreciation

of psychological mechanisms that spread the effects

of terror well beyond their primary victims and

amplify the perception of risk and vulnerability far

out of proportion to reasonable probabilities. Mod-

ern terrorism is necessarily mass-mediated political

violence, and the media play a critical role in fa-

cilitating the psychological processes that intensify

the public’s fears and apprehensions.

Countering terrorists’ intuitive use of the tac-

tics of mass-mediated fear demands an appre-

ciation of the underlying psychology and requires

strategies that exploit scientific progress in under-

standing the nature of emotionally biased judgment

and perception. Although scholarly works routi-

nely acknowledge the psychological nature of

terrorist strategy, few discuss the relevant psy-

chological science in any detail. In this chapter we

examine the psychological basis of terrorism and

the important ways in which public reactions dif-

fer from responses to other tragic and disastrous

events. People’s reactions are more complex than

a mere visceral sense of personal danger, and the

multifaceted aspects of their fears can strongly

influence the public’s trust in and support for

government policy. Disproportionate reactions to

the threat of terrorism, we argue, result from emo-

tionally driven biases associated with appraising

risks and making decisions with uncertain

prospects. The threat of terrorism is further aug-

mented by a variety of sociopsychological pro-

cesses, especially the priority that human attention

assigns to negative information and the narrative

frames with which the mass media surround re-

ports of terrorist actions. Finally, we maintain that

the threat of terrorism is made more menacing

by stereotypical, dispositional explanations of evil-

doers, characterizations that are also central to the

terrorists’ own view of the enemies they seek to


Acts of terrorism can serve many goals from

simply injuring an enemy to venting longstanding

hostilities and frustration. Inciting widespread fear


and vulnerability, however, may represent the

terrorists’ most important objective.

Fear: The Critical Element of Terrorist Strategy

Although newspaper, magazine, and television

accounts have often focused on the potential use

of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear

weapons to inflict mass casualties or severe damage

to critical infrastructure, experts have long ques-

tioned whether such objectives are essential or

perhaps even counterproductive to the strategy of

terrorism. A few months prior to September 11

some experts questioned whether objective data

supported ‘‘media-hyped’’ concerns about a grow-

ing threat of high-casualty terrorism ( Johnson,

2001). Despite the enormity of September 11,

subsequent dramatic bombings in Madrid and Bali

and the increase in terrorist attacks internationally

following U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the

‘‘new terrorism’’ may yet continue a conservative

approach to high-technology weapons of mass

destruction (Crenshaw, 2000; Hoffman, 2001a,

2001b; Lesser et al., 1999; Tucker, 2001). It has

been argued that terrorists can carry out less costly,

more restrained acts of terror that nevertheless

‘‘could have disproportionately enormous con-

sequences, generating fear and alarm and thus

serving the terrorists’ purpose just as well as a lar-

ger weapon or more ambitious attack with massive

casualties’’ (Hoffman, 2001a, p. 8).

Terrorists choose terrorist tactics—even sui-

cide terrorism—because historically the under-

lying logic has realized some success. Suicide

terrorist tactics, for instance, apparently produced

incremental gains for the terrorists’ side in Leba-

non in the 1980s and the Gaza Strip and the

West Bank in the 1990s; they have also resulted

in progress for the position of the Kurds in Turkey

and for the Tamils in Sri Lanka (Pape, 2003).

These gains, however, have not been a conse-

quence of the number of people harmed or the

magnitude of damage to critical infrastructure but

resulted from the political impact of public fear

and the perception of personal vulnerability mul-

tiplied throughout the victimized society.

The critical role fear plays in the terrorist

strategy has been acknowledged by leading secu-

rity experts. The Geneva Declaration on Terrorism

(United Nations, 1987) asserts that ‘‘the distin-

guishing feature of terrorism is fear and this fear is

stimulated by threats of indiscriminate and horri-

fying forms of violence directed against ordinary

people everywhere.’’ Because terrorists lack the

military prowess, political power, and material re-

sources of their adversary, their strategy is critically

dependent upon the strategic benefits of inciting a

perception of vulnerability that far exceeds realistic

dangers, an aim that depends heavily upon mass-

media publicity. The threat of terrorism should

thus bear ‘‘no relation to the actual statistical pro-

bability of one’s being killed or injured in a terror

attack, or even of a terror attack taking place

at all,’’ (Ganor, 2004). The strategy of terrorism

aims to undermine the public’s sense of security,

disrupt everyday life, and sway public opinion by

‘‘creating an unremitting, paralyzing sensation

of fear’’ (Ganor, 2004). Terrorists strive to pro-

voke a pervasive feeling of threat that comes to

assume priority over all other social and political


A heightened sense of crisis can lead to poli-

tical disaffection and diminished confidence in

government. For example, the terrorist bombings

in Madrid just prior to the 2004 elections in Spain

appear to have significantly influenced both elec-

toral outcomes and subsequent foreign policy. To

maximize discontent and crisis, terrorists typically

target civilian noncombatants to heighten the sense

of public threat. Reports suggest, for instance, that

recent suicide attacks by insurgents in Iraq, hoping

to foment a breakdown of social trust and co-

operation, have shifted priorities from attacks on

military and government targets to high-casualty

suicide bombings in civilian settings (Bunker &

Sullivan, 2005).

Mass-mediated acts of terror can also strength-

en popular support for a more militant counter-

terrorism policy and for bold restrictions on civil

liberty, as well as encourage public acceptance of

potentially misplaced priorities. A national survey

conducted soon after September 11, 2001, for in-

stance, found that the greater the public’s sense of

threat, the greater the willingness to place restric-

tions on civil liberties to increase safety and security

(Davis & Silver, 2004). Another post–September

11 New York Times poll found widespread sup-

port for military action against terrorism even if

‘‘many thousands of innocent people’’ were killed

(Berke & Elder, 2001). A longitudinal review of

117The Strategy of Terrorism and the Psychology of Mass-Mediated Fear

national polling data found that public support for

restricting civil liberties to combat terrorism peaked

in the early days following September 11, and al-

though support diminished over the next year,

a majority of Americans continued to support re-

strictions on their civil liberties if personal costs

were relatively low (Kuzma, 2004).

Trust in government is a significant, albeit

occasionally overstated, moderator of public threat

perceptions (Viklund, 2003). Public trust in gov-

ernment and support for counterterrorism policy

expenditures increased significantly following Sep-

tember 11, in sharp contrast to a long period of

public cynicism regarding government capabi-

lities (Chanley, 2002). However, a year later, pub-

lic confidence in government was almost evenly

divided between optimistic and pessimistic ap-

praisals (Kuzma, 2004). Fear mixed with cynical

distrust can also undermine compliance with public

safety and other security instructions during a crisis.

Several studies have observed a troubling percen-

tage of Americans who report that they would ig-

nore or disobey the recommendations of authori-

ties during a terrorist attack (Boscarino, Figley, &

Adams, et al., 2003; Fischhoff, González, Small, &

Lerner, et a12003; Lasker, 2004).1

Mass-mediated attention to acts of terror

can also encourage public acceptance of misguided

policy priorities. The public’s political attention is

highly selective and ultimately emotionally driven.

In addition, the consensus among political scien-

tists is that sustained public awareness of the de-

tails of current events, politics, and public policy

is limited at best. It is no coincidence that gov-

ernment leadership is often eager to focus public

attention on decisions and programs that are con-

sistent with opinion polls. If people’s perceptions

are shaped by mass-mediated accounts of recent

acts of terror, public concerns may focus on ‘‘yes-

terday’s threat.’’ For example, the public’s support

for the national airline passenger-screening pro-

gram may reflect the indelible impact of the

(mediated) events of September 11, coupled with

limited public knowledge of the deficiencies in

the screening of airline cargo. The potential for

misplaced threat-related priorities may represent

a particularly daunting challenge for the United

States, which can anticipate a vast array of possible

terrorist targets and methods, but relative to many

areas of conflict, it has had little historical experi-

ence with terrorist attacks.2

It is not surprising that fear and apprehension

can have considerable political consequence. The

role of emotions in most matters of political interest

is powerful and pervasive because emotions bias

judgments, frame perceptions, prime supporting

memories, and influence agenda setting (Marcus,

2000, 2003). Precisely these psychological con-

structs also characterize the basis of the media’s

influence on public opinion. Affective influences

on attention, memory, and judgment contribute

to the widespread experience of disproportio-

nate vulnerability and looming threat appraisal that

make terrorism a more psychologically complex

phenomenon than mere ‘‘scare tactics.’’

More Than Personal Fear and Different From Responses to Other Types of Disasters

Reactions to an act of terror and to the threat of

future attacks are more complicated than mere

visceral experiences of personal danger. Emotions

can range from a mix of sadness, fear, anger, and

even positive emotions, such as gratitude for lives

spared and increased affiliation and social con-

nectedness. A predominantly fearful response can

produce an effect on the perception of future ter-

rorist threat that is opposite to what an angry re-

action may evoke (Lerner & Keltner, 2001). Fear

stimulates a pessimistic estimate of risk, whereas

anger is associated with a more optimistic outlook.

Fearful versus angry emotional responses can also

differentially influence support for public policy.

For example, a post–September 11 national study

using video stimuli to experimentally manipulate

emotional reactions found that angry respondents

had more optimistic future risk appraisals but fa-

vored more vengeful government actions than did

fearful respondents (Lerner, Gonzales, Small, &

Fischhoff, 2003).

Individuals’ perceptions of fear of harm to

themselves do not automatically determine their

perceptions of sociotropic fear, that is, their esti-

mation of danger or risk to society. Sociotropic fears

following terrorist acts appear more common and

more strongly related to public policy views than

do perceptions of personal threat. The separation

of personal and sociotropic fears is consistent with

a widely observed positive bias in self-perceptions.

That is, on the average, each of us tends to view

118 Terrorism

our own prospects and circumstances as superior

to that of others (Mezulis, Abramson, Hyde, &

Hankin, 2004). Personal threats violate ordinary

expectations and may be especially likely to pro-

mote anxiety and traumatic responses.

This is precisely what was observed in a na-

tional survey of reactions in the 6 months follow-

ing September 11, 2001: Heightened perceptions

of personal threat were associated with increased

rates of fear, anxiety, and somatic features of af-

fective distress (Huddy, Feldman, Lahav, & Taber,

2003). Personal self-interest (e.g., fear of personal

harm) had relatively little relationship, however, to

support for government policy or with expecta-

tions for risk to the nation. On the contrary, fear

for the community and the nation was predictive

of stronger support for military intervention and

government counterterrorism policy. Similarly, per-

ceptions of personal threat were not correlated with

participants’ predictions of future threats of ter-

rorism in a study of New York residents following

September 11 (Huddy et al., 2002). Perceptions of

personal and national threat are distinct but clearly

related, nevertheless; those who expect little risk to

the nation, for example, typically do not anticipate

personal risk.

Although well beyond the scope of this chap-

ter, it should also be noted that people vary greatly

in terms of their vulnerability to trauma. For a

significant portion of the public, especially persons

with current or past psychiatric disorders or those

who have been exposed to prior trauma, the psy-

chological consequences can include depressive,

traumatic, or other mental health disorders (for a

review, see Chapter 3 in this volume and Danieli,

Engdahl, & Schlenger, 2004). Traumatic conse-

quences can be especially severe for young chil-

dren and older adults (F. H. Norris, Byrne, &

Dı́az, 2002). Certain fortunate individuals, how-

ever, exhibit an overall positive emotional response

to calamities, and, regardless of whatever anger,

fear, sadness, and other negative emotions they

experience, demonstrate a resistance to traumatic

psychological injury and more resilient coping in

the aftermath of crisis. For example, a small study

of college students begun before September 11

found that students who reported feelings of gra-

titude and increased social affiliation appeared to

have superior resistance to depression in the weeks

following the catastrophe (Fredrickson, Tugade,

Waugh, & Larkin, 2003).

Fear, especially sociotropic fear, is widespread

in the aftermath of terrorist acts, but mass hysteria

or panic is rare. Panic is highly situation specific.

Studies of natural and technological disasters in-

dicate that only on some occasions, when there is

a perception of immediate, severe danger coupled

with the appearance of narrowing opportunities

for escape, has mass panic been observed (Perry &

Lindell, 2003). Even in such circumstances, panic

is not inevitable.

Contrasting Terror to Other Catastrophes

How comparable psychologically are natural dis-

asters or unintentional human-made catastrophes

to acts of terrorism? Prior experience with natural

disasters has much to inform the development of

programs to prepare for acts of terrorism, espe-

cially with regard to organizing, coordinating, and

deploying resources. Can we borrow from disaster

management experience as we attempt to under-

stand and counter the terrorist strategy of fear?

We believe that natural disasters and accidental

human-made catastrophes provide only an incom-

plete comparison with acts of terror. Just as dis-

asters present problems quite unlike routine emer-

gencies, acts of terror pose unique challenges that

differ distinctly from other traumatic catastrophes.

In stark contrast to natural disasters, terrorism

intentionally targets basic social infrastructure in a

manner that inspires lingering fear throughout

society (Fullerton, Ursano, Norwood, & Holloway,

2003). Public consciousness of the deliberate, in-

tentional nature of acts of terror is a critical emo-

tional distinction. Despite the traumatic impact of

natural disasters,

the resulting psychological fallout is not as de-

vastating because these events are understood to

be the result of circumstances beyond human

responsibility, and therefore unpreventable.

These acts of God or nature or human error are

also seen as unusual circumstances not attri-

butable to malevolence. (Ditzler, 2004)

Actions with obvious malevolent intent have

much more powerful emotional impact. Thus, in

a review of studies of 102 disasters, more than

two-thirds of victims of mass violence catastrophes

incurred severe impairment as opposed to 34% of

those who were subject to natural disasters (F. H.

Norris et al., 2002). Paul Slovic, a pioneer in the

119The Strategy of Terrorism and the Psychology of Mass-Mediated Fear

psychology of risk perception, dubs terrorism a ‘‘new

species of trouble’’ because it entails calculated mal-

evolent intent (Slovic, Fischhoff, & Lichtenstein,


Malevolent intent targets a society or a nation.

While there are inevitable costs to the nation, nat-

ural disasters victimize localities (e.g., hurricanes

strike coastal residents, and tornados ravage the

Midwest). Most importantly, society recognizes

that every citizen is a potential target of future

malevolence. It is this perception of lingering

threat that best distinguishes terrorism from other

calamities. The psychological strategy of terrorism

is to ensure that no matter what defensive actions

are taken, the next act of terror seems inevitable

and likely to occur sooner rather than later,

threatening each of us personally.

The temporal boundaries of natural disasters

are defined by a return to normality, a pattern of

recovery socially constructed in terms of memories

of past disasters. Psychologically, normality does

not return after an act of terrorism. A ‘‘new nor-

mality’’ begins and brings unexpected concerns and

new threats (Hills, 2002). While scientists develop

uncertain, but comfortably distant, predictions

of future natural disasters, security officials worry

immediately about copycat responses and hoaxes

in the aftermath of terrorism. It is unusual for

natural disasters to reoccur soon; thus, survivors of

natural calamities such as earthquakes and tsuna-

mis do not expect to be victimized again in the near

future. In contrast to second-guessing natural dis-

asters, intelligence officials are told their greatest

failure has been a failure of imagination, a failure to

anticipate a new or an unusual form of terrorist

attack (Peters, 2004). Yet, there are so many targets,

so many citizens, so many methods. If we recognize

that we cannot defend ourselves against every

possible threat, can we ever feel safe?3

The perception of continuing threat is therefore

the crucial distinction between terrorism and other

traumatic calamities. Lay threat perceptions typically

differ dramatically from professional risk appraisals,

and this considerable difference favors the terrorist.

Why Do We Feel So Vulnerable? Public Fears Versus Statistical Odds

Expert risk appraisals tend to correlate well with

statistical evidence of potential harm, especially

mortality rates (Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & Mac-

Gregor, 2004). Rationale analyses strive to conform

to the laws of probability, using new data to revise

expectations in a Bayesian fashion. Classical deci-

sion theory comes to conclusions by weighting ex-

pectations by some estimate of the utility of each

possible factor. Thus, the probability of success and

failure are weighted by some quantified valuation of

the cost and benefits of each alternative. ‘‘Correct’’

decisions optimize the combination. Most people,

however, do not make risky decisions in this way.

Whereas expert risk appraisals are bounded by

probabilities, public worries about extreme threats

typically dwarf any ‘‘rational’’ or statistical assess-

ment of risk. In an opinion piece for the AEI-

Brookings Joint Center, Michael Rothschild sum-

marizes the paradoxical nature of disproportionate

risk appraisals assigned to acts of terror following

September 11:

The odds of dying in an automobile accident

each year are about one in 7,000, yet we con-

tinue to drive. The odds of dying from heart

disease in any given year are one in 400 and of

dying from cancer one in 600, yet many of us

fail to exercise or maintain a healthy diet. We

have learned to live with these common threats

to our health. Yet we are afraid to return to

malls and the skies. (Rothschild, 2001, p. 1)

Rothschild further calculates that, even if air

travel resumed at normal rates and one plane per

month were attacked, the odds of flyers encounter-

ing terrorists were more than 500,000 to 1. Even

more striking, the odds of dying in a terrorist

bombing at a shopping mall are approximately 1.5

million to 1, even if it is assumed that terrorists

totally destroy one mall per week.

Indeed, the public perceives that these risks

pose a much greater threat than Rothschild’s ap-

praisal indicates they actually present, with enor-

mous consequence to U.S. society. The economic

costs of avoiding airline travel in the aftermath of

September 11 are staggering. The volume of U.S.

commercial airline traffic did not return to pre–

September 11 levels until February 2005. The

economic damage to the national and international

airline industry and to tourism—more than $57

billion for the U.S. travel industry alone—has been

enormous (Frey, Luechinger, & Stutzer, 2004).

Terrorism is not society’s only exaggerated

fear. Social scientists have long recognized that

120 Terrorism

many public fears are often grossly inconsistent

with objective data. In his popular pre–September

11 book, The Culture of Fear, sociologist Barry

Glassner (1999) questions why American fear the

‘‘wrong’’ things and are obsessed with apprehen-

sions about crime, drugs, health risks, and other

threats that are either unsupported or completely

contradicted by empirical evidence. Dispropor-

tionate fears of crime, for example, have endured

in the face of many years of well-publicized de-

clining crime rates. The public’s misplaced worries

about crime, however, present an alluring oppor-

tunity for media outlets seeking readers or viewers.

A longitudinal study of public perceptions of crime

in the early 1990s, for example, revealed a dra-

matic 52% increase in the number of Americans

who rated crime as the most important problem

facing the country despite widely published FBI

statistics to the contrary (Lowry, Nio, & Leitner,

2003). Television news coverage was identified as

the primary source of the public’s distorted per-

ception of crime. Clearly, disproportionate appre-

hensions about crime also represent an attractive

opportunity for the ‘‘politics of fear’’ (Baer, 1997).4

Despite the ‘‘irrational’’ excesses of public risk

perceptions, homeland security professionals can-

not ignore public opinion. Response and pre-

paredness efforts to counter terrorism will involve

large numbers of the lay public, many more than

the growing number of trained professionals. It

can also be argued that, in a democracy, inter-

ventions that address the misguided fears of a

majority, or at least a large number of citizens, are

legitimate even if only anxiety is reduced and

objective threat reduction is negligible (Sunstein,

2003). Parenthetically, such reasoning raises cri-

tical questions about the value of government ac-

tions such as the Homeland Security Advisory

System, which elevates fears with alerts but offers

citizens no tangible actions to foster even the il-

lusion of control or preparedness.

The public’s perceptions of threat can escalate

rapidly, outpacing rational analysis. Because hu-

man beings do not weigh negatively and positively

valenced information evenly, the perception of ter-

rorist threat, like other public fears, can intensify

in the face of compelling empirical disconfirmation

and contrary probabilities. Negativity bias impacts

a wide range of psychological processes, including

attention, memory, decision making, and impres-

sion formation. Negativity works in concert with a

set of heuristics—mental shortcuts—that most of

use to predict risk and make decisions under un-


Perceived Risk and Negativity Bias

Judgment and Heuristics

Risk perceptions and many other judgments are

guided by heuristics, implicit and intuitive short-

cuts, which often contrast dramatically with the

logical, probability-based analytical process em-

ployed by professional experts. Although the range

of processes identified by advances in psychology

and cognitive neuroscience is beyond the scope of

this brief chapter, two such cognitive biases exert a

critical role in the public’s evaluation of the threat

of terrorism: the availability heuristic and the affect


Under conditions of uncertainty, emotionally

evocative events are more easily imagined and more

readily available for cognitive processing. This en-

hanced availability—our ability to easily imagine

images of the event—influences our judgment

about the likelihood of similar events. The avail-

ability heuristic refers to a widely observed tendency

of people to assign a higher perceived probability

(or risk) to vivid, easily imagined (available) events

(Teversky & Kahneman, 1974). In the aftermath of

a terrorist act, powerfully facilitated by mass media

reporting, the event is highly available, thus ele-

vating disproportionately the perception that an-

other act is likely. The availability heuristic is

exploited strategically by many ‘‘availability en-

trepreneurs’’ (Kuran & Sunstein, 1999), including

terrorists, who capitalize on intense, elevated per-

ceptions of danger by creating and publicizing

threatening events.

People also rely upon an affect heuristic to make

judgments (Finucane, Alhakami, Slovic, & John-

son, 2000), tacitly employing feeling states to fa-

cilitate decision making and risk appraisals. Simply

put, ordinary people use their feelings to estimate

risk. In general, the public’s assessment of risk

utilizes an intuitive, emotional process that deems

highly dreaded, unusual, or uncontrolled events as

more probable. Psychometric studies have shown

that at least two qualitative characteristics of threats

underlie people’s risk perceptions (Slovic et al.,

2004; Slovic et al., 2000). A diverse array of threats

121The Strategy of Terrorism and the Psychology of Mass-Mediated Fear

or hazards can be differentiated in terms of

perceived ‘‘dread,’’ the most important factor, and

the degree to which they are viewed as unfamiliar

or new. Thus, those threats that are most feared

(i.e., evaluated as the most dreadful and unfamiliar)

are actually perceived as greater risks. Acts of terror

were second only to warfare and the use of nuclear

weapons in one psychometric risk perception study

(Slovic et al., 2000).

The influence of both heuristics is compoun-

ded by the difficulty most people experience in

contrasting rare events and comparing quantitative

outcomes in different contexts or frames. Studies

have demonstrated, for instance, that people will

judge interventions to save the same absolute

number of lives quite differently if the different

outcomes represent different relative proportions.

Thus, if one intervention saves 50 people out of a

possible 100, it will be seen as much more effective

than an intervention that saves 50 out of 1,000.

Dubbed ‘‘psychophysical numbing,’’ this is a highly

ingrained, robust example of our struggles to com-

pare tragic or catastrophic outcomes (Fether-

stonhaugh, Slovic, Johnson, & Friedrich, 2000).

The dramatic, emotionally charged, and dreadful

context that frames terrorist casualties produces a

converse effect, belying the relative odds of actual

personal threat.

Negativity Bias

Human beings are much more powerfully influ-

enced by negative than by positive information.

Judgments concerning valence—the positive versus

negative evaluative aspect of information—are

ubiquitous, automatic, and largely outside con-

scious awareness (Slovic et al., 2004). The greater

emotional force of negatively valenced material

results in a negativity bias that pervades human per-

ception, impression formation, attention, judg-

ment, and decision making, frequently in ways

that appear irrational (Baumeister, Bratslavsky,

Finkenauer, & Vole, 2001; Rozin & Royzman,

2001; Skowronski & Carlston, 1989). Negative

information tends to be construed as more in-

formative and influential than positive data, and

when positive and negative information are both

presented together, the emphasis on the negative is

greater than would be predicted for an equally

weighted, emotionally balanced combination. For

example, research suggests that negative messages

indicating the presence of risk are evaluated as

more trustworthy than positive messages commu-

nicating the absence of risk (Siegrist & Cvetkovich,

2001). Furthermore, with respect to political con-

text, voters lend greater weight to negative in-

formation about candidates (Klein, 1991). Simi-

larly, negativity bias can play a powerful role in

shaping public trust. Negative events appear to

have a greater impact on damaging public trust

than positive events have on bolstering trust

(Poortinga & Pidgeon, 2004; Slovic, 1993). Slovic

(1993) dubs this imbalance the ‘‘asymmetry prin-

ciple’’ (i.e., that it is easier to destroy than to build

public trust in the capacity of government to mi-

tigate risks).

Negativity bias is also associated with observa-

tions of prospect theory (Kahneman & Tversky,

1979). For example, people exhibit a pronounced

risk aversion when decisions about uncertain out-

comes are framed in terms of negative results.

Thus, if the risks of a medical procedure are pre-

sented to a patient in terms of the odds of death, the

patient will respond very differently than if the

same risks are presented in terms of the chances of

survival. Even though the odds of death and survival

are necessarily codetermined, patients are less likely

to consent to statistically equivalent risks when

framed in terms of the negative outcome. In addi-

tion, people tend to overreact to small chances

of bad outcomes. Furthermore, they subjectively

overestimate the probability of highly undesirable

but objectively rare outcomes. When intense ne-

gative emotions are involved, as in the case of all

terrorist threats, our attention is captured by the

dreaded outcome, and we overlook the relatively

small chance of the threat actually occurring. Such

‘‘probability neglect’’ (Sunstein, 2003) is an im-

portant contributor to sustaining disproportionate

fears of terrorism.

Because negativity biases and the emotional

basis of risk perception are fundamental aspects of

the psychology we all share, perceptions of threat

can easily ripple through society. The propensity

for social amplification further bolsters terrorist


Social Amplification

These fears and apprehensions that can rip-

ple through society are compounded by social

122 Terrorism

amplification. Social amplification is especially

common when there is ambiguity, doubt, or mis-

information, which promote fear and instigate ru-

mor. Social amplification, for example, deeply

exacerbated perceptions of risk and stigmatization

of British beef following the identification of ‘‘mad

cow disease’’ and contributed to the ultimate long-

lasting collapse of the British beef market in 1996.

Similarly, technological or product stigmatization

(Gregory, Flynn, & Slovic, 1995) is a likely and

potentially severely destructive consequence of

a biochemical terrorist attack on the agricultural

system. Parallel consequences are likely to char-

acterize public reactions to terrorists’ use of in-

fectious disease agents or radiological weapons.

The consequences of socially amplified fears

are not simply psychological. For example, the mad

cow crisis costs to the European Union were at

least $2.8 billion and more than 4 billion pounds

to the United Kingdom (Powell, 2001). Ex-

aggerated fears destroyed public confidence

in British regulatory authorities and forced the

creation of a new food standards agency (Food

safety: Experiences of four countries in con-

solidating their food safety systems, 1999). A

deliberate attack on the food supply could have

similar economic impact in the United States,

where one out of every eight people is employed

in a food-related occupation (Risk assessment for

food terrorism and other food safety concerns,

2003). American travel, tourism, and the airline

and dining industries in metropolitan areas fol-

lowing September 11 are estimated to have lost

more than one million jobs in 2002 due to public

trepidations over the threat of terrorism ( Joint

Committee on Economics, 2002). Strong public

fears represent a powerful disincentive to partici-

pate in industries marked by the threat of terror-

ism, as well as a costly incentive to accelerate the

pace of resource diversion to antiterrorist security

measures. Disproportionate fears can easily result

in proportionate cuts in commerce.

The Role of the Media

A primary strategic goal of terrorism is to com-

municate its message via violent acts (Hoffman,

2002). Consequently, the mass media have been

called the essential ‘‘oxygen’’ of terrorism (Dettmer,

2004). It has been suggested that modern terrorism

began only after the first television satellite was

launched in the late 1960s (Hoffman, 1998). The

terrorists’ aim to maximize their audience and

commercial journalism’s competition for readers

and viewers have spawned a symbiotic terrorist-

media relationship.

The Geneva Declaration on Terrorism (United

Nations, 1987) recognized that the media could

play a direct role in terrorism by ‘‘uncritically dis-

seminating disinformation’’ and playing an indirect

role through a pattern of selective coverage. Twenty-

first-century terrorists are no longer dependent

upon formal media outlets to disseminate their

message. Most national and international media

outlets exercise disciplined restraint with respect to

obvious terrorist propaganda and avoid replaying

terrorist announcements or communiqués. Unfor-

tunately, terrorists can readily circumvent jour-

nalistic censorship. Recorded instructions and

coded communications, as well as videos of ex-

ecutions, beheadings, hostage pleadings, and ‘‘doc-

umentaries’’ of suicide bombings are now easily

distributed over the Internet and nonmainstream


While terrorists are likely to continue to ex-

ploit the publicity potential of the Internet, the

psychology of risk perception dictates that me-

dia coverage, especially television journalism, will

continue to play a crucial role in fueling public

fears. Vivid, repetitive coverage of acts and threats

of terror prime the cognitive and emotional pro-

cesses that help create a disproportionate sense of

risk and vulnerability. Images of terror become

more readily available and underscore the sense of

emotional dread. Dramatic media accounts of ter-

rorism capture public attention, and the percep-

tion of a greater risk of future attacks is heightened

by the availability and affect heuristics.

Televised reporting of acts of terror appears to

have stronger emotional impact than print news

(Cho et al., 2003). Clearly, all of the tools of the

modern film industry are available to television

journalism, and only professional ethics and con-

vention restrain the exploitation of high-production

sound, music, graphics, animation, and video to

deliver the maximum emotional impact. Compelling

dramatic images of victims and their suffering per-

sonalize the implicit threat of terrorism, tacitly

conveying a persuasive implication of the viewers’

vulnerability: This has happened to people like us;

therefore it could happen to us. The importance of

123The Strategy of Terrorism and the Psychology of Mass-Mediated Fear

television is underscored in studies of reactions to

the September 11 terrorist attacks. For instance,

greater monitoring of television reports was asso-

ciated with adverse reactions (Huddy et al., 2003),

and increased media reliance before September 11

was associated with greater threat perceptions after

the attacks (Lowry et al., 2003). Even in countries

with prolonged exposure to terrorism and emo-

tionally hardened populations, media exposure has

a significant impact. Prior to the war in Iraq, Israelis

represented a major portion of terrorist casualties.

A recent Israeli study (Keinan, Sadeh, & Rosen,

2003) has demonstrated that exposure to media

coverage of terrorist attacks was correlated with an

increase in traumatic symptoms even in this sea-

soned population.

Contemporary trends in terrorist tactics further

call attention to the media’s critical role, with iro-

nic, but terrible, consequences for working mem-

bers of the press. Three developments characterize

recent acts of terrorism (Pfefferbaum, 2003). First,

there has been a substantial increase in the lethality

and brutality of terrorist acts, which may speak to

the greater publicity value and inherently terrifying

qualities associated with more dramatic violence

(Stern, 1999).

In contrast to earlier policies employed by

European terrorist groups (e.g., IRA and Basque

ETA), which minimized casualties but maximized

publicity by alerting police or journalists of plan-

ned bombings with sufficient time to allow eva-

cuation, terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan prepare

their own videos documenting the extent of death

and damage of their efforts for distribution after

attacks to maximize media exposure. The grow-

ing technical proficiency of international television

journalism creates an expanding market that may

have provided such excesses with an unintended

encouragement. In addition, the use of Web-based

streaming video clips of beheadings and pleading

hostages are often described, if not replayed, by

professional media outlets. Second, anonymous

acts of terrorism have increased but would have

limited tactical value without media dissemination.

Dramatic, graphic media coverage of anonym-

ous, unattributed acts of terror—such as suicide

bombings—nevertheless incites fear and appre-

hension among the public. Third, there has been

an increase in terrorist attacks on journalists, a

tragic indicator of the media’s indispensable role in

the strategy of terrorism.

Negativity bias is a fundamental factor in the

media’s selection and framing of news events and

the public’s trust in media analysis and reporting,

and studies reveal a powerful bias toward coverage

of negative events and outcomes (Niven, 2001). In

their recent comprehensive review of the intersection

of media, communication, and psychology, Byron

Reeves and Clifford Nass (2003) conclude that

people relate to mediated events in ways that reflect

fundamental psychological processes that underlie

human information processing. In particular, they

note that human attention and memory—supported

by ‘‘hardwired’’ neuropsychophysical processes—

assign priority to negatively valenced, high-arousal

stimuli. The underlying processes occur automa-

tically and without conscious awareness and are

probably the result of evolutionary adaptational

advantages accrued from increased vigilance to po-

tential threats. Memory for events following negative

and high-arousal stimuli is proactively enhanced,

and prior material is retroactively inhibited.

Interestingly, the effects of arousal are cumula-

tive. Reeves and Nass argue, citing substantial sup-

porting evidence, that mediated events are processed

psychologically in much the same manner as ‘‘real

world’’ events. Thus, it is not surprising that tele-

vision networks, perpetually engaged in fierce

competition for ratings and viewers, would feature

reports with qualities that grab people’s attention

and stick in their memories: those that are nega-

tive and arousing. These qualities govern the selec-

tion and prominence assigned to stories that ulti-

mately make it to the television screen, as well as

shape their ‘‘packaging,’’ that is, the editorial em-

phasis, the images selected, the music, the accom-

panying graphics, and all the other subtle nuances

that set the emotional tone.

Thus, psychological processes give priority to

negative, arousing material, and the news media

act in accordance with the psychology of their

audience. The media create a wider audience of

spectators to terrorist acts while intensifying their

emotional reactions, which engenders a greater

sense of threat. If the availability and affect heur-

istics contribute to a disproportionate perception

of risk and vulnerability, the media—especially

television—augment and exacerbate the under-

lying psychology.

In addition to serving as a source of intense

emotional stimuli, the media play a crucial role in

profoundly shaping the public’s understanding of

124 Terrorism

terrorism. In fact, almost all areas of political in-

terests are influenced by the media’s powerful

ability to set agendas and frame our understanding

of events (Kinder, 1998). The media’s influence

lies not so much with its potential to persuade or

to propagandize but rather with its reliable capa-

city to determine the facts, data, arguments, ex-

planations, and theories to which its audience

attends. The media tend not so much to persuade

us but to dictate the facts, choices, or questions

we should consider, evaluate, or debate. Risk

perceptions are not exclusively emotional. Indeed,

risk appraisals also depend on our ability to pro-

ject future implications on the basis of our

understanding of present circumstances. With re-

spect to terrorism, our understanding of present

circumstances is heavily dependent upon the news

media’s determination of what to report and how

to report it, and this determination begins with

how reports are framed.

Framing is a potent, yet inescapable, influence

on the interpretation of reported events (Scheufele,

1999). In its simplest form, framing refers to the

central organizing story. The frame simplifies the

report and cues the audience to the report’s ‘‘place’’

in a familiar, shared social construction of every-

day reality. Tacitly, the frame signals another in-

stance of a familiar theme (e.g., another report of

wasteful government spending, another example

of political corruption, another instance of gang

violence). Sometimes a single image establishes

the frame. For instance, the images of Muhammed

Dura, a Palestinian boy supposedly killed in his

father’s arms, ‘‘clinches the ‘larger narrative’’’

linking the event to ‘‘a chain of iconic images

which (rightly or wrongly) signify historical events

in public memory’’ (Liebes & First, 2003, p. 59).

Why one frame rather than another is chosen re-

mains an object of intense debate and study (P.

Norris, Kern, & Just, 2003). Clearly, the process is

immune to neither political partisanship (Niven,

2001) nor the influence of social power or material

sponsorship (Carragee & Roefs, 2004).

Studies suggest that news coverage of terror-

ism, after the initial focus on the details of the act

and the government’s early response during the

aftermath, rapidly (often in only a few weeks) re-

stricts consideration of alternative explanations and

motives for the attack. One study of terrorist re-

porting in a prominent national newspaper, for

instance, found that, while the volume of coverage

devoted to the September 11 attack continued for

many months, the number of alternative reasons,

explanations, or motives considered diminished

dramatically within just a few weeks (Traugott &

Brader, 2003). Another study of editorials for the

ten largest U.S. newspapers during the year after

September 11 concluded that editors quickly—

within the first month—arrived at a consistent,

consensus narrative frame of the ‘‘war on terrorism’’

with little disagreement or dissent (Ryan, 2004).

Even the decision to characterize an act of

political violence as ‘‘terrorism’’ is subject to im-

plicit editorial biases. For instance, many studies

indicate that regional media tend to report in-

cidents of political violence against their own ci-

tizens as acts of terror but use other terms for

similar acts against foreigners elsewhere (Nacos,

2002). Subtle variations in the use of descriptive

terms can have very different psychological and

political implications. Our own preliminary results

in an ongoing study of terrorist media coverage

reveal interesting variations in reports of a suicide

bombing attack after a recent truce agreement

with the new Palestinian government. While most

countries explicitly described the attack as a sui-

cide bombing, most Israeli sources consistently

omitted the term ‘‘suicide,’’ perhaps choosing

to stress the damage to civilians over terms that

convey the sense of martyrdom the terrorists seek

to emphasize. In addition, we found considerable

variation among the framing of this event among

U.S. newspapers. We observed that front-page

headlines describing the incident were split be-

tween those framing it as a major threat to a fragile

truce and those emphasizing the act of suicide

bombing. Nearly a third of the newspapers chose

not to put the story on the front page, implicitly

framing the incident below front-page priority and


As discussed earlier, people often experience

great difficulty in estimating risks using prob-

abilities and percentages and instead fall back on

psychological shortcuts or heuristics. The media

must make parallel choices between reporting base

rate data and statistical analyses or relying pri-

marily on illustrative examples or case histories.

Although news reports commonly employ examples

of ‘‘typical cases,’’ which are frequently chosen for

their sensational qualities, base rate data are often

omitted. If examples are exaggerated, they can be

perceived as more broadly representative than

125The Strategy of Terrorism and the Psychology of Mass-Mediated Fear

actually borne out by facts. For example, in an

experimental study (Gibson & Zillmann, 1994)

that manipulated levels of exemplar distortion,

readers of news reports featuring highly ex-

aggerated examples of carjacking considered car-

jacking to be a much more serious national

problem than readers of reports with less distorted

exemplars. This effect was not mitigated by the

presentation of accurate base rate data, a result

consistent with the consensus of literature in this

area, which concludes that base rate information

‘‘fails to exert a strong effect on news consumers’

perceptions’’ (Gibson & Zillman, 1994, p. 608).

Thus, the implied threat of terrorism is likely to be

magnified by vivid, evocative examples of terrorist

attacks despite efforts to balance conclusions by

including precise statistical data about objective

relative risk.

Although threats to public welfare are more

likely to capture the attention of mass media than

less negative and arousing events, not all risks

become headline news. In an analysis of risk re-

porting for three very different well-publicized

events in Great Britain, the authors conclude that

risks will be reported when ‘‘there are decisive

scientific statements, major disasters, fresh human

interest stories, official reactions and/or when

major organizations or governments come into

conflict over the extent of the danger’’ (Kitzinger &

Reilly, 1997, p. 344). They further conclude, how-

ever, that the media are poorly equipped to sustain

‘‘high level coverage for long-term threats’’ beyond

the immediate controversies of the day.

Not only can mass media’s preference for

controversy over scientific subtleties and careful

exposition of risks elevate the public’s sense of

danger and vulnerability, but it can also limit the

public’s understanding of the enemy. This is clear

with respect to an understanding of the mind of

the terrorist, a distortion that has potential to

further exacerbate public fears.

Dispositional Stereotypes Versus Situational Explanations of Terrorists

Popular characterizations in many countries and

political contexts typically portray terrorists as

mentally deranged, homicidal madmen who are

driven by severe psychopathology and antisocial

personalities (Ruby, 2002). Early psychological

theories of terrorism offered hypothetical support

for dispositional explanations, attributing the choice

of the terrorist path to narcissistic rage, ‘‘hostile

neuroses,’’ paranoia, and other intrapsychic factors

(Hudson, 1999).

In fact, however, comprehensive reviews of

both classified and unclassified data regarding

psychological features of known terrorists con-

sistently conclude that the distribution of psy-

chopathology among terrorist groups is similar to

that of other groups (Atran, 2003; Crenshaw,

2000; Hoffman, 2002; Horgan, 2003; Hudson,

1999; Silke, 2003; Victoroff, 2005). In contrast to

popular dispositional accounts, much current

research and analysis emphasizes the powerful

influence of situational factors in explaining the

origins and motivations of terrorists. For example,

situationally based explanations have greater va-

lidity in explorations of the development and in-

fluence of terrorist networks (Sageman, 2004), the

influence of the decision-making process under

clandestine circumstances (McCormick, 2003), the

effects of social relationships and religious factors

(Strenski, 2003), and the social and psychological

processes that facilitate the recruitment and moral

disengagement of those who choose the terrorist

path (Moghaddam, 2005). Why, then, do disposi-

tional characterizations of mentally deranged ter-

rorists persist and in fact flourish in popular and

professional accounts?

The fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977),

that is, the tendency of people to explain behavior

in terms of internal, dispositional causes and to

overlook or ignore situational factors clearly un-

derlies the intuitive appeal of the deranged ter-

rorists portrayed as victims of pathology or character

flaws (Atran, 2003). Moreover, in stark contrast to

dispositional explanations of ‘‘bad’’ actions, social

psychologists have demonstrated that even among

otherwise ‘‘good’’ people, evil can readily arise

from situational factors (Zimbardo, 1995, 2004).

The influence of social factors such as obedience to

authority (Milgram, 1974) and the structure of

social roles (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973)

can interact with ordinary psychological processes

common to most people to disengage or diffuse

their natural moral restraints (Bandura, 1999).

Situational factors may have explanatory applica-

tion to understanding evil ranging from petty

crimes to horrendous atrocities, yet the funda-

mental attribution error regularly obscures the

126 Terrorism

situationist perspective. It is not surprising, then,

to witness a popular but misplaced focus on the

‘‘mind’’ of the terrorist.

Attributional errors can have important and

destructive consequences. Political psychologists

have observed that attributional bias can lead to

flawed threat assessments in international politics

because adversaries are understood in disposi-

tional terms, while behavior on the part of one’s

own country is explained by situational factors

(Levy, 2003). Thus, because situational factors,

including threatening policies and actions of one’s

own country, are often discounted in favor of a

focus on the adversary’s perceived hostile inten-

tions, the adversary is seen as more dangerous and

malevolent. Actions on the part of one’s own

country are viewed as forced by situational factors

(perceived threats). Thus, ‘‘if we take security mea-

sures because we have no choice, presumably

others recognize this and understand that we are

no threat to them, so that if they buy arms or mo-

bilize forces it must be because they have hostile

intentions’’ (Levy, 2003, p. 266). The cycle of at-

tributing malevolent intent to the adversary and

overlooking the provocative interpretation of our

own well-intentioned reactions can spiral out of


Parallel patterns can occur with popular per-

ceptions of terrorists. Certainly, the terrorists’ in-

tention is indeed hostile and malevolent, but a

focus on disposition can both increase the sense of

threat and obscure appropriate counterresponses.

Portrayals of terrorists as madmen fit well with the

psychological processes we have argued create a

disproportionate sense of threat and, to that extent,

may further the terrorists’ agenda. ‘‘Deranged, cra-

zed terrorists’’ are simultaneously unfamiliar and

dreadful—extreme on both psychometric dimen-

sions associated with elevated risk perceptions.

Negativity bias furthers bolsters the intuitive appeal

of dispositional characterizations of evildoers be-

cause, as we noted earlier, negative descriptors

are perceived as more credible and more trait in-

formative. The primarily dispositional portrayal of

terrorists is quite compatible with the media’s bias

toward negatively valenced and high-arousal con-

tent, while exploration of situational factors chal-

lenges the media’s reluctance to take on complex

stories that unfold only after sustained analysis.

Furthermore, terrorism is always understoodwithin

a political context. The dispositional portrayal is

more easily utilized politically because it avoids the

complicated examination of situational factors,

some of which may include policies and behaviors

on both sides of the conflict.

Therefore, although terrorists are clearly evil, it

is important to recognize all of the systemic factors

that support and facilitate terrorism. Despite the

power of situational explanations, they are some-

times mistaken as excuses: ‘‘Social circumstances

compelled terrorists’ violent, evil actions.’’ The

validity of situational contributions does not ex-

onerate terrorists, who remain culpable for their

crimes in any case. Situational explanations of

terrorist behavior do not imply situational ethics.

In his discussion of the origins of the Rwandan

genocide, Diamond (2005) reminds us that ex-

planations of misconduct can be misconstrued as

excuses, but

whether we arrive at an over-simplified one-

factor explanation or an excessively complex

71-factor explanation for genocide doesn’t

alter the personal responsibility of the per-

petrators . . . for their actions. This is a mis-

understanding that arises regularly in discussion

of the origins of evil; people recoil at any ex-

planation, because they confuse explanation

with excuses. But it is important that we un-

derstand the origins of Rwandan genocide—not

so that we can exonerate the killers, but so

that we can use that knowledge to decrease the

risk of such things happening again in

Rwanda or elsewhere. (pp. 326–327)

A preoccupation with intrapsychic, disposi-

tional factors not only helps make terrorists more

frightening, which is to their strategic advantage,

but can also result in a failure to fully scrutinize

the recruitment processes, group decision-making

structures, and various societal influences that

support the evil of terrorism (see Chapter 8 in this

volume). The same cognitive and emotional pro-

cesses that facilitate the disproportionate sense of

danger and vulnerability, however, present a ser-

ious challenge to the public’s appreciation of si-

tuational explanations.


It is essential that government leadership make

every effort to ‘‘take the terror out of terrorism’’ by

127The Strategy of Terrorism and the Psychology of Mass-Mediated Fear

deploying programs to address the psychosocial

processes that underlie public perceptions before,

during, and after a terrorist emergency. Fear man-

agement programs are unlikely to achieve success

without strong executive leadership. Because

public reactions are complex, they cut across the

province of medical, law enforcement, and other

disaster-response stakeholders and entail sensitive

attention to the priorities and concerns of diverse

ethnic, cultural, and religious segments within

states. Moreover, the economic, political, and social

consequences of failure are so substantial that the

intricacies of managing public fear in an era of

terrorism must not be ignored.

Several factors are key to successfully re-

sponding to human-made attempts to exploit the

psychology of fear:

Provide Full Information That Speaks to Local

Concerns. Fear management efforts must recog-

nize that psychological reactions to acts of terror

are actually composed of a diverse, complex array

of emotions and perceptions that can have very

different effects on traumatic outcomes, public

trust, and support for government policy. The

public must have ready access to accurate in-

formation concerning threat assessment and pre-

paredness, as well as to developments and pro-

tective governmental responses, following acts

of terror. Risk alerts or warnings should stress

realistic probabilities rather than dramatize cata-

strophic possibilities. In addition, neither federal

government public affairs efforts nor national

media communications are likely to adequately

address public concerns at state and local levels.

Fears of tainted or contaminated products follow-

ing an act or threat of agroterrorism, for instance,

present different concerns and challenges for food

production than for recipient communities. Gov-

ernments should consider investing in the de-

velopment and field testing of risk communications

tailored specifically to local concerns, priorities,

and cultural norms and attitudes. Of course,

materials and information should be made avail-

able in languages other than English where


Plan for Realistic Psychological Reactions. Fear

management programs must avoid focusing on the

relatively unlikely probability of public panic and

hysteria. Fear management plans should emphasize

more probable scenarios, for example, the mass

convergence of spectators, volunteers, and media on

the vicinity of Ground Zero or the strain on public

health resources caused by a flood of ‘‘worried well’’

urgently seeking medical evaluations.

Stress Preparation and Training. Preevent or-

ganized activities can have enormous impact on

public trust, and perceptions of trust can mitigate

the impact of negativity bias and heightened feel-

ings of fear and vulnerability. Simulations and

exercises to educate the public, practice respond-

ing, enlist the cooperation of civic organizations,

and disseminate accurate and authoritative in-

formation regarding best practices in response to

various terrorist actions are absolutely essential.

Simulations and other exercises can contribute

to public perceptions of government competence

and bolster public trust. Such activities may

also help develop valuable relations with media

representatives. Public and government leaders

should insist upon adequate support for state

programs, as well as advocate for comprehensive

integration with nongovernmental organizations,

including private medical facilities, the American

Red Cross, charitable organizations, and healthcare

professional organizations that provide voluntary

disaster relief services.

Regular preevent simulations and exercises are

valuable opportunities to ensure the optimal use of

influential social networks within the structure of a

state’s communities. Preparedness efforts should

ensure that fear managers capitalize on opportu-

nities to integrate resources well in advance of

terrorist threats rather than relegate integration

to belated attempts to introduce leadership and

‘‘trade business cards’’ at the site of the disaster.

Finally, preevent training provides opportunities

for leadership to rehearse its decision-making

process governing the release of information.

Within reasonable bounds, full public disclosure

is critical to rebutting rumor, misinformation,

and distrust. Homeland security leadership should

exploit every opportunity, including preevent

simulations, to develop, practice, and evaluate

policy and methods for determining the reasonable

boundaries on information management.

Use Scientifically Credible Risk Communica-

tion. Risk communication about acts of terror

should be informed by social scientists who

are familiar with the psychological challenges

that characterize public response. Effective fear

management requires a well-considered, practiced

media strategy. Public relations specialists can

128 Terrorism

make an important contribution. Public trust in

the sincerity and competence of government, how-

ever, is critical and will be undermined by any

appearance of political spin or misguided efforts to

calm public reactions by obscuring or strategically

reframing information. Preparedness and response

programs should encourage media access and

build local media relationships with the clear re-

cognition, however, that media coverage during

a crisis will likely be dominated by out-of-state,

national outlets whose priorities will often trump

local relationships and media guidelines.

Unmask the Anonymous Perpetrator. The un-

known is inherently more frightening than

the known. Even if data are limited, providing the

public with information about specific terrorists,

especially information that highlights their fallibi-

lity and pedestrian qualities, is preferable to

inviting the public to project an unwarranted sense

of capability onto the absence of information.

Exercise Particular Care With Warnings. Given

the power of negative information to aggravate

public fear and vulnerability, public alerts or

warnings of potential terrorist threats should be

reconsidered if available information is vague and

no specific public actions can be recommended.

All warnings should stress the low magnitude of

relative risk, perhaps by comparison with ordinary

familiar hazards, such as car accidents, lightning

strikes, and so on. Official warnings should be

coupled with detailed information regarding gov-

ernment preparedness actions, preferably including

a clearly prescribed role for concerned citizens. (It

should be noted that research, albeit limited, on

warnings and response allocation suggests that

scant political cover is likely to be provided by

vague, seemingly gratuitous warnings that happen

to precede actual attacks.)

Anticipate the Needs of Special Populations.

Fear management plans should strive to identify

in advance populations with particular vulner-

ability to the traumatic impact of terrorists’ actions

(e.g., children) and also anticipate ethnic or cul-

tural groups at risk for retribution or backlash

following actions apparently linked to particular

cultural or religious origins. Homeland security

leadership should encourage school systems to

develop disaster plans and implement routine age-

appropriate training and drills. Preparatory efforts

that target students may have a productive impact

on otherwise apathetic parents, who might fail to

develop an emergency plan for themselves but

will respond to their children’s interest. Governors

should also actively recruit cultural, ethnic, and

religious leaders to serve as advisors and consultants

in building and implementing fear management

programs, as well as to serve as communication

facilitators and spokespersons within diverse com-

munities during crises.

Take Advantage of Technological Communication

Resources. Internet-based information resources

can effectively supplement fear management ef-

forts. Web-based resources to rebut urban legends

and potentially destructive product misinforma-

tion and rumor may serve as useful examples

(Kimmel, 2004).

It is the quintessential nature of terrorism that

perceptions of vulnerability, fear, and apprehension,

however exaggerated or unrealistic, will inevitably

represent the shared concerns of a large majority

of citizens. Therefore, during an era of terrorism

a democratic society has every right to expect the

highest standards in fear management. Despite

much progress, extensive research and development

is needed to optimally mitigate our enemies’ efforts

to promote public terror.

Public policy for managing responses to ter-

rorism should be guided by attention to three

factors: education, resource integration, and scien-

tific credibility. Government must invest in exec-

utive education that is designed specifically for

homeland security leaders and managers. Executive

education should include a comprehensive but

pragmatic review of risk perception and commu-

nication, as well as the psychology of fear manage-

ment. Leadership and their staff must be well

trained in practical psychological principles and

effective communication and media strategies.

Resource integration is critical, and people are a

critical human capital resource. Effective fear man-

agement depends uponwell-managed collaboration

among many government and nongovernmental

constituencies. Government leadership should ad-

vocate and fund state-tailored programs to reach

out to government and community leaders, to

provide continuous training, and to monitor pro-

gress and revise programs. The aim should be to

develop an integrated community of stakeholders

that can provide a valuable forum for discussion and

public education.

The range of possible terrorist threats is daunt-

ing. In the long run, the most important advances in

129The Strategy of Terrorism and the Psychology of Mass-Mediated Fear

fear management will result from a better-educated

(and hardened) public. Government should lead a

continuing dialogue—one that is carefully and re-

peatedly presented in the mass media—about

realistic limitations on our true capacities to protect

against any threat.

Finally, in too many ways, fear management

threatens to become a cottage industry fueled by the

economics of fear. Many popular fear management

interventions have not stood up to rigorous eva-

luation. It is essential that fear management

programs be scientifically validated. Expert opinion

is simply no substitute for empirical evidence. A

large body of scientific work exists to inform future

program development, and the safety of citizens

should rest upon a scientifically credible foundation.

In summary, terrorists exercise their intuitive

appreciation of the psychology of fear to promote

widespread, disproportionate fear and vulnerabil-

ity among the public. Their strategy is critically

dependent upon the mass media but highly con-

sistent with ingrained, fundamental psychological

processes that guide the attention of the media’s

audience. Surely an effective response to terrorism

will capitalize on a comprehensive understanding

of the relevant psychology.


1. The apparent relationship between willingness

to restrict civil liberties and the perceived risk of ter-

rorism may depend on how ‘‘risk’’ is quantified. In a

2002 survey of Harvard Law School students, for

instance, although respondents were willing to trade

off civil liberties under certain conditions, their will-

ingness was not associated with their perceptions

of risk expressed in terms of the number of lives

that might be lost in future attacks (Viscusi

& Zeckhauser, 2003).

2. For example, since 1970 there have been only

eight terrorist attacks on airplanes that resulted in

the deaths of U.S. citizens. This tally includes the

September 11 hijackings. (Compare Flynn, 2004.)

3. Despite exaggerated fears of crime, soon after

9/11 surveys indicated that the threat of

terrorism surpassed perceptions of the risk of

crime (see Gallup Crime Survey, 2001).

4. It has been argued that violent action and

some limitations on civil liberties—lesser ‘‘evils’’ in

the opinion of liberal democracies—can be a justi-

fied and necessary response to the greater evil of

terrorism (Ignatieff, 2004). It seems especially

important, therefore, to get the complexities of

evil right and not settle for emotionally biased and

perhaps politically expedient simplifications. This

concern is elevated to even greater importance if

recent assertions that the use of fear as a politi-

cal justification has become a more favored

pragmatic political method in democracies as

faith in political principles fades (Robin,



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III Consequences of Terrorism

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10 The Role of Religion, Spirituality,

and Faith-Based Community

in Coping With Acts of Terrorism

Timothy A. Kelly

On September 11, 2001, the world changed, and,

like it or not, civilization is now enduring an age of

terrorism. On that clear Fall morning, the world

watched in horror as the Twin Towers collapsed,

and thousands of innocent lives were lost. The

television footage was horrendous, showing some

plunging to their death from the flames, others

fleeing monstrous clouds of dust in panic, and still

others exhausted and covered in ghastly soot from

top to toe. On average, adults watched more than 8

hours of coverage that day (Schuster et al., 2001),

enough to see the towers come down dozens of

times, enough to traumatize the hapless viewer.

Acts of terrorism are of course designed to do just

that—to traumatize a population into submission

(Linley, Joseph, Cooper, Harris, & Meyer, 2003).

The United States has not submitted, but it has

been traumatized by the terror of 9/11.

Where do people turn in times of trauma?

Where is help to be found when the very infra-

structure of society collapses as it did in New York

City? A RAND survey conducted less than a week

after 9/11 discovered that people relied primarily

on two resources—one another and their under-

standing of God. As the survey authors state, ‘‘most

turned to religion, and also to one another for

social support’’ (Schuster et al., 2001, p. 1511). In

fact, a full 90% reported turning to prayer, re-

ligion, or spiritual feelings. That is slightly more

than the 85% of Americans who report that re-

ligion is ‘‘fairly or very important’’ in their lives

(Gallup, 2003). In a similar vein, survivors of

the Oklahoma City bombing were found to con-

sistently use ‘‘positive religious coping strategies’’

as a means of working through the trauma of

that attack (Harrison, Koenig, Hays, Eme-Akwari,

& Pargament, 2001, p. 88).

Shortly after 9/11, the Department of Justice

distributed the Office for Victims of Crime Hand-

book for Coping after Terrorism (U.S. Department

of Justice, 2001). The handbook refers several

times to the fact that victims of terrorism may need

to consider ‘‘professional or spiritual’’ counseling,

meaning help from a counselor or minister.1 Re-

cognizing this fact, the city of New York gene-

rously provided for the thousands of workers

charged with the grisly task of sorting through the

rubble of the Twin Towers. Dozens of mental

health professionals and clergy were brought in

to make themselves available for the workers as

needed. To whom does one turn when you have

just recovered a coworker’s body or perhaps the

arm of a child from the wreckage? Mental health

professionals can help rescue workers process


their thoughts and feelings in a manner that is

certainly helpful in many instances. But for many

trauma victims, clergy can offer more: a level of

comfort, a means of grace, a touch of the divine

in the midst of the struggle to cope with in-

comprehensible tragedy. So it has been found that,

in times of cataclysmic trauma, people turn first to

clergy for emotional support and only later, if at

all, to mental health workers (Everly, 2003).

On the other hand, religiously oriented per-

sons experiencing a life trauma may find that their

religious beliefs do not necessarily help. They may

struggle endlessly with the age-old question of

theodicy—how to reconcile the reality of evil with

the concept of an all-powerful and all-good God.

This is most poignantly expressed as a syllogism:

� A good and omnipotent God must be willing and able to prevent evil.

� Evil exists. � Therefore, God is either not omnipotent or not good.

For example, a study of Vietnam veterans suffering

from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) found

that 74% have difficulty reconciling their religious

beliefs with the trauma they experienced in Viet-

nam. Slightly more than half (51%) stated that they

abandoned their religious faith in Vietnam (Dre-

scher & Foy, 1995). For these veterans, religion

and spirituality did not help them to cope with the

horror of warfare.

What is to be made of the fact that those

who were traumatized by a terrorist attack turned

in large numbers to religion and spirituality, yet

many Vietnam veterans abandoned their faith? Do

religion and spirituality provide a critical resource

in times of national trauma, or is this a false hope?

If it is indeed an important resource, precisely

what aspect of religion or spirituality helps one to

cope in times of trauma? This chapter addresses

these and related questions as they pertain to in-

dividual and community preparedness for terrorist

attack. Since there is some confusion as to the

definitions of basic concepts such as ‘‘religion’’

and‘‘spirituality,’’ the chapter begins by introdu-

cing and defining key terms: spirituality, religion,

faith-based community, posttraumatic stress dis-

order, posttraumatic depression, and posttraumatic

growth. Next current research on trauma care

and on the role of religion and spirituality in co-

ping with trauma is reviewed. The chapter closes

with a discussion of practical recommendations for

emergency mental health professionals, individ-

uals, and faith-based communities in drawing on

spirituality and religion to help those affected cope

with the trauma of a terrorist attack.

Key Concepts and Terms

Religion, Spirituality, and Faith-Based


Wars have long been fought (and are still being

fought) over which concept of God and which

definition of religion will stand. In fact, the ter-

rorism the world faces today—primarily that of

militant Islam—is often justified by the perpe-

trators as necessary in order to protect and expand

a way of life based on strict religious beliefs. It is

both ironic and tragic to note that militant Islamic

terrorists kill in the name of God, while at the same

time many victims of their attacks turn to God in

order to cope with the inflicted trauma. It is not

surprising, then, that no precise definition of re-

ligion can be offered with which all theologians

and policymakers would agree. Instead, this chap-

ter offers a dictionary definition that is generic

enough to reflect a pluralistic approach, yet spe-

cific enough to be meaningful:

Religion: belief in a divine power to be wor-

shipped and obeyed as the creator and ruler of

the universe, expressed in conduct and ritual.

(Webster, 1979)

‘‘Spirituality,’’ too, is a word with variable

usage and meanings. Currently in postmodern

America the term is frequently used to refer to a

more personal, subjective, psychological, and less

formalized type of religious orientation. Thus, a

person can be spiritual without necessarily being

religious. To some, it is more authentic to be spi-

ritual in one’s own way than to be religious by

following the directives of an organization such

as a church, synagogue, or mosque. However, this

dichotomized view of religion and spirituality is

problematic. After all, many traditionally religious

people place a high value on spirituality as well

and hold that these are not mutually exclusive

concepts. Perhaps it is more helpful to suggest that

spirituality and religion are overlapping concepts

with a difference in focus. Spirituality focuses

138 Consequences of Terrorism

more on individual and psychological expression,

whereas religion focuses more on corporate and

sociological expression. It is possible to experience

one without the other, but many would say that

they function best as two sides of one coin. A re-

ligious person who lacks spirituality may be seen

as superficial, and an antireligious spiritual person

may be seen as simply self-indulgent. In contrast, a

person who is both spiritual and religious can be

seen as demonstrating a credible maturity of faith

and practice.

Consider, for example, notable religious lea-

ders such as Mother Teresa and Inamullah Khan,

Christian and Muslim recipients of the Templeton

Prize, or Lord Jakobovits, former chief rabbi of

Great Britain. Each of these remarkable people can

be said to have demonstrated a life that was both

religious and spiritual. Acknowledging, then, that

these concepts are distinct yet complementary, we

may define spirituality as follows:

Spirituality: the individual’s personal, sub-

jective expression of their search for trans-

cendent meaning and purpose, which may or

may not involve organized religion.

With these definitions in mind, it is possible to

state with some clarity what ‘‘faith-based commu-

nity’’ means. Since religious beliefs are not subject

to empirical verification and concepts of the divine

are not subject to standard scientific tests, faith is a

prominent component in both religion and spiri-

tuality. (Of course, even the hardest science re-

quires faith in the empirical method and scientific

interpretation, but that is another discussion.)

Thus, religiously or spiritually oriented people are

often described as ‘‘people of faith,’’ and many

consider themselves part of a community of those

who believe as they do (though some are more

individualistic and idiosyncratic in their faith and

do not associate with any religious organization).

The faith community typically revolves around a

parish, church, synagogue, mosque, or some other

anchor point for like-minded believers:

Faith-based community: that group of like-

minded believers with whom the individual

participates and identifies regarding religious/

spiritual beliefs and practices. It is to such

communities that survivors of terrorist attacks

invariably turn for help.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

The concept of psychological trauma following in

the wake of physical trauma is generally well ac-

cepted by professionals and the general public alike.

The central idea, as presented in Chapter 13, is that

people who have experienced an overwhelming

trauma may find afterward that they are simply un-

able to cope well with life’s stressors. Instead, they

experience debilitating symptoms that may continue

unabated unless treated. During and after the world

wars of the twentieth century, for example, many

servicemen were found to suffer from shell shock

and to need hospitalization. The need for treatment

for postcombat servicemen helped drive the ex-

pansion of Veterans Administration hospitals and

sped the growth of clinical psychology.

Not until after the Vietnam War was the term

‘‘posttraumatic stress disorder’’ (PTSD) coined as a

way to capture the disabling experiences that many

combat veterans endured. PTSD is defined for men-

tal health professionals in the Diagnostic and Statis-

ticalManual ofMentalDisorders (AmericanPsychiatric

Association, 2000). The condition can occur after

exposure to a life-threatening stressor that indu-

ces fear, helplessness, and/or horror (e.g., combat,

sexual assault, torture, terrorist attack). Exposure

may involve being present at and experiencing a

direct threat of death or injury, as was the case for

those in the Twin Towers on 9/11, or it may involve

witnessing such an event either close at hand or via

media coverage (Linley et al., 2003). The result is

an array of difficult symptoms such as feelings of

extreme anxiety or panic, recurrent nightmares or

flashbacks, a mental and emotional reliving of the

event, ceaseless hyperactivity, and significant dys-

function at home or work.

Results of a national survey in the mid-1990s

showed that PTSD was fairly widespread in the

United States even before 9/11 (Kessler, Sonnega,

Bromet, Hughes, & Nelson, 1996), and rates

appear to rise after major disasters. For instance,

nations that have experienced extreme conflict

show extremely high rates of this disorder: Algeria

(37%), Cambodia (28%), and Gaza (18%) (de Jong

et al., 2001).

In sum, PTSD is a well-recognized emotional

disorder, triggered by a traumatic event, that seri-

ously impairs one’s quality of life. If untreated, PTSD

can result in permanent mental disability involv-

ing intense psychological suffering, social alienation,

139The Role of Religion, Spirituality, and Faith-Based Community in Coping With Acts of Terrorism

disorganization, decreased productivity in the work-

place, and ongoingmedical and legal expenses. Since

a terrorist attack is by definition a potentially over-

whelming traumatic event, survivors of such attacks

are at high risk for PTSD. This is confirmed by re-

search that was completed 6 months after 9/11 in

New York City, which found that 36.7% of those

who were in theWorld Trade Center met the criteria

for PTSD (Galea et al., 2003).

Posttraumatic Depression

and Other Disorders

Survivors of a terrorist attack are clearly at risk for

PTSD. They are also at risk for other emotio-

nal disorders that may be either related to PTSD or

totally distinct but triggered by the same trauma

(Flannery, 1999). For instance, posttraumatic de-

pression can occur as a survivor finds that, fol-

lowing a trauma, a profound sense of hopelessness

and sadness becomes overwhelming and debili-

tating. Such depression may include loss of sleep

and appetite, loss of motivation and energy, feel-

ings of guilt or anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

Unless treated, posttraumatic depression may be-

come chronic and even lead to suicide attempts.

Other emotional disorders may also be triggered

by trauma, though PTSD and posttraumatic de-

pression are the most common. Trauma survivors

may experience panic attacks, agoraphobia (fear of

leaving the safety of one’s home), or psychosomatic

pains such as stomach cramps or headaches. Sur-

vivors may also find that, for the first time, they

struggle with drug and alcohol abuse or other high-

risk behaviors. After 9/11, surveys found that the

trauma of terrorist attack led large numbers of

Americans to seek help for substance abuse (Na-

tional Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse,

2001). It is not known why the same trauma evokes

different disorders in different people, but it is clear

that these disorders call for timely and effective help.

If no help is available, these disorders may result in

intense psychological pain, an increase in accidents

or illness, lost productivity in the workplace, per-

manent disability, or suicide (Flannery, 1999).

Posttraumatic Growth

Whereas the fairly common experience of PTSD

and related emotional disorders is well studied and

well accepted, clinicians and researchers have

more recently identified another possible after-

effect of trauma that is only beginning to be

understood—posttraumatic growth. Actually, the

possibility of positive change resulting from ne-

gative events has been recognized through the ages

in philosophy, literature, and religion. Consider,

for example, the mythological story of the Egyptian

phoenix—a great bird that was destroyed, only to

rise again from the ashes. Or consider the actual

story of Lance Armstrong, multiple winner of the

Tour de France after surviving cancer. In his au-

tobiography Armstrong discusses how the trauma

of cancer and chemotherapy led to his resolve to

become a world champion: ‘‘[The] truth is that

cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me’’

(Armstrong, 2001, p. 4). Of course, this does not

mean that Armstrong welcomed the scourge of

cancer; rather, it means that even the worst ex-

perience can lead to remarkable benefit. Thus the

concept of new birth or growth resulting from

trauma and suffering is not new.

For the past 10 years a growing number of

researchers have been studying this intriguing con-

cept. Although various terms are used, the concept

is the same—long-term positive outcome following

crisis (e.g., ‘‘stress-related growth,’’ ‘‘adversarial

growth’’). As a result, a growing body of literature

has found that a significant number of those who

have been victimized by trauma experience post-

traumatic growth (Affleck & Tennen, 1996; Ar-

nold, Calhoun, Tedeschi, & Cann, 2005; Calhoun

& Tedeshi, 2006; Linley & Joseph, 2004; McMil-

len, 1999; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995; Tedeschi,

Park, & Calhoun, 1998; Woodward & Joseph,


It is possible to experience growth after illness,

bereavement, and other major life stressors. It is

also possible to experience growth after the severe

trauma of a terrorist attack. But just what does post-

traumatic growth mean, and how is it best un-

derstood? Most researchers suggest that it consists

of positive changes in interpersonal relationships,

positive changes in life philosophy, and /or a sense

of peace and optimism in the face of adversity. As a

result, the posttraumatic individual ends up at a

significantly higher level of functioning at home, at

work, and with others. This positive change is la-

beled ‘‘posttraumatic growth.’’

It is important to note that posttraumatic

growth is not the same thing as resilience or re-

covery (e.g., Bonanno, 2004, 2005), topics that

140 Consequences of Terrorism

are addressed in Chapters 12 and 21. It is certainly

true that many people are able to recover from even

a disastrous trauma and carry on, especially with

the support of friends and family. These are emo-

tionally strong people who have the ability to re-

turn to normal functioning with little help and who

will likely not experience PTSD. However, post-

traumatic growth means more than just recovering

one’s normal state of functioning, as important as

that is. It also means that the trauma victims actu-

ally end up surpassing their pretrauma state of

functioning and report being significantly better off

for having suffered the event. This does not at all

suggest that the trauma is therefore welcomed or

trivialized, nor does it mean that there is no nega-

tive impact from the trauma. It is possible for a

survivor to go through periods of severe anxiety

and grief on the way to posttraumatic growth.

Nevertheless, it does mean that the final outcome

is actually superior to the starting point.

In sum, there are three possible outcomes to

trauma: PTSD, recovery, and posttraumatic growth.

Not only do these outcomes yield different experi-

ences for the victims of trauma, but they also require

different treatment responses, as trauma care re-

searchers are now recognizing.

Trauma Care and the Role of Religion and Spirituality

Critical Incident Stress Management:

A Trauma Care Standard

Every major metropolitan area across the United

States has designated resources for meeting a

community’s needs after a disaster, whether that

involves food and housing, physical healthcare,

or mental healthcare. Emergency mental health

(EMH) services are designed to meet the mental

health needs of individuals and communities after

a major disaster such as a terrorist attack (Flan-

nery, 1999). These services are typically coor-

dinated from a central crisis-response center and

involve those who have been selected and trained

to serve the community as EMH professionals in

times of crisis. Thus in any given area there should

be a team of psychiatrists, psychologists, social

workers, and/or other mental health practitioners

who are ready to serve when called upon. What

guides the services that EMH professionals offer?

The most widely recognized treatment approach

is known as critical incident stress management

(CISM; Everly & Mitchell, 1999), which provides a

paradigm for postcrisis care. CISM is designed to

reduce the acute psychological distress suffered by

victims of a trauma such as a terrorist attack and to

reduce the incidence of emotional disorders such

as PTSD that may be triggered by that trauma.

CISM necessarily requires planning and pre-

paration on the part of emergency care agencies,

such as selecting and training EMH professionals

and developing area strategies. Once these are im-

plemented, there are four primary treatment com-

ponents that can be helpful both for the residents

of an affected area and for disaster workers at-

tending them:

� Individual acute crisis counseling, consisting of one-on-one sessions, with or without med-

ications. This is typically offered as soon as

possible to those who are severely traumatized

and who may have difficulty with daily life

functioning. � Brief small-group debriefings. These discussions are designed to reduce acute symptoms such as

high anxiety levels and grief by working through

such feelings. The goal is to offer this service

early on so as to defuse what could otherwise

become debilitating emotional trauma. � Longer-term small-group discussions known as critical incident stress debriefing (Mitchell

& Everly, 1996). The goal of long-term de-

briefing is to work through traumatic events

and achieve a sense of closure so that victims

can move on with their lives without difficulty.

This may take weeks or months of focused

effort, especially for those who have difficulty

expressing negative thoughts and feelings. � Family crisis intervention procedures. Living with traumatized individuals can be hard on a

family unit or on others who live or work

closely with thevictim. In this intervention,

EMH professionals go into the neighborhoods

and homes of trauma victims and offer family

therapy and other supportive and problem-

solving services that may be called for.

The goal of these interventions is to reduce

pathological symptoms, build caring networks of

friends and family for ongoing support, and restore

a sense of mastery and purpose in life. If the

interventions do not adequately meet the needs of

141The Role of Religion, Spirituality, and Faith-Based Community in Coping With Acts of Terrorism

those impacted by the trauma, CISM calls for re-

ferrals for psychological assessment and treatment

on an as-needed basis. CISM is supported by empi-

rical evidence (Everly, Flannery, & Mitchell, 2000;

Everly & Mitchell, 1999) and is considered by

many as an international standard of trauma care

for mental health needs (Mitchell & Everly, 2000).

For this reason it was widely offered as a standard

‘‘blanket’’ intervention after 9/11 for those who

were exposed to the trauma of the World Trade

Center attack (Miller, 2002).

Research on the Effectiveness of Trauma Care

Until recently CISM and related approaches were

assumed to constitute state-of-the-art effective

treatment for all trauma victims. The assumption

was that all those who were exposed to life-

threatening stressors would benefit from the de-

scribed services. After all, common sense suggests

that it is helpful to work through grief and anxiety

following trauma and loss and that the alternative is

to deny emotions at one’s own risk. Surprisingly,

a growing literature demonstrates that that is not

the case (e.g., Bonanno & Kaltman, 1999; Stroebe

& Stroebe, 1991; Wortman & Silver, 1989). As it

turns out, not only is CISM sometimes ineffective,

but in some cases it may actually be harmful. One

review of grief therapies, which overlap con-

siderably with CISM strategies, found that 38%

of those who received treatment actually got worse

(Niemeyer, 2000). CISM is most likely helpful for

some trauma victims who are spiraling downward

emotionally and need help to process their negative

feelings and thoughts, but it is not necessarily ap-

propriate for those who have a different experience

in reaction to trauma (Bonanno, 2004).

Thus, it seems increasingly clear that there

are differential treatment needs among survivors

of a terrorist attack. Some may benefit from CISM

and related approaches, as detailed in Chapter 16.

However, according to George Everly, who heads

up the International Critical Incident Stress Foun-

dation, many people need what might be called

‘‘pastoral crisis intervention.’’ Everly defines this as

‘‘the use of traditional pastoral interventions ap-

plied within a context of sound emergency mental

health skills.’’ He states that pastoral crisis inter-

vention is ‘‘nowhere . . .more useful than in re-

sponse to real or threatened terrorism’’ (Everly,

2003, p. 1). Thus a well-recognized proponent of

CISM acknowledges the limitations of that

approach to posttraumatic treatment, as well as the

unique relevance of spiritual and religious re-


The Role of Religion and Spirituality

in Coping With Trauma

Terrorism demoralizes a population with fear,

anger, paranoia, and grief. Those who have lost

loved ones are devastated, and witnesses (even via

media) are horrified. Trust in one’s community

and government may fail, and the very fabric of

society may seem to be crumbling. Saathoff and

Everly point out that these feelings have the po-

tential to spread by contagion, in that the popu-

lation inadvertently spreads the intended impact of

a terrorist attack by losing perspective and resolve

(Saathoff & Everly, 2002). We thus further ter-

rorize ourselves. If CISM is not capable of neu-

tralizing such trauma sequelae for all victims, what

recourse is there?

One recourse is to draw on the near-universal

human experience of faith, spirituality, and re-

ligion. These resources have been historically

neglected by the field of psychology for various

reasons, yet are now recognized as strongly related

to mental health (Hill & Pargament, 2003; Kelly &

Strupp, 1992; Miller & Thoresen, 2003). Perhaps

one could add that this rediscovery is coming in

the nick of time, as the United States faces an

enemy capable of destruction on the order of a

nuclear war, yet without the predictability of the

cold war. Thankfully, because of the rediscovery of

the role of spirituality in mental health, there is a

growing literature on the topic of spirituality and

trauma—sometimes referred to as ‘‘religious cop-

ing.’’ Researchers have found that positive religious

coping is associated with lower rates of depression

and with fewer symptoms of psychological dis-

tress such as those found in PTSD (e.g., Calhoun,

Cann, Tedeschi, & McMillan, 2000; Drescher &

Foy, 1995; Everly, 2003; Harrison et al., 2001;

Meisenhelder, 2002; Overcash, Calhoun, Cann, &

Tedeschi, 1996; Pargament, Tarkeshwar, Ellison,

& Wulff, 2001; Pargament et al., 1990; Sowell

et al., 2000). More specifically, research points

toward three key resources that religion and spir-

ituality provide for victims coping with the trauma

of a terrorist attack: openness to religious growth,

engagement in spiritual reflection, and involve-

ment in a faith-based community.

142 Consequences of Terrorism

Openness to Religious Growth

In earthquake-prone California, much has been

learned about the type of building construction that

can withstand a major earthquake. Standard build-

ing practices produce rigid structures that are un-

able to flex or sway in response to a tremor, and

these buildings are much more likely to suffer da-

mage or even collapse. Earthquake-resistant struc-

tures are built with flexibility so that they may give

and sway during a quake. Although the swaying

can be unnerving for those inside, it protects them

from harm. In like manner, those who experience

a major trauma are going to discover whether

their faith and spirituality are rigid or flexible.

A rigid approach to religion means that sim-

plistic concepts are maintained at all costs, such as

‘‘a faithful person will not suffer tragedy.’’ Those

with this (or a similar) rigidly held religious belief

are left with only three options after experiencing a

major trauma. They may attempt to deny that the

trauma was as bad as it seems, thus maintaining

their belief that they are not subject to life’s tra-

gedies despite evidence to the contrary. They may

draw the depressogenic conclusion that the tragedy

proves they lack faith. Or they may abandon their

religious beliefs altogether since the trauma ex-

perience was not consistent with their unrealistic

and rigid theology. Needless to say, none of these

options are desirable. Neither a life in denial nor

depression nor a life shorn of faith will help a

victim cope with the trauma of a terrorist attack.

The alternative is to be flexible in response to

the trauma and open to change and growth as a

person of faith. This means holding onto one’s core

religious beliefs even while searching for answers,

and turning to one’s understanding of God in a

heartfelt manner for help and direction. Where

better to turn in time of overwhelming trauma?

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 90% of New York

City residents turned to prayer, religion, or spiri-

tual feelings (Gallup, 2003). In short, they turned

to God as a source of comfort, strength, and un-

derstanding. For a person of faith, only in God

can ultimate meaning and purpose be found—

especially in the face of death and terror. This

means trusting that God exists and is greater than

all traumas and being open to spiritual growth and

change even in the midst of pain and suffering.

Empirical evidence suggests that openness to

religious growth is not only helpful in coping with

trauma but is also related to posttraumatic growth.

Calhoun et al. (2000) tested 54 students who had

experienced a major traumatic event within the

past 3 years. They measured posttraumatic growth

with the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory (Te-

deschi & Calhoun, 1996) and openness with the

Quest Scale (Batson, Schoenrade, & Ventis, 1993),

which includes a subscale on openness to religious

change (e.g., ‘‘there are many religious issues on

which my views are still changing’’). Five other

variables thought to be related to posttraumatic

growth were also measured, including ‘‘early event

rumination.’’ When they ran a simultaneous mul-

tiple regressionequation,withposttraumatic growth

as the dependent measure, only two of the vari-

ables were significantly predictive of growth—

openness to change and early event rumination.

Thus, openness to religious change is found to be

an important factor in the very desirable outcome

of posttraumatic growth. This suggests that a

willingness to learn and grow, coupled with a fo-

cus on one’s understanding of God, function to-

gether as a powerful coping mechanism after a

trauma-inducing event.

The research therefore seems to suggest that

there are two possible responses to trauma relevant

to personal growth. One response focuses inward

on self, holds rigidly to grievances, and increases

the misery of posttraumatic stress. The other fo-

cuses outward on one’s understanding of God,

is open to learning new things in the midst of

suffering, and leads to posttraumatic growth. For

some the latter may be very difficult, for a variety

of reasons. Thus it is never appropriate to blame

trauma victims for the anguish of their posttrau-

matic stress. The only correct response is com-

passion. At the same time, it is important that

trauma victims be made aware of the potential

benefits of openness to religious growth. In that

way, those who are so inclined will be encouraged

to access this important resource and experience

its benefits.

Engagement in Spiritual Reflection

If being open to religious growth is a significant

help when coping with trauma, by what mechan-

ism does that help occur? After all, ‘‘openness’’

is a fairly static concept, seemingly more attitudinal

than behavioral. Just what does a person do who is

turning to God and open to posttraumatic growth?

Among other things, they think carefully about

143The Role of Religion, Spirituality, and Faith-Based Community in Coping With Acts of Terrorism

what happened and all that it means for them.

An appropriate visual metaphor would perhaps be

Rodin’s Thinker, sitting with elbow on knee and

chin on fist while contemplating. After experien-

cing a traumatic event such as a terrorist attack,

numerous questions inevitably press in on the

mind. What should I conclude from this terrifying

experience? How do I make sense of it? Why did it

happen? Where was God? What must I do now to

be safe? These and related questions flow through

the victim’s consciousness, and it is easy to become

preoccupied with the search for answers. If such

thinking leads nowhere and no answers are found,

discouragement follows and adds to the weight

of posttraumatic distress. But if reflection leads to

new realizations and conclusions that help explain

not only the event but also deeper questions re-

garding life’s ultimate meanings, that is another

matter. Productive, positive spiritual reflection is

a significant help for victims struggling to cope

with trauma.

It should not be surprising that constructive

cognitive processes constitute a significant coping

mechanism for dealing with trauma. Since the rise

of cognitive therapy in the 1970s and 1980s (e.g.,

Beck, 1976; Ellis, 1987; Meichenbaum, 1977), it

has been clear that negative cognitive processes

are related to many forms of psychopathology.

Changing those negative cognitions thus leads to

improvement. In fact, in the long run, cognitive

therapy and related cognitive-behavior therapy,

which target specific negative cognitions, have been

found to be more effective than medication in

treating anxiety disorders (Gould, Otto, Pollack, &

Yap, 1997). Additionally, most therapists currently

declare themselves to be cognitive-behavioral in

orientation (Craighead, 1990; Prochaska & Nor-

cross, 2003).

Although the focus has traditionally been on

diminishing negative thought processes in order to

relieve pathology, ongoing work by Martin Selig-

man adds a complementary positive point of view.

Seligman points out that psychology as a field has

tended toward a negative focus on psychopathol-

ogy and argues for a more positive and optimistic

mental health focus to include concepts such as a

person’s strengths, values, and life goals (Seligman,

1990). For spiritual reflection, it is this broader

view of the importance of cognitive processes—

including both positive and negative cognitions—

that is most relevant. Spiritual reflection thus draws

on concepts found in cognitive psychotherapy but

incorporates a positive focus such as Seligman’s

work discusses.

Here too, empirical evidence suggests that

spiritual reflection is not only helpful in coping with

trauma but also related to posttraumatic growth.

Calhoun and colleagues used a ‘‘rumination’’ scale,

defined as ‘‘recurrent [event-related] thinking, in-

cluding making sense, problem solving, reminis-

cence, and anticipation’’ (Calhoun et al., 2000, p.

522). The scale covers the following items:

� deliberately thinking about the event to try to understand it

� deliberately trying to make something good come out of the struggle with the event

� deliberately trying to see benefits in the event � thinking about the meaning or purpose of life (p. 524)

Using a multiple regression equation, the re-

searchers found that early event-related rumina-

tion was related not just to coping with trauma but

also to posttraumatic growth. Calhoun et al. note

that there is a negative, intrusive, unabated type

of rumination (negative cognitive process) that is

unhelpful. Thus, simply obsessing over worries

in a circular manner does not help. However,

constructive reflection does help and contributes

significantly to posttraumatic growth. This means

that the trauma victim takes the time to reflect on

the event (what to make of it, what it really means,

etc.) in a positive manner that leads at least in part

to satisfactory answers.

In this way spiritual reflection, functioning

as a mechanism for openness to change, leads to

positive outcomes in trauma victims. According to

the research, it needs to occur early on, and it must

lead at least in part to satisfactory conclusions that

help the victim make sense of the trauma. A criti-

cal discrimination is between positive spiritual

reflection (which is productive) and pointless ru-

mination (which continues endlessly without

conclusion). The latter simply adds to the agony of

the trauma, but the former constitutes a powerful

tool for coping with it. Moreover, it adds to the

likelihood that the victim will experience post-

traumatic growth.

Involvement in a Faith-Based Community

A trauma victim engaging in spiritual reflection

and open to religious growth is more likely to cope

144 Consequences of Terrorism

well with posttraumatic stress and to experience

posttraumatic growth. Nevertheless, an individ-

ual’s efforts can go only so far, and most victims

turn to family and friends as well—a healthy in-

stinct given the universal need for community and

support. For those who are already part of a

local faith community, that community constitutes

a third resource that is not to be overlooked. A

mosque, church, or synagogue can play a unique

role in coping with trauma since it can provide

both social support and a shared belief system that

together offer effective help. This social support

reminds victims they are not alone and encourages

them to rely on others who are struggling to work

through similar trauma. The shared belief system

provides a meaningful theological and philosoph-

ical framework for thinking through what has

occurred and helps the victim to avoid extreme

and counterproductive conclusions. This is not so,

however, if the religious culture is one of rigidity,

punishment, and harsh theological teachings (such

as ‘‘God is punishing you because of your lack

of faith [or your disobedience]’’). A punitive faith

community only adds to the burden of posttrau-

matic stress, but one that offers love and accep-

tance, as well as a reasoned and wholesome the-

ology, constitutes a critical resource for the victim

of trauma.

There is a growing literature that recognizes

the importance of local faith-based organizations

in times of personal or community trauma. Har-

rison et al. have found that, although punitive re-

ligious reframing is counterproductive, ‘‘it appears

that seeking congregational support and reframing

the event in benevolent terms have positive health

benefits’’ (2001, p. 86). Meisenhelder states that

‘‘attending religious services brings people together

in a supportive environment, where pain can be

acknowledged and comforted. The shared belief

system in itself decreases the sense of isolation

accompanying crisis or trauma. . . . People who use

positive religious coping see their life as part of a

larger spiritual force and try to find the lesson for

them in the crisis’’ (2002, p. 775). That lesson may

refer to, for example, a new appreciation for the

sanctity and beauty of life, and the importance of

being more other-oriented. These researchers seem

to support what is generally well recognized—that

participation in a local faith-based community

can be good for body and soul, especially in times

of crisis.

Each of these three responses to trauma is

helpful for coping with the enormous stressors a

victim experiences. Even more than that, the three

together constitute a comprehensive strategy for

survival and growth that is hard to match with

standard treatment plans. Trauma victims do well to

adopt an attitude of openness to religious growth, to

think through concerns in constructive spiritual

reflection, and to link up with their faith-based

community. Such a strategy provides powerful help

in coping with trauma and increases the likelihood

of eventually experiencing posttraumatic growth ra-

ther than PTSD. Perhaps this is why almost half of

Americans surveyed after 9/11 reported that their

faith was actually stronger after the terrorist attack

(Wagner, 2001).

Recommendations and Next Steps

It is clear that spirituality, religion, and faith-based

communities can play a key role in coping with the

trauma of a terrorist attack. Although the mental

health profession has historically neglected these

resources, the recognition of their importance for

mental health services is growing (Kelly, 2003;

Miller & Thoresen, 2003). In fact, this is precisely

where many turn in times of crisis. More im-

portantly, research shows that the help that trauma

victims find there sometimes surpasses what is

available via standard mental health care. Such

comfort not only provides a resource for coping with

trauma but also increases a victim’s likelihood of

experiencing posttraumatic growth. A nation locked

in combat with terrorism cannot afford to overlook

such a resource.

Practically speaking, what does this mean

for the emergency mental health professionals,

individuals, and faith-based communities? What

steps can they take in preparation for and in re-

sponse to terrorist attack? Furthermore, what ad-

ditional research is needed in order to better

understand this important resource?

For Emergency Mental Health


The standard protocol for emergency mental

health care—critical incident stress management—

needs major modification. CISM is likely help-

ful for some trauma victims who are spiraling

145The Role of Religion, Spirituality, and Faith-Based Community in Coping With Acts of Terrorism

downward emotionally and need help to process

their negative thoughts and feelings but not for

others who react differently to trauma. Emergency

mental health professionals must be trained to dif-

ferentiate between those who might benefit from

CISM and those who might not, especially since

the misapplication of CISM can be harmful. Dif-

ferentiation may involve using an assessment in-

strument capable of clearly identifying appropriate

candidates for CISM versus other treatments or

strategies. Those in need of treatment but not

likely to respond well to CISM could be referred

to other modalities such as cognitive-behavioral

therapy or exposure therapy. Those not in need of

treatment should be encouraged to turn to other

sources of help such as family, friends, or spiritual/

religious resources.

Since the field is advancing so rapidly, EMH

professionals must not rely on traditional, out-

dated protocols for emergency mental health care.

Instead, it is critical to keep up with the literature,

conferences, and training opportunities. Increas-

ingly, researchers are turning their attention to

developing strategies for working with survivors of

terrorism (e.g., Gil-Rivas, Holman, & Silver, 2004;

Kelly, 2004, 2005). One of the findings is that

some members of a community are predictably

more at risk than others for being negatively im-

pacted by trauma. For instance, a recent study

found that adolescents with a history of mental

illness or learning difficulties were more at risk for

difficulties following 9/11 than the general popu-

lation (Gil-Rivas, Holman, & Silver, 2004). Ac-

cordingly, EMH professionals should be trained to

assess for these and other risk factors among the

target population before prescribing care. They

can then tailor services and supports to meet in-

dividual needs rather than automatically offering

them to all comers.

It is important to note that a person of faith

(one for whom spiritual and/or religious matters

are very important) may benefit from CISM or

other treatment modalities as well as from faith-

based resources. It is not an either-or scenario, so

whether or not a person of faith receives profes-

sional care, they should also be encouraged to

access the full spectrum of spiritual/religious re-

sources available to them. For this reason, EMH

professionals need to be trained to understand the

importance of spirituality and religion as coping

resources in times of trauma. In sum, they must be

ready to provide CISM when clearly indicated,

refer to cognitive-behavioral or other treatment

modalities as needed, encourage all victims to turn

to family and friends, and encourage people of

faith to draw on their spiritual and religious re-

sources, including their faith-based community.

For the Individual

According to the Department of Homeland Se-

curity there are several ways that an individual can

prepare for times of crisis, including purchasing

needed items (emergency food, radio, flashlight;

duct tape and plastic for creating a ‘‘safe room,’’

etc.) and developing plans for meeting and com-

municating with loved ones. But how is one to pre-

pare to draw on spiritual and religious resources at

these times? Here are recommendations for in-

dividuals who are preparing for and possibly re-

sponding to trauma such as a terrorist attack:

Preparation for Crisis

1. Do not be satisfied with religious or spiritual

beliefs that are rigid and unrealistic and that

cannot flexibly respond to your needs during a

crisis. For example, if your belief system leads

you to expect that no harm can come to you or

your loved ones (as long as you are faithful,

obedient, etc.), you are less likely to cope

well with trauma. It may be helpful to expand

your theological understanding so that it can

assimilate the reality of tragedies that some-

times afflict good and faithful people. At that

point you will be better prepared to weather a


2. Regularly practice productive spiritual reflection

as a natural part of life during times of peace

so that, when crisis comes, this resource will

not be foreign to you. This may involve prayer

and meditation, the study of religious writings,

keeping a spiritual journal, or discussing key

theological issues with others. Such practices

prepare you for crisis by familiarizing you with

positive spiritual reflection and making it less

likely that you will fall into fruitless rumination

in the aftermath of a trauma.

3. Align yourself with a faith-based community

that is capable of providing interpersonal

support during times of crisis. The faith

community must have a belief system you are

146 Consequences of Terrorism

comfortable with and that can account for life’s

tragedies in a realistic and meaningful manner.

A faith-based community built primarily upon

superficial interactions, whose members are

smiling and friendly but seldom wrestle with

life’s difficulties, will not do. Only a commu-

nity whose members support one another in

meaningful ways and who share a wholesome

and realistic theology will be a helpful resource

during a tragedy.

Posttraumatic Response

1. Remember the importance of your faith, your

spirituality, and your religion because these

resources can make all the difference as you

struggle to cope with tragedy and loss. Re-

member who you are spiritually and where

to turn for help.

2. Be open to religious change and deliberately

avoid rigid attitudes and unrealistic expecta-

tions. Instead of focusing inward on yourself,

focus outward on your understanding of God

and on seeking God. Expect that some of your

assumptions will be challenged, and be willing

to let them be modified or expanded. Expect

that managing the trauma may change your

spiritual and religious understanding in sig-

nificant and helpful ways, and be open to that.

Expect that posttraumatic suffering will hurt

but that it will also create new things in your

life that will come to have deep and satisfying

spiritual significance.

3. Embrace spiritual reflection early on as a key

resource for handling crises. This does not

mean to engage in pointless rumination but to

invest time and energy into productive prayer

and meditation, discussion, and so on, as you

search for answers. Remember that it is ap-

propriate and necessary to do so and that

consequently you may not be as focused as

usual on life’s daily tasks for some time. Record

your thoughts and prayers in a journal, and

share them with loved ones and members of

your faith community. Do not be afraid to draw

conclusions that might have seemed quite

foreign to you before the trauma (e.g., ‘‘There

is a struggle in this broken world between

good and evil, with real consequences and

innocent casualties. Therefore it is best to

actively support the good and to live life to the

fullest in a godly manner.’’). It is a time for


4. Become fully engaged with your faith-based

community, whether synagogue, church,

mosque, or other organization. Remember that

this will not help if that group is rigid and

harsh, perhaps with a focus on punishment.

However, if it is a community of compassion

and sound shared beliefs, it will serve as a

tremendous resource for all of its members.

Attend functions, volunteer for programs and

activities, and become as involved as possible.

This will not only provide needed support for

you, but it will also allow your support to be

given to others, which is healing for both

parties. Moreover, it will allow for discussion

of core existential and theological questions

that are the natural sequelae to major trauma


5. Expect not only that these resources will help

you to cope with posttraumatic stress but

that you may also experience posttraumatic


6. Do not hesitate to access standard mental

health resources as needed—such as mainline

psychotherapy and medication or CISM—for

emotional needs that persist. To do so does not

negate the value of your spirituality, religion,

or faith, as it is not an either-or matter.

For the Faith-Based Community

Unfortunately, not all faith-based communities rise

to the occasion when crisis hits. It was reported

that in Manhattan, after 9/11, some of the local

church pastors immediately left to stay with family

and friends in other areas (A. D. Hart, personal

communication, Oct. 3, 2003). This seems akin to

dereliction of duty, as the faith-based community

has a critical role to play in times of disaster.

Following are several recommendations for faith-

based communities that desire to prepare for crises

and to be ready to help their members in an ef-

fective and compassionate manner.

Preparation for Crisis

1. The governing body of a faith-based organi-

zation, especially those located in large

metropolitan areas or near high-value terrorist

targets, should recognize the importance of

preparation for terrorist attack. This should

147The Role of Religion, Spirituality, and Faith-Based Community in Coping With Acts of Terrorism

include discussion among the membership, as

well as with national representatives (if ap-

plicable). Making an effort to be prepared for

potential disaster is consistent with most

theological traditions and is one example of

caring for the faith community. A clear deci-

sion should be made to allocate the time

and resources necessary for planning and


2. Once the decision to move ahead with plan-

ning and preparation has been made, the

governing body (or those tasked) should locate

and appropriate any and all available re-

sources. There are at least three sources to


a. Faith-based communities with a national

leadership organization should look to that

group for help with plans and resources. If

such help is not yet available, the national

organization should be strongly encouraged

to move in that direction. There is no excuse

for any national faith-based organization to

ignore critical current issues, and this one is

of primary import.

b. Local government disaster relief agencies

should be contacted so that their emergency

plans may be coordinated with those of the

faith community in a mutually helpful

manner. It may be helpful for a re-

presentative of the faith community to begin

attending emergency preparation meetings,

which are generally open to the public.

Such interest and help would likely be

welcomed by the relief agency.

c. Federal government agency websites should

be accessed so that available plans and re-

sources there may be had. There are many

government-sponsored websites filled with

relevant and helpful information for in-

dividuals and communities wanting to pre-

pare for terrorist attack (e.g., Centers for

Disease Control and Prevention, Department

of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency

Management Agency, National Institute on

Mental Health, and the Substance Abuse and

Mental Health Services Agency). One or

more faith community members could be

tasked with downloading relevant informa-

tion and presenting it to the governing body

(see websites listed in Chapter 27).

3. Utilizing these resources, the faith-based or-

ganization needs to put in place a plan of ac-

tion to be followed in times of crisis. This may

involve stipulating which staff or members

cover which function, how members will be

contacted and communication maintained,

what resources (housing, emotional support,

etc.) will be offered, how to liaison with local

emergency services, and so on. In this way, the

faith-based community becomes prepared to

take a major role in time of posttraumatic re-

covery. This will of course dramatically benefit

the faith-based community’s members, and it

also positions the organization to be of help to

the wider community.

Posttraumatic Response

1. Remember the critical importance of the

‘‘faith’’ part of your faith-based community and

where your help ultimately comes from.

2. Make sure that all organizational staff and re-

presentatives stay local, remain engaged, and

make themselves available as necessary.

3. Implement the faith-based community’s plan

of emergency action with courage and com-

passion, knowing that to do so is to provide a

tremendous resource both to members and to

the wider community.

4. To the extent possible, ensure that all com-

munity members are accounted for and that

they feel accepted, supported, and encouraged

throughout the posttrauma period.

5. Focus on the importance of talking through all

that has occurred in the context of the faith

community’s shared beliefs. Make sure that

multiple, ongoing opportunities are provided

for such discussion and that all questions are

taken seriously.

6. Encourage members to help one another to

cope with the extreme stress of a terrorist at-

tack, to be open to religious growth, to engage

in productive spiritual reflection, and to par-

ticipate in as many faith-community activities

and programs as possible. Encourage them to

expect that they will find strength for coping

and to be open to posttraumatic growth.

7. Be ready to refer members with ongoing

emotional needs to standard mental health

resources such as mainline psychotherapy,

148 Consequences of Terrorism

medication, and CISM. This must not be seen

as a sign of failure any more than would

visiting a doctor for penicillin to treat an


8. Expect the unexpected, and be ready to im-

provise or change the plan of action quickly,

creatively, and as often as needed.

Research Recommendations

Although much is known about the importance of

the three spiritual and religious resources discussed

earlier in responding to trauma, the research lit-

erature is still nascent on these and related topics.

There is a pressing need, made more so by the

threat of terrorist attack, to push ahead with com-

prehensive and programmatic research to build on

the foundation that has been laid. Here are some of

the areas that warrant priority attention:

1. Emergency mental health professionals must

be able to accurately differentiate between

those trauma victims who would benefit from

CISM and those who would not. Reliable and

valid assessment instruments and protocols

must be developed for this purpose. For in-

stance, a brief, psychometrically sound survey

with high discriminant validity (few false po-

sitives regarding the need for CISM) would be

of tremendous help.

2. In a similar fashion, emergency mental health

professionals must be able to clearly identify

those who are likely to benefit from their

personal spiritual and religious resources in a

posttrauma period. A brief survey or interview

protocol addressing this topic would be of

great help in identifying people of faith or

others who would want to be referred to those

resources and would benefit from them (e.g.,

the Religious Commitment Inventory devel-

oped by Worthington et al., 2003).

3. The concept and clinical reality of posttrau-

matic growth is clearly relevant to trauma care.

Several psychometrically sound measures of

posttraumatic growth are now available (e.g.,

the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory developed

by Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). Research that

applies these measures to different populations

in different trauma scenarios and with suffi-

ciently large numbers of participants to gen-

erate firm conclusions statistically would add

to the growing literature on this important

topic. Especially significant would be research

that addresses the facilitation of posttraumatic

growth and explores its course and clinical


4. The three spiritual and religious resources so

far identified in trauma research are of critical

importance. Openness to religious growth,

engagement in spiritual reflection, and in-

volvement in a faith-based community all have

very practical and clinically significant appli-

cations for victims of trauma such as a terrorist

attack. Additional research that replicates these

findings and also identifies other spiritual and

religious resources would help expand our

current understanding, as well as our present

strategies for coping with disaster. Eventually,

an array of evidence-supported spiritual re-

sources and strategies could be identified and

incorporated in EMH trauma care protocol.


The world changed on 9/11, and for a long time to

come, life in the United States is not likely to be as

secure as it once was. We cannot ignore the ever-

present threat of a suicidal/homicidal religious ter-

rorist breaking through the nation’s security appa-

ratus. It is only prudent, therefore, for the nation to

begin preparing for the next 9/11, even as we fer-

vently hope it will never occur and do all that can be

done to prevent it. Furthermore, the next 9/11 may

be significantly worse than the first, especially if it

involves biochemical or radioactive weapons de-

signed to kill large numbers of unsuspecting citi-


In such a scenario society would by necessity

turn to binding up the wounds of the survivors

and rebuilding what was destroyed. Since some of

the most grievous wounds are psychological rather

than physical, attending to psychological post-

trauma needs becomes a top priority. This chapter

has explored a topic that policymakers and mental

health professionals alike have historically over-

looked—spiritual and religious resources that can

help in times of crisis. As we have seen, these

resources can be as healing as standard mental

health services and, in many cases, are more

149The Role of Religion, Spirituality, and Faith-Based Community in Coping With Acts of Terrorism

readily desired by trauma victims. Such resources

cannot be ignored in this time of potential peril. It

is of utmost importance that federal, state, and

local agencies charged with emergency prepared-

ness and care (including but not limited to the

newly created Department of Homeland Security)

take note. The once-neglected spiritual factor must

be included in policy deliberation, research prio-

rities, and treatment considerations. Why? Because

survivors almost universally perceive it as having

the utmost importance as a help in times of need.

On a more philosophical and theological note,

one cannot reflect on the importance of spirituality

and religion in times of crisis without coming face

to face with some of the most enduring and per-

plexing questions ever to face humankind. Does

God exist? If so, how do we know? Either way,

how do we explain the reality of what appears at

times to be a very broken world filled with un-

warranted tragedies? How can it be that life is at

times wonderful beyond words and at other times

hellish beyond belief? In light of that, just what is

the purpose of life?

These questions may seem irrelevant to public

policy and crisis care, but they are not, for people’s

ability to productively address such questions de-

termines to some extent how well they will be able

to cope with the trauma of a terrorist attack. It

would of course be inappropriate in a pluralistic

society for any government agency to promote

a given set of answers to these fundamental life-

questions. The strength of a free and democratic

society is that it allows citizens to reach their own

religious and philosophical conclusions and pur-

sue their own destiny as they see fit, as long as they

respect social and legal norms. This is in marked

contrast with cultures that demand allegiance to a

given set of philosophical or theological proposi-

tions, such as is the case with militant Islam. In

fact, were militant Islam to spread, one of the first

rights to be lost would be that of religious freedom.

However, it is not inappropriate for the plur-

alistic agencies of the U. S. government to recognize

the importance of spiritual and religious resources to

most citizens, especially during times of crisis, and

to promote access to those resources as desired by

the survivors. To continue to neglect this topic

would be to deprive trauma victims of a powerful

coping resource after the next 9/11. Thus policy-

makers at all levels of governance would do well to

attend to the content of this chapter. In so doing, all

of us are perhaps recognizing that the effort to create

a ‘‘naked public square’’ (Neuhaus, 1984) devoid of

all things religious and spiritual was in large measure

mistaken. In a pluralistic society that champions

freedom of religion (among other basic rights), what

is needed is not a naked public square but simply an

open public square where all ideas—theological,

philosophical, governmental, policy related, and

so on—are welcomed in the marketplace of public

opinion and debate. Let individuals, not govern-

mental or religious authorities, decide which ideas

to adopt.

This chapter exemplifies an open public square

approach in that it recognizes the importance of

religion, spirituality, and faith in response to the

disaster of a terrorist attack. When crisis strikes,

when the next 9/11 occurs, give surviving victims

permission to draw on their own spiritual and re-

ligious resources, and help them to do so by fol-

lowing these recommendations. This will help a

stricken community to find strength and prevail

even in the face of terror.

Acknowledgments. The author deeply appreciates

the contribution made by research assistants Elizabeth

A. Secrist and Sherry M. Walling to this chapter.


1. Here the term ‘‘minister’’ is used broadly to in-

dicate ‘‘one who ministers to others in the name of

a given religious or spiritual perspective.’’ Thus, the

term would apply to pastors, priests, rabbis, imams,

and others who represent faith traditions.


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152 Consequences of Terrorism

11 Psychological Consequences

of Actual or Threatened

CBRNE Terrorism

Glenn R. Sullivan Bruce Bongar

The acquisition of chemical, biological, radiological,

nuclear, and high-yield explosive (CBRNE) weapons

remains a priority of several terrorist organizations,

including al-Qaeda. The extreme lethality and dis-

ruptive effect of CBRNE weapons make them highly

attractive to these groups, who conceive that their

use will help them to achieve their strategic goals.

CBRNE weapons could be said to be true ‘‘terror

weapons’’ because their psychological impact usually

exceeds the extent of their physical destructiveness,

however massive.

Terrorism is psychological warfare, and the

civilian population is the primary target. Terrorist

groups do not, and will never, possess the means to

limit or even reduce the strategic capabilities of a

nation such as the United States. Their only hope is

to inflict sufficient psychological trauma on civilians,

who will in turn pressure their governments to effect

policy changes that favor the terrorists’ interests.

Promoting psychological resilience and minimizing

psychological trauma in the wake of terrorist attacks

has therefore become a matter not only of individual

health but also of national security.

This chapter presents several historical models

that illustrate critical psychological aspects of this

threat. In addition to the psychological reactions to

the 9/11 attacks, we examine gas exposure in World

War I, ballistic missile attacks on Tehran and Israel, a

radiological accident in Brazil, an outbreak of plague

in India, and a chemical attack on the Tokyo sub-

way. We describe the potential psychological impact

of various CBRNE weapons and present evidence

that argues against the likelihood of mass panic in

the aftermath of a CBRNE attack. We discuss the

phenomenon of mass psychogenic illness and offer

recommendations for treatment and planning.

The majority of victims of CBRNE terrorism will

be psychological, not physical, casualties. In the

aftermath of a CBRNE attack, public health autho-

rities should expect that for every person actually

exposed to radiationor chemical or biological agents,

many (perhaps hundreds) more will seek medical

screening. A significant percentage of nonexposed

individuals seeking screening will present with

psychosomatic symptoms that mimic those of vic-

timswhowere actually exposed.Enormousnumbers

of people will present with symptoms of fear that

will need to be managed by overtaxed medical per-


The threat of chemical attack or an outbreak

of a highly contagious and lethal disease could

result in a mass exodus of civilians from popu-

lation centers. This demonstrated loss of faith in

the government’s ability to protect its citizens can


compel a nation’s leaders to effect drastic policy

changes. The economic losses following such an

event could be catastrophic. Effective preparation

and official communication are critical to pre-

venting unplanned evacuations.

Fortunately, a reasonably well-prepared civi-

lian population can withstand prolonged terrorist

campaigns, even those marked by the realistic

threat of CBRNE attack. The rate of psychological

casualties will decline precipitously as people ha-

bituate to the attacks, which they tend to do ra-

pidly. Understanding these nightmarish weapons

as instruments of psychological warfare and not as

weapons of mass (physical) destruction is critical

to planning and executing an effective response.

The Psychological Impact of CBRNE Weapons

This modality of terrorism is exceptionally well

suited to the apparent objectives of contemporary

terrorist organizations. CBRNE attacks spread fear,

foster uncertainty, and undermine confidence in

government and leadership. They elicit irrational

and repressive countermeasures, including, poten-

tially, a nuclear response demanded by an incensed

American public. They have the potential to rend

‘‘the fabric of trust that bonds society’’ (Hoffman,

2002, p. 313). Potential individual psychological

reactions to CBRNE terrorism include numbness;

anxiety and fear; horror and disgust; anger and

scapegoating; paranoia; loss of trust; demoraliza-

tion, hopelessness, and helplessness; and survivor

guilt (Holloway, Norwood, Fullerton, Engel, &

Ursano, 1997).

Survivors of mass violence (e.g., terrorism or

shooting rampage) are more likely to suffer sub-

sequent psychiatric illness than are survivors of

natural or technological disasters (Norris et al.,

2002). One reason for this is that intentional attacks

‘‘might happen again at any moment,’’ whereas re-

spites are expected after natural disasters. Further,

mass violence reveals a degree of human malevo-

lence that most people cannot integrate into their


The very nature of chemical, biological, and

radiological agents inspires terror. People are un-

able to see or feel the agent and in most cases are

unable to smell or taste it. Because of this intang-

ibility, direct exposure is impossible to detect

without specialized equipment or medical tests

(at least during the physiologically asymptomatic

stage of exposure). The possibility of person-to-

person transmission magnifies our natural fear of

contagion. When people fear infection from others

or infecting those close to them, social support

networks disintegrate. CBRNE events evoke the

primal human fear of being permanently dis-

figured or disabled. Years after an attack, there will

be residual fears of subsequent birth defects or the

delayed appearance of cancers, and so on.

External factors also serve as ‘‘terror multipliers’’

during CBRNE events. Inconsistent or incomplete

information from the media and authorities can

heighten anxiety and deplete trust. Perceived con-

tradictions regarding preventative measures, prog-

nosis, and treatment effectiveness among public

health officials and kibitzers appearing on 24-hour

news channels can contribute to anxiety. Stress

and anxiety are compounded when treatments (e.g.,

Cipro) are identified but availability is perceived to

be limited. Witnessing large numbers of dead or

injured people can demoralize or shock even those

not directly exposed to the attack. This effect is

maximized when images of dead or injured chil-

dren are broadcast.

The novelty of CBRNE weapons is perhaps

their most potent aspect: Human beings dread

most that with which they are unfamiliar. For-

tunately, habituation to frightening stimuli occurs

rapidly (Rachman, 1990). The first offensive use of

gas in World War I produced panic among the

defenders, but subsequent attacks did not (Mo-

scrop, 2001). Similarly, all other factors remaining

constant, if an airliner were flown into the Empire

State Building tomorrow, the psychological reac-

tion would be less intense than the reactions

observed on September 11, 2001.

Credibility of the Threat

In 1975 terrorism analyst Brian Jenkins said fa-

mously, ‘‘Terrorists want a lot of people watching

and a lot of people listening and not a lot of people

dead’’ (p. 15). Over the ensuing 30 years, a new

paradigm has emerged, which Jenkins (1999)

himself has acknowledged:

A number of America’s foes and potential foes

are actively conducting research on chemical,

154 Consequences of Terrorism

biological, or nuclear weapons. As motives

change and their self-imposed constraints erode,

today’s terrorists seem more interested in run-

ning up high body counts than in advancing a

political agenda.

CBRNE terrorism is a low-probability/high-

consequence event. To date, the airliner attacks of

September 11, 2001, remain the sole example of

mass casualty CBRNE terrorism on U.S. soil.1 The

best evidence that terrorist groups do not yet

possess the biologic, chemical, or nuclear means to

inflict hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties

is that there have been no such attacks to date.

Security concerns, particularly the fear of inter-

ception before delivery, would compel any ter-

rorist organization committed to megacasualty

operations to launch such attacks almost im-

mediately upon acquiring the means to do so

(Friedman, 2004).

The desire of terrorist masterminds to commit

murder on an apocalyptic scale is well docu-

mented. Jessica Stern (1999) observed that re-

ligious militants conceive of weapons of mass

destruction (WMD) as the perfect means to ‘‘con-

jure a sense of divine retribution’’ (p. 8).2 Osama

bin Laden has proclaimed the acquisition of WMD

a ‘‘religious duty’’ and has diligently curried cle-

rical support in order to justify future mass killings

(Scheuer, 2005). It should be remembered that the

intention of Ramzi Yousef, architect of the 1993

World Trade Center bombing, was to topple one

of the Twin Towers into the next, sending both

crashing lengthwise onto lower Manhattan, killing

perhaps 250,000 people (Friedman, 1999).

The technical challenges involved in developing

CBRNE weapons remain formidable (Steinhausler,

2003). Even Aum Shinrikyō, an apocalyptic cult

with vast economic and intellectual resources, failed

in its extensive efforts to develop effective CBRNE

weapons. However, concerns persist regarding both

the security of nuclear materials in the former So-

viet states and the willingness of some scientists

(e.g., Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan) to share their expertise

with terrorist groups or states that support terror.

Due to technical obstacles, it is more likely that

terrorists will obtain CBRNE weapons by indirect


It is especially worrying that the ‘‘calculus of

deterrence’’ that helped prevent a nuclear ex-

change between the Cold War superpowers does

not apply to nonstate actors.3 Groups such as al-

Qaeda already know that the United States is com-

mitted to its absolute destruction; therefore, they do

not fear additional retaliation. Indeed, al-Qaeda’s

strategic intent has been described as delibera-

tely provocative of massive retaliation (McCauley,

2002). Jihadist terror organizations do not feel an

ethical obligation to limit civilian casualties. More-

over, they do not fear alienating anyone with the

nature of their outrages because (unlike the IRA)

their funding and manpower do not rely on broad-

based public support.

Former chief U.S. weapons inspector David

Kay (2001) has noted that even nation-states may

be tempted to engage in CBRNE terrorism because

they perceive no alternatives to U.S. ascendancy.

Kay has stated that, as the power of the United

States increases, the probability that its strategic

competitors will employ CBRNE weapons through

indirect means (or proxies) will increase as well:

Nations will seek courses of action that will al-

low them operational freedom from U.S. con-

ventional attack or, at least, the ability to inflict

significant losses on the United States if it does

attempt to frustrate their ambitions with mili-

tary actions. Terrorism, and particularly mass

casualty terrorism, is a logical counter for such

states. Chemical, biological, and radiological

terrorism offers tremendous difficulties of

attribution—that is, proving who really carried

out an attack. Biological terrorism even has

the added difficulty of determining or proving

that one is really under attack and not simply

seeing a natural disease outbreak.

On the individual level, people who ascribe to

apocalyptic ideologies or religious fanaticism may

be more likely to engage in CBRNE terrorism be-

cause they may be less concerned about the need

for self-protection while handling deadly agents in

preparation for an attack (Moores, 2002). A com-

monly cited bioterrorism scenario involves mar-

tyrdom teams infecting themselves with smallpox

and then boarding as many commercial airline

flights as possible before they are overcome.

Mass Panic

Mass panic is defined as an ‘‘acute fear reaction

marked by loss of self-control which is followed by

155Psychological Consequences of Actual or Threatened CBRNE Terrorism

nonsocial and nonrational flight’’ (Quarantelli,

1954, p. 265). It is important to differentiate mass

panic from ‘‘mass anxiety,’’ a classic example of

which is the public’s reaction to Orson Welles’s

‘‘War of the Worlds’’ broadcast. Those who were

listening to their radios on Halloween night 1938

may have been nervous and uncertain, but they

were not running for their lives. An example of

mass panic is the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub

fire in Boston. A total of 492 people died in 15

minutes in large part because panic prevented the

crowd from using the revolving doors at the main

entrance or other exits in a socially appropriate

manner (Thomas, 1992).

It is a commonly held opinion among emer-

gency planners that the public responds to disaster

with either passivity or panic (Perry & Lindell,

2003). However, public responses to a variety of

actual disasters do not support this view. Mass

panic, in particular, appears to be quite rare in the

historical record. Panicked flight did not occur

during the bombings of British, German, or Japa-

nese cities during World War II. Mass panic did

not break out in the wake of the 1995 Tokyo

subway sarin attack, despite the horrifying in-

visibility of the debilitating agent and the fears of

contamination and mutation that have affected

Japanese society since the 1945 atomic bombings.

The repeated Scud missile raids on Israel dur-

ing the Gulf War did not provoke a mass exodus

from the cities, despite a rational expectation of

chemical attack. There was no mass panic by ci-

vilians after the Oklahoma City Federal Building

bombing, although the circumstances of the attack

were highly ambiguous and no one could be sure

that other office buildings would not be next.

Perhaps the most compelling example of non-

panic in response to disaster is that of the 1993

and 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Orderly

evacuations were executed after both incidents.

Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani esti-

mated that 20,000 people were safely evacuated

before the Twin Towers collapsed on September

11, 2001 (Giuliani, 2004). Giuliani attributes this

remarkable feat to both the courage of first re-

sponders and to the calmness of the civilians:

‘‘People exited this building carefully, they exited

this building quickly, they exited this building

without harming or hurting each other’’ (p. 15).

Some of the evacuees on 9/11 had walked

down those same stairwells after the 1993 bomb-

ing, but the ‘‘practice effect’’ of that experience and

of half-hearted fire drills during the intervening

years is dubious. Far more important is that people

tended to make the long descent among friends

and coworkers after the decision to evacuate was

made by individual office groups. This familiarity

not only provided social support but also enforced

socially appropriate behavior.

Individual heroism played a large role as well.

The head of security forMorgan Stanley’s Individual

Investor Group, Silver Star–decorated Vietnam ve-

teran Rick Rescorla, is credited with saving the lives

of almost 2,700 of that company’s employees

(Stewart, 2003). During the evacuation, he sang

patriotic songs through a bullhorn in order to calm

people’s nerves. He was last seen walking back up

the stairs, searching for stragglers, shortly before the

towers collapsed.

Multiple factors may contribute to an outbreak

of panic behavior: (1) perceiving oneself at high

risk of illness or injury; (2) limited availability

of resources that are apportioned on a first-come,

first-served basis; (3) perceived lack of effective

management of the catastrophe; and (4) loss of

credibility by the authorities (Hall et al., 2003).

Perhaps most relevant to the situation in the upper

stories of the burning Twin Towers is this com-

bination of contributing factors: any situation in

which a mortal threat is present and there are

limited escape routes (Pastel, 2001).

Mass Psychogenic Illness

The phenomenon of mass psychogenic illness, in

other times and contexts, has gone by other names,

including epidemic hysteria, conversion hysteria,

mass sociogenic illness, mass hysteria, somatiza-

tion, and, most recently, outbreaks of medically

unexplained physical symptoms (MUPS). Mass

psychogenic illness (MPI) has been defined as ‘‘a

constellation of symptoms suggestive of organic

illness, with no identifiable cause and little clinical

or laboratory evidence of disease, which occurs

among persons who share beliefs regarding their

symptoms’’ (Jones, 2000, p. 2650).

Ironically, vigorous emergency response to

suspected or actual CBRNE terrorism (and con-

sequent intense media attention) may facilitate the

emergence of mass psychogenic illness. The emer-

gence, maintenance, and resolution of physical

156 Consequences of Terrorism

symptoms occurs completely outside the bounds of

conscious awareness; people suffering from MPI

are not consciously malingering or feigning illness.

CBRNE attacks will likely trigger epic outbreaks of

mass psychogenic illness that could easily over-

whelm medical and government institutions and

threaten civil order (DiGiovanni, 1999).

Direct exposure to an agent is not required to

develop somatic symptoms (in fact, no agent is

required at all). The literature contains countless

examples of people in schools, military bases,

churches, and so on falling ill due to a purported

gas leak or toxic exposure, and upon investigation

no such exposure was found (e.g., Jones et al.,

2000). If medical care is perceived to be a scarce

resource, more people will develop symptoms of

exposure, and somatic symptoms will become

more severe. Rumor, irresponsible media coverage,

or inconsistent official announcements could in-

crease the prevalence of psychogenic cases. Within

the context of a CBRNE event, it is highly probable

that large numbers of unaffected persons will

inaccurately attribute physical stress reactions

(headache, shortness of breath, diaphoresis, etc.)

to lethal agents (Alexander & Klein, 2003).

The most commonly presented symptoms of

MPI are headache; dizziness or lightheadedness;

nausea; abdominal cramps or pain; cough; fatigue;

drowsiness or weakness; sore or burning throat;

hyperventilation or breathing difficulties; and wa-

tery or irritated eyes ( Jones, 2000). Causal factors

may include hyperventilation or syncope ( Jones,

2000). ‘‘Symptom sharing’’ and ‘‘line-of-sight’’ trans-

mission (in which an individual becomes ill upon

witnessing others becoming ill is common (Jones,


Drawing from the experience of military med-

ical personnel charged with treating psychiatric

casualties and the work of contemporary re-

searchers in the field (e.g., Engel, 2001; Holloway,

Norwood, Fullerton, Engel, & Ursano, 1997; Jones,

2000), we offer the following treatment recom-

mendations and guidelines:

1. Keep suspected MPI patients separate from

patients with known exposure.

2. Off-site treatment is preferable, whenever


3. Identify and manage symptoms of hyperar-


4. Encourage patients to hydrate, eat, and sleep.

5. Do not label MPI patients as psychiatrically ill

or identify members of the treatment team as

psychiatrists or psychologists.

6. As soon as possible, have patients engage in

useful work.

7. Quickly return patients to their social network.

8. Remember that a ‘‘skeptical attitude may in-

duce efforts by patients to prove their symp-

toms are real’’ (Engel, 2001, p. 47).

9. Remember that nonphysical origin does not

rule out real distress.

10. Remember that psychological distress is often

comorbid with physical exposure.

Individual differences may determine a per-

son’s susceptibility to MPI. These differences in-

clude preexisting anxiety levels, suggestibility,

personal belief systems, and connection to social

networks (Bartholomew & Victor, 2004). MPI may

disproportionately affect more females than males

and frequently involves adolescents and children

( Jones, 2000). MPI is more common among pa-

tients suffering from preexisting psychological dis-

orders, severe stress, or perceived lack of social

support ( Jones, 2000).

Post-9/11 Incidence of Mass Psychogenic Illness

The anthrax mailings of October 2001 were a prime

opportunity for a widespread outbreak of mass

psychogenic illness. Letters containing the weapo-

nized form of this bacteriological agent were mailed

to prominent media and government figures. In all,

5 people died, and 22 became ill, many of them

postal workers who handled the letters. Moreover,

‘‘[m]illions of people were made anxious and the

routine act of opening the mail became dangerous’’

(Hall et al., 2003, p. 139). The publicized symp-

toms of anthrax exposure were dismayingly similar

to those of influenza or a severe cold: fever, chills,

chest pain, cough, nausea, vomiting, and labored

breathing. In describing the effects of the anthrax

attacks, Bruce Hoffman (2002) has noted that

‘‘[t]errorists do not have to kill 3,000 people to

create panic and foment fear and insecurity: five

persons dying in mysterious circumstances is quite

effective at unnerving an entire nation’’ (p. 313).

Nevertheless, no reports have been published

of medical facilities being overwhelmed or overly

157Psychological Consequences of Actual or Threatened CBRNE Terrorism

burdened by a sudden influx of people who were

concerned that they had been exposed to the an-

thrax bacillus. Perhaps those who were worried

about possible exposure sought assistance from

their primary care providers and not from local

emergency departments. If there was a large-scale

outbreak of MPI directly related to the 2001 an-

thrax attacks, it has escaped our review of the re-

search literature.

Ahandful of localized, small-scale, bioterrorism-

related MPI scares did occur in the immediate

aftermath of 9/11 (for a review, seeWessely, Hyams,

& Bartholomew, 2001). However, MPI events occur

with regularity, especially in schools and other re-

gimented social contexts such as military training

posts. There is no evidence that the events of Sep-

tember 11, 2001, prompted an increase in these


Radiation Hysteria: Goiania, Brazil, 1987

The detonation of a radiological dispersion device

(RDD)—or ‘‘dirty bomb’’—could immediately kill

dozens to hundreds of victims, sicken thousands of

others, and make a large section of a major city

uninhabitable for many years. Clean-up costs from

a single RDD have been estimated at more than

$100 billion (Stern, 1999). Yet the primary impact

of a dirty bomb lies not so much in its lethality or

economic cost but in the psychological terror it

could engender.

Although we have been living in the ‘‘nuclear

age’’ for more than 60 years, the general public

remains both ignorant and highly fearful of ra-

diation (Slovic, Fischhoff, & Lichtenstein, 1980).

The regular outpouring of concerns regarding the

potentially harmful effects of radiation (e.g., the

agricultural irradiation of apples) often bears strik-

ing resemblance to mass hysteria. The psychol-

ogical effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

(depression, anxiety, and stress reactions) are far

more prevalent and range farther from the focal

point of the incident than the physical effects (e.g.,

increased risk of developing thyroid cancer). Re-

ports from Chernobyl suggest that some people

who thought they might have been exposed to

fallout committed suicide rather than face the terror

of death by radiation sickness (Salter, 2001). For

months after the Chernobyl accident, many people

in neighboring regions refused to go outside or eat

anything but canned food (Salter, 2001).

The 1987 radiation accident in Goiania, Brazil,

serves as a useful model for public response to a

dirty bomb attack. A radiotherapy machine was

stolen from an abandoned medical clinic and sold

for scrap metal. When the machine was dis-

mantled, a curious powder that glowed in the dark

was discovered inside. This powder (the radioactive

isotope cesium 137) was played with and shared

among the family and friends of the machine’s ap-

propriators. Soon after, many people who were

directly exposed to the radioactive powder devel-

oped flulike symptoms (e.g., anorexia, nausea,

vomiting, and diarrhea).

The extent of the exposure—and the cause—

eventually came to the attention of local public

health authorities. Any residents who thought they

might have been exposed to the stolen radioactive

substance were invited to come to the city’s soccer

stadium for a free radiological screening. More

than 10% of Goiania’s 1.2 million residents pre-

sented themselves for screening (Pastel, 2001).

The actual number of people who were found

to have been contaminated with radiation was

249; of these, 20 required hospitalization, and 4

eventually died from their exposure (Pastel, 2001).

Therefore, the ratio of ‘‘concerned’’ to ‘‘conta-

minated’’ people in this event was greater than

500 to 1.

A significant portion of Goiania’s citizens

demonstrated their apprehension by traveling

to a central location and standing in long lines

for many hours before undergoing screening

with Geiger-type radiation detectors. Undoubtedly,

many more residents were passively concerned or

anxious about possible exposure, but other factors

(the need to work, inability to travel, or fear of

medical authorities) kept them away from the

screening center.

Of the 125,800 people screened at Goiania,

8.3% presented with psychosomatic reactions that

mimicked the symptoms of radiation exposure

(Pettersen, 1988). People fainted and vomited while

they waited to be screened; many complained of

diarrhea, and most were visibly fearful (Pastel,

2001). Using the experience of Goiania as a guide,

we might reasonably expect that for every person

actually exposed to radiation in the aftermath of a

dirty bomb attack, more than 500 will seek medical

screening for possible contamination, and more

158 Consequences of Terrorism

than 40 will exhibit fear-related physical symptoms

that mimic the symptoms of radiation exposure.

Plague: Surat, India, 1994

A potential analogue to a widespread bioterrorism

attack is the 1994 outbreak of pneumonic plague

in Surat, India. A total of 5,150 suspected cases

of plague were identified by health officials; 49

residents eventually died of the disease (Rama-

lingaswami, 2001). Fear of contagion was so great

that approximately 600,000 people (almost 33% of

the city’s population) fled the city by any means

at their disposal—and on foot if necessary (Rama-

lingaswami, 2001). Even medical doctors fled the

city and left their patients unattended. In Calcutta—

more than 1,500 kilometers away—people stayed

indoors and off the streets. Tetracycline and

other drugs were hoarded and quickly became


This medical crisis is estimated to have cost

billions of dollars. The tourism industry for the

entire subcontinent virtually shut down for a time.

There were widespread cancellations of existing

orders for Indian exports. Economic activity in the

affected areas dropped to nearly nothing.

The government’s mishandling of this emer-

gency contributed to its magnitude. Initially, the

Indian government attempted to minimize the scale

of the outbreak and play down the risk of contagion

(Ramalingaswami, 2001). Official communications

were dilatory, often inaccurate, conflicting, and

sometimes intentionally misleading (Ramalinga-

swami, 2001). Government attempts to obfuscate or

minimize the disease outbreak and the flight of

health care personnel from the affected area were

major factors in the unplanned evacuation.

The ‘‘War of the Cities,’’ 1987–1988

Toward the end of the brutal and protracted war

between Iran and Iraq (1980–1988), both nations

attempted to break civilian morale and end popular

support for the opposing regime by targeting the

public at large with intermediate-range ballistic

missiles. In 1987 Saddam Hussein ordered 150

Scud missiles fired at Tehran, but these attacks

achieved little strategic or tactical effect. One year

later, rumors began to circulate in Tehran that

Saddam was planning a major chemical attack on

the capital city (Findley, 1991). This threat was not

unfounded, as Iraq had employed chemical wea-

pons on the frontlines beginning in 1984.

Between February 29 and April 20, 1988, in

response to missile attacks against Baghdad, Iraq

launched 190 conventional Scud-B missiles at

Tehran and other major Iranian cities (Findley,

1991). No chemical weapons were deployed (per-

haps only because Saddam did not possess the

capability to deploy such weapons in that manner

at that time). Nevertheless, in the wake of this 6-

week-long aerial assault, at least 100,000 civilians

fled Tehran (some estimates put the figure as

high as 1.5 million—25% of the city’s population)

(Martin, 2002).

An estimated 2,000 people were killed dur-

ing these attacks, and an additional 6,000 were

wounded (Martin, 2002). In terms of the amount

of destruction inflicted as a ratio of ordnance ex-

pended, the ballistic missile attacks during the so-

called War of the Cities were roughly equivalent to

the V1 and V2 rocket attacks on London during

World War II (Fetter, Lewis, & Gronlund, 1993).

However, the Nazi rocket attacks did not prompt a

mass exodus of the civilian population from the

targeted capital city.

The variable of interest here is the realistic

threat of chemical warfare, which multiplied the

psychological impact of the attacks many times.

Indeed, the threat of chemical warheads delivered

via ballistic missile not only depopulated Tehran

and weakened support for the revolutionary re-

gime but also pushed Iran’s leaders to accept a

disadvantageous UN peace resolution.

Scud Missile Attacks on Israel, 1991

The psychological impact of ballistic missile attacks

on Israeli civilians during the 1990–1991 Gulf War

did not nearly approach the regime-threatening

magnitude of theWar of the Cities. From January 17

to February 25, 1991, 39 Scud missiles were laun-

ched at Israeli cities in 18 separate attacks (Bleich,

Dycian, Koslowsky, Solomon, & Weiner, 1992). As

during the Iran-Iraq War, expectations of chemical

attack were high among both civilians and govern-

ment officials. Saddam Hussein’s prior use of che-

mical weapons and his strategic interest in drawing

Israeli forces into hostilities heightened the fear of

159Psychological Consequences of Actual or Threatened CBRNE Terrorism

impending chemical attack. Memories of the Holo-

caust, in which poison gas was used to kill millions

of Jews, maximized the psychological impact.

A total of eight people were killed as a result

of the missile attacks. Only two of those deaths

were directly caused by missile-related injuries.

Six deaths were attributed to suffocation resulting

from the improper use of gas masks (Bleich et al.,

1992). Even though they were choking, these peo-

ple refused to remove their masks because they

were convinced that poison gas was filling the

room (Bleich et al., 1992). It can be fairly said that

these people died of fear.

A total of 773 war casualties were hospitalized

during this 4-week period. Nearly 30% of the hos-

pitalizations were due to missile-related physical

injuries (Bleich et al., 1992). These were broadly

defined to include falls taken while running to

shelter, injuries sustained in car accidents that

occurred during air raids, and so on. A majority of

the hospitalizations were for either psychological

stress reactions (43%) or unjustified atropine re-

actions (27%) (Bleich et al., 1992). The unjustified

atropine injections are a symptom of anxiety,

specifically the unfounded belief that poison gas is

present in the environment and must be counter-


As civilians became habituated to the air raids,

the number of stress-related hospital admissions

fell. Ambulance crews adapted to the raids as well

and became less likely to transport psychological

casualties to the hospital (Bleich et al., 1992). No

mass exodus from Tel Aviv or any other Israeli city

was reported. The resilience of the Israeli people to

air attack may have been bolstered by the gov-

ernment’s policy of outfitting all of its citizens with

modern gas masks. (Israeli citizens who do not

maintain their masks in good working order are

subject to fines.) In addition, universal military

training may increase this population’s confidence

that they ‘‘know what to do in case of an emer-

gency.’’ In addition, public trust in the government

and the media was very high.

Sarin Gas Attack in Tokyo Subway, 1995

On March 20, 1995, members of the apocalyp-

tic religious cult Aum Shinrikyō dispersed deadly

sarin gas within the confines of the Tokyo subway

system. The cult had been under increasing pres-

sure and scrutiny from Japanese security forces,

which fed their leader’s already paranoid world-

view (Lifton, 2000). One of the reasons for the

increased scrutiny was the group’s suspected in-

volvement in a sarin gas attack the previous year in

Matsumoto that killed seven people. In Shoko

Asahara’s rush to ‘‘strike first,’’ his followers pro-

duced and disseminated a relatively low-lethality

version of the deadly chemical (Lifton, 2000).

While much has been made of Aum Shinrikyō’s

vast financial and intellectual resources, the mem-

bers who dispersed the cult’s chemical weapons

were not trained microbiologists but rather ‘‘gifted

amateurs’’ with professional experience in chem-

istry or medicine.

On the chaotic day of the attack, more than

5,000 civilians and first responders were rushed to

Tokyo emergency rooms for treatment of suspected

exposure to the deadly nerve agent (Pangi, 2002).

Almost all of these people displayed signs of psy-

chological reactions to the event, including severe

anxiety or shock (Hall et al., 2003). Nearly 80% of

those who were brought to emergency rooms that

day were examined and discharged. Of the 5,081

people who received medical attention in the after-

math of the attack, 19% were hospitalized for sarin

exposure (n¼ 984), 1.2%were severely injured (n¼ 62), and 12 died (Asukai & Maekawa, 2002).

Many researchers (Ohbu et al., 1997; Asukai &

Maekawa, 2002; Pangi, 2002) have suggested that

an unknown but significant percentage of the

people examined and discharged on the day of the

sarin attack had never actually been exposed to

the gas. On the patients’ initial arrival at an emer-

gency room, the combination of shock, emotional

distress, and fear-related physical symptoms (e.g.,

shortness of breath, nausea, rapid heartbeat) would

make those who have actually experienced low-

level exposure to a nerve agent virtually indistin-

guishable from those who merely believe they were

exposed. However, it is important to emphasize

that patients suffering from actual exposure to nerve

agents are also likely to exhibit signs of intense fear,

anxiety, and emotional distress.

Gas Mania in World War I

Modern understanding of mass psychogenic illness

in the context of actual or threatened exposure to

160 Consequences of Terrorism

chemical weapons began during World War I.

Exposure to gas, whether to blister agents such as

mustard gas or choking agents such as phosgene or

chlorine, had a relatively low mortality rate. About

2% of soldiers exposed to gas died (Shepard,

2001). Therefore, chemical warfare during World

War I was primarily concerned with disrupting

enemy operations, denying territory to the enemy,

and disabling (usually temporarily) enemy person-

nel. Chemical weapons were not employed simply

in order to kill swathes upon swathes of enemy


For each soldier who was exposed to gas on the

Western Front, 2 applied for medical care, without

any evidence of exposure (Pastel, 2001). Put an-

other way, 2 out of 3 soldiers seeking medical care

for gas exposure during World War I had not

actually been exposed to gas. Soldiers commonly

presented with symptoms that mimicked exposure

to gas (e.g., fatigue, chest pain, difficulty breathing,

coughing, tingling or burning in the throat, watery

or itchy eyes, blurred vision). In a famous incident,

500 soldiers of the U.S. 3rd Division became dis-

abled with symptoms of gas exposure even though

their unit was not in an area in which gas had been

deployed by either side (Pastel, 2001).

This phenomenon became known as ‘‘gas

mania,’’ and victims were treated much like other

psychological casualties during that conflict. Sol-

diers were treated as close to the front as possible,

usually ‘‘within the sound of the guns.’’ They were

fed and encouraged to sleep. The expectation of

a rapid return to one’s fighting unit was empha-

sized. Simple treatment approaches (e.g., proximity,

immediacy, expectancy) minimized the disruption

caused by fear of chemical attack.

Summary and Recommendations

In the Age of Terrorism, civilians are both the tar-

gets of direct violence and the intended audience

for violent outrages. The strategic intent of terrorist

groups is to inflict psychological trauma on civilian

populations and thereby undermine popular sup-

port for the current policies of democratic gov-

ernments. Seen through this strategic prism,

civilians are not merely the potential victims or

indirect agents of terrorists but also combatants in

the war against terrorism. Mental health profes-

sionals have an important duty to help citizens

marshal their personal resources in order to arm

themselves against the psychological onslaught of

terrorism. We offer the following guidelines and

recommendations to inform terrorism response

planning and preparation:

1. In any CBRNE attack, psychological casualties

will exceed physical casualties. For every

physical injury, expect 10–100 times as many

psychological casualties. All simulations, table-

top or real life, should include a realistic

number of psychological casualties.

2. When planning, assume higher than normal

absenteeism among first responders and hos-

pital staff. Healthcare and emergency workers

will fear contamination and also feel com-

pelled to help their families first.

3. The symptoms of anxiety prompted by a

CBRNE attack can easily mimic the effects of

exposure to chemical, biological, or radi-

ological weapons.

4. Large numbers of trained people will be re-

quired to perform initial assessment and triage.

Develop a simple charting system to handle

large numbers of patients. If possible, screen

for ‘‘actual exposure versus MPI’’ off-site (in

churches, schools, etc.) to prevent hospitals

from being overwhelmed. Automated tele-

phone or web-based screening tools may re-

duce the number of nonexposed individuals

seeking medical care.

5. Create a informative, nonsensational, easy-to-

understand public education campaign about

terrorist use of CBRNE weapons. Officials can

reduce fear by providing the public with spe-

cific, relevant information regarding the scope

and nature of threatening situations. The per-

ception that information is being withheld or

that necessary actions are not being taken will

only increase the public’s anxiety.

6. People will take steps to protect themselves

from threat, so officials should provide the

public with clear instructions regarding the

most effective actions to take and the reasons

for those actions. Should necessary responses

go beyond the scope of individual action, then

governments should explain what protective

actions are being carried out and why (Perry &

Lindell, 2003).

7. Civilian resilience has been chronically un-

derestimated by government planners and

161Psychological Consequences of Actual or Threatened CBRNE Terrorism

public health officials. Fear and anxiety are

normal human reactions to threat and should

not be confused with psychiatric illness. Dur-

ing World War II, mental health experts in

Britain before the blitz predicted that three to

four million cases of ‘‘acute panic, hysteria and

other neurotic conditions’’ would require

psychiatric care during the first 6 months of air

raids (Shepard, 2001, p. 175). The actual

number of psychiatric casualties during the

blitz was ‘‘astonishingly small’’ (p. 178).

8. A significant minority of the affected popula-

tion will suffer long-term psychological con-

sequences that require professional care. At

highest risk are those with preexisting psy-

chiatric illnesses or poor social support sys-

tems. Also at increased risk are those who

suffered physical injuries, lost family in the

event, directly witnessed the deaths of others,

handled dead bodies, or experienced sig-

nificant loss of property or economic reversal.


1. The high-yield explosive employed was the hi-

jacked airliners’ aviation fuel. Examples of high-yield

explosive attacks include those on Oklahoma City’s

federal building (April 19, 1995); Russian and Dages-

tani apartment buildings (August–September, 1999);

and the World Trade Center and Pentagon (September

11, 2001).

2. The terms ‘‘WMD’’ and ‘‘CBRNE’’ are used here


3. Hitler did not use chemical weapons against the

Allies during World War II because he believed that

the United States possessed a more deadly stockpile

than Germany’s. Saddam Hussein refrained from using

WMD in Gulf War I because he feared nuclear re-

taliation by the United States.


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163Psychological Consequences of Actual or Threatened CBRNE Terrorism

12 Psychological Weapons of Mass

Disruption Through Vicarious

Classical Conditioning

Dennis D. Embry

Danger requires response. When a hurricane nears

the U.S. shore, all manner of warnings and pre-

parations follow, depending on the magnitude and

path of the threat. Similarly, when meteorologists

spot a tornado, warnings sirens signal the depth of

the emergency, and broadcast media immediately

inform those who should seek shelter.

Dangers differ. For some, people have advance

knowledge, but others, like earthquakes, strike

suddenly and without warning. Some are chronic

dangers and some are acute, and they vary in the

type of response they require. Tobacco, alcohol,

and other drugs have a chronic, adverse impact on

safety and health. Health promotion psychology

has tested any number of strategies to reduce or

prevent the hazard they pose. In the past few

decades exposure to violent offenses such as rape,

assaults, and homicides have caused a rush of other

strategies that utilize community policing, preven-

tion, and security systems.

Terrorism is a newly acknowledged danger in

the United States, although its threats have been

apparent for some time, and it has substantial

history in many other parts of the world. The at-

tacks of September 11, the anthrax letters, shoe

bombs, other actions, and threats of action by

terrorists have raised the specter of sustained vig-

ilance and made apparent the need for planned

responses by government (at all levels), law en-

forcement, health professionals, the private sector,

and private citizens. It is equally clear the military’s

defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaeda or the capture

of leading terrorists will not end future risk.

The greatest danger of terrorism is not to be

found in the typical territorial acquisition, body

counts, or target destruction of historical wars. The

essential danger—and objective—of terrorism is

the creation of terror—a state of mind and its re-

sultant behavioral responses. Terrorism applies the

science and practice of psychology for political

purposes in much the same way that thermonuclear

weapons apply the science of physics for military

purposes. More powerful, plentiful, technologically

sophisticated weapons and military strategies are

the common response to promote security in the

face of conventional warfare threats. An essential

policy, strategic, and tactical question now is, how

might we achieve those same levels of safety and

security when the threat is psychological?

Multiple areas of psychological research offer

guidance to help shape policy and practice for

homeland security. Failure to make use of lessons


from these sources could seriously increase real risks

for future acts of terrorism or slow recovery from

such events. Effective use of psychological research

and technology could substantially improve the com-

petence, resilience, and protection of U.S. citizens.

This chapter explores several approaches for using

psychology in the defense of the United States.

The New Type of War Using the Psychology of Mind and Behavior

In the United States, we are equipped and trained

to fight large conventional wars. We make more

tanks, more ships, more airplanes, and more of

everything to overwhelm an enemy. Regardless of

who the enemy is, they are matched tank for tank,

plane for plane, or weapon for weapon. Military

strategists call this a symmetric war, and the United

States has excelled in symmetric wars. They have

typically worked well and ensured security for the

country and its citizens.

Some wars in recent history, such as the Gulf

War, have been disymmetric: Iraq was a weak force

facing a strong force. Iraq fought conventionally

against an immensely stronger opponent.

The current situation, however, is asymmetric,

not disymmetric like Iraq. Presently, the United

States has unquestioned hegemony in world affairs

and conventional warfare. It is the remaining world

superpower. Asymmetric war dictates that any op-

ponent of the United States, representing the su-

perior force, needs to avoid the strengths of the

United States and concentrate on its vulnerabilities.

U.S. military strategies have for some time warned

that the United States is (as the 911 attacks and the

anthrax letters demonstrably proved) vulnerable to

asymmetric strategies of warfare.

Asymmetry is about the qualitative difference

in the means, values, and styles of the new ene-

mies. Once a power like the United States achieves

military superiority and singular influence in

world affairs, its disadvantaged enemies resort

to unconventional asymmetrical means to fight it,

avoiding its strengths and concentrating on its

vulnerabilities. The greatest vulnerability is the

mind of its citizens, who use perceived safety as

the behavioral foundation to maintaining the very

fabric of the U.S. productivity system and the

global economy.

Asymmetric Strategy One: Condition

Fear and Anxiety

Terrorism aims not just at any fear. Terrorism

works best from a strategic perspective if the very

symbols of everyday life become classically con-

ditioned fear and anxiety stimuli, which then

render your stronger opponent (if you are the

weaker player in the asymmetric war) strategically


Classical conditioning especially affects either

aversive- or approach-type behaviors and specifi-

cally emotionally laden behaviors or thoughts (e.g.,

Carlson, 1994). Here I am concerned with aversive

or emotional conditioning. The mechanism is

fundamental in behavioral sciences and has been

well studied for nearly a hundred years. Classical

conditioning is a form of learning in which a

previously unimportant stimulus (visual, auditory,

tactical, or internal body event) acquires the prop-

erty of an important stimulus. For example, your

new baby sees a balloon for the first time. Another

child pops the balloon, and the baby is startled by

the loud noise (important, unconditioned stimu-

lus) and cries from the fright (unconditioned re-

sponse to fear in babies). Thereafter, balloons evoke

fear in the baby. The conditioning often becomes

much more complicated. For example, what if ex-

posure to the balloons were paired with birthday

paraphernalia such as signs, hats, and noisemakers?

Subsequently, sheer exposure to any of those sti-

muli might trigger the fear or anxious response—

especially if the fearful events were relatively sin-

gular or potent. A simple map of classical con-

ditioning is shown in Figure 12.1.

The power of classical conditioning in creating

fear and anxiety was obviously not lost in the

planning of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The entire

event resembled a large-scale Pavlovian con-

ditioning experiment:

1. Strong iconic symbols were chosen with mat-

ched visual and auditory cues—the Twin

Towers, the Pentagon, and perhaps the White

House or Capitol, had the fourth plane found

its target. This alone increased the chances of

conditioned fear and anxiety. The image of the

Twin Towers and the words describing that

image are the same, which is also true of the


165Psychological Weapons of Mass Disruption Through Vicarious Classical Conditioning

2. The instruments of violence or trauma were

verbally associated with the country’s name—

United and American Airlines. This would

mean that the very words and colors associated

with the United States could have fear-evoking


3. The attacks injured or destroyed symbols

that were associated with high efficacy and

power—Wall Street (in fact, world capitalism),

the largest dollar exporter and symbol of U.S.

technology (Boeing), and the U.S. Defense

Department, representing the strongest mili-

tary forces in the world. Had the White House

or Capitol building been hit, the prime sym-

bols of our form of government would have

been destroyed.

4. The timing ensured that live news coverage

would show the attacks, guaranteeing that

almost every citizen would watch the scenes

over and over and over again, which further

guaranteed that news networks and the acro-

nyms (CNN, NBC, CBS, etc.) associated with

them would become paired with fear and


166 Consequences of Terrorism

Unconditioned Stimulus • Pain • Threat • See others die or hurt • Unpleasant body sensations

Unconditioned Response • Freezing • Fight • Flee or withdrawal • Sick behaviors or immune reactions

Unconditioned Stimulus • Pain • Threat • See others die or hurt • Unpleasant body sensations

Unconditioned Response • Freezing • Fight • Flee or withdrawal • Sick behaviors or immune reactions

Conditioned Response • Freezing • Fight • Flee or withdrawal • Sick behaviors or immune reactions

Conditioned Stimulus • Visual • Sound • Tactical • Social • Internal body sensations

• Visual • Sound • Tactical • Social • Internal body sensations

Conditioned Stimulus

Conditioned Stimuli



Place Sounds

Conditioned Response • Freezing • Fight • Flee or withdrawal • Sick behaviors or immune reactions

Figure 12.1. Classical conditioning sequence.

5. Facial expressions of fear or terror, weeping

from loss, fleeing from danger, and probably

raging fire are unconditioned stimuli in

humans—evoking visceral reactions of fear

and anxiety.

All of these items contain the basic components of

the classic conditioned fear and anxiety paradigm,

yet this author could find no references in any

popular commentary to this fact. The responses by

the public were rather predictable. These also meet

the requirements of stimulus equivalence based on

relational frame theory (Barnes, 1994; Hall, 1996;

Hayes & Wilson, 1993, 1995; Peoples, Tierney,

Bracken, & McKay, 1998).

Consider the evidence for classical conditioning

responses. First, the popular media have universally

reported visceral responses such as ‘‘I felt sick,’’

‘‘My head hurt,’’ or ‘‘I couldn’t concentrate.’’ Sec-

ond, ‘‘freezing’’ and withdrawal responses quickly

followed. People stayed put in settings they deemed

historically safe, and many adults whisked their

children out of school. Other multiple conditioned

responses then tended to emerge. For the most part,

these responses were all across the United States,

only mediated by watching TV or listening to the


Military objectives for conditioned fear in an

asymmetric war are quite potent. A major aim is to

disrupt normal business and economic transac-

tions that sustain the infrastructure of the enemy.

The attacks of 9/11 did that brilliantly. While one

would have forecast attacks against people of Mid-

dle Eastern descent or appearance in the aftermath,

the real secondary shock wave of the attack was

near universal fear and avoidance of travel (or

anything remotely connected with travel symboli-

cally), big buildings, consumer spending, and im-

paired stock trading for anything related to Wall

Street and the ‘‘center of world finance.’’

These fear and anxiety responses hurt the

country greatly. Because uncertainty strengthens

the fear conditioning toward U.S. icons, the mili-

tary objectives of the attacks were further served by

al-Qaeda’s not taking credit for the attacks; taking

credit would have diluted the psychological fac-

tors. A cardinal precept of asymmetric war is to

maximize fear and anxiety conditioning, not ne-

cessarily to maximize loss of life or property—

a very big difference from symmetric warfare.

Whereas conventional warfare may seek to cause

surrender by shock and awe, asymmetric war

seeks to cause fear, freezing, and withdrawal.

Classically conditioned fear serves the strategist

well in an asymmetric war. First, it undermines the

authority of the government of the stronger party.

By choosing to attack the very symbols of the

United States, this fear made leaders look weak,

further enhancing fear conditioning in many seg-

ments of the population. Second, conditioned fear

severely weakens the productive capacity of the

stronger party. Fear and anxiety are well docu-

mented to cause significant reductions in task

performance—even in less vulnerable, highly

trained groups. This can translate into major losses

of productivity or market performance.

Few would conceive of simple classical con-

ditioning as a ‘‘weapon of mass disruption.’’ In-

deed, when teaching the principles of classical

conditioning to students, educators, business lea-

ders, or policy makers, many will say, ‘‘Oh, that

applies only to lower animals—certainly not to

humans.’’ Those who understand the role of clas-

sical conditioning in modern society are presently

two groups outside of researchers on human be-

havior: (1) Advertising and marketing companies

routinely pair unimportant stimuli (a new product)

with an important stimulus (e.g., sex appeal)

to evoke desired behaviors toward their product;

(2) terrorists have proven the immense power

of classical conditioning of fear and anxiety as a

weapon. The loss of business in the financial mar-

kets and travel industry in the few months after the

attacks is estimated to have exceeded hundreds of

billions of dollars, which is primarily the result of

classically conditioned fear and anxiety.

Asymmetric Strategy Two: Increase

Long-Term Prevalence Rates of Fear,

Anxiety, and Mental Depression

Depression is epidemic in Western culture. The

U.S. National Comorbidity Survey (e.g., Kessler,

Berglund et al. 2005) reveals a striking rise in the

lifetime prevalence of depression (Figure 12.2). A

similar pairing can be seen in the increased num-

ber of prescriptions for depression paid for by

Medicaid and private insurance companies, shown

in the related graph. Both of these sets of data have

implications for homeland security.

167Psychological Weapons of Mass Disruption Through Vicarious Classical Conditioning

At first blush, depression would seem to have

nothing to do with an asymmetric war against

the United States. If your purpose is, however, to

wreck havoc in a country by capitalizing on its

vulnerabilities, then increasing the prevalence rates

of depression or the severity of the condition suits

the purpose well as a target of opportunity for

terrorism. Active depression has a number of no-

table symptoms:

� lowered cognitive function and diminished performance on tasks

� decreased energy and motivation � increased physical illnesses, irritability, and pessimistic ruminations

In clinical psychology, these symptoms are

seen in the context of an individual, not in their

broader social impact. However, hundreds of

thousands of people with depressive symptoms

can have a major adverse impact on the larger

society, with corresponding economic and political

reverberations. Increased prevalence of depression

can have manifold adverse societal-level effects, the

most prevalent of which are the following:

� decreased consumer confidence and spending � decreased work productivity and satisfaction � decreased participation in everyday life, which in turn is associated with

� increased social isolation and withdrawal � increased rates of domestic violence and in- stability

What some pundits may not appreciate is the

huge impact of all of these aggregate outcomes on

state and local budgets. An increased prevalence of

depression will substantially drive up health costs,

unemployment benefits, and family service costs

in the United States during a time in which the

nation’s governors report that a majority of states

will experience at least a 10% shortfall in revenue

(Associated Press, 2002). The current vulnerability

to depression in Western society has thus been

used as a ‘‘weapon of mass destruction.’’

Further, a seminal study by Zullow (1991) has

demonstrated, quite amazingly, that national eco-

nomic trends are predicted by pessimistic rumi-

nations and /or headlines in popular music or news

magazines. One need only pick up these publica-

tions to grasp the frequency of negative rumina-

tions after September 11. The abstract of Zullow’s

study foreshadows current events:

Content analyzed lyrics of the top 40 US songs

of each year from 1955 to 1989 for 2 depressive

psychological traits: rumination about bad

events and pessimistic explanatory style. Cover

story captions of Time magazine for those years

were also analyzed for rumination. Increased

pessimistic ruminations (PRs) in popular music

predicted: (1) changes in the American media

and public’s view of real world events with a

1- to 2-yr lead-time, (2) increased rumination

about bad events in Time magazine, and

(3) increased pessimism about the economy in

168 Consequences of Terrorism

0 10 12 14 16 18

Age of onset 20 22 24

1936–45 1946–55


$0 1995







To ta

l E xp

en di

tu re

s (M

ill io

ns )Years born:







1996 1997 1998





Figure 12.2. Depression prevalence data and Medicaid expenditures.

Source: The Lewin Group analysis of HCFA Medicaid Drug Rebate Program data, 1995–1998. 46

states reporting, 1995–1997, 45 states reporting, 1998.

nationwide consumer surveys. PR in songs and

rumination in Time predicted changes in

consumer optimism, which in turn predicted

personal consumption expenditures and GNP

growth. Although PR in songs was an indirect

predictor of GNP growth, it may provide early

warning of recessions, since its 2-yr moving

average correlated highly with the moving

average of GNP change in the subsequent two

years. (p. 501)

Asymmetric Strategy Three: Stimulate

the Prevalence of Substance Abuse

and Misuse

According to a wide variety of research reports

(e.g., Kosten, Rounsaville, & Kleber, 1986), per-

ceived stress (e.g., danger, fear, worry, depression,

anxiety) among humans increases the rate of sub-

stance abuse. Increased substance abuse or misuse

is an obvious likely outcome from psychological,

physiological, and sociological events such as ter-

rorist attacks. Such information is freely available.

For example, in testimony in 1991, I reported that

alcohol sales at U.S. military base exchanges in

Germany stayed the same in the month of January

1991 even though some 100,000 troops had been

deployed from these bases while their dependents

remained and were exposed—via television—to

threats of terrorism and potential casualties.

For most people, the pain of terrorism is vicar-

ious classical conditioning, and substantial research

shows that a whole array of substances short-circuit

the felt pain from classical conditioning (e.g., Davis,

1992). For example, opiates, benzodiazepines, mar-

ijuana, and alcohol can affect the potency of classical

conditioning, although the mechanismmay differ by

type of drug. For example, opiates and benzodia-

zepines directly affect the learning of the pairing of

stimulus and response. Alcohol may increase per-

ceived safety through serotonergic and opiate re-

ceptor mechanisms, yet still affect conditioned

fear responses (e.g., Chung, Yoon, & Park, 1998;

Stromberg, 1992). Further, the pain- or fear-

reduction properties, however, are typically achieved

only if the substance use state is maintained. Noyes

and Baram (1974) report that cannabis may work as

a mild analgesic, which would be potentially de-

sirable for those who experience perceived pain as a

result of terrorism.

Why would the creators of terrorist strategy

even think about increasing substance abuse or

misuse among their enemies? There are several

reasons that have military significance. First, sub-

stance abuse or misuse has obvious adverse con-

sequences onproductivity, health, law enforcement,

and government operations. These harmful con-

sequences are extremely well documented by a

variety of reports such as Shoveling Up! The Cost of

Substance to States (Center on Substance Abuse and

Addictions, 2001). Second, zealots need cash: The

illegal drug trade has been linked to the funding of

terrorism—even the funding of likely al-Qaeda ac-

tivities in the United States (Wannenburg, 2003).

Third, the illegal drug trade provides a powerful

cover to overwhelm the mechanisms that detect the

smuggling of items or peoplewhomight be used in a

terrorist attack—even though early surveillance of

drug smugglingmight increase, as happened at both

Mexican and Canadian border crossings (Kelleher,


Thus, organized terrorism of the kind that

occurs in an asymmetric conflict has many solid

strategic reasons to seek to increase substance

abuse and misuse among the population of its en-

emy. Is there any evidence of increased substance

abuse yet? I am not aware of any organized studies,

but there are already some indices and evidence of

the awareness of the strategy’s utility and emerging

outcomes in the wake of September 11:

� The New York Times has variously reported (e.g., Mcfadden, & Moynihan, 2005) that al-

Qaeda had elaborate plans to produce and sell a

very high-grade heroin for export to the United

States and Western Europe. The Speaker of the

U.S. House of Representatives formed a special

committee to investigate the way in which the

illegal drug trade is being used to fund terror-

ism (Associated Press, 2001a). � Bar sales of alcohol have increased substantially in airports, despite fewer fliers (Reel, 2001).

� States are substantially cutting treatment dol- lars for substance abuse and related disorders

in the aftermath of September 11 (Alcoholism

and Drug Abuse Weekly, 2002), which further

enhances the military goals of the terrorist

attacks. � The illegal drug trade increased by 25% in the Caribbean area following the terrorist attacks

in the United States (Associated Press, 2001b).

169Psychological Weapons of Mass Disruption Through Vicarious Classical Conditioning

� A survey of all states showed an increase in treatment seeking in 23 in the wake of the

attacks (The COMPA Bulletin, 2002).

Increasing substance abuse and misuse is a

powerful strategy that organized terrorist groups

utilize to harm a more powerful opponent and an

equally potent strategy for funding those attacks.

The principles for increasing likely substance abuse

or misuse are available to anyone who can use the

Internet (e.g., and un-

derstands basic psychological research.

Asymmetric Strategy Four: Increase

Errors in Detecting Threats

Successful terrorist attacks depend on normal ci-

tizens not noticing things—losing the ability to

process potential threats or increasing responses to

‘‘false positives’’ for the sake of disruption. Noti-

cing potential threats requires sustained vigilance.

Vigilance is a well-studied cognitive skill in psy-

chology, going back to research on radar operators

in World War II. Homeland security involves

vigilance by average citizens and by paid employ-

ees at airports, immigration offices, and other lo-

cations vulnerable to acts of terrorism.

Vigilance by Private Citizens

Increasing the vigilance of private citizens poses a

paradox. Pressure to maintain or increase vigilance

can have an adverse consequence on the behavior

of citizens in the market place, increasing the

chance that the economy will suffer, thus creating

a military victory in the context of an asymmetric

war. Maintaining vigilance, however, is poten-

tially aversive for citizens, who are likely to have

heightened fear or anxiety as a result of constant

cajoling to pay increased attention to potential

threats. Under such conditions, psychologists

predict several outcomes: (1) Some people will

make many errors in failing to distinguish real

threat from the mere pressure to perform; (2) some

will detect too many perceived threats that are not

real; and (3) some people will opt not to engage in

sustained attention because they may perceive it as

too aversive—creating an incentive for avoidance

(e.g., Krohne, 1993). Perceived control also inter-

acts with vigilance accuracy in that lower perceived

control reduces accuracy (e.g., Lawler & Schmied,

1987). All of these errors provide some military

advantage to the weaker force in an asymmetric

war. Poor detection or nondetection aids actual

terrorist attacks, and false positives undermine ap-

peals for homeland security.

Mass appeals to increase vigilance to potential

threat may also have some serious, unintended

consequences for mortality and morbidity from

various diseases. For example, sustained attention

to potential threat increases the risk of cardio-

vascular disease (e.g., Gump & Matthews, 1998;

Winters, McCabe, Green, & Schneiderman, 2000).

It is possible that more people could die from

sustained vigilance than from terrorist attacks. For

the theoreticians of asymmetric war, this is simply

a bonus from a military strategy perspective.

Vigilance by Security Personnel

Homeland security involves thousands of persons

hired to engage in vigilant behavior—airport per-

sonnel, law enforcement officers, immigration of-

ficials, post office employees, military personnel,

intelligence officers, and many more. Part of the

military strategy of terrorists is to increase the

failure of such personnel, both to create opportu-

nity for attacks and to disrupt government. The

mechanisms for both are easy to manipulate with

a modicum of knowledge from psychological re-

search that is easily available.

The first tactic is to foster all sorts of stress and

anxiety among those who are doing the screening.

Too much stress and anxiety reduces the accuracy

of their vigilance tasks. It is easy to make such

stress and anxiety happen. For example, mass

media reports regularly chastise airports and air-

lines for failures, and the jobs of security personnel

have regularly been challenged as a way to ‘‘shape

up behavior.’’ This type of pressure to be more

vigilant as a result of threats to job security (e.g., ‘‘If

you don’t find more security violations, you’ll get

fired’’) has already been shown to decrease vigi-

lance (e.g., Singh and Singh, 1985). Emotional dis-

tress alone is sufficient to impair the performance

of even the most highly trained people (e.g., Si-

monov, Frolov, & Ivanov, 1980). Vigilance can be

sustained with accuracy for only a short period of

time without significant training, positive reinfor-

cement, and support.

Decision making in emergency situations has

been studied and is relevant here. For example,

Janis and Mann (1977) detailed how defensive

avoidance or hypervigilance can become dominant

170 Consequences of Terrorism

in some disaster detection settings, which generally

leads to maladaptive actions. For example, many

people may become nonsensitive to cues while

others become oversensitive, meaning too many

false positives or false negatives in the detection of

threats. Empirical evidence (e.g., Trivizas & Smith,

1997) indicates that the attack strategies of ter-

rorists seem well primed to evoke maladaptive

behaviors by supervisors and line personnel asso-

ciated with homeland security, with only short-

lived effects of actual events on both employees

and the general public.

Asymmetric Strategy Five: Foster

Piggyback Events

An old saying exists in war: ‘‘An enemy of your

enemy is your friend.’’ Terrorism strategy seeks

therefore to increase the likelihood that others will

commit copycat or piggyback attacks. The ratio-

nale ought to be obvious. The more copycats or

piggyback actions there are, the greater the impact

will be of vicarious classical conditioning because

of perceived helplessness and lack of control. Fur-

ther, the threat will be perceived as even more

diffuse and unpredictable. It would seem quite

likely that any well-educated person involved in

planning terrorist attacks that are grounded in

psychological research would be likely to know

of the probability of imitation following highly visi-

ble crimes. There are several reasons to believe this


1. Suicidal behavior is clearly more likely to fol-

low a high-profile suicide or suicidally moti-

vated homicide, especially when accompanied

by extended media coverage in an apparent

dose-response relationship (Etzersdorfer, Vor-

acek, & Sonneck, 2001; Phillips & Hensley,

1984; Sonneck, Etzersdorfer, & Nagel-Kuess,

1994; Stack, 2000).

2. Retributive violence may be copied more as a

function of ensuing military action (Bebber,

1994; Diefenbach & West, 2001).

The piggyback events, whether using the same

targets as the original terrorists, are not material

to the impact on affected communities. In 1978 a

dozen children in Holland and West Germany

were hospitalized after terrorists deliberately con-

taminated citrus fruit from Israel with mercury.

This ploy was then copied by others—with de-

vastating effects on the Israeli economy (Khan,

Swerdlow, & Juranek, 2001).

Asymmetric Strategy Six: Undermine

Perceived Authority by Role Rigidity

In a classic study, Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo

(1973) had college students pretend to be inmates

or guards in the basement of the psychology de-

partment of Stanford University. Soon the ‘‘guards’’

began to evidence the behaviors that typically lead

to the excesses often documented in prison settings.

The ‘‘inmates’’ complied for the most part, subject to

their roles. Few people aside from research psy-

chologists and military force-management person-

nel know how much people assume the behaviors

of their structured role. Thus, it would be reason-

able to predict that many of those who ‘‘don the

uniform’’ of homeland security might come to en-

gage in overzealous behaviors in the name of re-

ducing terrorism. This would increase as a function

of perceived job stress and the pressure to be vigi-

lant against the nefarious plots of terrorists. In the

famous Stanford experiment, it took only days for

these behaviors to unfold.

Role stereotypy and role ‘‘freezing’’ naturally

create an adverse reaction to the behavior of those

in authority by others who are not part of the uni-

form ‘‘script’’ or context. To some extent this effect

is clearly an outcome of the Arab-Israeli conflict,

wherein public support for the Israeli position has

eroded in many countries—precisely the goal of

many of the Arab tacticians who fought against the

overwhelming military power of Israel. This dis-

satisfaction has even been voiced by academics and

scholars within Israel (Shalhoub-Kevorkian, 2004).

To the extent that others come to see the exercise of

authority as illegal or immoral, terrorist strategies

begin to work.

Using Psychological Theory to Guide the Prediction of Targets of Mass Disruption

As I reflected on the attacks of September 11, it

became more and more clear that the targets,

methods, and processes were very carefully thought

out from a psychological perspective, just as they

were considered from a structural and logistical

171Psychological Weapons of Mass Disruption Through Vicarious Classical Conditioning

point of view. When I have voiced this opinion,

some people have seemed angry that one could give

the terrorists credit for being intelligent or knowl-

edgeable. To ignore their intelligence risks grave

danger and disruption. One rule exists in the mili-

tary and intelligence operations: If you can think of

it, your enemy already has.

Can psychological theory be used to predict

likely targets of terrorism in the United States or

other countries? I believe so, and I suggest the

following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1

Targets or conditioned stimuli that have high vi-

sual and iconic salience with related auditory

cues will be preferentially selected for attack. For

example, the Twin Towers are a better vicarious

classical conditioning stimulus for fear than a

building like the Sears Tower or the Empire State

Building. The visual image and verbal labels are

not as strong in the latter cases, and this assertion

could be tested in rather simple classical con-

ditioning experiments in which the stimulus is

embedded in brief presentations associated with

unconditioned stimuli.

Hypothesis 2

Targets or conditioned stimuli that are associated

with projections of power, potency, and univer-

sality in the United States will be preferentially se-

lected for attack. Thus, terrorist operations would

be far more likely to involve Federal Express, Uni-

ted Parcel Service, or the dollar currency than U-

Haul trucks, DHL, or bank checks. United and

American Airlines are far more likely to be selected

as a delivery mechanism than Delta or Southwest


Hypothesis 3

Targets or conditioned stimuli that convey every-

day connotations of safety, happiness, productiv-

ity, and/or pleasure are more likely to be selected.

Thus, something like Coca-Cola, fire trucks, or

school buses would be a better vehicle for the

delivery of terrorism than a bottled water com-

pany, a regular truck, or a tour bus.

Vicarious classical conditioning is testable by

rather simple laboratory experiments that were

first pioneered more than 50 years ago. A com-

puter or slide projector could be used to present

the visual stimuli, and either one could easily be

yoked to an audio source. The sheer simplicity of

vicarious classical conditioning and the strong

relationship of classical conditioning to issues of

consumer behavior, addictive behaviors, mental

disorders, and cognitive competence under stress

make classical conditioning one of the most pow-

erful and low-cost strategies of an asymmetric war.

Vicarious classical conditioning, as in the case of

September 11, caused a crippling blow to the

United States. The question is, can we learn to

design a preventative strategy short of engaging the

very purposes of strategists of terrorism?

Author’s Postscript

At the time of final editing, the Dubai Ports con-

troversy had just surfaced, and the deal was scut-

tled before sending back the final manuscript.

Arabic nationality, terrorism risk, and serious

threat had become so conditioned in the public

mind that a political firestorm emerged, resulting in

a cancellation of the deal. While the merits of the

issue can be debated in honest ways, the vicarious

classical conditioning effect set in motion on

September 11th continued to achieve rippling

asymmetric military effects, as predicted. That is,

perceived prejudice multiplied between the United

States and Arabic peoples, setting fertile ground for

terrorism recruitment; public trust in leaders (e.g.,

the President and its backers) was further eroded

as witnessed by spot polls and pundits; and eco-

nomic commerce is set back now with threats of

commercial boycotts of United States products by

key Arabic trading partners. While the specifics

could not be predicted theoretically, the general

trajectory of a culture of posttraumatic condition-

ing could.


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174 Consequences of Terrorism

13 Near- and Long-Term Psychological

Effects of Exposure to

Terrorist Attacks

Susan E. Brandon Andrew P. Silke

Newspapers mentioned that a recent survey showed that seven out of every ten Americans suffer

psychological problems following the attacks on New York and Washington.

Osama bin Laden to Mullah Omar, quoted in Cullison (2004)

Humans show an extraordinary

capacity to survive in adverse situations. Although

there are tragic instances of people who are per-

manently scarred by trauma, these are relatively

few; the majority of those who are involved in vio-

lent or life-threatening events do not exhibit long-

term symptoms of distress. On the whole, they re-

cover and may even exhibit resilience (Bonanno,

2004). When terrorists strike neighborhoods, what

people most often do is wash the blood off the

streets and continue on. How and when such re-

covery occurs is the theme of this chapter.

Here we consider the possibility that the sur-

vival, recovery, and occasional resilience seen after

terrorist incidents or other disasters reflect pro-

cesses of dissipation, adaptation, habituation, and

sensitization that are ubiquitous to biological or-

ganisms. We also consider that many instances

of human survival—including thriving—are the

result of broad cognitive and affective reappraisal

processes that mediate the impacts of our inter-

actions with the world and of normative tenden-

cies to seek out others under conditions of stress.

We describe the near- and long-term psycho-

logical effects of exposure to terrorist attacks and

the threats of terrorist attacks here, largely ignor-

ing important differences in location, type of strife,

and local and national histories, not because these

are not important but because we want to consider

the most frequently occurring behaviors and the

most general behavioral trends. While there is re-

latively little empirical analysis of terrorism or

terrorists’ behaviors (Silke, 2003, 2004)—despite

the plethora of materials published since 9/11—

there is a significant body of scientific investigation

on how people respond to trauma. It is that do-

main of science that we draw on to understand and

predict how people are most likely to respond to

terrorist attacks.

Powerful Forces for Normalcy

Dissipation, Adaptation and Habituation,

and Sensitization

Common patterns of responses to single or re-

peated aversive events have been well documented

in the psychological literature. However, the ap-

parent robustness and ubiquity of these responses

across many organisms and circumstances suggest

that a typology of such responses may help us to

understand what kinds of behaviors are likely to

ensue when an organism confronts a potentially


harmful event. How well these patterns predict re-

sponses to events as complex as natural or tech-

nological disasters is an empirical issue. We offer

the patterns here to serve as a heuristic and to help

organize the discussion.

A single exposure to a threatening or harmful

event is likely to provide an immediate reaction

(see Figure 13.1).1 The y-axis represents the in-

tensity of the response, and the x-axis represents

the passage of time. Discrete traumatic events are

represented by the black squares below the x-axis.

A single response to a single event, shown in (a),

reaches its peak quickly and then dissipates. For

purposes of explanation, we might assume that the

aversive event is a spider crawling up the arm of a

spiderphobic person. The response, which might

be fear, could be assessed by measuring an in-

crease in heart rate or respiration, by recording

how vigorously the person shakes his arm to get

rid of the spider, or by asking this person how

afraid he feels. In the absence of repeated or con-

tinued exposure to the event (if the spider is re-

moved), psychological and biological systems

typically show the simple return to baseline shown

in (a). The simplest explanation for the return to

baseline is the decay or dissipation of these ‘‘high

alert’’ response systems.

If the event is more salient—more frightening,

more intense, more catastrophic (a huge tarantula)—

the response is stronger, as shown in (b). With

longer-term exposure to an event (if the spider sits on

the person’s arm), adaptation is the likely outcome,

illustrated in (c). Although some decay occurs after

the initial response, the system does not return to

baseline but settles at some intermediate level, above

baseline. This adaptation to the change in status quo

occurs via the expenditure of the psychological,

neural, neuroendocrine, and neuroimmune systems’

protective mechanisms. This expenditure, however,

is likely to result in the depletion of the ability to

respond to further assault or need (McEwen, 1998;

McEwen & Mendelson, 1993).

When a traumatic event occurs repeatedly in an

otherwise stable context, as shown in (d), the re-

sponse to the event decreases in vigor, a phenom-

enon called habituation (Thompson & Spencer,

1966). Thus, if a person is repeatedly exposed to a

spider crawling up his arm, even the phobic will

begin to show a decreased fear response. Habitua-

tion has three characteristics that are relevant here.

First, it is relatively specific to the eliciting event:

Habituation to a spider is not likely to transfer to

another fearful insect or event (e.g., a snake) and

even less to a fear of elevators or public speak-

ing. Second, habituation itself may dissipate under

conditions in which the aversive event does

not reoccur for a significant period of time. Third,

habituation is sensitive to the context in which it

occurs, where the term context refers to the external

physical environment and internal psychological

176 Consequences of Terrorism



(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)

decay Adaptation Habituation Sensitization

In te

ns ity

Figure 13.1. A likely immediate reaction to a threatening or harmful event. The Y-axis represents

the intensity of the response, and the X-axis represents the passage of time. Discrete traumatic events are

represented by the black squares below the X-axis. (a) A single response to a single event. (b) A more salient

event evokes a stronger response. (c) Adaptation, observed following longer-term exposure to a single event.

(d) Habituation, observed as a decreasing response to a traumatic event that occurs repeatedly across time in

an otherwise stable context. (e) Sensitization, observed as an invigorated response elicited when the

organism is in a heightened state of anxiety, fear, or vigilance.

and physical states of the organism. The ability of

most habituated responses to generalize across

contexts—to be elicited within a different context—

is fickle, and habituation that occurs or is acquired

in one context does not often transfer to a novel con-

text. Thus, acquiring a robust habituated response

to a spider in the doctor’s office may not be of much

use when the spider is found at home in bed.

What appears in some ways to work against

habituation is sensitization. Many response sys-

tems show increased vigor when they are elicited

while the organism is in a heightened state of an-

xiety, fear, or vigilance, a phenomenon referred to

as sensitization (Borszcz, Cranney, & Leaton, 1989;

Cacioppo et al., 2002; Connolly & Firth, 1978;

Davis, 1972; Hammond, 1967). Imagine walking

alone in a dark forest, fearful of what is all around:

A spider landing ever so lightly on one’s arm is

likely, in this context, to elicit an especially fearful

response. This pattern of invigorated responding is

illustrated in a comparison of Figure 13.1(d) with

Figure 13.1(e). As can be seen, habituation is in

effect attenuated.

The temporal characteristics of these processes

appear to be a function of the intensity of the in-

itial, impacting event: Very strong events provoke

a stronger initial response and a slower return to

baseline in the absence of further stimulation.

These responses are also modified by experience—

that is, they involve significant learning—so that

how someone reacts changes across time: People

are likely to vary in the intensity and duration of

these various responses as a result of their own

unique life experiences.

Baseline: Normal Levels of Emotion

and Stress

Epidemiological studies within the past decade

have found that the risk for exposure to a sig-

nificant aversive event or trauma in the general

population of the United States is as high as 50%–

60% (Breslau, Davis, Andreski, & Peterson, 1991;

McFarlane, 1986; Norris, 1992; Ozer & Weiss,

2004), but the large majority of victims of trauma

do not develop chronic posttraumatic mental

health problems (Breslau et al., 1991; Kessler,

Sonnega, Bromet, & Hughes, 1995; Ozer & Weiss,

2004). The degree of vulnerability correlates with

the magnitude and severity of the trauma as well as

the history of psychiatric problems and the avail-

ability of helping resources (Breslau et al., 1991;

Norris et al., 2001a, 2001b; North et al., 1999;

Shalev, Peri, Canetti, & Schreiber, 1996).

Currently, the most common measure of psy-

chological impairment following trauma such as a

car accident, rape, victimization in a violent crime,

or exposure to terrorist attack and other techno-

logical or natural disasters is the assessment of

a relatively complex cluster of factors that, when

they occur together, provide a diagnosis of post-

traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD descri-

bes the condition of someone who has been ex-

posed to a traumatic event; experiences at least one

recurrent symptom related to the event (such as

intrusive, repeated recollections or dreams of the

incident); persistently avoids people, activities, or

places associated with the event; and cannot recall

important aspects of the trauma. This person also

shows disinterest in the usual daily activities and a

restricted range of affect or a sense of foreboding

about the future to the extent that they no longer

expect to have a normal life. These symptoms, in

conjunction with hyperarousal (difficulty in fall-

ing or staying asleep, outbursts of anger, hyper-

vigilance, inability to concentrate, or exaggerated

startle responses), may lead to significant impair-

ment in social, occupational, or other important

areas of the person’s life. To the extent that such

dysfunction is present, the individual exhibits PTSD

(American Psychiatric Association, 1996). It has

been estimated that baseline rates of PTSD among

Americans is about 3%–4% (National Institute of

Mental Health, 2004).

Exposure to psychological trauma has con-

sequences for physical as well as psychological

health. To the extent that such trauma disrupts

home, family, and community life, as well as the

ability to work and play, it will have profound

effects on everyday behavior—including those

everyday social and individual behaviors that are

related to half of all causes of morbidity and

mortality in the United States (National Center

for Health Statistics, 2003). Psychosocial variables

have also been shown to be significant risk factors

for chronic disease risk and recovery (Barefoot

et al., 2000; Leserman et al., 1999). For example,

stress may contribute directly to heart disease by

narrowing the blood vessels, leading to athero-

sclerosis (Rutledge et al., 2003). Blascovich and

177Near- and Long-Term Psychological Effects of Exposure to Terrorist Attacks

Tomaka (1996) report that extreme levels of

arousal, such as terror, rage, lust, and ecstasy, are

likely to play a role in stress and stress manage-

ment, and dysfunctional arousal plays a role in

coronary heart disease (Blascovich & Katkin, 1993)

and immunosuppression (O’Leary, 1990). Negative

emotions have been linked to enhanced suscept-

ibility to infection (Herbert & Cohen, 1993),

poorer response to an influenza vaccine (Kiecolt-

Glaser, Glaser, Gravenstein, Malarkey, & Sheridan,

1996; Rosenkranz et al., 2003), and impaired

wound healing (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1996). Alter-

natively, positive emotions are correlated with good

health: A longitudinal study of Catholic nuns found

that those who expressed the most positive emo-

tions when they were young lived up to 10 years

longer than those who had expressed less positive

emotions earlier (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen,


It is important to recognize that expectations

and perceptions mediate the impact of many

stressors and that an event has a stressful impact

to the extent that it is appraised as taxing or ex-

ceeding one’s resources and endangering a person’s

well-being (Lazarus & Folkman, 1986; McEwen &

Mendelson, 1993). Antonovsky (1985) has argued

that stress can be health enhancing when stressful

situations are perceived as challenges and when

these challenges are subsequently perceived as

being met; that is, he argued for the salutogenic, as

well as the pathogenic, effects of stress (Durkheim,

1951; Selye, 1991; Suedfeld, 1997).

Coping With Large-Scale Single Events

A Lexis/Nexus search of all major English news-

papers and TV news in the last week of August 2001

showed approximately 50 news stories [that] were

devoted to public health scares or crises. During the

week of October 23–30 (the height of the anthrax

events in the U.S. in the Fall of 2001), there were

558. About 1 month later, the rate dropped to ap-

proximately 120.

Osterholm (2001)


The attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York

and Washington, DC, produced widespread reac-

tions among residents of those cities, as well as

across the country and the world. Three to five

days after the attacks, about 90% of the residents

of New York City and Washington reported feeling

upset, being bothered by disturbing memories, or

having difficulty concentrating or falling asleep

(Schuster et al., 2001). The impacts of the attacks

were even felt far beyond New York and Washing-

ton: Almost 20% of Americans across the country

reported symptoms of distress (Silver, Holman,

McIntosh, Poulin, & Gil-Rivas, 2002).

As might be expected, the degree of exposure

to an attack mediates responses to it. People who

are close to the site experience more salient events;

furthermore, they are subsequently reminded of

the attack more often by seeing, hearing, and

smelling disaster-related cues. Disaster relief work-

ers, firefighters, police, and emergency personnel

show the highest rates of PTSD, particularly when

the disaster is of human origin (North et al., 2002).

Data collected after 9/11 show that 10% of adults

who lived south of 110th Street in Manhattan

(roughly the bottom two-thirds of the island) re-

ported symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of

current PTSD after the attacks, while south of

Canal Street, only blocks from the site of the de-

vastation, the incidence was 20% (Galea et al.,

2002; Galea et al., 2003). In general, the pre-

valence of probable PTSD was higher in New York

City (11%) than in Washington, DC (3%), and the

rest of the country (4%). People in the New York

City metropolitan region were about three times

more likely to have a probable case of PTSD than

those who were elsewhere that day (Schlenger

et al., 2002). Similar data were reported following

the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah

Building: Seven weeks after the violence, a clini-

cal needs assessment of more than 3,000 sixth-

through twelfth-grade students in Oklahoma City

showed posttraumatic stress symptoms (15% re-

ported that they did not feel safe, and 34% said

that they worried about themselves and their fa-

milies) (Pfefferbaum et al., 1999). These symptoms

were the highest among those who had experi-

enced a personal loss. Two hundred fifty-five

survivors of the direct blast showed a high in-

cidence of postdisaster stress (45%) and PTSD

(34%) 6 months after the bombing (North et al.,

1999). (The fatality rate inside the Murrah Build-

ing was 46%, and 93% of those in the building

were injured [North et al., 1999].)

The effective intensity and the temporal char-

acteristics of such attacks are also mediated by

victim characteristics that, in some instances, may

override proximity effects (Galea et al., in press).

178 Consequences of Terrorism

After the Oklahoma City bombing, women re-

ported about twice the rate of PTSD symptoms

of men, and more than half of the victims with

bombing-related PTSD had a predisaster lifetime

history of psychiatric illness (North et al., 1999).

In New York City after 9/11, Hispanics, African

Americans, and those with poor general health,

less education, and lower income were more

stressed than others (Galea et al., 2003; Rasinski,

Berktold, Smith, & Albertson, 2002).

For most people, the distress produced by

exposure to a single incident does not persist for

very long. With some exceptions, responses to the

attacks on 9/11 dissipated with the simple passage

of time and the absence of any additional attacks

on U.S. soil. Surveys of adults in New York City 1

month, 4 months, and 6 months after the attacks

showed that the prevalence of probable PTSD re-

lated to the violence in Manhattan had declined to

9.5% after 1 month, to 1.7% after 4 months and

to 0.6% after 6 months (Galea et al., 2003). The

distress was transitory for the rest of the United

States as well (Schlenger et al., 2002); a nationwide

probability sample indicated that distress symp-

toms fell from 17% after 2 months to 6% after 6

months (Silver et al., 2002).

Adaptive Behavior: Seeking Others

Stress and uncertainty produce social behaviors:

People seek out others, perhaps to enhance social

support (Cohen & Willis, 1985; Mehl & Penne-

baker, 2003) or to help to affirm their cultural

view of the world and the threat (Pyszczynski,

Solomon, & Greenberg, 2002). Almost 100% of

Americans surveyed after 9/11 reported that what

they did that day was to talk with others about

the attacks (Schuster et al., 2001). Passengers on

Flight 93, which crashed in the Pennsylvania

countryside, and as many as 353 workers in the

World Trade Center towers, called family and

friends when they realized that what was hap-

pening around them was likely to be catastrophic

(Glanz, 2002). The calls were to say good-bye,

send love, and, in at least one instance, to confirm

their location so that their family would know of

their certain death and not wonder what had

happened (9/11 Commission Report, 2004). Al-

most 30% of Americans polled said that they had

called or emailed a friend or relative in New York

or Washington on 9/11, and 75% of Americans

checked on the safety of close family members,

making such actions the most common coping

behavior (Schuster et al., 2001). In retrospect, ci-

vilian and emergency response personnel report

that, when under attack, their most urgent need is

to find out whether their family and friends are all

right. The most frequent coping activities among

Israelis, after more than 2 years of exposure to

repeated violence directed at civilians, was to

check on the location and safety of friends and

family after an attack; the second most common

was to seek social support (Bleich, Gelkopf, &

Solomon, 2003).2

The most frequently reported emotional re-

sponses among Americans to the attacks on 9/11

were anger, sadness, and disbelief (NBC News/Wall

Street Journal, September 12, 2001). Sadness was

the most frequent reaction among New Yorkers,

followed by anxiety and fear (Felton, 2002). Sixty

percent of Americans said that they cried, 50% that

they were tense or nervous, and more than 45%

reported feeling ‘‘sort of dazed and numb.’’ This

pattern of responses is similar to that found among

Americans after the Kennedy assassination in 1963

(Rasinski et al., 2002).

Sadness fosters reflection, resignation, and

acceptance and evokes sympathy and helping re-

sponses in others (Izard, 1992, 1993). Preliminary

data on the initial reaction to 9/11 among some

90,000 service recipients of New York City’s Pro-

ject Liberty (a consortium of New York State Of-

fice of Mental Health, county and New York City

mental health departments) showed that people

did many things in response to the attacks, but

what they did not do was withdraw from others

(Felton, 2002). Donations of bottled water, food,

clothing, and dog food for the animals helping

in the search around the World Trade Center

swamped the capabilities of food banks and local

Salvation Army posts so that some of it had to be

shipped to warehouses 90 miles from New York

City (Dwyer, 2001). A national survey found 36%

of Americans making donations to relief services

(Schuster et al., 2001). A large-scale survey of

more than 50,000 people in various disaster si-

tuations found that social continuity and access to

substantial personal and community resources

mitigate impact. Disasters with more dire effects,

such as Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the 1989

Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, involved not

only destruction and threat to life but also pro-

longed social and financial disruption and loss of

179Near- and Long-Term Psychological Effects of Exposure to Terrorist Attacks

resources (Norris, Watson, Hamblen, & Pfeffer-

baum, 2003).

Adaptation: Compensatory Responses and

Positive Emotions

The New York Times series ‘‘Portraits of Grief,’’

which ran from September 2001 to December 31,

2002, offered a small photo and paragraph about

each of some 1,800 of the 2,937 people who died

in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Unlike the

usual obituary, these ‘‘portraits’’ offered joyful and

humorous anecdotes that family and friends re-

membered about those who died that day. Lazarus,

Kanner, and Folkman (1980) have suggested that

positive emotions serve as breathers (temporarily

freeing a person from the stress of an experience

and allowing pleasurable diversions), as sustainers

(fostering the persistence of coping efforts), and as

restorers (replenishing damaged or depleted re-

sources or fostering the development of new re-

sources). Nonpathological grief, which occurs in

the majority of instances of loss, is known to in-

volve the recognition of positive outcomes, such as

happy thoughts, beliefs, and appraisals, positive

emotion, and laughter (Bonanno, 2004).

Two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, almost 70%

of Americans reported positive emotions, such as

being excited about and interested in life; feeling

proud, pleased, or accomplished; and ‘‘on top of

the world’’ and as if ‘‘things were going their way.’’

Less than 35% reported negative emotions, such as

feeling restless, lonely, bored, depressed, or upset.

By the end of 2003, 70% of Americans claimed

that the threat of terrorism had had a positive im-

pact on their lives, either by making them evaluate

what is important in their lives or by making them

stronger and more resilient. At the same time,

the number of Americans who thought that others

were helpful was higher than it had been since

the 1970s, a view that remained consistent in the

subsequent year (Rasinski et al., 2002). Similarly

positive outcomes were reported among Americans

after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 (Smith,


Positive emotions appear to have a ‘‘broad-

ening’’ effect (Frederickson, 1998, 2001), which

is to produce flexible, creative, and open-minded

thinking (Frederickson & Branigan, 2001; Fre-

derickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larken, 2003), an

outcome that may be correlated with an increase in

circulating brain dopamine, which is also asso-

ciated with rewarding events (Ashby, Isen, &

Turken, 1999). It has been suggested that positive

emotions are part of resilient individuals’ reactions

to adversity (Bonanno, Papa, & O’Neill, 2002;

Keltner & Bonanno, 1997). Positive emotions can

help reduce distress both by distracting from and

undoing the effects of negative emotions (Freder-

ickson & Levinson, 1998; Keltner & Bonanno,

1997). Importantly, positive emotions may work

by increasing contact with a social support net-

work. To the extent that groups or communi-

ties lose loved ones and members, remedial social

processes and social bonding are likely to coun-

teract the devastating effects of loss due to vio-

lence. An interesting possibility is that the human

tendency to seek out and engage in social beha-

viors that are elicited and exacerbated by the threat

of an attack is sufficient not only to help people to

cope with that immediate challenge but serves a

broader healing function as well (Curran, 1988).

The supportive role of others has been shown

to buffer cardiovascular reactivity to psychologi-

cal stress (Uchino, Cacioppo, & Kielcolt-Glaser,


Social psychologists have discovered a peculiar

human tendency to recover better and faster to

major trauma than to minor trauma. This pattern

may be part of what Gilbert, Lieberman, Mor-

ewedge, and Wilson (2003) call the region-beta

paradox, where the time to recovery from a minor

insult is longer than the time to recovery from a

major one. The notion is that, in the instance of a

major assault, psychological attenuation processes

are more likely to come into play (cf. Aronson &

Mills, 1958; Zimbardo, 1966). Wilson and Cairns

(1992) reported that residents of Enniskillen,

Northern Ireland, where a bomb killed 11 people

and injured 60 others, exhibited more active and

fewer passive coping behaviors than residents of

communities less under attack. Rather than en-

gaging in denial or distancing mechanisms, the

residents of Enniskillen accurately recalled the

violent event and actively sought social support,

often via church attendance and religiosity. Simi-

larly, among Americans who knew someone hurt

or killed in the 9/11 attacks, the high levels of

stress reported immediately after the attacks had

returned to normal within less than a year, and

those who knew someone hurt or killed in the

180 Consequences of Terrorism

attacks had some of the highest levels of recovery

of any subgroup, reporting nearly three fewer

symptoms (Rasinski et al., 2002).

Adaptation: Compensatory Responses

and Affective Reappraisal

An event is stressful to the extent that it is ap-

praised as taxing or exceeding one’s resources and

endangering one’s well-being (Lazarus & Folkman,

1986). What appears to matter most is what we

expect about the world. These expectations shape

our perceptions, and our perceptions shape our

emotional, cognitive, and physiological reactions

to stressful events. Wilson and Cairns (1992) found

that residents of Northern Ireland who were living

in towns with a greater incidence of civil violence

were more likely to exhibit psychological disorders

only if they perceived a high level of violence;

those who perceived little or no violence exhib-

ited no more psychological distress than did re-

sidents of towns with a lower incidence of civil


In the instance of both the Japanese attack on

Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the attacks

on New York and Washington on September 11,

2001, the events were unanticipated by the Amer-

ican public. The immediate response to 9/11 was

comparable to or greater than that to Pearl Harbor

in terms of surprise and dismay (CBS news poll,

September 12, 2001; NBC News/Wall Street Journal

poll, September 12, 2001). In one national poll,

more than 85% thought that the attacks on 9/11

comprised ‘‘the most tragic news’’ in their life-

time (CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, September 11,

2001). Moreover, although the attackers targeted

Washington, DC, and New York City, the events

were viewed as attacks on the nation at large, and

people across the country reported intense emo-

tional responses. Decreased heart rate variability—a

characteristic associated with increased cardiovas-

cular and sudden death in patients with and with-

out heart disease—was reported for the week

following 9/11 among 12 patients in the Yale New

Haven Hospital, located some 90 miles northeast of

New York City (Lampert, Baron, Craig, McPherson

& Lee, 2002). Because the more unexpected an

event, the greater the emotion it provokes (Kamin,

1968; Ortony, 1988), the robust emotional re-

sponses to the attacks on 9/11 were in many respects


Once an unexpected event occurs and people

have an intense emotional response to it, they are

able and likely to make sense of the event quickly,

even without realizing that they are doing so

(Heider, 1958; Piaget, 1952). Post hoc analysis of

an event makes it understandable, and to the ex-

tent that this is so, people will think less about it,

and the intensity of the emotional response is

likely to decrease (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003). With-

in 1–2 days, Americans went from thinking such

an attack would not happen on domestic soil

to expecting another assault. On September 13,

2001, a Time/CNN Poll found that 64% of their

national sample had thought that an attack as

serious as those that had occurred would never

happen; an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll at

the same time found that 66% of respondents

thought that another attack in Washington and

New York was likely. A Gallup poll on September

11, 2001, found that the assaults were interpreted

as ‘‘an act of war’’ by 86% of their sample, and 78%

identified Osama bin Laden as ‘‘very likely’’ to have

been personally involved in the violence; another

poll 2 days later showed that 83% of the sample

blamed bin Laden (Pew research survey, Septem-

ber 13–17, 2001), and a majority interpreted the

attacks as a result of U.S. foreign policy in the

Middle East (Pew, 2001).

One might wonder why Americans were so

surprised. Terrorism was not new to the United

States. However, previous attacks could be de-

scribed as not only distant but also increasing

gradually in intensity, allowing for habituation and

adaptive processes to mute reactions. Until the

1960s, international terrorism focused on indi-

viduals and occurred primarily via assassination;

random attacks and the killing of innocent by-

standers began in the late 1960s. Hostage taking

and airplane hijacking began in the early 1970s,

and embassy attacks began in the late 1970s. Ca-

sualties began to number in the hundreds by the

1980s, with car bombs among military person-

nel and civilians and the downing—rather than

hijacking—of airplanes. In the United States, the

first successful attack by international terrorists was

the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center,

which killed 6 (and wounded more than 1,000).

The 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Ok-

lahoma City, which killed 167, was not character-

ized as an attack by an organized, international

181Near- and Long-Term Psychological Effects of Exposure to Terrorist Attacks

terrorist network but as the behavior of one or two

individuals, which probably marginalized its sig-

nificance as a threat for most Americans (Hoffman,

1998; Stern, 1999). In some respects, this pattern of

gradual increases in the ferocity of the attacks, with a

concomitant rise in the number of deaths, made it

highly likely that the next terrorist assault would go

largely unnoticed by the American and perhaps the

Western European public, unless the perception of

the attacks was that they were significantly beyond

accommodation ranges.

Adaptation: Compensatory Responses and

Cognitive Reappraisal

Stressful life events are more likely to cause long-

term difficulties if they shatter a person’s view of

the world (Davis & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2001;

Parkes, 1971). Religion is known to foster recovery

during bereavement, perhaps by affording a way of

understanding how the loss is consistent within

a larger, stable belief system and by providing so-

cial support from a religious community (McIn-

tosh, Cohen Silver, & Wortman, 1993; Stroebe &

Stroebe, 1993). Finding meaning and an acceptable

worldview is a core component of the grieving

process (Davis & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2001; Parkes,

1971). People under stress often exhibit more re-

ligious behaviors than they do when not under

stress: The Centers for Disease Control’s ongoing

Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System found

that about 50% of the residents of Connecticut,

New Jersey, and New York had participated in

religious or community memorial services within

1–2 months after 9/11, and more than 10% had

attended a funeral or memorial service for an ac-

quaintance, relative, or community member (Mor-

bidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 2002). A

nationwide survey found that 90% of Americans

had religious thoughts or engaged in religions ac-

tions and that 60% had participated in memorial or

commemorative group activities (Schuster et al.,


Coping With Instances

of Repeated Attacks

An early anecdotal report of civilian behavior during

the air raids in England recalled that reactions to the

air raids seemed to be a function of how much ex-

perience the populace had with them: Early in the

war, ‘‘the mere sounding of sirens was enough to

send large numbers to shelters. . . .Their gruesome

wail readily frightened people, and, at nights, the

noises of automobile or tramcar gears were con-

tinually mistaken for warnings. Before the end of

1940, Londoners were general taking no notice

of sirens at all . . . unless accompanied by the noise

of planes, gunfire, or bombs. . . . In some areas [it] is

a social faux pas to mention the fact that they have

sounded. They provoke irritation and boredom.’’

Vernon (1941, p. 459)

State and local responders in Israel, where suicide

bombers have killed more than 300 Israelis and

injured more than 3900 others since the 2000 start

of the al-Aqsa intifada, have developed an impact-

mitigation strategy by removing as much evidence

of the attack as quickly as possible. After immedi-

ate medical aid, teams come to pick up body parts

and wash off blood from the streets and buildings

where a blast occurred, and structural damage to

those streets and buildings is repaired as quickly as


Hoffman (2004)

Habituation and Sensitization

In the past 10 years, more than 210,000 Americans

have been the victims of criminal murder, more

than 300,000 people have taken their own lives

in suicide, 420,000 people have been killed in

car accidents, 5,400,000 have died of cancer, and

nearly 7,500,000 have died as a result of heart

disease (Anderson, 2001; Fox & Zawitz, 2001). In

the same 10 years, some 3,300 Americans have lost

their lives as a result of terrorism. Relatively few

Americans know someone who was directly af-

fected by a terrorist attack, whereas many of us

know people who have died as a result of murder,

suicide, car accidents, cancer, or heart disease. We

might consider that part of what makes terrorism

so frightening is that it is unfamiliar.

More than 30 years of violence in Northern

Ireland have offered an opportunity to study the

effects of long-term exposure to civil violence and

terrorist attacks. The violence, which began in the

late 1960s, peaked in 1972 with more than 10,500

shooting incidents in that year alone (Curran,

1988). Records from more than 1,500 bomb vic-

tims seen in emergency departments between

1969 and 1972 indicate that about 50% showed

psychological disturbances. A study of civilians

injured between 1979 and 1984 found more than

20% with diagnosable PSTD, primarily overarousal

(startle and sleep disturbances) (Loughrey, Bell,

Kee, Roddy, & Curran, 1988). These people ex-

hibited varying symptom thresholds—the longer

182 Consequences of Terrorism

they were exposed to the violence, the more likely

they were to exhibit the PTSD symptoms initially—

but there was some apparent habituation as well

because only half of the victims had emotional

reactions lasting longer than 3 months (Kee, Bell,

Loughrey, Roddy, & Curran, 1987; see Bleich,

Dycian, Koslowsky, Solomon, & Wiener, 1992, for

evidence of apparent habituation during the First

Persian Gulf war [1991]). An in-depth analysis of

psychiatric morbidity in Derry, which has a social

deprivation among the worst in Northern Ire-

land as well as a 30-year history of civil conflict,

found 1-month and 1-year prevalences of psy-

chiatric disorder not different from those of a de-

prived inner-city section of London (McConnell,

Bebbington, McClelland, Gillespie, & Houghton,


In Israel, since the 2000 start of the al-Aqsa

intifada, suicide bombers have killed more than

300 people and injured more than 3,900 others. In

2002, a nationally representative sample of about

500 Israelis queried by a telephone survey after 19

months of attacks that had occurred with in-

creasing frequency showed that about 10% ex-

hibited symptom criteria for PTSD, 77% reported

at least one traumatic stress–related symptom, and

59% reported feeling depressed (Bleich, Gelkopf,

& Solomon, 2003). A significant portion of the

respondents in this survey had experienced earlier

traumatic attacks such as previous wars, terrorist

attacks, or the Holocaust. Despite these histories

and the fact that almost half of the participants in

the sample had been exposed to civilian violence

either personally or through a friend or family

member (with 60% reporting that they felt their

lives were in danger), the emotional impact ap-

peared to be moderate. The rate of PTSD found

among Israelis after 19 months of repeated attacks

was lower than the rates reported for people in the

immediate vicinity of the World Trade Center

towers 2 months after 9/11, which might be in-

terpreted as habituation among Israelis to the re-

peated attacks.

There is evidence that habituation and resi-

lience processes might be different among chil-

dren and that they need to be assessed differently.

Children who are exposed to civil violence some-

times exhibit exaggerated levels of antisocial be-

havior, although this is complicated by the fact

that the same civil violence is likely to result in

other disadvantages for these children, especially

as they enter adulthood, such as educational

disruptions and a shortage of jobs (Cairns, 1987;

Thabet, Abed, & Vostanis, 2002). High rates of

PSTD were found among Kuwaiti and Kurdish

children after the 1991 Gulf War, as well as among

children in Croatia and Bosnia, especially if they

were displaced from their homes and communities

(Thabet, Abed & Vostanis, 2002; see also Freud &

Burlingham, 1943, for similar observations about

children who experienced the bombings of Lon-

don in World War II). Thabet & Vostanis reported

in 1999 that more than 40% of Palestinian chil-

dren showed moderate to severe PTSD reactions,

and more than 20% showed high rates of anxiety

and behavioral problems, presumably as a function

of the longstanding, armed intifada conflict be-

tween 1987 and 1993. These compared with an

overall prevalence of 1%–15% for emotional and

behavioral disorders of children in the population

as a whole. As the conflict subsided, evidence of

children’s PTSD decreased to about 10% (a 1-year

follow-up; Thabet & Vostanis, 1999), although the

rate of general emotional and behavioral disorders

was as high as 20%, as rated by parents.

There is some evidence of sensitization effects

(heightened arousal after repeated exposure to

trauma) among children who are exposed to re-

peated threats of violence. The more recent al-Aqsa

intifada in Palestine has been characterized not only

by civil violence and armed conflict but also by

bombardment and home demolition. Thabet, Abed,

and Vostanis (2002) found severe to very severe

PSTD among children who had lost their homes.

These rates were significantly higher than among

children who had also lived in the Gaza Strip but

had not been directly bombarded or lost their

homes (although they had likely been exposed to

bombardment by helicopters, mutilated bodies on

TV, and media coverage of the conflict). The most

frequent symptoms were difficulty concentrating,

sleep disturbances, and avoidance of reminders;

these children also had higher total fear scores than

did the comparison children. However, a reverse

trend—perhaps an instance of the region-beta

paradox referred to earlier (Wilson & Gilbert,

2003)—was observed for anxiety problems: These

were higher in the group not directly bombarded

than in the group that was. This same trend was

observed among children involved in the Bosnian

conflicts (Smith, Perrin, Yule, & Rabe-Hesketh,

2001). As the authors noted, this divergence may

183Near- and Long-Term Psychological Effects of Exposure to Terrorist Attacks

also have occurred because the more severe PTSD

masked the anxiety in the exposed children.

Adaptation: Compensatory Responses

Lead to Resilience

It has been suggested that, in England during

World War II, there was a ‘‘Britain can take it

mood’’ for much of the period from 1940 to 1941,

and prewar hysteria about mass casualties was

replaced by a new myth of universal resilience.

Investigators were unable to describe a significant

increase in ‘‘neurotic disturbances,’’ even though

there was an apparent increase in functional so-

matic disorders (headache, fatigue, dyspepsia, joint

and muscle pain, indigestion) (Jones, Woolven,

Durodie, & Wessely, 2004, 2006).

A telephone survey of Israeli residents con-

ducted in 2002, some 2 years after the beginning of

the al-Aqsa intifada in Israel—and after the deaths

of 318 Israeli civilians by knife or gun attacks,

drive-by shootings, or suicide bombings—showed

that although symptom criteria for PTSD were met

by 9.4% of the sample, the majority of the partici-

pants felt optimistic about their personal future

(82%) and the future of Israel (66%) (Bleich,

Gelkopf, & Solomon, 2003). The construct of re-

silience was developed on the basis of observations

of people who not only survive but also thrive in

situations of extreme adversity. The notion comes

from early investigations of atypical schizophrenic

patients who had premorbid histories of relative

competence at work, good social relations, mar-

riage, and capacity to fulfill responsibilities (Gar-

mezy, 1991). It was posited that such disordered

patients, who had the least severe course of illness,

were less dysfunctional because of these relatively

resilient trajectories.

Similarly, children of schizophrenic mothers

sometimes have thrived despite their high-risk

status, which has led to a characterization of the

children as resilient (Garmezy & Masten, 1991): It

was thought that attributes of the children them-

selves, their families, and their wider social en-

vironments were critical to this resilience (Masten,

Best, & Garmezy, 1990). (There is evidence that,

for children, resilience may be inconsistent: Al-

though some at-risk children excel at a particular

point in time, they may falter subsequently [Lu-

thar, Cecchetti, & Becker, 2000].) Notably, resi-

lience is more than recovery: Recovery is a return

to normal functioning, which had ceased tem-

porarily. Functioning returns to preevent levels,

whereas resilience is viewed as the ability to

maintain equilibrium (Bonanno, 2004). In addition,

resilience is more than the absence of psycho-

pathology; resilient people may show transient per-

turbations in functioning (for several weeks) but

demonstrate a stable trajectory of healthy func-

tioning over time and ‘‘the capacity for generative

experiences and positive emotions’’ (Bonanno,

2004, p. 2).

On the individual level, resilience differs from

optimism in that resilient people recognize the ef-

fects of stressful situations, yet still experience

positive outcomes (Masten, 2001; Tugade & Fre-

derickson, 2002). These people are likely to elicit

positive emotions though humor, relaxation, and

optimistic thinking. Factors related to resilience

include hardiness (Kobasa, Maddi, & Kahn, 1982),

which is defined as the capability of finding

meaningful purpose in life, the belief that one can

influence one’s surroundings and the outcome of

events, and the belief that one can learn from both

positive and negative experiences; a kind of self-

enhancement (Greenwald, 1980). Bonanno et al.

(2005) found that ‘‘self-enhancing’’ individuals

who were in or near the World Trade Center at the

time of the 9/11 attacks reported better adjustment

and more active social networks and were rated

more positively by their friends. Physiological as-

sessments of resilient people indicate that they

experience less stress as indicated via salivary cor-

tisol measures (Brindley & Rolland, 1989). These

people apparently regulate their emotions more

effectively (Lazarus, 1993; Masten, 2001; Rutter,

1987), perhaps via repressive coping (Weinberger

& Davidson, 1979), which is the tendency to re-

press or avoid unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and

memories (Weinberger & Schwartz, 1990).

Adaptation: Compensatory Responses Enable

Victims to Thrive

Civil unrest and violence do not always result in a

damaged populace. Sometimes just the opposite

appears to occur, where such strife is accompanied

by a suspension or decrease in the use and perhaps

need for psychological and physical remediation.

One of the outcomes of civil violence may be im-

proved psychological health (Fogelson, 1970;

Greenley, Gillespie, & Lindenthal, 1975; Mira,

184 Consequences of Terrorism

1939), perhaps because of the increased social

cohesion shown in response to a common threat or

enemy (Durkheim, 1951). Lyons (1972) observed

that, in areas closely associated with violence, male

depression and suicide rates drop, whereas in areas

less directly exposed, the reverse is true. In England

and Wales, the number of suicides reported in the

month of September 2001 was significantly lower

than in other months for every September of the

previous 27 years (Salib, 2003). During and after

the 1975–1976 civil war in Lebanon, admissions

to psychiatric hospitals decreased, and outpatient

treatment fell more than what might have been

expected on the basis of transportation or commu-

nication disruptions. When the hostilities ceased,

outpatient treatment appeared to rebound (Nasr,

Racy, & Flaherty, 1983).

Curran (1988) points to data from racial rioting

in U.S. cities in 1968 and in Kuala Lumpur in

1969, as well as to earlier data from the Algerian

civil war, the Spanish civil war, and World War II,

as showing no increase in demand for psychiatric

services and, in some cases, decreased demands for

such services during the period when the violence

was ongoing, with some evidence of a rebound

effect after the violence had peaked. Bleich et al.

(1992) reported that, during the Scud missile at-

tacks on Israel in 1991, there was an inverse rela-

tionship between the number of physical casualties

and the number of psychological stress casualties

reporting to hospitals. As Curran (1988) noted,

there may be multiple reasons for such outcomes,

including the failures of people to report distress

and seek help, the migration out of the area of those

who are most distressed, the fact that people are

distracted by the more immediate demands of ex-

ternal stressors (Ierodiakonous, 1970), or the ten-

dency of people to engage in active denial or

reappraisal (Gross, 1998).

What to Expect for the Future

Although one must carefully qualify such a state-

ment, what we have observed for most people in

instances of terrorist attacks in the United States,

Northern Ireland, and Israel is the dissipation of

the effects of isolated attacks and habituated and

adaptive behaviors to repeated attacks. Dissipation,

habituation, and adaptation are behaviors that can

be predicted on the premise that behavior is, in

large part, principled. This view begs the question,

what should we expect for the future?

Habituation Versus Sensitization

of Emotional Reactions

We should expect, at least for the majority of

people, adaptation and accommodation to living

with terrorist attacks and with the threats of ter-

rorist attacks. This has already been noted for

communities in Northern Ireland, Israel, and Pa-

lestine. Similar habituation could be claimed for the

public in the United States before 9/11, which was

affected by terrorist attacks only incrementally until


The attacks on 9/11 killed 3,063 people. Al-

though there were multiple sites, similar methods

were used: Each involved airplanes and suicide

terrorists. From what we know about habituation

and adaptation, we might expect one of the foll-

owing scenarios: (1) For a subsequent attack to

significantly increase public perceptions of vulner-

ability, fear, and stress, it will likely have to be of

larger perceived intensity than those that occurred

on 9/11, unless a significant period of time elapses

before the next attack; or (2) in the near term,

repeated, similar attacks will generate less disrup-

tion due to habituation and adaptation effects.

However, (3) a series of smaller attacks that vary in

location, method, and target—that is, that do not

entail habituation or adaptation because of the vari-

ance in the nature of the attacks, such as the bomb-

ing of shopping malls, schools, and hospitals—

can be expected to be as effective (or more so) than

a single, large-scale attack, even in the near term.

It may be instructive to consider the impact of

the Washington, DC, sniper attacks in 2002 in

view of this notion that Americans might ‘‘habi-

tuate to terrorist attacks.’’ Few systematic data are

yet available about the impacts of these incidents

(although studies are in progress). Public percep-

tion is that, rather than exhibit habituation or

adaptation as a function of the previous exposure

to the attacks on the Pentagon on 9/11 and the

anthrax events the following fall, residents in the

greater Washington metropolitan area showed a

sensitization effect: They exhibited hypervigilance,

that is, behavior that could be described as in-

appropriate given the statistically low level of being

a victim, which actually put people in positions of

185Near- and Long-Term Psychological Effects of Exposure to Terrorist Attacks

greater likelihood of injury from other sources.

(Examples of such behavior were driving long

distances in order to avoid neighborhood gas sta-

tions or shopping malls, keeping school children

indoors during recess and after school, and can-

celing sporting events in numerous schools for

many weeks.)

One way to understand this pattern of beha-

vior is to grasp the fact that habituation is context

and event specific and occurs with repeated ex-

posure to a traumatic event under otherwise stable

conditions; thus the event can be anticipated on

the basis of the context in which it occurs. Habi-

tuation does not generalize to different contexts or

to a substantial change in the nature of the fearful

event. When events change over time—such as

planes smashing into buildings, then anthrax being

sent in the mail, and finally, snipers cropping up at

shopping malls—the outcome is the opposite of

habituation or sensitization—the increase, rather

than decrease, in anxiety or fear as a function of

repeated exposure to fearful events. This leads to

the expectation that, should the public be exposed

to a series of different types of attacks (the third

scenario just listed), sensitization may exaggerate

the effects of any one of the attacks, even though

any one as a single instance would have had a

small effect.

Cognitive and Affective Reappraisal

The American public has been encouraged to be-

lieve that it is vulnerable to future terrorist at-

tacks. Affective and cognitive reappraisals can be

expected to occur in the context of such expecta-

tions because we try to make sense of the world

around us. It is likely that this psychological pre-

paration will depend, to some extent, on our as-

sessment of the likelihood of such an assault. When

people expect an event to occur in a future over

which they perceive themselves as having little or

no control, they tend to engage in anticipatory

reconstrual, that is, they get a head start on in-

terpreting its meaning. Wilson and his colleagues

found that, when events that had either positive

or negative connotations were probable but not

certain, people engaged in little anticipatory re-

construal (e.g., Wilson, Wheatley, Kurtz, Dunn, &

Gilbert, 2004). Instead, they adopted a ‘‘wait and

see’’ strategy, postponing their interpretation of the

meaning of an event until after it occurred. How-

ever, when events were perceived as highly likely

or even certain, people engaged in more antici-

patory reconstrual, making sense of the event

ahead of time. To the extent, then, that a popula-

tion perceives a terrorist attack to be an inevitable

part of its future, it is more likely to adjust its

understanding of an attack ahead of time on the

basis of its current knowledge and understand-

ing of such an event. These views and attitudes

are likely to be difficult to change, even in the

face of additional information or contradictory


On the basis of what is known about affective

forecasting—our abilities to predict how we will

feel about an event that will happen in the

future—we can surmise that we expect we will be

more distressed about future attacks than we ac-

tually will be (e.g., Read & Loewenstein, 1995).

We will also misconstrue and misremember im-

portant aspects of the event in hindsight (e.g.,

Kaplan, 1978), especially the intensity and fre-

quency of our emotions about it (Christianson &

Safer, 1996). Further, our initial understanding of

an attack will largely determine our long-term un-

derstanding of it, even when provided with sub-

sequent information to correct for errors (Tversky

& Kahneman, 1974). In short, we will work hard

to transform the meanings of the attacks so as

to mitigate their negative impacts, all the while

remaining curiously unaware of this tendency

(Loewenstein & Adler, 1995). This kind of ‘‘mis-

forecasting,’’ while probably resulting in more po-

sitive emotions than would otherwise accrue, will

nonetheless make people vulnerable to decision

errors because people act in accordance with how

they expect to feel about that action. To the extent

that our affective forecasting is inaccurate, these

decisions will be unsound.

Preparation Strategies

How might we take advantage of these guesses

about the future to inform response and recovery

preparations? There are several implications, all of

which are extrapolations from assumptions about

basic mechanisms but need empirical validation.

We offer them here as food for thought. First, a

preparedness strategy that focuses on fear is likely

to produce either habituation to alerts and threats

or adaptation and a chronic state of anxiety that

depletes individual and community resources. A

186 Consequences of Terrorism

strategy that highlights our strengths and capacity

for recovery would not only save resources but may

even help create them (Durodie, 2002, 2004).

Public participation in dealing with community

disasters has repeatedly been shown to bolster pub-

lic morale and ameliorate psychological stress—

from the bombings in London during WorldWar II

( Jones et al., in press) to the modern-day Israeli /

Palestinian conflict (Bleich et al., 2003).

Second, if we try to ‘‘expect the unexpected’’

and then incorporate the unexpected within the

context of normal as much as possible, we will

react less vigorously to a novel attack event. Our

expectations are based on what we have experi-

enced and already know, and we are most likely to

be disrupted by what we do not expect. It is likely

that Americans expect future attacks, should they

occur, to involve airlines, large buildings, suicide

terrorists, and New York or Washington. These

expectations are probably encouraged by the most

obvious change—greatly enhanced airport secur-

ity. There is remarkably little national dialogue

about alternatives to that scenario. A national dis-

cussion of alternative attacks would not only al-

low for realistic and detailed descriptions of what

might happen but also engage the public so that

the views and practices of communities and their

possible responses could inform response and re-

covery strategies (cf. Lasker, 2004), as well as edu-

cation and preparedness strategies (Vineburgh,

2004). To the extent that Americans begin to view

terrorist attacks in other countries as occurring,

in some sense, also to ourselves, our expectations

should begin to change so that even the unim-

aginable, such as a school bombing, is perceived as

‘‘experienced,’’ if only vicariously. One might argue

that such anticipatory preparation is appropriate to

the fact that the current threats come from loosely

organized, international networks of terrorists,

which are likely to employ a variety of methods

against a variety of targets (Burke, 2003).

Such a discussion would also engage some de-

gree of adaptation to the fear responses that might

be provoked; obviously, such dialogue would be of

most benefit if it were conducted in the context of

understanding what people fear, what they would

be likely to do in such scenarios, and how we might

adapt risk communications and recovery strategies

to those behaviors (Fischhoff, 2002; Fischhoff,

Gonzales, Small, & Lerner, 2003). This sort of dis-

cussion might also help to put particularly un-

expected scenarios into a more familiar context,

which would lessen anxiety and increase response

capacity. For example, chemical toxins could be

described within the context of advice about which

protective and palliative behaviors are likely to

be useful. If the similarity between the chemical

weapons of terrorists and the chemicals that sit

under our own kitchen sinks is pointed out, we

might take advantage of the habituated emotional

response we have already learned to paint thinners

and drain cleaners and of the knowledge we al-

ready have about what to do when exposed to harm

from such agents.

Finally, we reflect, talk, and listen so that we

can understand the world around us, especially

when feeling threatened or experiencing loss.

Might anxiety be alleviated, strengths encouraged,

and wisdom engendered to the extent that the na-

tion engages in learning about the people and ideas

that motivate the terrorists that attack us (Ilardi,

2004; McNamara & Blight, 2003)? This, too, is an

empirical issue worth pursuing (Fischhoff, perso-

nal communication, June 29, 2004).


The quote at the beginning of this chapter reflects a

common belief that Americans and other victims of

terrorism remain vulnerable to the trauma that ter-

rorist attacks evoke. It implies that fear and anxiety,

once aroused, do not dissipate, adapt, or habituate.

But humans, like all animal organisms, have evolved

to deal with changing environments, especially those

that threaten us. Perhaps what we know about how

we respond can be used to protect us.


1. This graph is from a real-time, computational

theory of conditioning that describes the modulation

of learned and unlearned behaviors by fear (Wagner &

Brandon, 1989; Brandon & Wagner, 1998). This

theory assumes that the nature and strength of respon-

ses to discrete events are predictable, based on the

learning history of the responding organism and the

nature of the eliciting event. Most of the data upon

which this theory is based come from reduced or

simple learning preparations with nonhuman animals.

However, the theoretical processes are known to map

onto many aspects of the biological systems that the

187Near- and Long-Term Psychological Effects of Exposure to Terrorist Attacks

theory embraces and may well be ubiquitous to

the fundamental processes of learning and emotion

in all vertebrate systems. The SOP model is used here,

however, because it offers a straightforward, albeit

theoretical, picture of these fundamental processes,

which we believe can be used to describe the behaviors

of humans in both mundane and extraordinary cir-


2. As noted by Wessely (in press), the implications

of such findings are that, given that communication is

a vital coping mechanism, ensuring that cell phone

systems are maintained after a terrorist attack is im-

portant not only to emergency responders but to the

public as well and will serve to significantly mitigate

the impacts of an attack.


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193Near- and Long-Term Psychological Effects of Exposure to Terrorist Attacks

14 The Response of Relief

Organizations to Terrorist Attacks

An Overview of How the Red Cross and

Other Relief Organizations Work in Conjunction

With Other Agencies

John A. Clizbe Susan Hamilton

Ironically, on September 10–11, 2001, emergency

management leaders from around the country were

meeting in Montana. Their agenda was to discuss

ways in which they could work together when

faced with terrorist events. Included in the group

were senior leaders from the American Red Cross

and emergency managers from many of the areas

directly impacted by the terror of September 11.

While everyone obviously felt an urgent need to

return home, in retrospect there were some short-

term unforeseen advantages to being stranded

together in Montana. It was possible, for example,

to work through some of the issues requiring

coordination that would have been impossible to

do back home, given the chaos within the com-

munication systems. For example, a quick face-to-

face meeting between a Red Cross leader and the

emergency management group from the Com-

monwealth of Virginia resolved some challenges

with Red Cross access to the Pentagon. Everyone

agreed it would have been extremely difficult to

track each other down through the turmoil on the

eastern seaboard.

A longer-term implication and lesson emerged

from this experience as well. Over the subsequent

months, problem solving and communication

clarification occurred best when key people could

meet face to face to talk it out. This was true among

the not-for-profits, government agencies, busi-

nesses, and just about everyone who was working

to respond to the disaster. When these interac-

tions happened, problems were solved. Frequently

the problems, challenges, and misunderstandings

persisted, however, when the communication was

indirect or through the media or other sources.


Although the acts of terror on September 11 were

generally unexpected and unpredicted, they hap-

pened in the context of decades of relationship

building in the emergency management and non-

profit community. At the local, state, and national

levels, a number of organizations had been meet-

ing, planning, and working together in a variety of

situations. The participants at these events in-

cluded not only the relief organizations themselves

but also a number of partner agencies in govern-

ment and business (American Red Cross, 2002).

Some of the leaders from the nonprofit orga-

nizations also had long-standing relationships

with other agencies through their participation in

the National Emergency Management Agency, the


National Hurricane Conference, the Natural Ha-

zards Institute, and other organizations. As the

association officially responsible for Emergency

Support Function #8 in the Federal Emergency Re-

sponse Plan, the American Red Cross was a regular

attendee at planning meetings involving all of the

federal agencies involved in emergency preparation

and response.

The National Voluntary Organizations Active

in Disaster (NVOAD) is, as the name suggests, a

consortium of nonprofit organizations who parti-

cipate in disaster relief nationally and often locally.

At annual meetings and smaller gatherings, mem-

bers of the organization had been reviewing ways in

which they could work together more effectively in

a wide range of potential emergencies, including

acts of terrorism. Most of the member groups and

their representatives had been working with each

other for a number of years. They had also been

discussing the niches each group preferred to

fill—often in a deliberately complementary fash-

ion. Included in almost all of their events had

been representatives from the Federal Emergency

Management Agency and other government orga-


At the local level, American Red Cross chapters

had also spent a number of years planning and

responding with their colleagues in NVOAD, other

nonprofit organizations, and government agencies.

In New York City and Washington, DC—as well as

locations in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Con-

necticut, New York State, New Jersey, Pennsyl-

vania, Maryland, Virginia, and elsewhere around

the country—Red Cross chapters had solidly es-

tablished relationships, often based on formal

statements or memoranda of understanding. These

declarations typically spelled out the general terms

of the working relationship as well as specific de-

tails applicable to exactly how and when the or-

ganizations would work together.

Several voluntary relief organizations had also

initiated, well before 9/11, new programs in an-

ticipation of possible weapons of mass destruction

or terrorist events. Starting in 1998, for example,

the Red Cross established a special task force to

address ways in which that organization and its

partners could prepare for and respond to these

kinds of events. Various subgroups were set up,

ranging from training to community education to

logistics, and they all included members from

throughout emergency management and relief

organizations. By the year 2000, the Clara Barton

Center for Domestic Preparedness Training had

been established in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and

trainers and trainees again included representa-

tives from a range of organizations.

At the national, state, and local levels, often

working in conjunction with emergency manage-

ment, voluntary relief organizations participated in

a variety of planning and training sessions and

exercises. They were, for example, involved in all of

these phases with the federally sponsored, multi-

state TOPOFF 1 (named for the involvement of top

officials), which was intended to test the abilities

of the entire disaster system to handle serious si-

multaneous disasters across the country. Red Cross

chapters in New York City, Washington, DC, and

elsewhere participated with other organizations in

similar experiences (American Red Cross, 2002).

An additional context predating 9/11 was

the strong emphasis placed on an ‘‘all hazards’’

approach by the entire emergency management

community. It became quite clear that the experi-

ences relief organizations had in working together

and with other agencies on natural disasters were

directly applicable in both preparation and po-

tential responses to acts of terrorism. Many of the

same services would need to be delivered, the same

working relationships would function, and the

same stresses and strains would occur. Thus, dis-

cussion in NVOAD and other settings explored

ways in which these experiences might translate

into situations involving terrorism.

There were, of course, some clear differences

between acts of terrorism and natural disasters.

The fact that an act of terrorism was a crime meant

that law enforcement would be more directly in-

volved in the planning and response. Research

seemed to suggest that acts of terrorism would

have different psychological and sociological im-

pacts than natural disasters. The scale and scope

of the impact was likely to be greater, expanding

far beyond the place where the event took place.

These and other differences proved to be especially

problematic for relief organizations as the days

following 9/11 unfolded.

The events of September 11, 2001, did not,

then, occur in a vacuum. Advance planning, think-

ing, relationship building, and theorizing had all

taken place. Some of it proved to be well founded,

and some of it erroneous. Some new players en-

tered the field with different perspectives. Several

195The Response of Relief Organizations to Terrorist Attacks

organizations with experience in natural disasters

struggled to find their niche in this new environ-

ment. Some of those with no previous disaster-

related experiences found ways in which they

could substantially contribute. The established

background and context was sometimes helpful

but sometimes constraining.

The Need

As the horror of September 11 developed, two

different sets of needs quickly emerged. Most im-

portant, of course, were those of the survivors, but

the definition of just who was a ‘‘survivor’’ ex-

panded exponentially. For example, survivors

came to be viewed as not just those who physically

walked away from the specific disaster sites but

also colleagues and extended family members and

residents in the affected communities. Ultimately,

people across the country came to view themselves

as attempting to ‘‘survive’’ the disasters. A second

set of needs related to the institutions attempting

to help the survivors and the institutions also be-

came a rapidly expanding pool.

The Survivors

For the survivors, however they were defined, a

number of needs were apparent. This was true

whether they were people who physically survived

at the point of devastation, family members related

to those who had been injured or had lost their

lives, rescue workers or relief organization work-

ers, or those who were located physically far from

the site of impact but were nevertheless pro-

foundly affected.

The Need for Support

One such need was the requirement for quick

support. The exact nature of the support was some-

times obvious and sometimes not to either the

seeker or the provider, but a wide range of people

clearly felt they had to have some kind of help.

For the families of those who lost their lives,

the required support was often quite complex. It

was assumed (not always correctly) that emotional

help was crucial, but other kinds of support were

often expressed both directly and indirectly. Some

families had an immediate need for financial as-

sistance, which was not always in direct propor-

tion to the resources available to them. Some

required help from their often far-flung families.

Many needed someone to simply listen as they

talked about what they had experienced; others

were looking for someone to tell them what to do,

if that was at all possible. Some had to have phy-

sical support near the site of the disaster, whereas

others needed to move away from the site. In a

number of respects, the hierarchy of requirements

espoused by Abraham Maslow often seemed to

reflect the ways in which people looked for assis-

tance, with safety, survival, and a sense of security

taking clear precedence over more ‘‘actualizing’’

needs. Much of this complexity was consistent

with the findings published in a National Institute

of Mental Health (2002) report on mental health

and mass violence.

For many, support was a direct reflection of

their personal circumstances. Elderly people who

were stranded in high rises needed physical as-

sistance and sustenance. Those with pets required

care for their animals. Those in dust-contaminated

apartments lacked a place to stay and a way to clean

up. Injured people sought physical care and emo-

tional support. Those who were primarily impacted

economically were faced with earning a living,

finding a new job, or surviving while their em-

ployers regrouped. Employers themselves searched

for ways to aid their employees.

Perhaps especially striking was the degree to

which people throughout the country and around

the world were affected—and called for support.

The tens of thousands of requests the American

Red Cross call-in center received underscored

these needs: A mother in Iowa wondered how

to deal with her anxious 6-year-old. A couple in

Houston struggled to cope with a layoff attrib-

uted to 9/11. Korean tourists were stranded in the

Midwest without hard-to-find prescribed medica-

tion. Thousands of people felt driven to do some-

thing to help all those who were expressing a need

for some kind of support.

The Need for Linkages

The relief agencies also quickly realized the need

for linkages between family and community. First,

of course, were those who were desperate to find

a loved one they feared was lost in the disasters. If

they lived together, the hour-by-hour trauma of

196 Consequences of Terrorism

trying to make contact was profound. Many tried

to reach the physical site in hopes of establishing

contact. Others stayed by the phone. Still others

had strong reason to believe their loved one had

not survived.

Agencies seeking to help faced the huge chal-

lenge of trying to reestablish these contacts, often in

the face of sparse and inaccurate information. Some

of the initial estimates of lives lost approached

50,000, then paused for weeks at around 6,000,

and ultimately reached about 3,000. This meant

that, for a while, it was not possible to account for

tens of thousands of people—almost all of whom

had someone hoping to reestablish contact with


As time dragged on, those who seemed to have

lost loved ones needed linkages with other family

members and friends in the community. These

connections, which often had to be arranged,

provided some of the most important senses of

support for those directly impacted. Family mem-

bers who lived around the country also searched

for connection. As many as twenty or thirty family

members from a single family often came to New

York, Washington, or Pennsylvania to be together

with family members living in those areas.

People in the broader community sought com-

parable linkages. Preestablished, newly formed, and

spontaneous community groups provided their

members with these connections. A wealth of re-

ports filtered into the Red Cross, for example, de-

scribing special church services and meetings at

established organizations that focused on the events

of September 11, newly formed citizen discussion

and action groups, and neighbors bonding in ways

they never had before.

The Need for Information

Information often became the most important kind

of support. Both people who were located in the

impacted areas and others around the world de-

manded in-depth news of the events. First, they

wanted to know about the situation ‘‘on the

ground’’ and looked to the relief organizations and

their contacts in government to provide it. What

had happened? How had it happened? How many

people were injured or killed? Who were the vic-

tims? What was being done, and what else could

be done? A myriad of smaller questions followed.

What streets and building were impacted? What

transportation routes were available? How can I get

there (or how can I get away from there)?

Second, people required information about

available services, which they often sought before

the services were established. Who will help me

find out about a loved one? Who can tell me what

I should do now? Who can get food to the emer-

gency responders? Who can help me financially

right now? What kind of services do you offer?

A third kind of information was education

about what was going to happen next. Who can

help me find a job? Who can tell me how to talk

with my children? Who can offer child care ser-

vices? Who will bring my family together? Who

will help with burials? Who offers counseling?

Who will help me find another place to live? Who

can help look after my long-term financial con-


In a related vein, people asked questions about

how to prepare for another attack or for some

comparable emergency. What kind of planning

should families do? What should be stockpiled in

a family survival kit? What kind of preventative

health care actions should I take? What can com-

munities do to be better prepared?

Others sought information about how they

could help. Thousands of spontaneous volunteers

arrived at or near the disaster sites wanting to help.

Hundred of thousands of others wanted to know

how their financial contributions would be put to

use. Teachers sought information about how to

talk to their students. Children were unsure of

how to talk to each other. Agencies were often

overwhelmed with people who wanted to be of

assistance. All of these requests reflected a need for

another kind of information—how to help others.

People also required information on how to

cope. Should I go back to work immediately?

Should my children go back to school? Should I

sell our home and move? Should I go to the banker

or the lawyer first? How do I get my life back

together? Workers in relief agencies listed hun-

dreds of such questions they were asked.

Survivors, at a minimum, needed multiple

kinds of support—help in establishing connec-

tions with family and friends and lots of informa-

tion. The relief organizations had to address these

challenges quickly because the needs were press-

ing. Doing so would require extensive collabora-

tion with each other and with other agencies.

197The Response of Relief Organizations to Terrorist Attacks

The Institutions

The institutions quickly discovered the needs they

themselves faced if they wished to serve and in fact

survive. No organization was truly prepared for

an event of this nature. People were in desperate

straits, but the relief organization often did not

have the capacity to immediately deliver the re-

quired services. They thus had to balance the

difficulty of quickly serving people with the si-

multaneous challenge of providing those sought-

after services.

The Need for Assessment

While challenged to quickly provide assistance,

the relief organizations also had to attempt to

understand and assess what was happening, what

was needed, what would happen next, and what

would be needed in a rapidly changing environ-

ment. If they were to be able to go beyond simply

reacting to the latest piece of accurate or inaccurate

information, they had to find ways to understand

the full nature of the situation. If they were to plan

for and predict demands for services and re-

sources, they had to be able to undertake a broad-

ranging assessment.

This assessment was actually twofold. Much

like the survivors, the institutions needed an as-

sessment of the situation. How many people had

been directly affected? Were there many people

in the impacted buildings who were able to walk

away? How many were injured? Were the directly

affected people from the immediate area or from

somewhere else? Who was already delivering what

services? They also had to undertake a healthy self-

assessment. What was their capacity? What kinds

of human and financial resources did they have

and still need?

The perplexing nature of the situation on the

ground presented an immediate test to the relief

organizations. If there were 6,000 victims, they

needed to be ready at one level; if there were

3,000, a different level of response was required.

Thousands versus hundreds of injuries carried

different implications.

Who were the immediate clients? Who would

or should be secondary clients? If the primary

needs were those of people who had lost loved

ones, then the focus had to be in that direction.

However, if hundreds or thousands were ulti-

mately to be impacted economically, a different

clientele would emerge. Should the relief services

be provided only in the localities directly im-

pacted, or did the data suggest a wider need? What

would be the pattern of the emerging needs—

emotional? financial? educational?

The institutions also needed to assess them-

selves. How did their strengths fit with present

needs? How would their shortcomings be ex-

acerbated by the existing situation? In order to

evaluate both their current capacity and their ca-

pacity for growth, they had to determine their staffs’

strengths and capabilities This self-assessment also

needed to include an appraisal of the network of

potential services and service deliverers. How did

their capabilities fit with the community’s other

resources? What programs would be available

through governmental agencies? Did they need to

invent a new program, or would they be reinvent-

ing the proverbial wheel?

The Need for Coordination

If they did not wish to reinvent the wheel, the

relief organizations would have to coordinate with

one another and with other agencies. On the one

hand, they presumably did not want to duplicate

services. On the other hand, they also did not

want people’s needs to go unmet because of gaps

in service. These objectives were not always suc-

cessfully met. Sometimes services were duplicated,

and sometimes gaps in services meant that needs

were left unfulfilled. To minimize these possibi-

lities, extra coordination was going to be required.

As the situation evolved, it became even clearer

that coordination was key. Government officials

and those who were directly impacted were out-

spoken in their criticism of the lack of coordina-

tion. At times this was easier to point out than to

resolve. Not only was it necessary for people in the

organizations to talk, but their systems also had to

work together. This called for an entirely new level

of coordination.

The Need to Share Information

The events surrounding 9/11 raised the question of

whether relief organizations should share in-

formation they had traditionally seen as only their

own. This issue was not simply a matter of pro-

prietary self-interest; it also involved assumptions

(and sometimes promises) made concerning client

198 Consequences of Terrorism

confidentiality—for example, could such informa-

tion be passed from one organization to another?

Various groups had different information available

to them that could potentially lead to better and

more efficient service delivery. They might know,

for example, that a new walk-in clinic had been

established in a particular neighborhood. One or-

ganization might learn of a pocket of unmet needs,

while another might develop a new service (fi-

nancial planning, for example) that would be of

interest and use to many. Examples occurred of

one relief group saying that another organization

would provide a specific service when that was

not, in fact, what was planned.

Coordination of Communication

The relief organizations also found they had to

coordinate their communications to the public.

Sometimes inconsistent and even conflicting in-

formation was disseminated by different parties.

The confusing nature of the available information

was, of course, one of the contributing factors, but

when various organizations or people were pub-

licizing conflicting information, the confusion was

only heightened. At the same time, the prospect

of coordinating public statements was, for many

groups, a new and challenging concept.

While it did not usually appear necessary for

the organizations to speak with only one voice,

they had to at least be aware of what their collea-

gues had said or were going to say. Two different

organizations might spend time and resources

developing similar communication vehicles (bro-

chures for identical audiences, for example). Or-

ganizations working virtually side by side might

announce different hours of operation.

Sometimes a single voice was called for. For

example, the issue of confidentiality of records was

relevant to almost all of the organizations, as was

advocacy and appreciation of the work being done

by the relief groups. In these instances the relief

organizations had to stand together in their mes-


Communicating in a high risk environment is

an acknowledged art and science. As Joshua Got-

baum, former chief executive officer of the Sep-

tember 11 Fund, said, ‘‘When in the spotlight, use

it—or else’’ (Gotbaum, 2003). The relief organi-

zations needed to clearly appreciate the complexity

of the communication challenges.

The Need to Work With and Strengthen

Local Resources

It was immediately clear to many inside observers

that New York City and the Pentagon, for example,

had some outstanding resource specialists in place.

They knew their community and the people in it.

They knew local needs and neighborhood assets.

Furthermore, they were very likely to be there

when others would be long gone. The relief or-

ganizations thus had to quickly identify, work

with, and strengthen those local, on-the-ground


The requirement was twofold. The larger or-

ganizations responding to September 11 needed to

strengthen both their own local affiliates and the

other existing local service agencies. In fact, it

appeared that many services could be effectively

delivered and sustained only if the local resources

were primary. Obviously, those local assets were

often overwhelmed and welcomed the arrival of

help. Yet the long-term need had to be for all of

them to be reinforced rather than weakened, taken

over, or supplanted.

Smaller organizations moving into the areas

found a somewhat different challenge. Lacking ex-

isting local affiliates, these new arrivals had to find

local resources they could help to shore up. Some

called it the ‘‘swoop-in factor’’—the temptation for

organizations outside the impacted area to step in

and save the day by delivering services. Clearly, for

all, the fundamental principle was the long-term

enhancement of existing resources.

Risk Management

The need for risk management also emerges in a

crisis environment. Virtually every relief organi-

zation had to confront the risks they were tak-

ing with their services and their members. While

many of them were accustomed to this challenge in

natural disasters, certain dimensions of September

11 were different. For example, there was the early

temptation for some relief organization workers

and volunteers to rush to the disaster site, which

was still laden with physical risk. There was also

the danger of possible follow-up acts of terrorism

and the question of just where it was safe to be.

Moreover, it was unclear whether acts of terrorism

were covered by the same policies that covered

workers in natural disasters.

199The Response of Relief Organizations to Terrorist Attacks

With the wealth of spontaneous volunteers and

the demands of many workers, additional risks

included the degree to which traditional standards

and credentials needed to be maintained. For ex-

ample, the Red Cross had a long-standing policy

of using only mental health professionals whose

credentials had been closely examined in advance.

Could and should these same standards be main-

tained? Could the standards be better maintained

by changing the on-the-job requirements—for

example, requiring workers to work for shorter

lengths of time compared with more typical dis-

asters, thereby making it possible for more peo-

ple with appropriate credentials to work? Did

we even know for certain what kinds of interven-

tions were the most appropriate in this catastrophic


Because of the intense demand for services, it

was sometimes necessary to balance a desire to do

what seemed like the right thing with the risks of

actually doing it—perhaps ineffectively. For ex-

ample, should workers reach out and solicit an

opportunity to help by going door-to-door look-

ing for ‘‘victims’’? Was this professionally appro-

priate, and did it place the organization at risk?

Importantly, the Red Cross center was receiving

phone calls that indicated that people wanted

help but were unable to come to Red Cross super-

vised sites.

The Response

The events of September 11 brought to the fore-

front a multitude of organizations. Some were well

established, while others were newly formed. Al-

most all of them genuinely sought to help; a few

were purely opportunistic. Given the extensive

needs that were immediately apparent and emer-

ging, both traditional and newmethods of response

needed to be implemented by the relief organiza-


The American Red Cross had a unique posi-

tion and set of obligations. Its congressional

charter mandates that it provide relief to disaster

victims and help people prevent, prepare for, and

respond to emergencies. It is the agency selected

by the National Transportation and Safety Board

(NTSB) to provide assistance at aviation, trans-

portation, and mass casualty incidents—obviously

applicable on September 11. The Red Cross is also

the sole nonprofit agency that has been assigned

specific responsibilities in the Federal Response

Plan (FRP), which describes federal assistance in

any federally declared major disaster or emer-

gency. Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief

and Emergency Assistance Act, the Red Cross was

required to provide emergency shelter, food, emer-

gency first aid, disaster welfare information, and

the bulk distribution of emergency relief items and

to support information dissemination, planning,

health and medical services, and the bulk acqui-

sition of food.

Previously established relationships and formal

statements of understanding and letters of agree-

ment were very quickly activated by the nonprofit

organizations and the federal, state, and county

agencies. Because these agreements were estab-

lished in advance and described the parameters and

method of cooperation, it was much easier to im-

mediately set up liaisons, working relationships,

and information sharing. This cooperation helped

bring some order to the complex and chaotic cir-

cumstances occurring in New York, Washington,

and Pennsylvania.

As one example of multiagency activation,

at Boston Logan International Airport, the Logan

Massport Authority officials activated their aviation

response plan while the Red CrossMass Bay chapter

set up a family assistance center at the Logan Hilton

for approximately 78 Massachusetts families di-

rectly impacted by the crashes. Among the other

responding agencies were the state police, FBI,

Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains, the Mas-

sachusetts Department of Health, the Trauma

Center, the American Psychological Association

Disaster Response Network, the American Psy-

chiatric Association Disaster Network, area hospi-

tals, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Part of the success of the response in Boston

was due to the Logan Airport aviation incident

planning initiative and drill exercise sponsored

the previous year by Massport. Ten Red Cross

chapters had taken part in the exercise, nurturing

relationships with state agencies and private-sector

professional groups and providing an operational

context for mobilizing almost immediately. These

relationships also facilitated the necessary flex-

ibility to make changes as needed.

Well-established connections were expanded,

and new ones were created, ranging from the

National Organization f