Friday, July 20, 2007

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself?

Suppose that you get up in the morning, see the wonderful sunrise and amble downstairs to the kitchen for your first cup of hot coffee. You sit down at the kitchen table and start reading the newspaper, and this is what you read:

Nearly six years after the United States set out to crush Al Qaeda, the terrorist network has "regenerated key elements" of its ability to attack targets in America, and is intensifying its efforts to put operatives inside the country, according to a sobering new report released today from U.S. intelligence agencies.

The document warns that the United States is "in a heightened threat environment" because Osama bin Laden and other senior leaders of Al Qaeda have taken advantage of a more secure environment in their hiding places in remote Pakistan to reestablish their leadership of the far-flung network and refocus its energies on striking the United States.

The report also concludes that Al Qaeda "will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities" of its violent offshoot organization in Iraq, where the war has given a new generation of operatives lethal experience and helped the broader organization raise money and recruit.

What emotions would all that elicit in you? My guess is that the average reader (not a political geek) would feel fear laced with some anger. A 2005 article by Paul Vallely, written after the London bombings, addresses the psychology of terrorism and especially the reactions it hopes to elicit in the real objects of the attacks: the survivors:

Terrorism works not just by instilling fear in us, but by inducing a sense of helplessness. That is why its violence is random. Indeed, the more indiscriminate it is in selecting its defenceless victims, the better it suits the terrorists' purpose.

Outrages take us into mental territory which is beyond our normal comprehension. And the sheer irrationality of this psychology of fear makes it hard for us to construe what is happening around us.


Psychologists talk here of the "anticipatory anxiety" as the population waits for the next bomb to go off. They add in the notion of the "learned helplessness" as we come to terms with the fact that there is nothing or very little we can do to stop it. A profound sense of loss of control results. And control, according to Joanna Bourke, is a key ingredient in combating fear.


Intriguingly, what in the United States came to be called 11 September syndrome was not something which affected those directly involved in the trauma. Rather it affected people across America, in epidemic numbers, and was most prevalent among those who had remained transfixed to their television sets for hours, watching the towers crash over and over again. If the propaganda value of 9/11 was immense, the response of a TV-addicted nation made it even more so. "If there were no television the terrorists wouldn't bother," ventures Dr Reddy. Terrorists want a lot of people watching, more than a lot of people dead.

Helplessness, anticipatory anxiety, the role of the television in spreading what I think amounts to a national post-traumatic stress disorder. Hmm. Is the U.S. media perhaps doing the work for the terrorists here, quite without intending to do so? And what is the role of the Bush administration in reducing the fear that terrorists wish us to feel?

This may be a good place for that old quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt about fear, especially as the above psychological musings set it into sharp contrast with the way we are reacting today:

This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Cross-posted on the TAPPED blog.