The passage of time has not really dulled our emotional reactions to the deadly terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. We remember exactly where we were on that beautiful fall morning. We have vivid recollections of a plane flying into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. We still wonder how this could have happened. And we worry about the next attack—for ourselves; for our children, for our family and friends.
We must remember and honor all who lost their lives on that September morning. Without doubt, many of these people were true heroes. Each had a very valuable life, and none deserved to die when they did.
Again this year, the media have recounted the development of Al-Qaeda, the subsequent events leading up to the attacks on 9-11, and blow-by-blow accounts of the attacks themselves. This reporting is very factual and compelling. It provides viewers with an understanding of the social and cultural upheavals that led to Jihad, how the attacks were organized and executed by Al-Qaeda, etc. But, at another level, this reporting really is incomplete, and actually quite empty.
Next to nothing is said about the psychology and emotion associated with terrorism itself: What is terrorism? What is its purpose? How does it affect those who are targeted? How can we mitigate its effects? The current reporting fails to recognize that we must understand the psychology of terrorism very well if we actually are to respond effectively to it.
Terrorism is an extreme form of psychological warfare. By design, it is unpredictable, sudden, and devastating. It is an extreme effort to frighten and incapacitate people through identification with those who are maimed or killed in the attack. Because of our instant and ubiquitous communication media, the searing visual images of a terrorist attack can play a very large role in its psychological and emotional effects. Witness the video images of the Twin Towers or the Pentagon on 9-11.
\The purpose of terrorism is not to kill all people in the target population, but rather to frighten them extremely so that they become incapacitated. When this happens, those affected have a reduced capacity to fulfill their day-to-day roles: they function less effectively at work, reduce their participation in the community, and generally withdraw from their typical engagements. The clear presumption is that when people are frightened in an extreme way, then they will be afraid to act, and our society will suffer.
The fright engendered by terrorism has a range of psychological effects on those who are targeted. Some people become hypo-active; they freeze and are unable to act. Others become hyper-active; they are able to act with remarkable speed, but they make a greater number of errors in their actions. Yet other people continue with their routine activities. We just now are beginning to understand these different reactions. Clearly, these different responses are very important. For example, if a terrorist attack occurs, what type of person do we want in charge of a nuclear power plant?
As we develop more knowledge about how people respond to terrorist attacks, a key issue is how we can reduce the fright-flight response and the post-traumatic stress reactions that are very likely to accompany it. Work in this area is in its infancy and must be encouraged. Tragically, we are learning most about PTSD from our veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.