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Terrorism - The Psychological Response

An article By Terence T. Gorski

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Published On: September 12, 2001          Updated On: September 13, 2001
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

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Terrorism - The Psychological Response
By Terence T. Gorski
September 12, 2001

The terrorist attacks of September11. 2001 will permanently burn themselves into the psyche of all Americans, both personally and collectively.  The magnitude of the damage done at  the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is beyond imagination.  It is truly an unspeakable act of violence.  The magnitude of the violence and the blatant demonstration of raw evil is simply too great for the individual human consciousness to grasp.  Our mind and our spirit simply cannot assimilate and integrate the true horror and meaning of this act - and what the human mind cannot assimilate it rejects or destroys.  

Rejection of the Truth

On an individual basis, rejection of the terrorist truth triggers individual avoidance, denial, minimization, rationalization, blame, and abdication of personal responsibility.  

First we avoid the truth.  We see but we can't comprehend.  We want to turn away.  We don't want to think about it!  We don't want to get involved in it.  We want it all to go away.  So we say to ourselves -  I'll think about something else, anything else to keep my mind off of the horror and the deep reflection of what this horror means.

When we can't avoid a horrible truth, we deny it.   "No not me!  I'm not involved!  I'm not affected!  It won't affect me or my family!  In a few days it will be business as usual."  But soon the rippling of the horror and it's deadly personal, social, economic, and cultural consequences begin seeping through the denial.

As the human mind struggles to comprehend and overwhelming truth the normal tendency is to minimize it - to scale the horror down to size; to break it down into bite sized chunks that can be absorbed.  So our brain begins spitting messages like this.  "Alright.  This terrorist attack was frightening.  But it's over!  It was horrible, yes, but it really wasn't that bad.  It affected a lot of people, but not me personally.  It could be worse, and because it could be worse it's not really a problem."

As it becomes impossible to minimize the death of tens of thousands of people of innocent people.  As the image of bodies of men, women, and children being taken from the carnage registers , we start to rationalize.  There must be a good reason for this.  There has to be good reason!  We search for meaning and as we search, it leads us to the spiritual depths of our soul.  

If we can't stay centered in the depth of our spirit, our rationalization can easily become fueled with anger and rage.  Then can start to blame.  We need a target!  We need a victim!  We need a ritual act of sacrificial violence to free us from our sense of helplessness, vulnerability, and loss.  We assert:  "It's not my fault!  Someone else is responsible!  I'll make them pay!"

Abdication Of Responsibility

When the horror is overwhelming, it's easy to abdicate personal responsibility.   There must be someone more qualified to cope with this than I am!  I don't need to be involved.  As long as I'll be safe and the perpetrator will be punished I'll go along and do what I'm told.  So it becomes easy to detach and do nothing, or to comply and become an unthinking part of a choreographed social response.

Giving In To Emotional Drivers

Seething beneath the surface of the rational search for meaning is a churning sense of fear and anger.  When we let the fear overwhelm us, we tend to either seek out a powerful protector and enslave ourselves in exchange for protection or become immobilized, isolated, and withdrawn.  When we let the anger overwhelm us, we seek vengeance in the name of justice and become willing to inflict violence on others in the name of punishment.  So loss of control of fear and anger become critical dangers.

The Critical Dangers

The two critical dangers that  people face as a result of terrorism are fear-based responses that motivate us to trade our rights for protection, and anger-based responses that motivate us to  seek vengeance.  

Fear-based responses motivate us to trade our rights for protection

Fear-based behavior is the first critical danger in responding to overwhelming crisis.  Out of fear we seek to protect ourselves and those we love.  We seek blindly for a life-line that we can use to drag ourselves back into a safe harbor.  We look for a hero - a rescuer that can save us and protect us.  And then we become vulnerable - vulnerable to the false promise of security in an ever changing world where life itself is conditional and the brief flame of our existence can be snuffed out in a flicker of time by the roar of a jet engine and the crumbling of high rise towers.

We want to be rescued and we become willing to pay for that rescue.  If a strong leader steps up and promises us protection, we want to believe him or her, and we often do.  But there's always a price, and because we're scared, we become willing to pay almost any price.  So we knuckle down, accept increased security, give up our civil rights in exchange for protection and wonder why we still don't feel safe.

Anger-based responses that motivate us to  seek vengeance

Anger-based behavior is the second critical danger in responding to overwhelming crisis.  Fear can easily be transformed into anger.  Anger can be channeled into blame.  Blame can to easily escalate into vengeance.   We can convince ourselves that the punishment of the perpetrators will somehow restore our losses.  If we give in to vengeance and seek eye-for-an-eye retribution we become part of the problem of escalating violence.  They hurt us, we hurt them, then they try to hurt us worse.  The cycle goes on in an endlessly.

Staying Centered & Seeking To Do What's Right

In response to any overwhelming crisis, especially the crisis of terrorism the civilized response, the mentally healthy response, is to stay centered and connected with higher values.  When we are centered we can keep our priorities in mind:  First, stay alive and survive.  Second, help others to stay alive and survive.  Third, contain the immediate crisis so that it doesn't spread.  Fourth, and most important, take action to restrain the perpetrators for committing future terrorist acts.  This action, however, must be done with a commitment to use minimal force needed to end the threat.  

It is important not to give into fear and abdicate our responsibility to act responsibly protect ourselves, our families, our communities, and our nation.  It's also not to give into anger and turn ourselves over to the search for vengeance which can easily lead to a state of national war frenzy.  All too often those who seek vengeance become what they are seeking to destroy.

All too often 
those who seek vengeance 
become what they are seeking to destroy.

Instead, we need to stay centered and connected with the God of our understanding.  We need a strong commitment to seek and do what is right.  We need the courage to look into the pit of evil and face down the beast of violence.  But we must do so from the position of the moral high ground.   We must protect ourselves, our families, and our way of life.  It is critically important that we do so without becoming the perpetrators of the same form of violence that was inflicted upon us.  

 

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