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The only thing we have to fear is fear itself
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address.

And so it is today. Only the threat and the times differ. The irony is: what we do not know can hurt us. And the accomplished terrorist will be eager to teach us; indeed, he already has.

The bombing of the World Trade Center and its surroundings served notice that no one anywhere is completely safe from attack. The twin symbols of world trade supremacy were destroyed for the world to see on television.

One cannot know too much, but one can know too little.

Anthrax by mail proves that each of us is vulnerable biologically. During the three week period after 9/11, 22 people were infected with Anthrax. That only five died is a tribute to our "unprepared" medical community. Another perspective is that during that same period, some 2400 people died in traffic accidents. What magnified the bio-attack was the high profiles of the intended targets and the means of delivery.

Chemical terror in a Japanese subway showed that we are each in danger chemically as well.

In each bombing event, the eagerness of the media to report the news had one intended effect: scaring the wits out of readers and viewers. So there was plenty of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, to go around, especially among those who remained transfixed for hours watching the crashing towers and the Pentagon attack on TV.

We favor reporting, but we favor even more reporting in context. One context in each case was the profile; maximum effect was desired and maximum effect resulted.

Propaganda provides another means for disturbing one's morale and determination, but it is usually slow and subject to counter-propagandaexcept when the main event is on TV. Then, the rumor mills begin churning and the effect can be more devastating than deliberate propaganda could ever be. The PTSD incidence after the WTC bombing is a case in point, where a fraction of the populace was traumatized. The most valid study of PTSD after 9/11 indicates that PTSD incidence tripled among those transfixed by the incident.

For those on the firing line, it is very different. An effect not foreseen by the terrorists was the readiness of Americans to fight back. Flight 93 was a dramatic example of how Americans (indeed all people) react in the face of danger. The WTC evacuation stories further attest to the cool courage people display in the face of danger. Citizens decide for themselves what their values and risks are, and they do so in the instant.

For the longer term, one effective means to minimize fear is education. One such perspective is to remember that terror kills far fewer people annually than do automobile accidents or preventable illnesses.

Gavin De Becker has written two books we recommend. His first, Gift of Fear, provides a commonsense blend of explanation, empathy, and reassurance regarding the individual criminal (read terrorist) threat. His second book, Fear Less, provides tons of practical reassuring advice in this age of terror. We paraphrase pieces of his second book here:

The most effective element of security on airplanes is low-techregular citizens, p19.

We have absorbed and accepted many dangers already, being shot or killed in traffic for example, after we do our best to avoid them. We can do it again with terrorism, p24.

Does it make sense to worry about things beyond our control, when it is the things we can control that are most likely to kill us? p47.

We are safer now than we were before 9/11. p51

Respect your intuition, it is telling you something, p5 & p53.

In responding to your intuition, look for the risk, not its absence. You want to know what has real terror potential, not what doesn't. No one can guarantee your safety, but only you can look for risks, p67.

Check the accuracy of information, it may be extraneous, out of context, and harmfulpropaganda in effect, p109.

If you do encounter unsafe acts or unsafe conditions, take appropriate action, ch 7.

Be proactive in follow-up, p137-138.

Sort out the facts from the what-could-happens. Some politicians are particularly adept at using a "what-could-happen" to imply it surely will when in fact s/he actually has no clue, only an agenda, p144.

Focus on how to live, not on how to die, p154.

Remaining alert requires getting rest, p176.

If death is what you fear, then your perspective should be: drive carefully, eat a low-fat diet (predominantly vegetables, grains, nuts, and fruits) don't smoke, don't drink to excess, manage your weight, and exercise regularly, p 196.

(It also helps to form strong relationships with others.)

Children are a special concern; they are our present and our future, and they are impressionable. For more on how to talk to them, see: Talking to kids. Having little ready context, children are especially susceptible to dramatic news stories.

Developing perspective may be your best cognitive defense against psychological terror. Think about what is really happening in the context of all other happenings. Remember, you are multiples more likely to use what you know to help an accident victim or save yourself from assault than you are to encounter a direct terrorist threat. You are multiples more likely to be killed by an American criminal than you are by an Islamic terrorist. In either event you can be ready.

Another technique is to be your own person; think about the context of what you see or are told. What other sides or views might be possible? What is left unsaid? Remember too that most politicians are consummate propagandists; very very few show elements of statesmanship.

Finally, we live in an age of religious tension, especially among the three monotheistic systems. Each is being subverted. Becoming your own person may take some work. Being receptive helps. Engaging in Dialogue facilitates independent thinking.

Things you can do immediately may be found on our Counter Terror and Solutions pages. Our page on Hope provides some positive perspective for our lives and times. Read it carefully. Some of these can give you perspective and facilitate your response to an unexpected situation.

For researching the scope and usefulness of psychology in your daily life, visit:

Alienation Test
Discovering Psychology
Psych Web

On the society/diplomatic level, more than the above is needed. Learning what makes the terrorist tick psychologically will allow us to find effective counter terror methods. As part of that we must consider, how our actions will play into the hands of the terrorists by:

  • overreacting,
  • using the wrong tools,
  • continuing to dehumanize those making up cultures more conservative and less modern than ours,
  • ignoring the historic antipathy toward democratic ideas by the nations of Islam,
  • restricting the liberty of the free, and
    not realizing why and how terrorists are radicalized in the first place.

Turning these negatives into positives will take empathy, which simply means feeling with the other person or group, understanding his/her psyche, and how it got that way. Empathy comes naturally to many people; most of them are women! For the rest of us, it may take some degree of dedicated practice.

Empathy does NOT mean sympathy. These words are vastly different. Empathy leads to understanding the game, not approving how it is played. To sympathize is to join in the terror. Arrogance fails miserably in endless battles--Palestine is a case in point.

With understanding comes control. These psychological overtones especially, but the spiritual ones also, are new issues in diplomacy. So far we have managed to play into the "psychological diplomacy" of bin Laden. We have adopted an inflexible and polarizing "either or" response at an added cost of a billion dollars per week and counting. All this while Washington is in denial.

For those doing serious research on the origins of terror, visit:
Psychology of Terror


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