Psychological stakes raised by repeat attacks


July 22, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Terrorism specialists have always dreaded incidents like yesterday's bombings in London: back-to-back attacks designed to ratchet up the public's fears.

The psychological impact of repeat attacks on the same target, analysts said, makes it even more important for government officials to do all they can to keep people calm. It also increases the need for a psychological counterattack, aimed at young recruits who might be tempted by terrorist incidents to join an extremist group, they said.

"It's going to make it harder to get back on the bus tomorrow," said retired Army Col. David McIntyre, who heads a homeland security center at Texas A&M University. "The key here is to make sure people will get back on the bus tomorrow. The repetition [of the attacks] makes it more difficult."

Repeated strikes could break Britain's resolve, analysts said, so government officials must work even harder to combat the psychological impact of the attacks and their aftershocks.

Within hours of the latest incident, British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered a message of continuity to his country.

"We are back to business," he said.

But those who study terrorism say that blunting the psychological impact of a strike must begin well before the bombs go off. In the United States, they say, that translates too often into a simple but contradictory message: The threat alert has gone up, but citizens should still go out and shop.

"It's a schizophrenic message, if you look at it from a psychological point of view, to be told that we're all in danger but there's nothing we can do about it," said Brian Jenkins, who has analyzed terrorism for three decades and directs the National Transportation Security Center in California.

Instead, what is needed is a sustained public education campaign, said Stephen Flynn, a security analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of America the Vulnerable.

Fear of terrorism, Flynn said, "is directly related to a level of ignorance and a sense of hopelessness and inability to control events." Education, he said, is the antidote.

In Israel, which has coped for years with repeated attacks, lessons about biological and chemical attacks are part of the elementary school curriculum. The Israeli government also runs television announcements reminding people to watch out for suspicious activity and explosives in public areas.

The United States has done relatively little to instruct ordinary people about different kinds of attacks and how to respond, several analysts said.

For example, McIntyre said, many people do not know that that if a bomb goes off, they should get far away from windows because a second explosion can shatter them.

People need to become "risk-savvy," Jenkins said.

An American, he noted, has a 1-in-9,000 chance of dying in an auto accident and a 1-in-18,000 chance of being murdered. By contrast, the chance of dying in a terrorist attack is 1 in hundreds of thousands, or even millions.

Getting ordinary people involved in fighting terrorism is another crucial part of any strategy to combat fear, Jenkins said.

If people are told to watch for suspicious packages, they also need to know how to notify authorities. And when someone makes such a call, authorities need to follow up in a way that lets the person who reported it know that the report was taken seriously, he said.

Countering the psychological impact of terrorism also extends to aspiring militants.

It is crucial to break the cycle of those who go from "sympathizer to activist to one willing to take their own and other people's lives," said Frank Ciluffo, a former White House homeland security aide.

One answer includes public outreach to Muslims in the United States and overseas, along with efforts to convince would-be militants that launching a murderous strike isn't glamorous, he said.

Western governments need to find better ways of persuading moderate Muslims to isolate extremists in their midst by using messengers whom Muslims trust, analysts said.

Jenkins said a shift in thinking by U.S. government officials is also needed.

Stopping attacks requires more than trying to kill or capture the attackers, he said. It also means finding ways to induce defections and to discourage potential recruits.

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