National Security

The Psychology of Terrorism, and How Our Enemies Win

“For the terrorist mission to be achieved—the goal of striking fear in society—the terrorist attack must be abhorrent, violent, and brutal…”

“It’s important to understand that terrorism is psychological warfare,” says Edward Orehek, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Terrorism is an effort to reach political objectives by inspiring fear. Yet terrorists aim not only to kill but also to disrupt ordinary life. Are they succeeding?

Many pundits try to gauge the public mood after an attack, and it often seems that one’s guess is as good as another’s. Is the citizenry defiant, resigned, or intimidated? Terrorists choose their targets not based on military or political importance, but rather emotional and visceral impact. If there is no emotional response, terrorism cannot achieve its desired outcomes.

These events are felt around the world as images and videos of the aftermath pour through mass communication channels. Pictures of the aftermath of bombings and other atrocities are rarely absent from the media. The major outlets will always report extensively on any terrorist incident, and one can easily spend several hours a day watching, reading, and listening to wall-to-wall coverage. The success of a terrorist attack is wholly dependent on the media showing the images, giving the attack a worldwide venue. In such a context, it would be natural to expect that the fear and threat of terrorism would have a crippling psychological effect on society.

Psychological Toll

This exposure can significantly influence your worldviews and how you live your life. There are notable behavioral and psychological changes among both victims and observers of terrorist actions. The extreme trauma of a terrorist attack like the one recently in London can take a widespread psychological toll on victims, relatives, and even distant observers.

Fear changes behavior, at least for a little while. Fear is a natural response to events like the attacks in New York, Boston, London, Paris, Nice, Berlin, or Brussels. While everyone feels and reacts to fear differently, it can push people to make different decisions about employment, who to socialize with, using public transportation such as buses and trains, congregating in public and crowded places, and traveling on airplanes.

The aftermath of a terrorist attack causes people to feel more vulnerable. Society, feeling more at risk, will call for harsher and stronger responses to ensure safety and security. As cities go on alert because of the threat of attacks, real or imagined, fear can color our daily routines and world views. That puts governments in a tricky position of balancing the public’s need for information with the very real possibility of reinforcing terrorists’ goals of spreading fear.

Forcing people or government to overreact, suppressing the rights of a class of individuals in an attempt to do something, can very easily cause even greater harm. Moving against a class of people with harsher restrictions and increased scrutiny will disenfranchise them and may very well strengthen their acceptance of the terrorist ideal.

Changes in Beliefs

To the extent that terrorists use violence to elicit a strong emotional and psychological response, they’re effective at the most basic level in inducing mental anguish and affecting some behaviors and beliefs.

Psychological impacts aren’t limited strictly to victims. Social scientists have been studying how terrorist attacks shape our feelings, and also how those feelings shape our attitudes.

A 2013 study published in Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences looked at the long-lasting emotional toll of the 2004 Beslan massacre, in which the Islamic Chechen terrorists took an entire school hostage—a tragedy that ended in the deaths of 385 people. Victims, relatives, and others emotionally connected to a highly traumatic event suffered severe emotional anguish. In particular, fundamental beliefs they once held changed. For example, researchers found that among adults, “beliefs in meaningfulness and benevolence of the world were destroyed.”

When a sudden, violent attack has no reasonable motivation, how do people cope? With the realization that such attackers could strike again, without warning, how does one continue to live beyond the specter of fear? Psychological panic (fear, hysteria, terror) is more likely, and its intensity will vary according to the level of uncertainty about the scope of the attack, its duration, the degree, and who was responsible.

After the news that at least one of the Paris suspects in the Bataclan attack entered France as a Syrian refugee, growing concerns about terrorism increased suspicion and even intolerance directed at migrants, refugees, and Muslims. Governors from many US states expressed opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their respective states—basically “not in my backyard.”

For the individual and the community, terrorism can quickly erode a sense of security and safety. Extremist actions can lead to dramatic reactions. It is not surprising, then, that public attitudes and evaluations shift when a terrorist threat is more prominent in the news. When terrorism strikes or a threat is evident, people become less trusting of others, even their own neighbors. They express less favorable attitudes toward immigrants. In particular, they become less supportive of the rights of Arab and Muslim Americans.

For the terrorist mission to be achieved—the goal of striking fear in society—the terrorist attack must be abhorrent, violent, and brutal. As is natural with human behavior and psychology, memories fade, and victims rebound. The terrorist understands this and increases the frequency of the attacks. Never letting the victims (the targeted ideology) recover is a means to enhance the effect of the terror attack and in turn the long-lasting psychological impact.

Reactions to traumatic events, however, are complicated. Everyone looks to reestablish a sense of security in different ways, and this can often result in affected individuals and observers coming together. Natural human resilience ensures that life will go on. Terror, however, always demands a toll.

Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is an OpsLens contributor, a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. She has conducted seminars and workshops for many Department of Army commands, plus many non-profit and community associations. She served as a translator and liaison for American, British, French, and German civilian/military communities in Berlin and Helmstedt, Germany.

Academically, Dr. Harris holds a Bachelor of Science in Management Studies from The University of Maryland European Division, a Master of Arts in International Relations from Boston University, and a Doctorate in Education from Rowan University with an emphasis in leadership and higher education in a global context.

Dr. Katherine Harris

Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is an OpsLens contributor, a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. She has conducted seminars and workshops for many Department of Army commands, plus many non-profit and community associations. She served as a translator and liaison for American, British, French, and German civilian/military communities in Berlin and Helmstedt, Germany. Academically, Dr. Harris holds a Bachelor of Science in Management Studies from The University of Maryland European Division, a Master of Arts in International Relations from Boston University, and a Doctorate in Education from Rowan University with an emphasis in leadership and higher education in a global context.

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