An apt response from Londoners
So, dear reader, we are now at the end of our long series of posts on the dangers of overreacting to terrorism. While its existence is grotesque, it kills relatively few people and has limited scope to increase that number. It is not a civilisational threat like fascism or communism. Instead, it is merely an unusually malicious form of criminality. By treating it as a more severe issue than it really is, we not only worsen the problem itself, but also create a host of additional problems like the loss of civil liberties or a greater risk of war between states.
What I have not addressed up till now is that it is easier to recognise logically that there is an extremely low likelihood of you or anyone you know being harmed by terrorism, than it is to feel that. David Spiegelhalter, a Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, has written that it feels inappropriate to compare the probability of terrorist attacks with other equally unlikely events because:
terrorism presses many of the buttons that psychologists have identified as features of “dread” risks: we feel out-of-control, it affects the vulnerable, and we have seen media coverage of the consequences resulting in a strong sense of “outrage”.
Cass Sunstein, a senior advisor to Obama, claims that people display “probability neglect” when confronted with vivid images of terrorism, so that:
when their emotions are intensely engaged, people’s attention is focused on the bad outcome itself, and they are inattentive to the fact that it is unlikely to occur”. So the “true” risks are ignored: it’s been shown that people are, rather illogically, willing to pay more for insurance against terrorism than insurance against all risks, just because the use of the word conjures up dread.
How are we to avoid this trap? How can we take charge of our emotions?
1. Turn off the TV
In an article for Berkley University’s Wellness Magazine, the clinical director of their anxiety centre suggests that:
one problem contributing to our fears is that we’re exposed to too many triggers—words and images that appear on TV or social media—that can make us anxious…If you always have the news on, your mind stays on constant alert. Regular exposure to images makes it feel as though the event is happening more frequently, and we’re retraumatized each time we see them. I believe that much of our anxiety comes from this nonstop access to information we’re all flooded with.
Therefore, she recommends that we:
Turn off the TV, meditate, or go for a walk in the neighbourhood…Do something calming and soothing to activate a different part of your brain.
I think part of the problem is that we consider terrorist attacks to be highly important events and therefore feel the need to scrutinise what is happening. Given that attacks tend to become a big part of our national conversation, it is probably true that you need to know the basics, but once you have got those, feel free to tune out. In particular, you should not feel the need to wallow in harrowing images or alarmist punditry.
2. Do not reward people who magnify the threat of terrorism
If a TV station is producing lots of lurid and sensationalist coverage of attacks (real or potential) then you should turn it off. Programmers know that coverage of terrorism is emotionally compelling and their reasons for producing so much of it are, at least partially, commercial. We should start giving them an incentive to act more responsibly by not watching. Better still, write to explain why you turned off.
The same goes for politicians who hype up terrorist groups. That is not only bad in itself but also indicates a lack of judgement and a tendency to get carried away. Use your vote and your financial contributions to indicate that you expect better from your leaders.
3. Take only proportionate precautions
Last year, the US State Department responded to a series of terrorist attacks in Europe by advising Americans visiting the continent to, among other things, “avoid crowded places.” The advisory does not narrow that warning by place or type of gathering. Apparently entering any crowd anywhere in Europe is too great a risk. The State Department might as well have also advised American tourists in Europe to carry an umbrella to guard against meteorite strikes!
Making substantial changes to your behaviour to reduce small risks is not only unnecessary and inconvenient, but also liable to accentuate your distress. Robert L. Leahy, a Psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written in Psychology Today that:
I live and work in New York City, and after 9/11 many people were afraid that there would be another devastating attack. However, for almost everybody I know, these fears decreased over the following months. The more you normalize your life the more normal you will feel. The more you avoid situations that make you anxious the longer you will stay anxious.
I’m not a psychologist but I gather they generally take a dim view of avoidance. It is a shame that where terrorism is concerned many public authorities actively recommend it. If they do, you should ignore it.
4. Laugh at terrorists
I have not seen Four Lions, Chris Morris’ comedy about a group of wannabe suicide bombers, who are barely competent enough to make a martyrdom video. However, the approach seems like a good one. It’s certainly preferable, and closer to the truth, than the likes of Homeland and 24, that depict Islamist terrorist groups as implausibly nefarious and sophisticated. Deflating the pretensions of terrorist groups seems not only bad for them, but good for our psychic well-being.
5. Befriend the other
It’s a lot easier not to be scared of the Muslim guy next to you on the plane or the train, if you actually know some Muslims. They will make the fact that not all Muslims are terrorists appropriately vivid to you.
6. Do not use your social media to amplify the impact of terrorist attacks
As soon as an apparently noteworthy terrorist attack happens, it will start showing up in my social media feeds. People will start posting messages like “I hope all my friends in Istanbul are safe” or “solidarity with the people of Brussels”. Facebook will turn on its ‘safety check’ feature. After the attack in Westminster Bridge earlier this year, I saw several friends who live and work in London but miles away from the site of the attack turning it on. At some point, if the attack is horrendous enough, then the option to overlay your profile picture with a symbol of solidarity will present itself. After the killings in the Bataclan, you could turn yourself into the colours of the French tricolour. After the shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, it was the rainbow flag. Then people start opining on what the attack proves, which generally happens to be exactly what they already thought before it happened.
There may be admirable impulses behind this behaviour, but it’s profoundly unhelpful, as it serves to disseminate news about attacks and spread the anxiety that comes with them. Just like conventional media coverage of attacks, discussion of them on social media makes the groups behind them seem more formidable (and therefore more appealing to potential recruits). And even if you are writing a post connecting a place to terrorism in order to show solidarity, that is still helping to forge a mental connection in some minds between that place and terrorism, and as we saw in the previous post that’s liable to damage its tourist industry.
If there is a legitimate question about your safety, then feel free to assure people that you are alright. Otherwise do not post about terrorists.
Indeed, let that be our general rule of thumb: to the extent you can reasonably ignore terrorism, you should ignore terrorism.
A few words of conclusion
Unless something comes up – perhaps a particularly incisive comment that needs responding to – this is the end of this series of posts.
You can find the previous parts here.
The idea that I might write a blog post about how the fear of terrorism has become more dangerous than terrorism itself, first occurred to me over a year ago. It went through numerous actual drafts and many more mental ones. During that process it split, initially, into two posts and by the end, into five. The completed series is now longer than at least one dissertation I’ve written!
So, if you’ve read all (or even just part) of it, then thank you for sticking with me. I hope I’ve repaid your time.
Please also spare a thought for my friend Aaren Tucker. If you have noticed fewer missing words and malapropisms on the blog of late, then she is the one you should thank. She has proof read and edited all this monster series of posts, as well as a number of other recent entries on the blog. Of course, any mistakes remain my responsibility.