Responses to Terrorism in the United States
The targets of terrorist attacks are multiple and diverse. This fact constitutes an advantage for terrorists, because it is one facet of the uncertainty on which they capitalize—where and when will an attack occur and what kind of attack will it be? Some targets of terrorist attacks are human beings themselves, for example, assassinations, the bombing of large human assemblies, and biological and chemical poisoning and contamination. Others do not attack humans at all but aim to disrupt some vital economic or institutional functioning, for example, disruption of financial institutions or computer networks. No matter what the attack, however, there is always a human response to it. In this chapter we summarize much of what is known about these responses from research in the behavioral and social sciences.
ANTICIPATION, PREVENTION, PREPAREDNESS, AND WARNING
Throughout its history, the American nation has been relatively free from anxieties about attacks on its homeland, except for a few wartime situations (including the cold war). The “age of terrorism,” however, with us for some time but dramatically imposed by the events of September 11, has led to a heightening of multifaceted anxiety. This is especially difficult to dispel, largely because of the irreducible quotient of uncertainty involved. A condition of high anxiety, moreover, leaves a population skittish and prone to extreme reactions, mainly rumors and exaggerated fears.
Preventive measures may be sought at five points in the
terrorist process: (a) long-term efforts to modify the demographic, economic, political, and cultural background of terrorism; (b) prevention at the source, that is, by seeking out and disrupting terrorist activities—in the present case, in staging areas in the several countries that knowingly harbor terrorists and to some extent in countries that do not wish them there; (c) prevention at the end of the line, by erecting defenses at the locus of known or conceivable targets, such as dams, public buildings, mass assemblages of people, and so on; (d) along the way between source and event, by controlling the movements of people and weapons at the national borders and other points of entry; and (e) after an attack, by having in place a response-and-recovery apparatus that will minimize its effects.
A few comments on the middle three measures are in order. On one hand, the attractiveness of the at-the-source alternative is that, if successful, it prevents all sorts of terrorism. On the other hand, intelligence and military operations of this sort are very costly and constitute a significant drain on the nation’s resources; it is also impossible to ensure that eradication efforts will ever approach anything like completeness, given the secrecy and mobility of terrorists and their networks. In addition, even if eradicated, terrorist activities and organizations can regrow. Finally, aggressive ferreting poses certain perils of unilateralism and the peeling away of allies and friends if the pursuit appears to them to be too aggressive.
The attractiveness of along-the-way strategies is similar in that they intercept persons with a possible diversity of purposes, but in this case as well, both the cost and the impossibility of completeness are evident, given the mass movement of things and people that global commerce and tourism entails. The attractiveness of the end-of-the-line strategy is security but, given the multiplicity of targets and the adaptive capacity of terrorists to change them and invent new ones, it also raises the questions of cost and the impossibility of completeness. Considerations of strategic prudence and the force of national public opinion probably dictate that the country will pursue all three lines of prevention.
Preparedness for attacks should be organized at two levels—responsible authorities and the general population. At the level of government and community officials, preparation should be both exhaustive and contingent—anticipating every kind of
attack, understanding the probable ripple effects, thinking in terms of multiple attacks, preparing proper responses for agents who give out information in crisis situations, detailing the roles of first-line response agencies such as police and rescue agencies, and developing a whole range of backup responses to contain damage and minimize future damage. These measures will also call for new levels of cooperation among government, the media, schools, businesses, hospitals, churches, and other types of organizations, as well as households. Applied research, conducted in advance, on all these aspects of preparedness is necessary.
At the level of the populace the effort is both educational and instructional. As much unambiguous information as possible should be disseminated about the nature of different kinds of attacks—information that is clear, placed in context, repeated, and authoritative (Mileti et al., 1990). Training and drills for behavioral responses for each generally increase the sense of mastery and reduce anxiety before the attack and reduce both chaos and human death and suffering in the event of attack. Readiness and preparedness involve a number of delicate equilibria, however. If attacks do not occur for a long period of time, public apprehension diminishes and knowledge about responding properly erodes. Recall the high-profile, sometimes hysterical movement to protect against fallout in the wake of a nuclear attack in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite encouragement by both government and the media, only 1 in every 100,000 people actually built some sort of fallout shelter (New York Times, “Week in Review,” Dec. 23, 2001, p. 12). The desired equilibrium is to keep public consciousness high without whipping up public anxiety. Overtraining and overdrilling, moreover, can generate public indifference, irritability, and criticism of responsible authorities.
Warning systems also create a delicate balance. Authorities should strive to make warnings free from ambiguity, directed to all those at risk (wherever they may be), and communicated through multiple channels (public warning devices such as sirens, radio, television, and Internet) (National Science and Technology Council, 2000). False alarms and misdirection of warnings to people not at risk, however, tend to generate public apathy and hostility (Dow and Cutter, 1998).
DISASTER-LIKE RESPONSES TO ATTACKS
Behavioral and social science research carried out mainly, but not exclusively, during World War II (U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, 1947) and the civil defense era of the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., Wallace, 1956) yields a reliable store of knowledge about behavior during and after disaster situations. We detail below a typical scenario:
An initial response of disbelief, denial, and emotional numbing.
A wildfire spread of information, both factual and fictional (mainly rumors) as a part of the process of comprehending and assigning meaning to the events; much of this is by word-of-mouth and telephone (if possible), but over time the mass media have taken over a decisive role in the structuring of cognitive and emotional reactions.
The appearance of a mix of intense emotional reactions, including fear, anxiety, and terror, as well as rage, guilt, grief, and serious mental disturbances in a small proportion of the affected population; some research (Wolfenstein, 1957) indicates that many of the extreme reactions occur among individuals already suffering from mental disorders.
The occurrence of a mix of collective behavior reactions, such as rare episodes of collective panic (Quarentelli, 1977), rapid movement of people in an effort to join and help loved ones, some disorganized behavior, and some “derived” behaviors, such as looting and crime in the context of a temporary breakdown of social order. Research on hurricane disasters has shown that, even when warned, households make their own assessments of risk and actively decide whether or not to evacuate, depending on such factors as level of risk perceived, job circumstances, concern for personal property, and family situation (Dow et al., 1999; Dow and Cutter, 2000).
A rush to the scene of a disaster (“convergence effect”) of agencies formally designated to respond to crisis situations (police, firefighters, and military personnel, as well as rescue and relief agencies), along with individual and group rescue activities; at the same time, the occurrence of failures of communica-
tion and coordination in these responses, as well as some conflict and jurisdictional squabbling among the agencies. One of the most common vulnerabilities of responses to disaster is the uncertainty of mission and communication among different response agencies (Tierney et al., 2001:47-54).
The development of a notable social solidarity, including a pulling-together of the affected community to respond to the crisis; altruistic and heroic behavior; an increase in trust of other individuals, groups, and authorities; an augmented spirit of cooperation and good will; and the spread of euphoric feelings as a kind of collective offset to the negative emotional responses.
The simultaneous appearance of scapegoating reactions, directed primarily at individuals believed to be responsible for permitting the disaster to occur and for failures in responding to the crisis.
A gradual return to the routine and the normal, including the management and diminution of intense affective reactions by way of adaptive processes akin to mourning; the restoration and recreation of broken social ties, a return to familiar rounds of activities, and the completion of recovery and reconstruction efforts.
In the aftermath of the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001, every one of these ingredients appeared. Yet limited comfort can be taken from these observations and insights, because the contemporary terrorist situation, as it has evolved, does not correspond to “normal” disaster reactions. It is more complex than these, calling for a correspondingly increased complexity in efforts to comprehend and respond to it.
To begin with the most basic differences, terrorism involves intended and manipulated disasters, as contrasted with acts of God and accidental misfirings in complex systems of industrial, transportation, and economic organizations. This element of deliberateness, moreover, involves maximizing the surprise, uncertainty, novelty, and diversity of assaults, thus limiting the effectiveness of discrete efforts to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to single types of terrorist attacks. The contemporary terrorist situation thus dictates that one abandon any conception that there is a single and unified disaster syndrome and incorporate complexity, contingency, and continual adaptation and revision of thinking about, readying for, and preventing terrorist events and situations.
As we now understand it, terrorism involves great variations along the following, overlapping lines:
Discrete types of targets, including buildings, food and water supplies, electrical and other energy systems, transportation systems, information and communication systems, large human populations (including bombings as well as chemical and biological poisoning), currency and financial systems, and governmental structures.
Degree of localization (e.g., explosion) or dispersion (e.g., biological contamination) of assault.
Degree to which targets are symbolically charged (rail-road tracks at one extreme, sacred symbols such as the Statue of Liberty at the other).
Whether attacks are single or multiple.
Whether attacks are one-time or recurrent, and if recurrent, how erratic or “random” in pattern.
Whether the agent of attack is known, suspected, ambiguous, unknown, or unknowable.
As should be evident from this listing, the mix and multiplicity of responses in the ideal-typical disaster syndrome is highly variable. Localized attacks, especially if they involve the closing of escape routes, are more likely to occasion collective panic reactions. Generalized attacks, such as contamination and poisoning, are likely to cause reactions of mass hysteria but not localized panics. Widespread terror—a generic objective of terrorist attacks—is more likely to occur when attacks are dispersed, multiple, unpredictably recurrent, and by ambiguous or unknown agents. And converging rescue and relief operations are qualitatively different for localized bombings than they are for attempts to poison or sicken large numbers of people. Finally, the mix of reactions will differ widely according to whether human casualties result from the attack and whether the attack is immediately recognizable or is perceived as having invisible or unknown dimensions.
It is instructive to comment on the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in this context. Widespread terror was not the most salient feature of the immediate response to the events. Rather, September 11 created an intense reaction of moral outrage against a readily identifiable and
“evil” enemy and a reaction of exceptional collective resolve to unite, mobilize, and retaliate—violently and with perceived legitimacy—against that enemy. In that limited sense, the attacks present an appearance of miscalculation. (The sense of uncertainty created by the assaults, however, has generated a persistent level of anxiety in the population.) As such, the September 11 attacks, like Pearl Harbor 60 years earlier, were a “natural” for American society and national character—which includes a sense of ambivalence and inhibition in initiating aggression but a great capacity to respond morally and collectively when unequivocally provoked by an act of aggression from outside (Mead, 1965 ).
Some insights about the anthrax mail episode a few weeks later can be generated as well. As passing and amateurish as those events seemed to be, they nevertheless had a potential to be very terror-inducing. This lay in the many kinds of uncertainty surrounding the episodes. The agents were unknown. The fatal effects of widespread exposure could be extensive. And mail, like currency, is something that everyone regularly handles. The episode left room for feelings of danger for everyone—that it could strike anywhere, any time—however unrealistic such fears may have been. The press also played a role, scarcely deliberate, in magnifying the threat, bringing what were essentially a series of highly localized events to the attention of a vast population of viewers and readers.
As indicated, the natural history of recovery from disaster involves a diminution of emotional responses, the setting in of a certain denial of the possibility of recurrence, and a return to routine activities, events, rhythms, and conflicts. These are, by and large, reasonable and adaptive responses on the part of a population because of the rarity of specific kinds of catastrophic events in life. It is not psychically economical for people to worry about them all the time.
Discrete acts of terrorism, if not soon repeated, should be expected to show the same tendency toward routinization. Indeed, there were messages from government and public leaders exhorting the public to return to normal activities in the wake of
the September 11 attacks, while at the same time stressing the need for vigilance and even warning of impending attack.
Should additional major attacks on the homeland occur, the whole routinization process would be thrown in the air and a new situation created. Many of the emotional and behavioral symptoms of the disaster syndrome would recur, but in a different context of public memory of the earlier attacks. Scapegoating of governmental and other agencies and persons singled out as lax or irresponsible would become more salient because of expectations that vigilance and security should have increased as a result of the previous attacks. Subsequent attacks would also probably lead to even more tightening of homeland security, along with all the psychological and political consequences that would ensue. If, down the line, a dreadful scenario of multiple, repeated, and continuous terrorist attacks should unfold, one would expect the emergence of, among other things, a certain routinization of disaster reactions, including an inuring and hardening of public outlooks and behavior reminiscent of what has been witnessed over time in places like Northern Ireland, Israel, and Lebanon.
Because the attacks of September 11 were such a dramatic and profound wound to the nation, they qualify as what social scientists and humanists recently have been calling a cultural trauma. Within a matter of days after the assault, it was appreciated in all quarters that these events would embed themselves deeply in the nation’s memory and endure indefinitely. Unlike some other cultural traumas that are mainly negative—regicides and assassinations of national leaders, holocausts, and episodes of ethnic cleansing—September 11 already emerges not only as a deep scar on the nation’s body, but also as a moment of extreme heroism and pride. In the wake of the events, the nation has simultaneously experienced both deep mourning and a not altogether expected season of celebration.
A cultural trauma of this type can be expected to manifest a number of known characteristics:
The event is indelible, not only not forgotten but unable to be forgotten;
It is sacred, not in any specific religious sense, but as a monumental instant in the history of the nation;
There are deliberate efforts to remember the event and its heroes collectively, through commemorative ceremonies, pub-
lic observation of anniversaries, and the erection of monuments; and
There is sustained public interest in the remembering process, including, down the line, some contestation among politically interested groups over how the remembering should be concretized.
These are a few of the threads involved in the process of public normalization. More will emerge in the final two sections of this chapter on political and economic aspects of terrorism.
POLITICAL ASPECTS OF RECOVERY
A post-attack development of political solidarity parallels the burst of social solidarity noted above. Citizens experience an increase in trust and support of political leaders, which can endure for long periods of time if a sense of crisis continues and it is perceived that leaders are dealing with the crisis well. The most dramatic evidence of this effect is the report of polls of black Americans in late December 2001, which revealed a figure of 75 percent support for President George W. Bush among a segment of the population that had cast only 10 percent of their votes for him one year earlier. Such support does not last indefinitely, however, as the fate of President George Bush after the Gulf War demonstrates.
Political leadership also pulls together in such times of crisis, particularly if the crisis involves an attack on the nation as a whole. This effect is not necessarily seen in other types of crises—such as an economic collapse of the domestic economy and major political scandals—which typically set off both class and party conflicts.
Partisan politics are quick to return, however, even in areas that have some connection with the crisis. It was less than two months after September 11 when Democrats and Republicans split along recognizable lines over the issue of whether airline security personnel should be federal employees or remain as private-sector employees. By December 2001, the New York Times, in summarizing the national situation, quipped that “the Democrats and Republicans are fighting about everything but terrorism” (“This Week in Review,” December 23, 2001, p. 1).
Apparently this effect is a general one. In 1689, after the semiforced departure of the Catholic King James II and the succession of William of Orange, a Whig political leader observed that “fear of Popery has united [Whigs and Tories]; when that is over, we shall divide again” (O’Gorman, 1997:43).
We mention four other political possibilities:
Tension between the exigencies of national security and the preservation of civil liberties. This tension seems real and perhaps inevitable in times of political crisis. The two sets of considerations pull in opposite directions. Three foci of tension after September 11 were the issues of (a) detention of immigrants, (b) the use of military tribunals for trying apprehended terrorists, and (c) the continuing controversy over the practice — and negative repercussions—of ethnic profiling in checking and searching for suspects. This tension between vigilance and liberty is of special significance and is likely to be a running sore in the context of American democracy, because of the nation’s commitment to civil liberties.
Discrimination against and scapegoating of relevant minority groups in the domestic population, sometimes encouraged or even executed by the government. The negative actions taken against German Americans during World War I and the more drastic measures taken against Japanese Americans in World War II are cases in point. In the present crisis, neither the government nor the populace has turned against Muslim Americans in the same overt way, except for some local incidents. The crisis created uneasiness and ambivalence in that sector of the population, however, despite exhortations for tolerance in government and media circles. A sense of comfort and pride can be gained from the posture of moderation on the part of the government, the press, and the public. It should not be supposed, however, that the issue is permanently closed. In the future, successful terrorist attacks, especially major ones, or evidence or suspicion of terrorist activities on the part of Muslim Americans could quickly turn the picture around and stimulate explosive group antagonisms.
Confusion of political opposition with lack of patriotism. One aspect of political solidarity and the diminution of partisanship during national crises of the sort now being experienced is that opposition parties and groups extend unusual trust of, and cooperation with, top national leaders. The engine
that drives this is patriotism—love of nation. Two features of this unusual type of political situation may make for a muting of political opposition: (a) a temptation of the leaders and party in power to play their political trump card by insinuating or claiming that political opposition is tainted with a lack of loyalty and (b) the tendency for opposition voices to drift toward a self-imposed muteness, out of apprehension that voters in their own districts may also confuse opposition with lack of loyalty. The optimal resolution of these tendencies is the recognition of the right to oppose responsibly and legitimately in the context of an appreciated loyalty to the nation, but this is a matter of delicate equilibrium, not automatically guaranteed.
Extremist political movements. An extension of these three tendencies can result in nationally disruptive political movements that evoke accusations of disloyalty in periods of realistic or exaggerated threats. There is nothing inevitable about the development of such movements, but it is worth recalling two disturbing episodes of stereotyping and group punishment in the twentieth century: (a) the red scare of the early 1920s, in which government intimidation and actual raids were carried out in the context of a great national fear of Bolshevism and (b) McCarthyism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which occurred in the context of a state of high national anxiety over the development of nuclear explosives and weaponry by the Soviet Union and the fall of mainland China to communism in 1948. Both movements, while limited in duration, seriously compromised the civil liberties and livelihood of some citizens, and both left ugly scars on the body politic.
Raising these four possibilities is in no way to predict that any or all will materialize as the nation continues to struggle with its current situation. We cannot unambiguously predict political movements, even though social scientists understand a good deal about the conditions under which movements develop.
ECONOMIC ASPECTS OF RECOVERY
Some potential terrorist targets are economic in nature. The disruption or destruction of the stock market, the paralysis of credit systems, and the contamination of currency with toxic
and infectious agents come to mind. While potentially very disruptive in the short run, these types of attacks—except perhaps the last—are such that reasonably rapid recovery can be envisioned.
Other direct economic consequences are the costs of rebuilding what has been damaged or destroyed. Depending on the scope and success of the attacks, these costs can be very significant. The full cost of replacing the World Trade Center (including compensation for survivors) and the damaged portion of the Pentagon are enormous, as would be the costs of replacing destroyed dams and severely damaged electrical supply systems. Once capital resources are raised and put to work, however, reconstruction projects take on the same stimulating significance for the economy as some public works projects.
Assessment of the indirect and derived economic consequences of terrorist attacks is a more complicated matter, in part because of the great diversity of possible targets. The overall economic losses generated by the September 11 attacks, while evidently severe, are difficult to establish, all the more so because the national economy had already entered a period of downturn. Temporary and selective economic dislocations, however, are readily traceable; some of these were mentioned above. In general, economic dislocations resulting from discrete terrorist activities should be expected to obey the laws of routinization—however slowly in some cases—as people in the affected parts of the economy gradually return to their normally preferred lines of activity and expenditures.
Another economic effect that appears over time in the wake of national traumas is the process of capitalizing on public crisis and turning it in the direction of private gain. The plea on the part of airlines for financial relief is not exactly a case in point, because the losses they suffered after September 11 were genuine; nevertheless, the possibilities of turning relief into gain are always present. The need to gird up for prevention, retaliation against, and aggressive pursuit of terrorism inevitably sets off a scramble for government contracts in relevant parts of the economy. This pattern is observable in wartime situations and was evident throughout the cold war, and it is to be expected to reappear during the coming years. Other, more trivial examples of small-time entrepreneurial activity could also be cited, such as the manufacture and sale of patriotic t-shirts, hats, sweaters, and souvenirs.
The economic question of who pays will be a continuous one. Even under normal circumstances, American politics are fraught with ambiguities and conflicts over the respective costs to be borne by federal, regional, state, and local authorities. The defense against terrorism promises to make the uncertainties even more salient. Given the number and diversity of possible attacks, the prospect of terrorism is simultaneously national, regional, and local. Furthermore, while the fight against terrorism is manifestly a public and governmental responsibility, many if not most of the targets of terrorism are in the private sector. Given all these intersections, who prepares and who pays? More rational and less rational solutions to these dilemmas can be designed, but the nation must expect a significant residue of tugging and hauling, jockeying for position, and resentment of perceived off-loading.
Two final sets of derived consequences of uncertain dimensions also lie on the horizon. The first is the impact of a continuous, quasi-wartime effort on the balance and strength of the American economy. Such an effort will involve significant reallocation of public expenditures and capital among different industrial sectors (especially those connected with defense), the prospect of governmental budgetary deficits, some impact on the pattern of imports and exports, and perhaps a greater sensitivity to periods of inflation.
The second is the prospect of giving lower priority to some expenditures for programs in education, health, welfare, and other areas in consideration of the more urgent demands for military and home defense expenditures. War efforts typically slow the progress of social programs (demands for which often follow wars in a flurry). The quasi-wartime exigencies associated with counterterrorist activities promise to be no exception. It is also possible that the economically relevant aspects of environmental protection will fall from salience as well, unless special efforts are made to sustain them. Environmental efforts involve costs to the nation, and they could come to be seen as competitive with more urgent expenditures.