The Faces of Terrorism: Social and Psychological Dimensions

By Neil J. Smelser | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Anticipating, Experiencing, and Responding to Terrorist Attacks

AT THIS JUNCTURE we turn the analysis around. In the first four chapters we looked at terrorism from the standpoints of its conditions, causes, and ideology, as well as the several additional forces that motivate terrorist individuals and groups. Now we shift to the targets of terrorism—groups and societies under attack. We will consider, sequentially, what it means to be vulnerable to or fearful of attacks; what it is to be attacked, and what immediate responses are to be expected; and what are the medium- and longer-term consequences of terrorist attacks (and the threat of them) from the psychological, economic, political, social, and cultural points of view.

Such a multifaceted view is essential, because expecting, experiencing, and responding to terrorism pervades every facet of a society. This might be said to be the genius of terrorism: it keeps—if successful, should keep—defending societies both on their toes and off balance, disoriented at all times, whether anything is happening or not (Thornton, 1964). The mechanism by which that effect is achieved, moreover, is through exploitation of the cognitive experience of ambiguity and the affective experience of anxiety. Both of these experiences reflect uncertainty about the nature of the threat of terrorism and about ways to fear it. The dread of terrorism is not unlike that of crime, accidents, disasters, and wartime fear, but it is the peculiar combination of lethality, ambiguity, and anxiety that makes it the pervasive virus that it is.


The Nature of Anxiety about Terrorism

What is it like to live in a society threatened with terrorism? Any answers to this question must be based in the first instance on the

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