Terrorism - When its Shadow Leads Us to Helplessness

Terrorism - When its Shadow Leads Us to Helplessness
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

It’s commonly said that there is no greater loss of freedom than the insecurity caused by fear. Terrorism and the recent attacks we’ve experienced have not only had a direct effect on the victims themselves. The emotional and psychological impact associated with the shadow of fear has reached us all.

Terrorism has settled in our societies in flesh and blood. The victims on the news no longer live in countries in the Middle East where suffering is sometimes “selfishly normalized” in the eyes of the Western world. These days, we personalize this anguish much more. Because, unfortunately, those faces and lives only remind us distantly of ours.

Terrorism is first and foremost the biggest absolute failure of humankind. It’s the germ of hatred, incomprehension, and evil, which manages to divide nations and societies.

Terrorism represents an emerging and global threat which affects us all. A threat which has its own effects as well. Among these effects are the notable lack of security and apprehension towards future attacks. Also, there exists the unpredictability of these attacks and living in fear. Many times it even causes a lack of trust in our own institutions. We are facing new emotional and psychological demands, and we have to learn how to confront them.

We invite you to ponder this.

Terrorism and its psychological implications

It is often said that, after 9/11, the world was never the same. So much so, that many people dare to describe our societies in crisis as gears based almost exclusively on the shadow of fear. Thanks to this fear, control measures are being hardened. Certain power structures are reinforced and everybody works with a very specific objective in mind – security.

We must keep in mind that security is basically the absence of fear. In addition, it’s also a right contained in the UN Charter where it’s specified that every person’s physical and mental integrity must and deserves to be defended, safe, and protected. When this doesn’t happen, we lose our sense of control and our social and personal development is limited.

A security guard at a train station.

The effects of terror and helplessness

According to a study carried out at the International University of Valencia, there are two phenomena which explain how terrorist acts can affect us:

  • In the first place, there’s the ripple effect. This is a mechanism which creates several “expansive circles” after the attack or disaster. The first waves affect the victims themselves and their families. The second waves affect the community, the city, or the entire territory. Here, the emotional impact is so elevated that they end up developing fear or a sense of helplessness in the face of possible future attacks.
  • The contagion effect. This effect derives not only from contact with a direct victim of terrorism but also when the media or other institutions generate fear and amplify the feeling of insecurity even more.

Almost without realizing it, a domino effect is generated. First, we are shocked by the attacks. Later, television channels, social networks, and conversations we maintain with other people raise that sense of helplessness. It raises to the point of limiting our way of living or our behavior. We stop traveling and start mistrusting certain cultural groups.

Flowers and a candle on the street after terrorism.

We must not be prisoners of fear

There’s an interesting article published in the magazine “Psychology Today.” In it, they explain that terrorism will have triumphed in our societies at the very moment that each of us carries out these four behaviors:

  • Canceling our vacations and ceasing to travel
  • Feeling fear every moment of the day and fearing an attack in our surroundings
  • Developing distrust towards our institutions
  • Feeling the need to move our families to safer places

In an article published in a social studies journal, psychologist Ordoñez Díaz tells us that the objective of terrorist attacks is, above all, to generate a psychological effect which causes a great social impact. On top of that, they also seek to exert some type of power related to fear and the feeling of insecurity.

Sign about the terrorism attack in Brussels.

It’s possible that we don’t have within our reach the means or the ways to end this type of disaster. The political complexity and the dark motives which take place in the theater of geostrategy, politics, and armament, makes us feel more like puppets than like main actors.

However, to face the feeling of helplessness or anguish, it’s necessary to avoid being prisoners of fear. Something as essential as allowing ourselves to live a normal life and relating and respecting one another can help us remain calm and balanced. Even praising the values which make humans noble can aid in this sense.

In order to do this, we’d like to end this article with a reflection. Remember the words of the philosopher Fernando Savater. “The most important thing, intellectually speaking, is not to understand the motives of terrorists, but ours to resist them without using their weapons.”

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.