[Paleopsych] NYT: The Half-Life of Anxiety
checker at panix.com
Sun Jul 10 15:59:16 UTC 2005
The Half-Life of Anxiety
By BENEDICT CAREY
FOR all their murderous power, the four terrorist bombs detonated in
London on Thursday morning have not created anything close to mass
panic. It's possible to imagine a scene straight out of the movie "War
of the Worlds," an unraveling of society, with people disoriented,
afraid for their lives, holing up in their basements or fleeing the
Instead, on Friday morning, a day after the bombing, Londoners were
beginning to return to daily routines, some even riding the buses and
Although real terrorism is life-shattering to those directly affected
and may help attackers achieve political goals - last year's bombing
in Madrid, for example, may have helped lead to the withdrawal of
Spanish troops from Iraq - the attacks almost never sow the kind of
lasting confusion and mass anxiety that the perpetrators presumably
In Israel, the damage from cafe and bus bombings is typically cleared
within hours. In Lower Manhattan, real estate prices have only
spiraled upward since the Sept. 11 attacks; the average sale in
TriBeCa last year was almost $1.7 million, 16 percent higher than in
2003. And a recent report found that tourism had increased in Madrid
since the bombings.
"It says something that it is hard to think of any attack that truly
caused a city to cease to function, except perhaps Dresden, Hiroshima
or Nagasaki," said Dr. Lynn Eden, a senior research scholar at
Stanford University's Institute for International Studies and author
of the book, "Whole World on Fire," an analysis of military bombing
and damage predictions.
Are Western cities themselves so resourceful and structurally sound
that they can absorb just about any blow? Are people adaptable enough
that they can live with almost any threat? Or, can certain kinds of
threats deeply unsettle a worldly population?
Strangely enough, the answer to all three questions is yes. Certainly,
an attack of the magnitude of last week's in London creates a climate
of fear, and no one in England is likely to forget the carnage; July 7
is certain to carry in the English consciousness some of the same
resonance as Sept. 11 does in this country.
But terror groups like Al Qaeda are widely thought to be after bigger
game - the psychological unraveling, or loss of confidence, in Western
society. And high explosives have not done the trick.
People understand bombs, for one thing; they know what the weapons can
do, and why certain targets are chosen. This allows residents to feel
that they have some control over the situation: They can decide not to
take trains at rush hour, avoid buses or drive a car, psychologists
"Unfortunately, and I think people sensed this in watching the
coverage in London, bombings have become familiar," and, as such, less
frightening to those not directly affected, said George Loewenstein, a
professor of psychology and economics at Carnegie Mellon University in
And for all their flaws, Western governments typically respond
immediately to terror, which is far more psychologically soothing than
many people admit. It's the reason Prime Minister Tony Blair flew back
to London from the Group of 8 conference in Gleneagles, Scotland. And
it's the reason both Rudolph Giuliani and Winston Churchill became
All the same, it's clear that people in much of the West believe that
their societies are fragile, and capable of breaking down. Indeed, as
the new millennium approached, there were fears that a large-scale
computer meltdown would paralyze hospitals, police and other basic
services. And the most unsettling thing about the current brand of
extremist Muslim terror is the certainty that the enemy will try
anything - including using weapons whose psychological effects are
Even small changes in weaponry can be deeply unnerving. In her history
of London during World War II, "London 1945," Maureen Waller describes
how Londoners, long accustomed to take cover from the roar of bombers
overhead, plunged into confusion when first hit with Hitler's
missiles, the V-1 buzz bomb and the V-2 rocket.
"By some acoustic quirk, those in its direct path barely heard a V-2,"
she writes. "If you did hear it, it had missed you. But that knowledge
did nothing to quell the primeval fear each time one exploded." The
missiles were far more terrifying than the conventional bombardments,
Ms. Waller adds. "Life was uncertain again."
Bioterror scenarios are the most obvious modern-day example of such
terrifying ambiguity. Despite only a handful of deaths, the anthrax
poisonings in 2001 created a rip current of anxiety for millions
anytime they opened their mailboxes. Studies find that this kind of
free-floating concern, when written across neighbors' or colleagues'
faces, is contagious, Dr. Loewenstein said.
A similarly frightening mystique might surround the so-called dirty
bomb, a conventional explosive containing some radioactive material. A
dirty bomb is not a nuclear bomb, as many people assume, and can
inflict nowhere near the amount of damage or radioactive
contamination, said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National
Center for Disaster Preparedness and a professor at Columbia
While a nuclear bomb could devastate much of the city with its blast
and radiation wave, a dirty bomb is a local device - a car bomb, say,
that could contaminate a specific area, like Times Square.
"There is a whole lot of mythology associated with any nuclear device,
and a tendency for people to confuse a dirty bomb with a nuclear bomb,
and we just don't know how people will react," Dr. Redlener said. "For
instance, would people decide to come back to work and live in an area
hit by a dirty bomb?"
The widespread revulsion to any hint of radiation, he said, lends the
dirty bomb both an ominous novelty and mystery that are much more
likely to induce life-altering psychological anxiety than a
conventional bomb would.
Although such sustained and uncertain threats may fall short of
bringing a city to a standstill, they could shatter social networks
and slow an economy, experts say. People may still ride the buses,
take their children to school and go to work, but a community under
continuous assault often turns on itself, with neighbors distrusting
one another, research suggests.
In studies of Alaskan communities that were affected by the oil spill
from the tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989, and of towns dealing with water
contamination in New Jersey and New York, sociologists have found what
they call social corrosion. Sustained anxiety breaks down social
groups and leads to an increase in mental health problems and
potentially to economic downturn, said Lee Clarke, a sociology
professor at Rutgers University and author of the forthcoming book,
"Worst Cases," an analysis of responses to disaster.
Beyond the unknown, many people wonder whether city residents would
stick around if terrorists successfully staged not one bombing but a
series of major attacks in a short period of time. Certainly after
Sept. 11, many people openly wondered whether another big attack - a
double or triple hit - might be just enough to cause a kind of
collective mental breakdown, an exodus.
Maybe. But in the absence of new species of horror, the histories of
Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belfast and London still suggest otherwise.
"Even if we hypothesize attacks like this for a week, what would
happen?" said Dr. Eden. "They would shut down the subway, let's say,
and my guess is that there would be a run on bicycles. There would be
a difficult adjustment period, there would be some economic
ramifications, but people would learn to function."
More information about the paleopsych