[Paleopsych] NYT: The Half-Life of Anxiety

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The Half-Life of Anxiety


    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
    subway trains.

    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
    national heroes.

    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
    entirely unknown.

    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."

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