The terrorist attacks in London Thursday served as a jarring reminder that in today's world, you never know what you might see when you pick up the newspaper or turn on the TV. Disturbing images of terror can trigger a visceral response no matter how close or far away from home the event happened. Throughout history, every military conflict has involved psychological warfare in one way or another as the enemy sought to break the morale of their opponent. But thanks to advances in technology, the popularity of the Internet, and proliferation of news coverage, the rules of engagement in this type of mental battle have changed. Whether it's a massive attack or a single horrific act, the effects of psychological warfare aren't limited to the physical damage inflicted. Instead, the goal of these attacks is to instill a sense of fear that is much greater than the actual threat itself. Therefore, the impact of psychological terror depends largely on how the acts are publicized and interpreted. But that also means there are ways to defend yourself and your loved ones by putting these fears into perspective and protecting your children from horrific images.
What Is Psychological Terror?
"The use of terrorism as a tactic is predicated upon inducing a climate of fear that is incommensurate with the actual threat," says Middle Eastern historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University. "Every time you have an act of violence, publicizing that violence becomes an important part of the act itself." "There are various ways to have your impact. You can have your impact by the magnitude of what you do, by the symbolic character of target, or the horrific quality of what you do to a single person," Bulliet tells WebMD. "The point is that it isn't what you do, but it's how it's covered that determines the effect." For example, Bulliet says the Iranian hostage crisis, which began in 1979 and lasted for 444 days, was actually one of the most harmless things that happened in the Middle East in the last 25 years. All of the U.S. hostages were eventually released unharmed, but the event remains a psychological scar for many Americans who watched helplessly as each evening's newscast counted the days the hostages were being held captive. Bulliet says terrorists frequently exploit images of a group of masked individuals exerting total power over their captives to send the message that the act is a collective demonstration of the group's power rather than an individual criminal act. "You don't have the notion that a certain person has taken a hostage. It's an image of group power, and the force becomes generalized rather than personalized," says Bulliet. "The randomness and the ubiquity of the threat give the impression of vastly greater capacities." Psychiatrist Ansar Haroun, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves in the first Gulf War and more recently in Afghanistan, says that terrorist groups often resort to psychological warfare because it's the only tactic they have available to them. "They don't have M-16s, and we have M-16s. They don't have the mighty military power that we have, and they only have access to things like kidnapping," says Haroun, who is also a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. "In psychological warfare, even one beheading can have the psychological impact that might be associated with killing 1,000 of the enemy," Haroun tells WebMD. "You haven't really harmed the enemy very much by killing one person on the other side. But in terms of inspiring fear, anxiety, terror, and making us all feel bad, you've achieved a lot of demoralization."
Why Distant Terrors Trouble Us
When a horrific event happens, experts say it's natural to feel disturbed, even if the act occurred thousands of miles away. "The human reaction is to put yourself in the situation because most of us have good mental health and have the capacity to empathize," says Haroun. "We put ourselves in the shoes of the...
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