Government can either stoke fear or reduce anxiety after terror threats, UB forensic psychiatry faculty member says
BUFFALO, N.Y. — The government’s response will be a key factor in the way that Americans behave in the aftermath of today’s incidents in which explosive devices were sent to Democratic leaders and activists, a University at Buffalo professor said today.
“In the aftermath of a terror act, governments can either stoke additional fear in the public or reduce public anxieties,” said Daniel Antonius, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.
Antonius co-edited “The Political Psychology of Terrorism Fears,” a book examining how emotional responses to terrorism — especially fear — can influence aspects of the political process. He oversees UB’s forensic psychiatry program, which works at the intersection of the mental health and legal fields. His research focuses on the neurobiological, behavioral and societal factors that underlie human emotions, aggression and impulsivity.
“The fact is that people continue to fear terrorism in meaningful ways long after an attack or threat has passed,” he said. “The level of fear varies across time and context, and is impacted by other attacks, media exposure and government attention and responses.”
Of course, he said, immediate fear or worry is a natural response. “This fear, or the anticipation of future terrorism or that something ‘bad’ is going to happen, is of course the primary psychological weapon underlying these terror acts,” Antonius said.
“This is where the government’s message is so important. We need to feel secure. The public generally tends to place larger degrees of trust in their government’s ability to keep them safe following terrorist attacks. People crave information from the government so we are better informed about responses and so we ultimately feel secure from future attacks.
“However, the government has to be careful not to instill more fear. For example, if the information they provide is vague and unspecific, it will only increase fears and anxieties related to possible future attacks.”
Antonius added: “If government’s responses are primarily focused on increasing fear and anxiety, in order to further political agendas, then the intense media coverage of attacks can have a negative effect, or a contagion effect, in which people live and relive the attacks when they watch or read stories about them. This overexposure can cause increased public fear, anxiety and helplessness.”
He noted that there are lessons to be learned from areas of the world where ongoing threats and fear has shaped culture over time. “In places with protracted conflict situations (e.g., Northern Ireland and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), chronic fear and anxiety can result in high levels of segregation and the creation of ‘suspect’ communities that become the object of one’s fears,” he said.