Release Date: October 24, 2018
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 Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Time-Warner Center headquarters of CNN, 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. It appears that the events yesterday and today were politically motivated, but they may as well have been religiously or ideologically motivated.”
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 said that after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government came under scrutiny for its color-coded Homeland Advisory System because instead of communicating actual threats, it provided vague and unspecific information and increased fears and anxieties. A new National Terrorism Advisory System was implemented in 2011.
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.