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 city.
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 want.
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
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 say.
“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 Pittsburgh.
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 University.
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.” Autor: BENEDICT CAREY