Overcoming the Anxiety of Terrorism

by Michael Maccoby and Charles Heckscher

The terrorist attacks leave their marks on our psyches. There is shock, for some trauma, and the pain of loss. We have also lost trust in the safety of our surroundings. We become wary and anxious. Anxiety is different from fear which implies a specific threat that provokes fight or flight. Fear can be met with courage. Anxiety implies a generalized sense of danger which we are powerless to eradicate. Studies show that continued anxiety causes debilitating depression. To bind anxiety and maintain our sanity we seek meaning and action that strengthens our confidence.

The role of leadership—local and national—becomes exceptionally important in binding the anxiety caused by the terrorists. Mayor Rudy Giuliani modeled productive meaning and action for New Yorkers: caring, helping, working together to rebuild a great city. It is much harder to model productive meaning and action for the whole country. But it is essential that we bind our anxiety in a way that directs us to grapple with its cause.

So far, the only meaning offered by our national leaders is that of freedom vs. the enemies of freedom, civilization vs. barbarism. And the indicated actions are war against the perpetrators and those who have aided them plus increased internal security. Can this definition of meaning lead to actions that snuff out terrorism? Will it overcome our anxiety?

According to observers who have studied terrorism in different parts of the world, we cannot deal effectively with terrorists unless we understand them. The middle-eastern terrorists come from cultures of anxiety caused by oppression, corruption, and hopelessness. Some of them see themselves as freedom fighters, and they see us as supporting the repressive regimes in their home countries. They follow leaders like Osama bin Laden who bind their anxiety by focusing it on the U.S. as the enemy who has caused their misery.

What can the United States and its allies do that will lessen our anxiety and focus our energies in a positive direction. First of all, we need to accept the reality that this will be a lengthy struggle. If we believe we can end the threat merely by bombing Afghanistan or any other country that harbors terrorists, and there are many, we run the risk of making more enemies willing to lose their lives because family members have been killed and they admire the terrorists.

If as it seems likely this terrorism is not a policy of state but an extreme expression of destructiveness against the mighty machinery of capitalism, it appears to be so widespread that it cannot be rooted out by force alone: it exists among our own citizens and our own allies as well as in distant countries. We cannot win the struggle unless we build an understanding of these people with the help of friends in these countries who also have a stake in the struggle against terrorism.

Talk of understanding at a moment like this is controversial. It smacks of weakness, appeasement, and self blame. The terrorism that has afflicted us is evil; we must be resolute and fight against it. Some people we have spoken with believe that trying to understand it would undermine that resolve. They argue that once we have taken a moral stand and have identified evil, time for understanding ceases and time for action begins.

We can sympathize with this view. Our nation has grown confused about making judgments. As we have expanded the range and diversity of our culture, and as we have confronted racism and other forms of discrimination, an unease has grown: how can we know what is right and wrong, as opposed to just a cultural difference? Some have come too close to saying that there is no ground for moral judgment at all: that everything is relative, that there is no right or wrong but only differences in values and experience. So there is now almost a sense of relief that the judgment on terrorism is so clear and widely shared, that we can finally unite again around it. And yet that unity carries a danger: it threatens to blind us to the feelings and beliefs of those whose support we will need to succeed in this struggle.

The error is in thinking that judgment and understanding are in conflict: that if you understand someone you can’t judge him, and if you judge him you cannot understand him. Our problem now is to do both. We can understand why some would be driven to kill innocent civilians: we have done the same in wartime and when we felt our nation was at risk. Furthermore, we have had terrorists in our own country, driven by much of the same hatred of modern values that drives Osama bin Laden.

Such understanding need not reduce the clarity of the judgment that these acts are evil, nor our resolve to defend ourselves and defeat the terrorists and their supporters. But understanding can help to guide our action so that it is effective in winning the allies we need. At the same time that we build the military machinery to attack, we must build the machinery of dialogue. We must meet with those who are not terrorists but who believe that we are trying to destroy their way of life and their most cherished values. We must meet not only with the modernists in the middle east, but also those people who believe that “liberty” is a word used to justify self-indulgence and tolerance of sin. We must adjust our own behavior to recognize their values as far as we can without supporting and comforting evil. We must try to communicate our conviction that tolerance is a foundation for peace.

Will this effort bind our anxiety? Not all of it. But it can strengthen support from allies throughout the world. It can increase hope that we are not only directly attacking evil but digging at its roots. And it can engage the thinking and energies of our best minds in building understanding and support for democracy and development that includes parts of the world where people now feel hopeless.

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