Terrorism and Disaster: New Threats, New Ideas: Volume 11


Table of contents

(10 chapters)

Things will never be the same, some say, because of 9.11. We feel more vulnerable, more threatened, more at risk. It was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, goes the refrain. It was dramatic beyond our worst nightmares. Like millions of others, I watched the events of that lovely morning unfold on television. When the South Tower fell for a few seconds I could not see it collapsing. My blindness wasn’t because of the smoke and dust. It was a cognitive blindness. I could not believe my eyes and so, somehow, my mind denied my brain the truth of the moment.

Terrorism’s political strategy is to force the State to accept social or political change by inciting fear among civilian sectors of a population, while attempting to gain sympathy from other civilian sectors whose interests terrorists claim to represent. Usually, the civilian recipients of terror see themselves as defenseless without the State’s intervention, and they view counter-terrorist policy as being in the province of the State. Policy analysts tacitly or explicitly share this view. In reality, civilian involvement could improve the effectiveness of counter-terrorist policy. To illustrate this, I discuss three issues around which citizen groups have organized and are making an impact on public opinion and policy in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001: public safety, particularly the Indian Point, New York, nuclear plant; learning from mistakes by government intelligence agencies in order to prevent future attacks; and rejection of war and violence as responses to terror.

The attacks of 11 September 2001 created a crisis of legitimacy for the U.S. nation state. To overcome a catastrophic event that threatened national identity, the Bush administration evoked fear as the spiritual root of patriotism and the basis of a renewed security state. The modern rhetoric of crisis management was combined with a nostalgic rhetoric of national community. In the new civil defense, all citizens were enlisted to relentlessly examine their fears so that bodies, minds, neighborhoods, and ultimately the nation state could be free of terror. These conditions led to authoritarian efforts to reach deep into citizens’ private lives and purge the body politic of ill-defined invaders, damaging democratic community.

Research evidence developed over more than five decades of research on human responses to disasters shows that those responses are overwhelmingly adaptive and positive. However, despite what is known, myths about disaster behavior persist. These include the assumption that the public will panic during large-scale emergencies and the idea that disasters are best managed through hierarchies of command and control. Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, these myths are again gaining wide currency even though actual individual, group, and organizational behavior in the World Trade Center disaster directly contradict those assumptions. This is no accident. Beliefs concerning the fragility of the public in the face of emerging homeland security threats are consistent with the perspectives and objectives of organizations that seek to expand their influence in the domestic crisis management arena. These organizational actors, which include the information technology industry, the intelligence and defense establishment, and security think tanks, are generally not familiar with empirical social science research on behavior during disasters and see little value in public participation in the management of newly-recognized threats. Recycled disaster myths support a case for “expertise-based” crisis planning that excludes the public from those activities.

Following the disasters of 9/11/01 the U.S. government has embarked on what is intended to be a comprehensive response to the hazard of further terrorist attacks on Americans at home and abroad. This paper addresses the homeland component of the response and asserts that both the general approach and the measures being deployed are neither comprehensive nor well-balanced. The broad goal of security is losing ground to the narrower objective of defense; mitigation strategies are being overshadowed by preparedness and response alternatives; expert systems are preferred over grass-roots bottom-up ones; and possibilities for reducing human vulnerability are being ignored in favor of programs that aim to reduce risks or lessen the vulnerability of built structures and infrastructures. Preferences for the use of sophisticated technologies that are intended to quarantine terrorism and minimize its consequences far outnumber efforts to engage with the messier realm of ideas and behaviors related to terrorism. Yet it is the latter that shape the public interpretation of terrorism risks, structure patterns of exposure and affect the coping capabilities of threatened communities. Without substantial changes to policy that take account of these deficiencies, Americans are likely to find themselves little better prepared to confront the challenges of future terrorist attacks on targets in U.S. territory and the nation’s ability to address other kinds of hazards may be seriously compromised.

The purpose of this article is to apply what social scientists have learned from decades of research on natural and technological disasters to better understand the short-term and potential long-term human impacts of the 9/11 attacks. The short-term response to the 9/11 attacks was similar to how people and communities typically respond to natural disasters. One year after the attacks, news reports suggest that factors identified in technological disaster research as causing collective trauma, rather than recovery, are beginning to surface. We identify three patterns typically present in (but not restricted to) the aftermath of technological disasters that contribute to slow recovery and ongoing collective trauma and evaluate the likelihood that these factors will impact the recovery process for those impacted by the 9/11 attacks. We conclude that due to perceptions of governmental failure, the likelihood of protracted litigation, and uncertainty regarding the mental and physical health of victims, the social and psychological impacts of the 9/11 attacks will likely be severe and long-term. As such, the concluding section recommends the implementation of a long-term clinical intervention program for mitigating these potential chronic impacts and facilitating the timely recovery of survivors.

The World Trade Center disaster generated many of the features seen in other disasters in the U.S., including post-disaster convergence. We conceptualize emergency management activities as taking place within a multilocational “response milieu,” and we suggest that the study of convergence should focus on the negotiated legitimacy of people in and wishing to enter it. We discuss the five types of personal convergers and how the access of each of these groups to the response milieu was related to their legitimation status. We then identify two additional forms of convergence: supporters or fans, and those who came to mourn or to memorialize. We conclude by discussing implications for policy.

Disaster and calamity are extreme events that can be used to glean general lessons about how society works. I use the problem of panic to develop several ideas. Panic, we know from years of disaster research, is quite rare at least in the United States. I consider the implication of this for theories of social behavior and human nature. I also suggest the idea of “failing gracefully” as a systems-level notion that highlights the social context of behavior rather than individual panic. I reconsider findings concerning “altruistic” and “corrosive” communities. I critically evaluate the idea of “moral panic,” and end with a consideration of the rhetoric functions of “panic.”

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Book series
Research in Social Problems and Public Policy
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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