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Social change influenced by terrorism

EMERGENCY911 block-1The media coverage of the Paris terrorism attacks has moved from the front pages and lead stories to dissuasion forums, talk shows and editorials. But the reality of the incident still remains a very painful reminder of the fragility of human life and the very tenuous grip we all have on it.

For the families of the victims, the emotional pain is still very acute. They have to accept the harsh unavoidable fact that a loved one will not be around for Christmas.

The political rhetoric still rages and world leaders are now referring to the Paris incident, as well as the recent events in England as announced by Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. The prime minister said seven deadly plots to cause havoc in the England had been disrupted in recent months.

But Prime Minister Cameron warned that the scale and severity of the attacks in Paris, which left 129 people dead and hundreds injured, were far greater than anything else seen by British intelligence agencies to date.

This unfolding situation that fosters a feeling of helplessness, fear and personal vulnerability makes the question of living with terrorism even more dramatic. This feeling of vulnerability follows the business person who travels worldwide and is now afraid because his/her particular nationality might make him/her a target of extremism. The vulnerable feeling has also influenced many popular tourist destinations to hire security consultants to review and upgrade their safety plans, due to the fact several hotels, tour sites and the like are European or North American-owned there. This kind of fear-driven business decision making also has a cascading effect on countries, which from a political standpoint, have not shared on the world stage any views that may be considered either as supportive or condemning of the philosophies or ideologies of any particular group or religion.

There is also the circumstance where countries not originally involved in the conflict may be drawn into the impasse by politically mistakes made; and a once not involved country suddenly becomes a target and receiving threats that, depending on their severity, could throw an entire nation into panic mode. Some people may consider the subject of terrorism as one of “not my business or concern”, or “is a US problem; let them, Britain and the French deal with it”.

“If they would stay out of that country’s business, none of this would be happening.”

While this may be the easier answer to a very real problem, it does not stop the threat from materializing in your next-door neighbour’s backyard.

The recent state of emergency imposed by the government of France has also been extended to the French islands in the Caribbean. And the effects of the terrorism threat could also have been felt by those countries bordering Dominica, St Lucia and Antigua.

Countries while having no part to play in this current worldwide armed political conflict are however hosts to a number of business and international organizations with significant economic and social investments in them.

The locations of the Paris events were not financially significant, but socially so. Their use as targets created a great deal of individual trauma for thousands of people who were either directly related or friends of each of the Paris victims. Social scientists term this, even though the body count has not been high, the cascading effect of trauma.

It is this cascading phenomenon that is perhaps the most difficult to prepare for, when it becomes an agenda item for emergency management and law enforcement planners.

From an individual perspective, suddenly feeling vulnerable to a terrorist attack or expanding global conflict is often a very provocative issue to rationalize. It means that what was once thought to be negligible is now at the forefront of our awareness in that there is the suggestion it is most likely than before to occur.

Consider the following analogy: knowing someone who wins the lottery, for example, makes people think they are more likely to win. It is why social psychologists suggest  that casinos like to have winners at their roulette tables, as it encourages more betting.

The Paris bombings created intense worldwide heightened awareness, which elevated feelings of risk at the individual level. No longer were large cities being targeted; no longer were ships and buildings the targets; instead the targets were small bars, restaurants and sports stadiums.

Psychologists are of the opinion that people who have a tendency to worry will do so regardless of the scenario, as long as they are able to ask themselves the questions: “Could it happen here? What if it happens to me or somebody I care for? How will I feel? How will I go on if they are not here with me? Can I cope with another drama?”

Emergency planners say these are questions they themselves don’t have answers for, and the fact they don’t have the answers tends to make people anxious and repeatedly seeking the responses –– which eventually breeds frustration and anger at the apparent ineptitude of government officials.

When it finally reaches the stage of frustration and anger, people’s personal interpretation of vulnerability becomes inflated, and everyone they know is now at risk of being injured or killed
in a terrorist incident.

A tragedy occurring thousands of miles away from your front door becomes a very personal affair, thanks to almost instantaneous broadcast of the incident. It becomes even more painful if a distant friend in the affected city is also a victim.

For example, and this is a personal perspective, I had a family member who worked in the World Trade Centre when it was attacked, and for almost 18 hours my family kept pressing me for an answer on their safety. As the confusion subsided and identities were confirmed as to who were alive or dead, news of those alive brought a wave of relief throughout the household that soon turned to anger.

This rapid change in behaviour occurred as it was realized that innocent uninvolved people were now the victims of a small group of radical individuals who needed to have their message heard.

Personal traumatization makes people collectively feel more vulnerable. It becomes a definitive experience that makes you feel it is more likely to happen when it occurs near home, and when
it is being replayed over and over in the media.

The media sensation of the event influences people to become a bit more watchful and wary of the entire neighbourhood; it makes people suspicious of their neighbours. It creates anxieties that fuel aggressive behaviours if a person perceives another to be acting suspiciously.

People start to make decisions based upon fear and not facts; and decisions based on fear often incite widespread panic and systemic collapse of a social structure, because the behaviour of the masses takes over the individual reasoning that makes individuality so unique as a people.

Mass behaviour also influences simple social decisions such as whether to catch a bus, or go to a movie or to a park for recreation. It is this mass anxiety aggressively influenced by extreme groups seeking recognition, or a platform to be heard, that becomes the catalyst of negative social change.


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