Expert Meeting: Freedom From Fear

Date: 3 October 2011

Venue: Campus The Hague, Location Stichthage

On 3 October, ICCT hosted the Expert Meeting on “Freedom from Fear: Answering Terrorism with Public Resilience“.

The expert meeting brought together a unique combination of speakers representing both academic perspectives and policy oriented backgrounds, to discuss the relevance of fear in terrorism and counter-terrorism. During the morning session, Prof. Dr. Jerrold Post (George Washington University) and Prof. Dr. Berthold Gersons (University of Amsterdam) approached the issue from a psychological perspective. In his presentation, Professor Post discussed the psychology of terrorist motivation and emphasised the importance of enhancing resilience to terrorism. In addition to building societal resilience, it is important to enhance resilience of immigrant populations to radical voices from within, in order to resist recruitment efforts and the appeal of radical messages. Professor Gersons discussed the psychology of mass trauma and the implications for societal recovery after terrorist attacks. Professor Gersons stressed that terrorist attacks do not only have profound psychological impact on immediate victims but can also induce secondary traumas. People who witnessed the suffering of others are also at risk of developing similar post traumatic stress symptoms as persons directly affected by the event. Professor Gersons suggested that, in order to cope with such traumas effectively, governments should seek to promote among the public 1) a sense of safety, 2) calmness, 3) a sense of self-efficacy at both the individual and community level, 4) connectedness, and 5) hope.

In the afternoon, General Mr. Peter van Uhm (Chief of the Netherlands Defence Staff) and Chris Wainwright (Head of Research, Information and Communications Unit, United Kingdom Home Office) focused on the implications of fear in military operations and domestic counter-terrorism policies, respectively. General Van Uhm offered insights into the psychological dimensions of peace missions, and suggested that the military is challenged to manage fear at three levels: 1) among the general population, 2) among the troops, and 3) among the population at home. Managing fear among all these communities is essential to win the ‘battle for hearts and minds’. As the last speaker of the day, Mr. Chris Wainwright discussed relevant insights from crisis management and argued that open communication can support public resilience to terrorism. Mr. Wainwright stressed that governments should communicate in clear and unambiguous terms about terrorist threats, and that information should be proportional, specific, and framed in a sensible way.

In the keynote lectures as well as in the discussions, a strong emphasis was put on the importance of enhancing resilience to terrorist threats. In countering terrorism, governments are challenged to prevent terrorist attacks and enhance public resilience to buffer against the psychological impact of terrorism. This means hard work and perseverance. The self-strengthening cycle of fear needs to be broken first; only then, trust in governmental policy and actors and resilience within society can be build. This effort should not only be at the forefront when there is an imminent threat; working on increasing trust and resilience in times of peace and stability means that an airbag can be build that provides a buffer against the impact of the fear terrorists attempt to spread.

The discussions revealed that in the face of terrorism, it is imperative that societies can cope effectively with the inflicted trauma in order to return rapidly to healthy levels of functioning. As such, the meeting exposed the need for governments and civil society to cooperate in the struggle against terrorism by stimulating effective and constructive communication about the actual threat, and enhancing those qualities of the public that mitigate the negative psychological impact of terrorism. Transparent, relevant, proportional and specific communication is key, as it informs the public about the actual threat, the government’s responses to it and the necessary actions by members of the public.

Only through building trust, confidence and resilience can we deny terrorists their most powerful weapon: fear.

Click here for the full text of Martijn de Koning’s column, which he presented at the expert meeting.