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Putting Terrorism into Perspective

The September 11 event and other terrorist attacks in western countries have polarised western public opinion. Not surprisingly there has been little public support for the terrorists or their causes. Nor is there any support for terrorism in this article. What this article does try to do is to lament and explore the loss of balance in public debate (at least in western countries) that has gone hand in hand with the loss of life and the loss of a sense of security. And in particular this article asks the question: how can we restore balance and perspective in public debate which has been polarised, at least temporarily, by terrorism or similar "out of normal paradigm" actions.

One of the weaknesses of western style democracy is the tendency, possibly need, for politicians to associate themselves with the public mood, even feelings of rage, about such attacks or actions. It appears difficult for any politician to tell his or her voters to "calm down" and to consider rationally the underlying causes of the physical and psychological affront they perceive very personally. The initial response of people and politicians (at least publicly) is emotive rather than rational - a dangerous base from which to determine appropriate reactions.

How can a more rational and longer term response be encouraged when such terrorist attacks or other personal affronts to our sense of security and self-image occur? Some initial thoughts to try to encourage others' comments:

  1. Emotionally raw people do not hear rational arguments very well - People have a need to feel safe and secure first. Assurances are required before one can begin to again look out sensibly. Perhaps the best start is for the assurances to include clear and sensible statements about the (often more limited than initially feared) extent of the immediate threat.
  2. The immediate emotional desire often seems to be quick retribution on a readily identified person(s) to blame, but any immediate emotional satisfaction rarely seems to survive the subsequent discovery process of the complex causes of the initial terrorist act and ramifications of any response.
  3. People under great stress need to be encouraged rather to be confident that appropriate people, processes and effort are being applied to the threat/problem. This should include assurances that the underlying causes will be addressed to ensure that the issue does not happen again. We need to build up and promote the image of a good leader in times of stress/panic - a person who tells us the truth, who is grounded in the long term realities rather than short term emotions while recognising the people's need for assurance in such times of emotional panic, a person who shows they know how to inspire sensible thinking and action by those around them.
  4. A general understanding that people (including those who take extreme actions) tend to act in response to their backgrounds, needs and provocations needs to complement the sometimes simplistic view that all individuals have equivalent backgrounds and can be held equally responsible for their actions according to the same behaviour expectations. This may best be raised and communicated through analogies and examples from our own country's or culture's history - illustrating how standards have varied in different times and under different stresses - such as during original conquest/settlementĀ  or under war-time pressures.
  5. Lateral communication methods such as cartoons, music, fiction writing, can be enlisted to help move people beyond their initial emotive rage to a broader understanding of the issue - offsetting the sometimes anti-rational emotional heightening that can be fostered by ratings seeking talk-show hosts. For example see the news-based simulation games offered atĀ
  6. Public and even popular media reviews after the emotional phase is over of how attacks and other issues were handled could be positive if they can drive home the exacerbating problems with immediate emotion driven responses.

Other thoughts? What do you think? Please add a comment, or start or join a discussion group. Links to other relevant sites are welcome.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 May 2012 00:41

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