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Source: public domain

Last week, a white van sped across London Bridge, ramming into a crowd of pedestrians. Shortly afterward, the three assailants leapt out of their vehicle, brutally stabbing people in nearby Borough Market. This blood-curdling attack is only the latest of three terror incidents that have rocked the United Kingdom in the past 10 weeks alone, leaving 33 people dead and injuring many more. In addition to numerous middle-eastern nations, Belgium, Germany, France, Russia, and the United States have all grappled with terror attacks since the beginning of 2016, as ordinary people—husbands, wives, children, sisters, and brothers—have succumbed to tragic acts of violence

Many in the media have asked, “Why?” Why do terrorists take the lives of innocent people? Some commentators have focused on the terrorists’ presumptive political motives and have pointed to increasing social-media efforts to “radicalize” would-be assailants, others have pointed to copycat effects, while still others have said that it's none of these: It's simply criminally deranged behavior. The truth is, it's probably impossible to get into the mind of a terrorist. We’re unlikely ever to know exactly why the three men, now deceased, did what they did that day on London Bridge. Nonetheless, I think we should take the title of their act at face value: Terrorism.

On some level, the goal is to spread terror. 

This begs an important question: Are these attackers actually achieving that goal? In one sense, the answer is clearly no. Most of us are living our lives relatively normally. We're not walking around constantly feeling terrified by the events in the news. We go to work, spend time with family, and hang out with friends much like we did the day before any one of the attacks. But could this day-to-day normalcy be hiding a bigger shift in our culture? Could there be more insidious, slow-moving effects of terrorism that are going unnoticed?

To answer this question, we have to understand how the emotion of terror works.  Psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski, and Jeff Greenberg have spent decades studying the finer points of terror. Their perspective is complicated, to say the least, but they make many important points. According to their writings, collectively known as “Terror Management Theory,” only human beings can truly feel terror, because we are the only animals with the cognitive capacity to realize that we will die. If we’re lucky, we might live for 80 or 90 years. Of course, many of us won’t, succumbing much earlier to disease, accidents, or crime.

If we really stopped to think about it, we would feel truly terrified. Fortunately, most of the time, we don’t.

According to Terror Management Theory, that’s because we human beings have a powerful tool that helps to psychologically defend us against feeling overwhelmed with terror: culture. Not all cultures are the same, of course, but most offer some kind of promise of safety provided we behave in a way that is appropriate to that culture. Some cultures even promise everlasting life. In Christian culture (like many other religious cultures), for instance, individuals are literally promised immorality provided they live up to certain conditions—having faith and doing good works, among them. But even our secular consumerist culture offers “symbolic” immortality by offering opportunities to carry our legacy forward in forms such as the businesses we build, the art we create, the buildings we construct, or the children we raise. Culture even provides comforting beliefs like, “What goes around comes around.” In other words, we’re able to reassure ourselves, “I’m doing the right things (i.e., living up to what’s expected according to my culture), so I’m safe.” And, the more we are able to live up to the standards of our culture, the safer and more secure we feel. Logically, we know none of this is strictly true, but it’s enough to put our minds at ease and distract us from the reality that danger could be right around the corner.

But terrorism punches holes in these psychological defenses. That’s because terrorist acts are so unpredictable. People who entered the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 were simply going to work. People in Madrid’s Atocha station on March 11, 2004 were just boarding the train. And people on London Bridge last week were going about their ordinary days, taking a stroll, or enjoying a view of the River Thames. Terrorist acts remind us in a very palpable way that none of us is truly safe.

So, if terrorism shows us that we aren’t safe, why aren’t we all consumed by raw terror every time one of these horrible acts occurs?  

The answer is that our cultural defense mechanisms assert themselves. When we’re reminded of our fragile mortality, Solomon, Pyszczynski, and Greenberg argue that we tend to cling even more tightly to the cultural worldview that most comforts us. That’s one reason why terrorism against a country tends to give rise to increased nationality in that country. Following the 9/11 attacks, for example, American flags could be seen on practically every residential street in the land, not to mention on many cars, buses, business, and billboards. Commitment to one’s culture is deeply comforting when it comes to reducing feelings of terror. The coming together of the American populace after 9/11 was a good thing, of course. In the months following the attacks, people visiting New York observed how kind, caring, and helpful people were to one another.

But our cultural defense mechanisms also have a darker side: They can drive deep wedges between people of differing cultures.

If we look to our own culture for comfort and stability in the aftermath of a terror attack, then anything that challenges our culture is potentially a threat to our emotional well-being. The problem is, in our globalized world, challenges to our cultural worldview are everywhere. Everyday our lives brush against people of differing cultures, who were born in different countries and have vastly different ideas than we do. In a way, the existence of people holding contradicting beliefs casts doubt on the validity of our own beliefs. As just one example, if I’m relying on my particular culture's belief that, say, doing certain kinds of behaviors (and perhaps abstaining from others) will enable me to access the afterlife, and I encounter another culture that says those practices are bunk, that other culture challenges my comforting beliefs. If I’m not careful, my gut response could be to denigrate that other culture and the people who adhere to it. In order for my culture to be right, theirs must be wrong or bad.

This isn’t just a theory.  

In a now classic study appearing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Americans were asked to read a transcript of an interview with a highly credentialed expert who was expressing unfavorable opinions of the United States. After reading the interview, the participants were asked to rate the degree to which they liked and would be open to meeting the interviewee. Here’s the interesting part: Right before reading the interview, half of the participants were asked to contemplate their own death and the emotions that thinking about their death aroused within them. Exactly as Terror Management Theory would predict, compared to people who weren’t asked to think about death, those who were reminded of their own eventual demise gave much more negative opinions of the person in the interview. Even more intriguingly, this happened unconsciously; none of the research participants knew they were doing it.

This is only one of dozens of studies showing that, when reminded of the reality of death, people tend to cling to their own beliefs and cultures and to denigrate individuals with different beliefs and cultures. In case you were wondering, it doesn’t matter what country the research is done in. Another study, this time in Germany, showed that when people were reminded of their fragile mortality, they were more likely to denigrate non-German culture, people, and products. The same effect has been found in people of nations all over the globe. 

Terrorist attacks remind us of our own fragile mortality. And if Terror Management Theory is right, such attacks should slowly but surely give rise to greater political and societal divisions, prejudice, and suspicion between people of different cultures.

It’s a frightening prediction, and one that should give us pause.

David B. Feldman is a Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University and co-author of Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering & Success (HarperCollins). Follow his work on Facebook.

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