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Audience participation and some lively debate punctuated a discussion of “Psychological Effects on a Nation” at noon today in Kirby Hall of Civil Rights, the third in a five-part Campus Conversations series addressing issues related to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Government and law major Nana Bentsi-Enchill ’02 introduced speakers Susan Basow, Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology, and Alan Childs, associate professor of psychology.

Childs, who once received military training in terrorism and counter-terrorism, invited the audience to state the emotions evoked by footage of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. After people mentioned feeling fear, disbelief, horror, and anger, he noted that the answers showed that the terrorists accomplished their objectives. The effectiveness of the acts also is manifest by behavioral changes such as being fixated on news and considering transportation alternatives to flying.

Childs defined terror as “intense, overpowering fear.” A typical effect is “flash-bulb memory,” recalling the exact moment when news of an attack came. “Terrorism is the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence to intimate a society or government, often for ideological purposes or political reasons,” said Childs. Targeting civilians is part of the design.

One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, Childs noted, and those who resort to violence on behalf of national liberation, the rights of the unborn, or the elimination of evil may still believe that they are opposed to terrorism in principle. Childs summarized the goals of terrorism as the “three D’s” of destruction, demoralization, and destabilization.

Basow outlined the response to mass disaster as four stages: shock and disbelief, in which people are unable to take in what has happened; strong emotional response, including fear, anger, horror, and overwhelming sadness; acceptance, during which coping mechanisms are mobilized; and recovery, as people regain their ability to concentrate.

One category of reaction to threats is “flight or fight,” said Basow, in which people exhibit withdrawal and denial behavior or transition from anger to aggression. “People want to do something with their anger and direct it against a target that seems to have something to do with the threat,” she said. The “flight or flight” response is more effective in dealing with a one-on-one threat, she explained.

The other main category of reaction is “tend and befriend,” which can include acts of caring and compassion and expressions of unity. This has manifested itself by the heroic acts and increased altruistic behavior following the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as the frequent displays of patriotism, which fulfill the need to be part of a group and unit, but also can polarize people.

It is natural to have certain feelings such as fear and anger, and even thoughts like increased stereotyping, said Basow, but people can choose not to act out these feelings. It is important to seek understanding of what happened, she said, rather than concluding that the attacks were “senseless” and completely attributable to one individual.

During a period for audience questions and comments, Basow agreed that the term “war” is used to justify behavior that normally would not be acceptable, such as infringement on civil liberties.

“One of the best things I did was to stop watching CNN,” said Basow, explaining that continued viewing of negative images makes one relive them in an unhealthy way. “Part of the media’s goal is to upset you to keep you watching,” added Childs. He also expressed concern about evidence of a “football game mentality” in responses to the attacks that trivializes them and spurs irrational behavior.

Joseph Martin, associate professor of English, pointedly questioned whether terrorism could be summarized in the “three D’s” of destruction, demoralization, and destabilization, suggesting that terrorists also want the victimized population to think about such realities as their own vulnerability and change their foreign policy. Childs conceded that there are other goals of terrorists, but disagreed with the idea that the World Trade Center terrorists sought to provoke a thoughtful response or change U.S. foreign policy.

Landon Adams ’02 said that if the terrorists wanted the U.S. to think anything, it was that the country is not invincible and able to control everything.

An extremely positive aspect of the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks is that it did not bomb Afghanistan a day or two afterward, contrary to what the terrorists must have envisioned. He suggested that the U.S. “bomb them with butter,” sending food and importing capitalism abroad to provide a financial disincentive to terrorism. A materialistic response will not convert terrorists, he said, but it can curtail recruiting and weaken the enthusiasm of their support networks. However, even if Israel were eliminated and U.S. involvement in the Middle East halted, terrorists like Osama bin Laden would not be satisfied, said Childs.

Basow and Childs also cautioned people against believing rumors arising from the terrorist attacks, such as spectacular stories of escape and claims that the video CNN aired of Palestinians celebrating in response to the attacks was old footage.

The psychology professors recommend the following web sites for help in copying with trauma:, and

Categorized in: Academic News