The Fear of Terrorism - How does it affect us?

The terror attack on the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and the hostage crisis in the Jewish supermarket in Paris are already more than a week in the past, however we are clearly far removed from a calming of the situation in Europe. Reports on the subject continue to mount. This week the large scale operation involving two dead in the Belgian Verviers; after that actually to no one’s surprise the report in Spiegel Online about foreign intelligence services having warned the German authorities of potential terror attacks against the central terminals in Berlin and Dresden as well as against anti-muslim marches. Muslims are protesting against the satire magazine’s new edition worldwide with the excesses again resulting in numerous deaths and injuries. Simultaneously intelligence agencies suddenly arrest terror suspects all over Europe; employers vet their employees for dubious activities - no one is any longer prepared to risk anything. On the other hand at the same time it is obvious: Security is an illusion and everything only consists of helpless attempts at subduing an untamable Hydra. At this point no one can any longer have any doubts that Paris only represents the beginning of escalating violence and that an end cannot anywhere near be predicted. Actually as a European one should ask oneself, when and where but rather than if something is going to happen again.
Be it far from me to comment on the political or moral factors contributing to this terrible development; I don’t feel neither called upon nor qualified for that. Rather, a recent article in “Le Figaro” gave me food for thought confirming my previous suspicion. Since the assassinations in France “the sale of anxiolytic medications and sleeping pills has increased by 18.2%”. An increase of 18.2% - more or less during one weekend: from Friday through Tuesday. “We have never observed a similar phenomena” comments Dr. Patrick Guérin of Celtipharm. The sole comparable situation he remembers was the catastrophe of Fukushima in March of 2011 when the sale of iodine (for the prophylaxis of damage caused by radioactive precipitation) suddenly increased three-fold.

I am not sure whether similar statistics exist for other European countries. However in case one would have been interested I could well imagine that quantifiable effects would have already existed during last week. Apart from the, in France and elsewhere just not measurable effects on the human psychological state in general. Those who had already been subject of psychotherapeutic and medicinal treatment prior to the assassinations, anyway (and those who now merely took more pills than previously), plus those who joined during the days between Friday and Tuesday as consumers of sedatives obviously merely represent the tip of the iceberg. Not everyone who sleeplessly and brooding tossed in bed wondering how all of this is going to continue immediately runs to the pharmacy to get medication only available on prescription and thus automatically becomes part of a statistic. Many are initially going to try handling their anxieties on their own or they resort to „sedatives“ not covered by any pharmaceutical statistic: more alcohol, more nicotine, more chocolate . . . estimated numbers of unreported, undetected additional cases having to increasingly deal with anxiety symptoms possibly even with depression since the beginning of this deplorable escalation of violence, are surely many times larger than those 18.2%.

It is extremely unlikely that the assassinations in Paris are not going to leave their mark on all of us. It was just too close to our personal reality of life, too easy for us to identify with the victims. Of course, we are daily overwhelmed with pictures depicting violence, horror and terror. Only just recently the report about the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria with hundreds of dead, a multiple of those in Paris. Then the never-ending fighting in the Ukraine; there incessantly wounded and dead, as well. But then by comparison it is easier for us dealing with these horrors – by now we have learned to distance ourselves with the aid of reliably established strategies. The further away the easier we can manage to be detached and ignore them. And when it involves an established war- or civil war region we don’t expect any different reports any longer, anyway. We think, “well, that’ll work itself out . . or, don’t ,they‘ have control of the situation yet?” and then we turn the page to the next story.

With that I obviously don’t mean this to be morally justified when we are any less touched by the misery of others just because it does not immediately involve our own life’s daily reality. But then on the other hand “thanks” to our exposure to global networking media and having to live with a multitude of disturbing and shocking reports from all over the world we perforce develop certain psychological protective mechanisms. If we were to let anything get equally close to us without it, our psyche and intellect would be totally incapable to continue functioning halfway normally. Where the assassinations in Paris and their consequences are concerned it appears that exactly these protective safeguards have suddenly been inactivated. Those people who died there did not live in faraway, already for a long time by civil war shaken places. This happened right in our midst; in the heart of Europe, during every day life. Among the hostages in the Jewish supermarket were women and children – all suffering unimaginable fear. And all of them, just as those who lost their lives, really didn’t want to do anything that we ourselves don’t do almost daily: just to go shopping. In the morning they took their children by their hand . . . maybe they were grumpy because they would rather have been visiting the playground or visit their friends in Kindergarten . . . and they told them: “Come on, just quickly in here I still need some salt and a few onions for lunch – you’ll get an ice cream cone if you behave!” That was all it took to catapult them into an emotional Hell defying any description. If something like that can happen in the middle of Paris, then everything is possible. This week one of my favorite authors, Sibylle Berg wrote in her Blog: “They (humans) are confused about a world virtually or actually currently exploding on all corners. Then no stone is left standing and everything one has envisioned of one’s life appears to be challenged. (. .) There is no certainty any longer, although it had been assumed.”
Suddenly all over the place politicians and media speak of a war in which we are involved: The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes about a “War of the Civilizations” Le Figaro explains: “War was declared on us: the war of the Islamic fanaticism against the West, against Europe and against the democratic values. . . If there is war one must win it”; and in the terror assassinations in Paris BILD newspaper recognizes an “ Assault on the Heart of our Civilization”. Everywhere it is confirmed that valor and strength are on the order of the day to face terror and defend the Western Way of Life, Freedom of Expression and Tolerance, the values establishing our Society: „Pas de peur!” – “no fear!” shouted the masses in France. BILD writes: ”All we can do about it, is to live our lives without fear. (. . .) We always have to be aware that the price for that in a world of terror can always be life. However, if we are not ready to pay that price we won’t be free, either.” The French paper La Croix demands: “We must remain serene and dignified and may not lapse into panic”, the Belgian Telegraaf claims forcefully: “We won’t be scared”. The heroic quotation by Charlie Hebdo publisher Stéphane Charbonnier: “I prefer to die standing up than to live on my knees” is on everybody’s lips. All of a sudden all of us are soldiers and are being held to fearlessly defend our freedom, whether we want it or not.


However moving and impressive I perceived the mourning march in Paris and the worldwide countless solidarity demonstrations; as much as the universal flood of “Je suis Charlie” statements may have touched me; and as much as I admired all those able to demonstrate calm and strength during these days of horror – I very much doubt that all of us are that calm and emotionally strong would we be sitting privately and all alone in our room. After everything that happened I doubt that we could (and should) simply return to the order of the day in that way. Particularly people who are already beset by anxiety disorders or depressions before the terrorists struck could well have frequently been further de-stabilized by these events. But then many people thus far not suffering from these problems may possibly now sense their own nervous tension or agitation, even concrete anxiety symptoms: insomnia, disproportionate strong reactions to stress situations, a subliminal testiness, problems with concentrating . . . whatever.

I believe it to be important for us to honestly deal with these feelings – and without pathologizing them – now sprinkling half of the European population with the diagnosis “post traumatic stress reaction” would surely be mistake – but simply also without trivializing or denying them. Clearly, the danger exists and in the presence of terror, in the light of all those more or less dramatic appeals to our civic duty to now live our lives all the more bravely and free from fear. Seen out of a global political perspective steadfastness is certainly correct otherwise terror would clearly have achieved its objective of intimidation. However, that does not mean that everyone in his/her objective situation should now ignore when he/she now feels alarmed since the assassinations in Paris. More than that, one should not be embarrassed for having these feelings – statistics regarding the sale of tranquilizers in France very clearly signal that one is anything but alone with them. It is just that only very few publicly admit to them- it is just easier and looks better to share a logo “Je suis Charlie “on Facebook rather than admitting that one can’t sleep nights or since the assassinations is afraid to walk into a supermarket or rail station.

“What use is it to ridicule German fear, to list the objective facts, to emphasize the alleged German prosperity or Europe’s relative security – if it is not actually perceived that way? When the instinct is toggled to alarm, when the synapses signal mortal fear?” writes Sibylle in her Blog. All of that is good for nothing – and exactly that is the problem. It is not the solution to simply rationalize one’s feelings or simply act as if nothing happened. For many people it will be sufficient to share their anxieties with family members or friends in order to process them or find a way to deal with them. And that is essentially my point today: if this does not apply to you; if the assassinations in Paris for whatever reason have left you with lasting effects, then you should take that seriously and err on the side of caution by consulting with professionals in order to cope with these events. This is not a sign of weakness; it is an indication of strength and your personal sense of responsibility. Because all of us may be Charlie – but most of all, we are just people. Not soldiers!