American Psychological Association's Response to Terrorism

5 November 2001


The American Psychological Association has asked psychologists to respond to the threat of terrorism. Critical psychologists can raise issues beyond APA's concern with how to reduce stress, aid the US war effort, and protect psychology's turf. Members of APA or any of its divisions might volunteer to help shape, or try to re-shape, APA's response.

An article in the APA Monitor provides more details (http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov01/gearsup.html)

APA Board of Directors Subcommittee on Psychology's Response to Terrorism

It is now evident from statements made by Osama Bin Laden that we have been at war for a decade, going back to the gulf war. At least it is evident that Bin Laden and the terrorist networks have been at war with us that long. We have just recently become aware of their intentions as a result of the unspeakably barbaric and murderous acts that they perpetrated on us on September 11, 2001. It is also likely that this war could last quite a long time, and perhaps involve us in conflict with many other nations. Thus we seem to be facing a threat as serious as we faced in World War II. Some say we are already in World War III.

The nature of this war is fundamentally psychological. The aim of the terrorists is to create crippling fear and psychological debilitation in the populace in order to force the U.S. to get out of all Muslim lands. The psychological impact has been tremendous. We all felt and still feel to some extent the shock and grief that came in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on 9/11. We have yet to experience the worst of the trauma responses to the attacks, which are expected to occur months after the traumatic event. In addition there are new fears, panic, and hysteria resulting from the escalating spate of anthrax incidents and the growing specter of biological and chemical terrorism. We also have the copycats, hoax perpetrators, and domestic terrorists, who have sharply increased their activities. Many think that the anthrax attack is coming from domestic terrorists. In addition to these very serious threats, the daily fabric of our life is being disrupted. As some have said, the terrorists are putting sand into the gears of every day life. U.S. citizens now have to cope with increased difficulties and disruptions in air travel, postal deliveries, building evacuations, and the like. Clearly, the psychological toll of this war is likely to be tremendous.

The APA Board of Directors Subcommittee on Psychology's Response to Terrorism is looking at what psychologists can contribute to the efforts to address both the threat as well as the impact of terrorism, and thus be a key element of the response.

Addressing The Threat of Terrorism

Psychologists, as members of one of the learned professions, have traditionally contributed their expertise to inform makers of public policy. Psychology played significant roles in the war efforts during both World Wars of the last century, contributing scientific knowledge and expertise in such areas as officer-candidate selection, visual perception, and ergonomics. So too, psychology can contribute scientific knowledge and expertise to the goal of ending terrorism. Contributions can be found in the foundational areas of the discipline such as social psychology and its work on malignant attitude formation, such as prejudice and fanaticism. Contributions can also be found in the more applied areas such as international psychology, peace psychology, conflict resolution, multicultural psychology, the psychology of religion, military psychology, and the psychology of criminal justice. The Subcommittee on Psychology's Response to Terrorism is assembling lists of potential contributors and has written to the presidents of APA divisions asking them to help identify their members who might be conducting research which has relevance to the anti-terrorism effort. Dozens of colleagues have written in with offers of help or suggestions of other experts. We also decided that before we go off and write white papers, it would be appropriate to learn what might be of genuine assistance to key policy- and decision-makers. Hence we have been networking with psychologists working in mission critical governmental departments such as Defense, State, the FBI, etc., and now have requests for assistance from two of these agencies.

Addressing The Impact of Terrorism

With regard to addressing the impact, the APA Practice Directorate's Disaster Response Network has been working hand in glove with the American Red Cross in responding to the needs of both victims and rescue workers at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, PA, CA, and elsewhere across the nation. The APA staff have also added a host of wonderful materials on coping with trauma, stress, anxiety, grief and psychologist's self-care to APA's website. We are also looking at what psychologists might contribute to addressing the rising number of anti-Islamic and anti-Middle Eastern hate crime incidents, racial profiling and the erosion of civil liberties. The anthrax attack has taken on the character of workplace violence, and we are looking at what psychologists might contribute to address that as well. We are aware that these events have different impacts on different segments of our pluralistic society (e.g., postal and mail-room employees are often ethnic minorities; older adults often have higher degree of resilience, etc.) and will take this into account as we move forward. The Subcommittee is also looking at the possibilities of insuring that psychological services are included in Senator Kennedy's Bioterrorism Preparedness Act and seeking to include psychology as a major participant in the new Homeland Security office.

National Stress and Anxiety Management and Support Program

At this point it seems clear that we need a large-scale program specifically designed to help citizens deal with the continuing threat of terrorism. Ideally it would reach millions via television or other media to be followed up by group programs conducted in local communities. How much we will be able to accomplish is at this point not clear, but it is important to at least put forward some tentative goals.

It is vital that when we give psychology to the media to pass it along to the public that it is based on sound psychological research where that is available, or where it is our best expert opinion we make the distinction clear. We believe that our current situation is unprecedented and do not expect to find any studies addressing it directly. We have been advised by our science colleagues to look at the literature on psychological resilience, as well as the literature on terrorism in other countries (e.g., Northern Ireland, Israel) and on the response to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. In addition, programs for dealing with acute and chronic stress and anxiety are likely to be of significant help. A literature search on the outcomes of stress management programs found that there are studies demonstrating efficacy in three areas: workplace/job stress, medical illness, and family stress (e.g., parental stress of managing difficult children). We are also aware that different segments of our diverse society have different methods of coping and managing stress, some being more comfortable with individually-focussed methods like cognitive self-control and relaxation techniques, and others are more comfortable receiving support from their extended families, communities, and churches.

The appeal to the potential media partners would be that we are offering to help our citizens deal with the stress, anxiety and fear caused by terrorism. The program would be aimed at building strengths and promoting resilience and health. We would stress that it is an act of patriotism to be as resilient as one can be to defeat the purpose of the terrorists. We will show how stress and anxiety management and support works and what it can accomplish, with diverse vignettes of how people respond to different approaches, such as training programs and church support groups. The show would also attempt to overcome the stigma barriers and encourage people to participate by featuring high profile leaders willing to participate in stress management and support programs themselves. The goal would be to encourage people to enroll in stress management training and support programs in their communities, and would, in the best case scenario, be followed up with local workshops and support groups in the community. The follow up programs would involve collaboration with community groups and churches. They would involve "giving psychology away," and would draw on the tremendous pro bono spirit of psychologists. Such an initiative could help position psychology as a key national resource, perhaps as significant as the repositioning that occurred after W.W.II. Again we are at this point not at all certain how much we will be able to accomplish, but we will certainly do our best.

We are at the proverbial fork in the road as a society in dealing with this problem. There are many ways that psychologists can help, and we have sketched just a few of them. The stakes are high. If we can help, we must.

APA Board of Directors Subcommittee on Psychology's Response to Terrorism

Ronald F. Levant, Chair Rlevant@aol.com
Laura Barbanel
Nate Perry
Derek Snyder
Kurt Salzinger
Cynthia Belar
Rhea Farberman
Russ Newman
Henry Tomes
Gary VandenBos

Related Link
Wading Through Quicksand: Between the Philosophically Desirable and the Psychologically Feasible
by Dennis Fox & Isaac Prilleltensky

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