How Terror Attacks on Public Places Can Spark Public Anxiety

Attacks like the one in New York City can alter people's psychology and their politics.
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Children are evacuated from a school as emergency personal respond after a man driving a rental truck struck and killed eight people on a jogging and bike path in Lower Manhattan on October 31st, 2017, in New York City.

Children are evacuated from a school as emergency personal respond after a man driving a rental truck struck and killed eight people on a jogging and bike path in Lower Manhattan on October 31st, 2017, in New York City.

On Tuesday, a driver ran down cyclists on a New York City bike path, killing eight and injuring at least 11, in what federal authorities believe is a terror attack. According to police, the suspect, 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov from Uzbekistan, sped down 20 city blocks before jumping out of a Home Depot rental truck and shouting, "Allahu Akbar," Arabic for "God is great."

"Based on information we have at this moment, this was an act of terror, and a particularly cowardly act of terror aimed at innocent civilians," Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters on Tuesday.

This attack is the latest in recent years to wreak havoc on a public place—from the streets of Nice and Barcelona and a Berlin Christmas market, to the riverside paths of Lower Manhattan. Armed with pick-up trucks, bombs, and semi-automatic rifles, attackers have targeted innocent pedestrians, bystanders, and concert-goers where they presume to feel safe.

As these threats endanger public spaces, they also have serious implications on the private, innermost workings of everyday citizens' psyches. As some of the more recent social science shows, terrorist attacks can affect everything from the way people think to the way they vote.

  • Many researchers have documented the effects of terror attacks on their victims' mental health. Longitudinal and clinical assessments of terror victims—from 9/11 survivors to Pakistani first responders—found that survivors often experience post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. However, the stress of an attack can impact people hundreds of miles away. A survey of national reactions after 9/11 found that just watching news coverage of the attack produced "substantial stress symptoms" among people who had no physical connection to the attacks.
  • A large body of research shows that terror attacks often trigger backlash against Muslim immigrants. Many studies conducted in the aftermath of 9/11 found an uptake in anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner sentiment, particularly for Muslim Americans. Aside from inducing hate crimes, this rhetoric can seriously harm the Muslim immigrant population's health and economic prospects. One 2012 study analyzing "assimilation patterns" after 9/11 found that Muslim immigrants living in states with the highest rates of hate crimes were more likely to marry within their ethnic group, were less likely to have women in the workforce, and had lower English proficiency.
  • Terror attacks—or the perceived threat of them—can also make people's politics more conservative. In a 2012 study, researchers found that conservatives are motivated by fear in a way that liberals are not. But when a threat arises, liberals, too, have been found to become more socially conservative. When researchers presented liberal-leaning students with a moral threat, they reversed their attitudes on homosexuality. Other studies show that people are more willing to trade civil liberties for security in the aftermath of an attack. (Still, a new study suggests that the opposite holds true; conservatives who combat fear with an imagined "superpower" were more likely to embrace social change.)

Ever since 9/11, studies documenting the link between terrorism and anxiety have prompted researchers to call for greater access to medical intervention. But the long-term effects are not always visible, nor easily treated. As these attacks continue to infiltrate public spaces around the world, the way people view the world changes too.

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