„Community cohesion is the health of a nation”: On psychological resilience to terrorism

Resilience, a concept originally developed in the field of child psychology, refers to the ability to avoid the damaging effects and/or quickly recover from various forms of hardship. [i] It can be applied on a variety of levels, from individuals working through challenging personal tragedy to groups or whole nations displaying resilience in the face of natural disaster or economic crises. However, different forms of resilience may be conceptualized differently and may also require different components to be developed.

For instance, one can make the distinction between reactive and proactive resilience. While reactive resilience is concerned with the development of recovery measures in reaction to a hazardous event, proactive resilience refers to measures taken to increase resilience without reference to a specific threat. The Dalai Lama captured the essence of proactive resilience when he wrote: “A tree with strong roots can withstand the most violent storm, but the tree can’t grow roots just as the storm appears on the horizon”. [ii] Rather than developing measures to quickly and efficiently repair the tree after the storm, proactive resilience seeks increase the tree’s strength generally and to mitigate the effect of any hazard before it is even forecasted.

Resilience in terrorism studies

Terrorism is one of these threats that can hardly be forecasted. It presents an unpredictable and latently omnipresent danger, which is man-made and intended to spread fear and cause polarization. These attributes make terrorism a unique threat to the psychological wellbeing of society as a whole. Always present and indiscriminate in its targeting, terrorism is a long-term hazard with profound psychological effects.

In the field of terrorism, extremism and radicalization studies, the concept of resilience is often found as reactive resilience referring to the implementation of physical counter-measures to mitigate the damaging effects of terrorist attacks. [iii] When psychological resilience is studied, it is sometimes researched in the context of immediate victims recovering from a terrorist attack [iv] or in relation to the prevention of extremism and radicalization processes. Intuitively, resilience in this context is understood as the ability to withstand the appeal of extremist material and the absence of push-, pull- and personal factors [v] potentially increasing the risk of deciding to join terrorist organizations. [vi] An understanding of both, the elements drawing individuals towards extremism and their flipside, the elements inhibiting individuals to adopt extremist worldviews, is acquired through both theoretical and empirical analyses of radicalization processes and then informs the development of prevention and de-radicalization measures. For instance, self-esteem and empathy are believed to be factors increasing resilience against susceptibility to radicalization and can be included in prevention and counter-measures to radicalization processes. [vii]

Psychological resilience on a societal level

However, it is also necessary to analyze resilience on a societal level. As Crelinsten famously asserted, terrorism is, in essence, psychological warfare [viii] with the primary aim to spread fear and cause psychological damage beyond its immediate victims. The real target of terrorist activity is society itself and especially the social cohesion and trust underpinning the functioning of multi-cultural democratic societies.  Terrorism and the constant threat of terrorism can have profound psychological effects such as an increased suspicion towards (religious) minorities, an increase in hate crime, a decrease in social trust, hyper-securitized thinking or a change in voting behavior, which may undermine the very foundations holding democratic societies together. For instance, in 2017, a survey on social fears found that terrorism (71%), political extremism (62%) were the issues Germans were most worried about. [ix] However, the psychological discomfort caused by the terrorist threat can also manifest itself in violence: The 9/11 attacks, the London bombings 2005 as well as the 2017 attacks in London and Manchester all lead to a stark increase in hate crimes. [x] After the right-wing attack in Christchurch, British police found a 600% increase in anti-Muslim hate crime [xi], despite the intuitive expectation that hate crime after terrorist attacks is mainly directed at the in-group of the perpetrator rather than the victims.

Terrorist activity does not represent an existential threat on a physical level to Western democracies, but its psychological, long-term effects can have damaging effects on the social interactions, cause intra-societal conflicts and profoundly alter the way democracy is understood and lived, potentially inspiring citizens to trade freedom for perceived security. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to research and subsequently develop measures to increase the psychological resilience of societies.

Measuring psychological societal resilience to the threat of terrorism is conceptually challenging as already individual resilience is influenced by an interplay of multiple factors [xii], which only become more complex on the group level. There are, however, other related concepts, which are thought to play a part in the development of societal resilience, such as (community) cohesion and collective identity. [xiii] These can help researchers gain a better understanding of the factors influencing resilience without the need for an overarching theory of resilience development on the national level. For instance, cohesion has been discussed in relation to preventing inter-group conflicts within a society [xiv], as an important element for collective identity construction [xv], and in relation to the development of resilience against natural disasters [xvi] as well as war. [xvii] Collective identity has also been shown to play a part in resilience against natural disaster [xviii], socio-economic hardship [xix], and conflicts between groups. [xx]This shows that researchers have already acquired knowledge on important aspects of resilience and can build further analysis of resilience, especially in the context of terrorism, upon these studies.

Societal resilience and social cohesion are of paramount importance in the long-term struggle against the psychological damage of terrorism to multicultural, democratic societies, and should be studied alongside traditional conceptualizations of physical resilience and psychological resilience against radicalization. Counter-measures against psychological warfare need to take individual and group psychology into account. Academics, practitioners and policy-makers would benefit from a better understanding of societal resilience in order to mitigate the negative, long-term effects of the terrorist threat. “Community cohesion is the health of a nation”* and can protect democracy itself. It should therefore be a primary objective in counter-terrorism strategies.

*This is a statement from a retired British civil servant, who was heavily involved in the development of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST, uttered in an interview with the author in June 2017

About the author

Linda Schlegel holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts from University College Maastricht and a Master’s degree in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London. Her research interests comprise (online-)radicalisation, extremists’ use of social media, processes of identity construction of extremist groups, and societal resilience to terrorism. She is a regular contributor to The European Eye on Radicalization and tweets here @LiSchlegel.

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[ii] The Dalai Lama (2012). The Essence of Happiness. Hachette UK: London, p.79

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