The effects of terrorism alerts in creating sociogenic illness among a population.
Experts writing in the British Medical Journal in recent years have identified an ancillary threat of terrorism to the average population of a country. According to Simon Wessely and other researchers a psychological response to the threat of terrorism in the form of mass sociogenic illness may be a primary threat of terrorism. Their findings have very real implications for countries that continually magnify the threat of terrorism against their own populace in order to achieve a political agenda.
Examples of mass sociogenic illness remind us of the dangers of inadvertently amplifying psychological responses to chemical and biological weapons and thus adding to their impact. One example is the routine use of investigators clad in space suits to assess possible terrorist attacks. Another is that the United States government is considering placing detectors to identify chemical warfare agents on the Washington DC subway system. It is possible that these alarms will in practice cause greater disruptions to transport systems than the attack itself, given the high probability that such detectors may give false alarms. There were 4500 such alerts in the Gulf war and none was associated with a confirmed attack.[i]
These findings raise the question of how much responsibility the U.S. government under the Bush administration has toward its citizenry regarding continued elevations of threat levels through the current Homeland Security Advisory System. A review of the use of the system since it was introduced in the months following 9-11 show that levels have often been raised during times when the administration was attempting to achieve some political purpose. For example, during the critical time of the passage of the Patriot Act levels rose with little rationale to justify the rise. In fact, critics argue that the threat levels don’t seem to be tied to any procedural guidelines at all, but merely change at the whim of the Homeland Security Administration. The net effect of this is to negate any real value of the warning system but still attempt to keep the country engaged in political decision-making and co-optation of their collective will through irrational fear.
The use of fear of an unknown enemy who could strike at any time to gain political advantage over a people is no new technique. History is rife with examples of leadership that has unethically manipulated the thought processes of whole nations of peoples through irrational and often unrealized fear. Of course, the German nationalism of the mid-twentieth century driven by xenophobia and anti-Semitism stand out but the ethnic cleansing that has occurred throughout the world at various periods of history have all been used by governing bodies to address “threats” to their countries and manage the populations.
So why should this practice be so egregious to citizens of the United States? Simply because the U.S. has been developed on principles of free thought and personal civil liberties. The strength of the nation is the very freedom of diversity that heightened anxiety over suspected terrorists threatens to jeopardize. After real or imagined episodes of fear of attack, citizens tend to yield personal liberties in return for promised security. The biggest danger of prolonged and U.S. exacerbated terroristic threat to the citizenry is the psychological erosion of the belief that liberty must be preserved primarily.
Finally, sociogenic illness may manifest itself in prolonged and profound psychological trauma, rendering the country unable to recover from any real attacks by terrorists. Imagining a toxic chemical attack on a country after a prolonged heightening of unrealized terroristic threat, Wessely states:
The general level of malaise, fear, and anxiety may remain high for years, exacerbating pre-existing psychiatric disorders and further heightening the risk of mass sociogenic illness. The ... uncertainty over the chronic health effects of low level exposure to toxic agents will further increase anxiety in the affected communities.
Because health officials cannot provide blanket assurances that no harm will result from brief or non-symptom producing exposure to toxic agents, frustration and then a growing distrust of medical experts and government officials may result, robbing state institutions of the trust they need to manage recovery. Lastly, unconfirmed or controversial hypotheses about the health effects of exposure to chemical and biological weapons will probably become contentious scientific and media issues in the years ahead, as has occurred after numerous chemical and radiological incidents, the Gulf war, and the Balkans deployment.[ii]
Ultimately a government has a primary responsibility to protect its citizens from the threats of harm. To use those threats to gain political advantage or advance agendas that erode the freedoms and liberties of the citizenry is unethical and antithetical to the founding principles of the United States. The only legitimate approach is to provide accurate and timely information to U.S. citizens regarding threats to their security, while safeguarding the liberties and diversity that make their country great. Anything less than this is unconscionable.
[i] Simon Wessely, British Medical Journal (October, 2001).