Israel as a Model for Coping with Terror

Introduction

Terror, as a political and religious tool, has become more common in the West and especially in Europe over the last few decades. Moreover, it has escalated both in form and in frequency, moving from the overtly functional, such as hijacking of planes and making relatively practical demands (such as release of prisoners) to being more blithely destructive, actively seeking simply to inflict as much harm and injury as possible, with no desire for or hint of demands of any sort or of any practical value.

Clearly, terror induces “terror.” It is something people fear, revile, and often go to incredible lengths engaging in behavior that they think will help avoid it. But while there are certainly areas and situations that are more “terror-prone” than others, learning that terror is random, blind, and often without reason, the very factors that lead one to fear it, are also the factors that can help people to cope with it.

Israel is perhaps unique in that it has almost singularly experienced terror as a constant from the day of its birth. The phrase “living with terror” has no better poster child than the Israeli public. From a political and policy perspective, much can be (and is) being said about the reasons behind terror and the various thoughts of how to reduce and even eliminate it. This paper, however, will not address those issues, better left to others to discuss. The more relevant question concerning the psychological challenge posed by terror is how to take the lessons that Israelis have learned over the years and create a meaningful response system to better deal with the challenges that terror presents to a society.

Keep It Simple

While a subset of the population always seeks to analyze and look for root causes for behavior, the principle of “keep it simple” is best applied here. For the majority of the Israeli public, knowing why is rather straightforward and simply stated. There are people who do not like us, and they want to do us harm.

Just like one would not be wise to start reasoning with an armed robber, so should one seeking to improve personal coping not focus too much on the reasons a terrorist may wish to do harm. Those reasons are of course important and critical to a broader understanding of the phenomenon, but they also distract and divert attention from the most direct effect of terror, namely, disrupting the lives of the people it targets. From an individual perspective, the “us against them” model is as elegantly simple as it is shallow and superficial, but it avoids inapt self-blame and properly and without any dilution incriminates the behavior of those seeking to do harm.

What flows from this simplicity is a series of actions tied to an attitude of “survival first.” Most importantly, the understanding that terror is random peels away the curtain of retrospective self-blame for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is no “wrong place” and there is no “wrong time” when it comes to terror. Spending too much time in thinking which restaurant, which bus line, which concert and which street to avoid is using logic to deal with the illogical. The psychological price of being under constant attack is a vigilance that ultimately affects the ability to enjoy life and to play a functionally productive role in one’s family and community. Understanding and accepting the randomness of terror helps keep vigilance at an appropriate level and avoids the psychological paralysis that uncontrolled fear can create.

Follow Some Basic Rules

Part of the “simple” approach in personal coping is to follow some basic and direct rules when confronted with a terror attack. Unless one is a “first responder,” trained in situations involving terror, do not linger and observe, but move away and leave the area. The presence of curious onlookers presents a danger both to the first responders and security forces trying to help and to the onlookers themselves. Terror attacks are often followed by secondary attacks, the purpose of which is to inflict even more harm. Terror operatives have long realized that people’s natural curiosity often leads them towards rather than away from a perceived terror attack after it has supposedly ended. This offers an opportunity to attack again and harm again. Keeping the area free and clear by moving yourself and anyone with you away from the danger is a wise move.

The Power of Observation and Communication

One of the side effects of terror is the impact it has on people who were nowhere near an incident, but who heard about or viewed it afterward. This is especially true of incidents that involved people we know or even places we know. An attack at a familiar store, familiar transportation spot or involving a person or people we know or even people who share personal characteristics (same profession, same background, etc.) all have a direct impact on us. Seeing violence directed against something you recognize and identify with is far more impactful than seeing something that is not connected to your daily life at all attacked. When the familiar is targeted, one reacts by realizing he/she could have been there and could have been hurt. The connection and the identification are stronger and the potential reactions more significant. Here there is little one can do except understand that a strong reaction is normal and expected, but also temporary and transient in most circumstances as normalcy returns.

Today’s world of instant communication can be both a boon and a burden for trying to manage psychological reactions to terror. On the one hand, the ability to call or hear from loved ones immediately after an attack quickly reduces the level of anxiety that they were involved in the attack. On the other hand, the lack of instant communication and contact raises those anxiety levels substantially, especially since societal norms now expect immediate responses and are quite used to it. While one should make all attempts to contact close family or friends, it is important to know that in times of an attack, communication is not always possible and sometimes affected by the onslaught of mobile device users overwhelming cellular networks.

Friends and relatives of Danny Gonen mourn next to his body during his funeral, at the cemetery in the city of Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel on June 20, 2015. Danny Gonen was killed by a gunmen in a terror attack. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The Power of Social Support

One of the more valuable, effective, and available resources for dealing with terror falls under the umbrella of “social support.” Here there are valuable lessons to learn not only as to what happens or should happen after a terror attack, but what are the types of support that can be helpful in relatively “normal” times, between attacks.

One need not be a mental health professional such as a psychologist or social worker to assist someone dealing with terror. For those who have been injured or hurt, there are immediate needs to be taken care of. Someone needs to prepare food, do the laundry, pick the children up from school. In Israel, social support plays a crucial role, with so many organizations that provide help for those during a time of crisis.

During sustained rocket attacks in Israeli towns such as Sderot, people still need to earn a living and care for their families. Israelis spontaneously reacted with demonstrations of solidarity, buying merchandise from local Sderot merchants, both online and in-person. This not only provided an important economic boost to people but also allowed a psychological identification with those who were most directly affected. Patronizing those who suffered most following an attack provides great support, whether it is purchasing products in their neighborhood or assisting with volunteer duties for those who cannot physically clean up and rebuild areas that have been damaged.

The Normality of Terror

Ultimately, the Israeli people are evidence of how individuals and society can not only cope, but also flourish and be productive despite facing the threat of terror. While it is almost grating to admit, terror has become “normalized” in Israeli society where it is an accepted, albeit begrudgingly and unhappily, as a reality of life. There are of course those that require and benefit from professional intervention, but for society as a whole, life goes on.

This reality may be difficult to grasp, especially for those for whom the threat of terror is something new. Naturally, we would like to fight this, reject it, and see it as an uninvited intrusion into our lives. Unfortunately, it may very well be that the reality of the current world order is such that this threat is constant and ever-present and will remain so for quite some time.

Resisting the Tendency to Pathologize Reactions to Terror

The assumption of inevitable pathology as a result of living under terror is understandable but is incorrect. Similarly, the notion that people “need to talk” about their experience under terror is also inaccurate. When terror situations become more frequent, it is critical to avoid churning what is arguably a deeply troubling state of affairs. It is important to understand that while some people welcome the opportunity to talk, others do not. Coping is quite individual, and many people manage to learn to cope and adjust without any professional help. Certainly, avoid assuming that observed behaviors that are totally consistent with living through a traumatic experience mean that deeper psychological issues are present. People can expect sleeplessness, loneliness, changes in appetite and changes in cognitive skills (memory, reasoning, etc.) following exposure to a terror event. For most, these are passing symptoms, the behavioral “black and blue mark” of having been through a challenging event. For most, time to heal and time to process are imperative before assigning clinical labels and suggesting professional intervention.

It would be foolish to whitewash the serious consequences of facing a threat of terror on a regular basis. People certainly suffer, with some suffering greatly, but with individual helplessness also comes a group resilience. In other words, individuals suffer, but the group perseveres.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Israel, where, sometimes only a few hours after a deadly terror attack, the scene is cleaned up, and people go back to routine. When the Sarona restaurant area in Tel Aviv was attacked one evening in June of 2016, with four killed and six others wounded, the complex sprang back to full operation the following morning. In the days that followed, not only did people not avoid the area but filled it with even more customers than normal. Individuals suffered, but the group responded with determination and resilience. Resuming as much normalcy and routine as possible may not be possible for all individuals, but it is possible and indeed efficacious for the “group” as a whole.

Summary

Israelis have faced the terror of random bombs, suicide attacks, knifings, shootings, and stoned cars. They have faced rocket attacks in civilian areas of their own country and attacks on them at tourist sites out of the country. Terror has become an unwelcome ever-present force in the life of most Israelis. Children are drilled in how to respond to air raid sirens, and adults routinely carry weapons to defend themselves. While the populace has endured thousands of casualties over the years, with much individual suffering, society as a whole is marked by resilience and perseverance and a determination to deny terrorists any long term rewards for their actions. By maintaining a routine or returning to one despite being victimized by terror, society essentially is restoring predictability to an unpredictable phenomenon. It is that predictability that provides the consistency in life affairs which contributes to effective daily functioning.

Coping with terror takes place both in the individual and societal realm. As individuals, Israelis have learned to balance the threat with the need to maintain an active and routine existence. As a society, Israelis care for individual victims while insisting on a return to “normal” as quickly as possible following any attack. Simplicity in approach, prudent use of communication and understanding what is expected in the aftermath of attacks form the core of the Israeli response to the psychological response and effects of living under this threat. While policy analysis and background understanding of the whys and hows of terror are ultimately central to governmental responses, they play a minor role in the personal and group behavior that can assist people in dealing with the challenge of maintaining a relevant and productive lifestyle in the age of terror.

Dr. Irwin J. Mansdorf

Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, PhD., is a clinical psychologist and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He directs the Center's Israel-Arab studies program for university students.