So IS hit us in the grey zone, those areas where we live, work and play. The places we go about our everyday business, where we usually feel safe. Spaces that aren’t usually patrolled or subject to checks and security measures. The shock and horror is magnified as the attack was not in a warzone but a Western capital city, in our neighbourhood. President Hollande referred to the atrocities in Paris attack as an act of war such is the injustice and invasive nature of the implosion. His words signpost retribution.
Social psychology offers some clues to help us comprehend the almost inexplicable terrorist attacks that have occurred. Our sense of safety, fundamental to our physical and psychological wellbeing, has been shattered. Feeling unsafe means that it is barely possible to do anything else. Everyday tasks become almost impossible. Our sense of normality, the schema representing business as usual is fractured. Feelings of numbness, a sense of paralysis, and extreme anger are all normal responses to devastating trauma. Whoever committed the recent attacks or why, IS represents a modern day bogeyman. A terrifying, barely plausible, and nightmarish vision from a storybook. Such characters are all the more frightening as we cannot get a handle on them, they exist in the shadows, making it harder to defeat them. Even if not directly impacted by recent terrorist atrocities, we are subject to social contagion, the term for the influence of expressions of anger and fear that circulate amongst us, given easy passage via the universal spread of social media.
Over the weekend I experienced terror vicariously and tended to the fear and distress of others, afraid that they would be next; that the terrorists were coming for them. These thoughts that may have seemed irrational a week ago, overnight became a rational response to traumatic events. We know in grim detail what those subject to the attacks experienced, as we were exposed to it round the clock via 24/7 media reports. Bystanders can experience vicarious traumatisation simply by witnessing or hearing about a terrifying event. Graphic images of the traumatic event are now available to all at any time. The resulting fear and subjugation are modes of control, used to great effect in dictatorial regimes.
How can human beings harm others so violently? We all identify as part of a group (or multiple groups) and by definition if you’re not in my in-group, you’re in the out-group. Such simple identification is reinforced through socialisation, custom and ritual. People commit themselves to a cause, one that may be good or evil. This leads us to see people outside our groups as others. In extreme cases the others are dehumanised to the extent that they are considered sub-human. This enables and justifies horrendous behaviour by one group towards another, whether the defining factor is religion, politics, geography, gender, sexuality or socio-economics, to name but a few examples.
The process of radicalisation reinforces these divisions and emphasises them. If you come to believe that there is but one truth then everyone else must be wrong. Charismatic leaders successfully convince those within their group of their supreme position. Effective leaders encourage a sense of belonging and keep members on task and working towards a goal, whatever that may be. Vulnerable and disaffected individuals are especially susceptible to such persuasive individuals. Group members are also known to experience groupthink, a phenomenon that occurs when faulty and immoral decisions are made due to the desire to conform with others in their in-group.
Most of us empathise with others, we develop this skill through normal human development. As we mature we go through a process of social conditioning where we learn right from wrong, the so-called norms of behaviour that enable us to live in society in relative harmony. We learn that bad (and good) behaviour has consequences. We understand that what we do impacts on others, and that other people experience pain and distress. Most of us support the notion that it is right and correct to be kind to others and not to harm them, even if they identify with a different group, or if their beliefs are different to ours.
Although life-changing and earth-shattering, traumatic events can have positive consequences. Post Traumatic Growth theories indicate that survivors of terrorist attacks can experience affirmative outcomes. These include re-evaluating one’s life, reconsidering priorities, and empathising with others.
At this time of sorrow and pain it worth remembering the power of empathy. If we imagine the lives of those in war zones, individuals who have experienced trauma, and people suffering adversity, we acknowledge their humanity, we appreciate that terror can be felt by us all. The colour grey represents the blending of black and white, it is superficially dull yet nebulous and complex. In the aftermath of terror grey illustrates a scenario where all is not as it seems, where there is not one answer to a question. We peer through the grey mist to search for reasons, and a way forward through understanding, hope and resilience.