It is terrorists’ insidious strategy to try to unnerve people, says anxiety researcher Borwin Bandelow. However, he explains that being in a constant state of terror can eventually lead to desensitization.
DW: Paris, Istanbul, Ankara, and now Brussels: The terrorist threat is currently very high, or at least, that's how it feels. What do attacks like these do to people?
Borwin Bandelow: People are, of course, completely unnerved. Can they walk around the main station in Munich; can they fly from Berlin; and might they perhaps become the victim of an attack? Right now, this is making people very, very, insecure, especially because this has kept happening for several months now.
Attacks like these take place almost exclusively in big cities. Is the fear greater there, simply because people are effectively trapped in the city when there's an attack?
It is indeed the case that someone in a particular location – for example, Munich Airport – will think: This could be the next location for an attack. However, it must be said that the chances of dying in a terrorist attack in Germany are very, very small compared to other dangers that lie in wait for us every day.
For example, 3,000 people die every year in car accidents, and no one worries, when they get into their car in the morning, about whether they might be the next victim. But, of course, people who live in certain trouble spots are very afraid, as are people who work there and have to go there every day.
Is it rational to be afraid now?
When a danger comes along that seems uncontrollable, and especially if it is new, it unnerves people more than dangers they already know about. The statistical probability of dying in a terrorist attack is completely overestimated compared with the other dangers that lie in wait for us.
Aren't terrorists achieving their objectives, if people restrict their lives as a result of fear or terror?
The terrorists' insidious strategy is to try to unnerve people in every country, everywhere. This destabilization is their main aim. You have to bear in mind that terrorists are also people, who often have psychological problems, but who also develop a lot of fantasies about how they can shake this Western world to its foundations. They keep mulling it over until they're able to do it in such a way that the mass impact is particularly strong. Achieving an extreme impact with relatively little effort, that's the objective.
We have to tell ourselves that not being afraid of attacks is our best weapon in the fight against terrorism, i.e. if we don't try and completely change our lives, or decide not to take flights or go to football games. We can fight terrorism better in this way than by creeping away and hiding in our shell.
But if someone is afraid, what can they do?
There's a trick for training yourself not to be afraid. You can, of course, tell yourself that the statistical probability is very small, that only one single person is affected in an attack. But that won't be much comfort when we hear now that there were many victims in Belgium. There's no special formula for protecting oneself against this fear. One has to be aware, of course, that life always comes with a certain degree of risk.
Are people more afraid of terrorism now than they used to be?
It's always come in waves. In September 2001 [after the attacks in New York and Washington – Ed.] it was certainly the case that there was a great fear of terrorist attacks. Now, we've had a long series of attacks in recent months, which gives us the feeling that things never really quiet down, it just keeps on like that. That is very worrying because, at the moment, the effect that normally sets in after four weeks, of people calming down again, keeps being interrupted by new attacks.
That will one day mean that perhaps people will start going back to their normal routines more quickly than before. Rather like people living in Baghdad, who unfortunately have to live with the fact that a bomb goes off every few days. They get used to it, and they carry on going to the market to do their shopping. It will be similar in Germany: people will become a bit desensitized to these attacks. But at the moment is does seem that everyone is unnerved.
Professor Borwin Bandelow is a specialist in anxiety disorders and president of the German Society for Anxiety Research. He is also Deputy Director of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University of Göttingen.
The interview was conducted by Helena Baers.