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Germany

Terrorist Threat: To Panic or not to Panic?

With fresh reports suggesting Germany is a terrorist target, DW-WORLD.DE asked trauma expert Markos Maragkos whether the authorities are merely sowing the seeds of panic when they alert the public to potential attacks.

A frightened person

Terrorism is a way of manipulating people's fears

According to newspaper reports on Friday, Feb 8, the Federal Crime Office (BKA) maintains that al Qaeda is planning specific attacks in Germany.

"We have information suggesting that it is highly likely that terrorist plans exist," Bernhard Falk from the BKA told German daily Die Welt.

"We are concerned that in future, we will not be able to prevent these operations," added August Hanning, deputy interior minister and former head of Germany's foreign intelligence agency.

DW-WORLD.DE talked to Markos Maragkos, a clinical psychologist at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, about the effect of such news on the public mood.

DW-WORLD.DE: According to newspaper reports on Friday, the BKA maintains that al Qaeda is planning specific attacks on Germany. How does the public generally react to this kind of information?

Markos Maragkos: How worried people get depends on their personal psychological make-up and past experience. Some people are predisposed to react to a dangerous situation with fear and anxiety. Other personalities with different past experiences are more cognitive -- they are more prone to think: how likely it is that I or any one I know will be involved in a terrorist attack? If they decide this likelihood is relatively low, then they react more matter-of-factly. People who are more cognitive are better able to influence their feelings; they can rationalize a frightening situation and thereby control their fear. That would be a more "normal" reaction -- not that emotional people are not "normal." It's simply a question of different dispositions.

Traffic camera image from video over the Kings Cross station area in London after it was closed following an explosion, Thursday July 7, 2005.

With every new attack, public fear levels creep up another notch

Would it be a "normal" reaction to decide not to take the subway anymore?

Any kind of extreme response is difficult. Problematic psychological behavior basically boils down to either an exaggerated response or denial. A blanket refusal to take public transport could be what experts call maladaptive behavior. On the other hand, were a specific warning issued about a threat in a particular place and someone went there anyway, their behavior would be equally maladaptive. There are parameters of normal behavior, within which people weigh up the information they're given and calculate the immediacy of the threat to their personal safety.

Ultimately, the important thing is to remain in control of a situation -- because terrorism hinges on its ability to destroy people's trust in the predictability of their environment. While terrorism first and foremost claims lives, its effect is also based on a manipulation of people's fears. They don't know when or where the next attack will come, and they don't know how to protect themselves against it. They are rendered powerless, in a situation which they cannot control. This is hard to accept, because people are used to being in control of their lives. What terrorism does is demonstrate that they actually have no control over what happens -- their lives are in someone else's hands.

Is abstract anxiety harder to live with than a specific threat?

Definitely. Abstract anxiety is invariably a greater strain than a concrete fear. If I know that a specific place has been targeted, then I avoid this place, and in doing so, I remain in control of the situation. But if I don't know what to expect every time I leave my home, then I end up in a state of abstract anxiety. I start to suspect everyone, and see everything as a potential threat. I am unable to relax and my stress levels shoot up.

Dr Markos Maragkos

Maragkos maintains it's harder to cope with an abstract threat than a concrete one

We're normally told to confront our fears, which obviously is not an option in this case!

We only need to confront fears that are pathological -- disproportionate fears that interfere with everyday life, such as a phobia about rats. But what we're talking about now are not pathological but normal fears. It's like being naturally afraid of high speeds -- humans are scared of high speeds because they're constitutionally unable to cope with them. It's not a fear that can be confronted, because it's a healthy fear protecting us from potentially dangerous situations. There are some exceptions. Take special forces in the army or the police. They are trained to cope with their fears -- which by no means they learn to lack feeling. They learn to deal with heightened stress levels and extreme situations so they can become more used to them. The point is not to eliminate fear, which would be fatal -- or symptomatic of an anti-social personality disorder.

But given the ongoing terrorist threat, shouldn't we all now learn to deal with dangerous situations and heightened stress?

We do need to learn to cope with our fears, just as every era and society learns to deal with certain threats. Right now we're faced with the terrorist threat. But from a psychological point of view, what we want to avoid is either an exaggerated response that borders on panic or a denial of the facts, along the lines of: it's all humbug. We need to remain watchful and we need to remain within a sensible range of emotional response.

Have you seen a rise in the number of people suffering from anxiety and panic attacks since September 11?

This is a hotly debated issue among experts. Some psychologists maintain that prevalence rates have not risen. Others say they have. If someone is inclined to fear, be it because of their character or their experience, then these days this person certainly has more opportunity to be fearful. Today, someone vulnerable has plenty of reason to feel anxious. Thirty or forty years ago, we finished school and started working, got married, and our lives were mapped out for us. All that has changed. Life has become accelerated and everything is impermanent. There is an absence of security. So for someone inclined to fear, the modern world contains much to be afraid of.

Security guards escort a terrorist suspect

Germany has already had several brushes with terrorism

Do you think it's irresponsible of the authorities to tell the public that terrorist attacks are planned and cannot necessarily be prevented?

No. I often work with the authorities and I know that they take their responsibilities to the public very seriously. But they're in a difficult situation. On the one hand they need to protect national security, but on the other hand they don't want to unleash unnecessary panic. Imagine you were in a theatre and the director appeared and said: listen everyone, don't worry, but we have an emergency. Half the audience would panic, the other half would try to figure out what to do. But what should the director do? Lie, and say it's all under control -- or exaggerate and say everyone's lives are in danger?

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