Conquering Fear – The First Step To Defeating Terrorism

The carnage wrought by terrorists, both homegrown and foreign, and other actors bent on the mass destruction of innocent people has, at this point, firmly locked onto the collective psyche of the American people.

It can sometimes seem like television programming is little more than a non-stop circle of twisted metal and bloodied civilians. And thanks to smartphones, workplace screens and even monitors on treadmills and stationary bikes at the gym, such “breaking news” has instilled in many of us the fear that the next domestic attack–whether at a house of worship, shopping mall, sporting event or concert—will bring the worst possible news about a loved one, friend or colleague.

Call it, if you will, the new normal.

While the physical effects of such unspeakable horror on its victims are undeniable, they may not be the real intent of the perpetrators. Instead, fanatics and terrorist organizations target the human dimension and the emotions that spring forth from it. A palpable and permanent state of fear is the most-desired goal of those who seek to inflict terror in the hearts and minds of the public. As a result, citizens of democratic countries are more vulnerable to the psychological impact of terrorism and mass shootings. The freedoms offered in such political systems allow violent offenders to manipulate the public in a way that contributes to the realization of their long-term objectives. Indeed, it is the sense of fear and vulnerability that they seek to impose that can have the most devastating impact.

The main motivation behind terrorism and targeted violence directed at our citizens is to force us to not merely question our fundamental safety and security, as well as our ability to protect our nation, neighborhoods and families, but to change our behaviors. Success for violent offenders and terrorists comes when we retract from our daily routines, ways of living and even spiritual and political beliefs. One underestimates the power of fear at his or her own risk. The effects of these actions, strategically calculated on the part of the perpetrators, can be long-lasting and deeply destructive. We have come to learn that their goal is often not just to cause loss of life but, more dangerously, to wear us down, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually, causing our endurance, determination and morale to decay and ultimately disappear. As attacks grow in number, we should be concerned that an adverse public reaction may generate something that they themselves could never have achieved on their own.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in Europe, where communities are beginning to question their government’s capability to provide protection from terrorist and extremist attacks, and the psychological uncertainty and instability it creates. Societies abroad are not merely rethinking their approaches to security, they are already changing their daily routines, adopting new ways of doing things, and deciding when and where to go based not on their requirements or desires, but on their sense of security. European nations have canceled Independence Day celebrations, closed recreation parks, and in some cases, shuttered whole cities?  The thoroughfares of Europe’s gems–Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen to name three—are now occupied by elite army brigades; billions of dollars in tourism revenue have been lost from canceled tours. When visiting Europe’s museums, houses of worship, sporting venues, shopping centers and other public spaces, citizens need to pass through fortified barriers and military checkpoints. The new normal, indeed!

Extremists, targeted violent offenders and terrorist organizations work to exploit our psychological processes when they undertake their attacks, and they contemplate how to maximize their impact when planning same. They recognize that if their attacks cause large-scale changes in terms of the public’s daily existence, or put pressure on their governments to change policies or positions, they could indeed enjoy agenda-setting powers over a democratic society.

This complex psychological progression becomes an enabling tool for those who seek to derail our way of life. Accordingly, we must actively work to ensure their insidious goals are not realized. Citizens who are immunized against the psychological influence of targeted violence and terrorism have a greater ability to resist such manipulation. If an attacker or terrorist believes that their assault on our society is not likely to create mass chaos and fear and a subsequent unraveling of the values and worldviews of our people to an extent that it damages the bond between a government and its citizens, they may have less reason to waste their resources on such an attack.   If our citizens and workforce are provided training in, and instruction on, proper response skills, and they are convinced the measures they take in preparation will increase the odds of survival and successfully coping with a catastrophic event, they are more likely to internalize personal preparedness as a necessity rather than a commodity.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with law-enforcement agencies across the nation, has facilitated public education focusing on topics such as vigilance, identifying suspicious activities (“See Something, Say Something”) and active-shooter response by creating programs that seek to empower the public with knowledge and tools that allow citizens to be active participants and force multipliers.  Just last month, members of the U.S. House of Representatives heard during testimony from our nation’s most respected police and homeland security officials that a trained law enforcement community and vigilant public are vital for identifying and reporting suspicious activity and indicators of terrorism.

Many within the private sector have come to be active partners; however, others have been slow to respond. The majority of this nation’s infrastructure and security apparatus is managed by private sector corporations, (e.g. facility owners, corporations, operators of hotels, concert venues, schools, community centers, utility companies and the like. While the U.S. government cannot mandate training for private enterprise, the insurance industry may indeed be a most persuasive partner. The nation’s insurers are coming to recognize how lack of training and preparation for disaster can lead to losses for both their clients and themselves. They, too, are at risk of serious reputational and financial damage should their clients suffer an attack. This industry can have a significant influence and positive impact on their clients’ participation in such programs. National insurers need to consider that when evaluating a client’s risk and exposure prior to offering protective policies, training the workforce should be a mandatory requirement for consideration. In recognition of the insurers’ desire to participate in such awareness and preparedness programs, insurance companies should consider decreased premiums to inspire the private sector to consider participating in such efforts.

Undoubtedly, educating our citizenry will serve a practical purpose, as we all have a “civic duty” toward one another, particularly with safety, security, and preparedness efforts. We all now need to accept personal responsibility for knowing how to behave to improve our own prospects for personal and family survival. Awareness, vigilance and readiness are not solely governmental obligations and, in turn, individual citizens should no longer see themselves as helpless victims.

Recently, my son informed me that he planned to attend an upcoming concert in New York City. I was going ask him to reconsider as we are all still transfixed—and unnerved–by the news from Las Vegas. And, as I was having this discussion with him, the news broke out of New York City that several suspects had been arrested for plotting attacks on concerts and tourist venues.  The knee-jerk reaction would have been to insist in the strongest terms that he reconsider for even just the current moment (as if a parent has that kind of authority over an adult child). But, as noted, that is the exact response these extremists are seeking. The notion that my son can’t enjoy a concert, or that my grandchildren should stay away from soccer fields because of the threat of injury, or worse, from an attack, is simply abhorrent to me, as it should be to every American.

Moving our people from “awareness” to “engaged citizenry” should be the focus of all state, local and federal homeland security programs. Our citizens need to be encouraged to have a more realistic sense of government’s resources and capabilities to address the needs of all people during an incident. Thoughtful vigilance is required in today’s America. Capitulation and surrender are not. Nor will they ever be. The only way to guarantee that our freedom survives is to exercise it each and every day. Refusing to bow to our enemies is the best way to guarantee their ultimate defeat. America remains open for business.


Paul Goldenberg
Paul Goldenberg
Paul Goldenberg is currently a Senior Fellow with Rutgers University Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience and senior advisor to the Network Cotangent Research Institute NCRI. He is also President of Cardinal Point Strategies and was a longstanding member of the United States Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Council (HSAC) where he served as Chair of both the DHS National Cyber Security Task Force and DHS Foreign Fighter Task Force, and advisor to the DHS Countering Foreign Influence Subcommittee. His public career includes more than two decades as a former senior official of the New Jersey State Attorney General’s Office, Director of the nation’s 6th largest county social service and juvenile justice system, and as a law enforcement official who headed investigation efforts for significant cases of domestic terrorism, political corruption, and organized crime.

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  1. Yesterday night I watched the season premier of “the Flash”. I then get a notification from YouTube recommending me a video. It was on terrorism and talked about the different approaches countries in the EU are using to address it. The main idea that each country had was to not have the terrorism conversation. Don’t talk about it. No real education on it. No providing awareness through the schools or media. The video even showed a map of the EU with red dots, each dot being an terrorism attack from 2010 to now. There were a lot of dots. But one country had no dots. It was Poland. Poland is very vocal about the what they believe is the root cause of terrorism in Europe. Poland media talks about it. And there’s protests regarding those root causes.

    (here’s the video

    The most effective way to address terrorism is to be able to discuss it openly and safely with all the facts involved. That doesn’t happen here in Canada, the USA, or most of the EU. For terrorism to be kept in check, citizens need to be totally informed on what really is going on.

    We all must pull together to focus on facts, not fiction.

  2. A very good article. Yes, terrorism is less about killing people and more about creating fear in a population. Fear is not only debilitating to people, it harms their immune systems, reduces their productivity, reduces trust, and creates downward spirals in society. I was living in London at the height of the IRA attacks, and a whole bunch of us (friends) told ourselves that we would not let the potential attacks disrupt our lives – and we didn’t. There were a few tense moments, but then we thought about the statistical odds of getting killed or maimed, and they were fairly small. And smiling and giving out thoughts of love to everyone around us made us feel less afraid.