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Terrorism expert: 'We cannot become so numb to these attacks'

A police officer places flowers and a photo of fellow police officer Keith Palmer, who was killed in yesterdays attack, on Whitehall near the Houses of Parliament in London, Thursday March 23, 2017. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)

If the prevalence of terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Europe has inoculated the public to some degree against the outrage and horror they are intended to produce, terrorism experts say that could be a good thing, or if it leads them to let their guard down, a very bad one.

An attack outside the Parliament building in London Wednesday left four people dead and dozens injured, but Britons have been defiant in the wake of the incident. Messages of solidarity and resilience were posted in Underground stations as the city attempted to return to normal Thursday.

In the U.S., news of the attack was often drowned out by political developments in Washington, where lawmakers wrangled over health care legislation, senators questioned a potential Supreme Court justice, and a congressman accused the previous administration of conducting possibly “inappropriate” surveillance of the current president.

ISIS claimed Thursday that the attacker was a “soldier” of the Islamic State, but it was not immediately clear if there was any evidence to support that claim of responsibility.

When police in Belgium stopped a car speeding toward a crowd Thursday in what they believe was an attempted terrorist attack, it barely garnered a mention on CNN.

Recent terrorist attacks in the U.S. have occurred on a smaller scale than the tragedies in San Bernardino and Orlando that gripped the nation for days afterward, and the public’s reaction to them has also been less extreme.

An ISIS-inspired attack at Ohio State University in November using the same ramming-and-stabbing tactics seen in London injured more than a dozen people, but the attacker was the only one killed. The incident led some schools to reevaluate their emergency response plans, but the rest of the country moved on relatively fast.

A mass shooting left five people dead at an airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in January, allegedly committed by a military veteran who claimed the government forced him to watch ISIS videos. That incident did not trigger the kind of national mourning and debate that past attacks have.

The muted response could be a sign of desensitization to terrorist violence after a series of similar attacks in the U.S. and abroad since November 2015, many of them with larger body counts.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Wednesday that Americans have not become resigned to the ongoing threat of terrorism, but he suggested they may be growing more capable of responding to it.

“I don’t think we ever accept the reality that these attacks are inevitable,” Brown said. “We are a resilient country that knows how to deal with almost everything.”

Experts say the lack of alarmist response to the latest incidents suggests the attacks are not having their desired effect of terrorizing the community.

“Basically the public becomes inured to terrorism when it’s frequent and when we’ve seen the same tactic before,” said Max Abrahms, a terrorism theorist and professor at Northeastern University.

Historically, terrorists have needed to commit bigger and bigger acts of violence to continue striking fear in the populace.

“Aggrieved non-state actors need to continuously escalate because their success depends on attracting attention and using the same tactic continuously has diminishing returns in terms of eliciting international attention,” he said.

According to Abrahms, the most recent attacks illustrate how some analysts have overestimated the capabilities of ISIS as a global threat.

“Now the group has gone from threatening to establish a caliphate to cheering on rejects who drive their vehicles into pedestrians,” he said.

Scott J. White, director of the Cybersecurity Program at the George Washington University, said the simplicity of the attacks illustrates how effective security services have become at disrupting large-scale plots.

“This is how desperate these people are getting. They’re moving to the lowest tech possible,” he said.

The speed with which communities return to normal can also undermine the intent of an attack.

“One thing that terrorists will never understand is in western societies…all this does is create a resolve in the populace that we will never capitulate to what terrorists want,” White said. “We become more resolved, not less.”

According to John Horgan, author of “The Psychology of Terrorism,” Americans are still more sensitive to terrorism than they are to other mass shootings and gun violence, even though those other events often cause more deaths.

“When people hear the word terrorism, their anxiety goes into overdrive,” he said. “It suggests conspiracy. It raises the specter of a threat that cannot be measured, anticipated or prepared for.”

That fear of unknown danger infecting the citizenry is what terrorists count on to extract concessions and policy changes from government leaders.

Horgan, a professor of psychology at Georgia State University, said the threat of terrorism is often overblown, but the public must recognize that attacks will happen and some risk of terrorism will always exist.

“Some people hear that and get upset and angry,” he said. “They don’t want to believe it’s inevitable and have a hard time accepting that. It’s because they believe politicians who promise them that terrorism can be wiped out. It can’t.”

If the latest attacks have had less of an effect on the public, counterterrorism analyst Anthony Roman said that is in part because of over-the-top coverage of past incidents.

Research has shown that audiences exposed to media coverage of an attack can be as traumatized as those who live through it. One study of reactions to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing concluded that the media acts as “a conduit that spreads negative consequences of community trauma beyond directly affected communities.”

“I think people are living their lives and have become accustomed to the new reality,” said Roman, CEO of Roman & Associates. “It’s a normal response to being bombarded by the media on a daily basis concerning the risks and attacks in a format that’s replaying the incident an infinite number of times.”

That may be a positive development, but there is a fine line between acceptance and complacency.

“We cannot become so numb to these attacks that our guard begins to slip, that our sense of awareness starts to fail,” Roman said.

The public must remain vigilant, he said, and continue to report suspicious activity and unattended packages. This is especially true because many government buildings are close enough to civilian traffic that a bomb placed outside their perimeter could still do serious damage.

“There is vast room for improvement,” he said of current security measures.

If Americans are somewhat numb to terrorist violence, Abrahms sees benefits and drawbacks to that.

“I honestly see the relative absence of alarmist media as a sign of societal resilience… What terrorists are trying to do is provoke countries, especially governments, into overreacting,” he said.

He pointed to societies like Israel where the threat of terror has been constant for a long time, but the populace refuses to be terrorized and allow it to change their daily lives.

However, Abrahms added that excessive media coverage of atrocities can in some cases aid the fight against terrorism by mobilizing an outraged society. The shock of the execution of James Foley helped push the U.S. to step up its bombing campaign against ISIS, for example.

He also believes that the dissemination of ISIS propaganda showcasing the group’s brutality has backfired and inspired more countries to support the coalition against it.

None of this is to suggest that Americans have no fear of terrorism. Chapman University’s 2016 Survey of American Fears found that terrorist attacks and being a victim of terrorism are two of the five things the public is most afraid of.

White suggested the anxiety continues to manifest itself in different ways, including voting for President Donald Trump.

“Part of what we saw in the election of Mr. Trump’s administration was people looking to control their own anxiety and going for this law and order president who will very vocally stand up to terrorists,” he said.

Whether Trump’s policies actually prevent terrorism or not, Horgan observed that the distraction provided by the many controversies surrounding the president may lessen the psychological damage caused by terrorist attacks.

“The American public is so overwhelmed with drama, crisis and hyperbole in media coverage right now, that even terrorist attacks have to compete with the unending barrage of news surrounding Donald Trump,” he said.

Horgan warned that expecting the American public to respond to a catastrophic attack on its own soil the way it has to the London attack would be a mistake.

“If an attack took place in the United States right now, I think there would be panic and that it could lead to a reaction that would make the problem a lot worse,” he said.

He fears that the U.S. is not prepared to win what is ultimately a psychological war against terrorism.

“The British reaction to the tragedy in London has been exceptional,” Horgan said. “It is a model for how to unite in strength and purpose. I worry about whether we are currently able to rise to that challenge here in the United States.”

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