Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Fear? We're revelling in it
In the face of terror, altruism, black humour and sex are the therapies that will see us through

I will always remember the time when my Israeli acquaintance Yael phoned me half an hour later than I had expected. “Another hassle,” she apologised, “a car bomb went off and I got caught up in the traffic.” At the time I did not quite comprehend how a bomb explosion could be equated with a hassle. Yet that was the initial reaction of many people to the violence that shook the streets of London on July 7. People milling around Liverpool Street Tube station just a few minutes after it was closed down sensed that something was wrong. But the immediate response of people was to treat the incident as yet another hassle in their busy lives as they tried to get on with their affairs.

Of course, everyone who was caught up in the recent terrorist bombings in London will remember the terrible events for the rest of their lives. Yet what struck an American friend of mine, Scott, was the calm, almost matter-of-fact, response to the violence. Scott has experienced an act of terror before. He was in Washington in October 2002 when the city was virtually paralysed for three weeks during the sniper attacks by a pair of serial killers. He believes that Londoners reacted to terror differently — far more robustly — than their American counterparts. Many other observers were also taken aback by this resilient response. After all, we live in a world of constant panic — the acronyms BSE, Aids, MMR, and Sars haunt our imagination — yet when the London bombs went off, people did not panic.

Someone who has lived in Israel or Sri Lanka would be less surprised by the way Londoners reacted. In places where such violent episodes are routine, people often develop surprisingly effective coping skills and get on with life. And although individuals may feel anxious about their health, the food they eat or the safety of their children, when confronted with a catastrophe they can show amazing resilience.

Israel has a vibrant nightlife and many people make a point of going out in the evening as a way of affirming life. Yael and her partner David go clubbing. “We say good-bye to our fears when we hit the dance floor,” says David. The same attitude was displayed in London when a spontaneous “beat the bombers” street party was thrown in Shepherds Bush, West London, after commuters joined local people who had been evacuated from their houses after the second wave of attacks.

Black humour also thrives and, yes, people even make jokes about suicide bombers. Those who lived through the Blitz in 1940 can testify to the therapeutic effect of coarse humour. And of course there is nothing more life-affirming then having sex. The Blitz proved to be a natural aphrodisiac. Conventional sexual norms became less relevant to people who suddenly felt that since you live only once you might as well get on with it. And public bomb shelters proved to be ideal pick-up joints.

When confronted with terror many people gain strength from forging sturdy family ties. Many Israelis and Sri Lankans look to their families to keep them focused. Local cultural practices often help communities to come to terms with their loss and to moderate their fear. The terrorist siege of a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, last year, which led to hundreds of casualties, shook up the community. But they were able to deal remarkably well with their loss. A series of large funerals involving the community provided an opportunity for everyone’s grief to be publicly acknowledged. These traditional rituals helped people to make sense of their circumstance and to contain their fear. One Western guest at a funeral told me that this was an experience she will never forget. “Witnessing our common pain made everyone aware of our powerful humanity,” she says.

The ability of a culture to endow the experience of fear with meaning can even lead to unexpected positive outcomes such as the emergence of new forms of local or national solidarity. The “Blitz spirit” may have become an overused metaphor, but it is worth noting that when communities succeed in retaining a sense of meaning in the midst of destruction, a local equivalent of the Blitz spirit emerges. Research into people’s response to the bombing of Hamburg and Hiroshima reveals a surprising level of community resilience. And after 9/11, New York experienced an epidemic of civility and solidarity.

Studies on disasters consistently point to the sudden increase in altruistic behaviour in the aftermath of a catastrophe. Researchers have coined the term “therapeutic community” to describe the emergence of altruistic behaviour by people after a disaster. The term means what it implies — that communities have the potential to develop their own therapy to minimise the destructive impact of fear.

Solidarity and civic behaviour help to foster a sense of belonging in the midst of chaos. We saw something of this earlier this month in London. My wife’s friend, Asmeena, was on the last carriage of the Tube train near Edgware Station when a bomb went off. She recalls that except for one distressed young women everyone remained calm. What amazed her was the helpful, practical way that the other passengers behaved. Without anyone asking, people were immediately sharing their water.

Others demonstrated their DIY skills and were making headway opening the windows and doors. Asmeena will never forget the scream of a man trapped near the blast but she will always remember the spontaneous kindness and help that total strangers were able to extend to one another.

Sally was near Russell Square when she heard the explosion. She was frightened and soon gave up trying to fight back the tears. But what she recalls is how everyone remained calm and civil in the situation. When I talked to her a couple of hours after the event I was impressed that her instinct was not to flee the scene but to think about what she could do to help others. She did not know it, but she is part of an emerging therapeutic community.

Fears cannot be predicted in advance. It is through experiencing and responding to a destructive episode that people begin to work out their own narrative of fear. Londoners responded differently to the first bombing than to the second attempt to wreak terror. It was then that people understood that the July 7 explosions were not a one-off affair. Many Londoners now realise that this threat may become part of their lives and naturally feel more anxious.

But the realisation that terror may become a “normal” part of life can help people to develop coping skills that minimise the disorientating effects of fear. Developing a routine to deal with terror takes time but people are already working out coping strategies and rituals to deal with the new situation. This is a time when people should be encouraged to experiment, to innovate a lifestyle appropriate to the new circumstances that confront us. We don’t all have to go clubbing but a bit of life-affirming activity will definitely be good for our collective soul.

Since September 11 many of us have come face to face with the explicit attempt to make us ill with fear. The impact of terrorism is predominantly psychological. The terrorists know that the more we fear them the more their power is enhanced. Their aim is to paralyse their target with fear. Those who organised the bombings in London do not want us to think of the impact of their deed as a “hassle”. They certainly don’t want Londoners to embrace a vibrant night-life. They want us disorientated with fear.

First published in the Times, 30 July 2005