Does seeing a bus bombing or a shooting attack on television, or reading about in the newspaper, affect your state of mind?
Common sense says it should. Terrorists certainly believe that small but high-profile acts of violence undermine their enemies’ morale. There is documented evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on a mass scale after events like 9/11. But a recent study seeking a correlation of terror attacks to people’s sense of happiness begs to differ.
The study “Does Terrorism Demoralize? Evidence From Israel” took surveys conducted by the government’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) during the height to the Second Palestinian Intifada, isolating the responses given within days of a terror attack, to see whether people’s sense of “life satisfaction” was affected by the violence.
It wasn’t, not one bit. In fact, said Asaf Zussman, one of the three researchers who wrote the paper, people’s moods were more likely be affected by whether the day was sunny or overcast.
“Terrorism is meant to demoralize. You want the Israelis to feel miserable. They have political motives, too, to change our mind on settlements or borders what have you, but there is a psychological element is very important,” he told The Media Line. “What was amazing is that we found daily fluctuations in the weather have more an effect on life satisfaction than terrorism.”
The study covered the years 2002 through 2004 when 785 Israelis were killed in attacks by Palestinians, two thirds of them civilians. Yet the CBS surveys taken at the time found almost no difference is the proportion of people “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied” over the years.
In 2002, the year with by far the highest number of deaths, 82.9 percent of those asked reported being satisfied. The next year, even as fatalities fell by half, the happiness quotient barely budged, with 81.7% reporting they were satisfied. In 2004 when fatalities were even lower, the percentage was 82.4%. “The Israeli population is very resilient,” Zussman said.
Societal responses to terror have been documented before, but the study by Zussman, who teaches at The Hebrew University; Dmitri Romanov, who works at the CBS; and Noam Zussman, a Bank of Israel researcher, breaks new ground by tying the satisfaction data so closely to the time and place if a terror attack. By doing so, the three aimed to reduce any extraneous factors that might have an impact on people’s state of mind.
Strangely enough, it was Israeli Arabs whose mood was most affected by the attacks even though they were not the intended targets of the Intifada attacks. The study suggests that the reason is that Israeli Arabs expected to experience more discrimination or perhaps revenge attacks by the majority Jewish population as a result of terrorism.
So, why are Israelis such Teflon-coated terror targets?
The authors offer two alternative explanations. One is that people respond positively when they feel that their government is taking steps to curb terror. In fact, after a slow start, Israel’s counter-terrorism strategy did work and by 2005 the Intifada had faded and by 2007 the number of terror deaths for the year was just 13.
But another factor is what researchers call “social resiliency.” Terror is part of the fabric of everyday life with inspections at the front of restaurants and other public places and evacuation for suspicious objects. “Terrorism has become expected and therefore the reaction to it is muted,” Zussman and his colleagues conclude in the paper.
Zussman admits that the study, which was published in the journal Economica
this month, has been greeted with some skepticism. The CBS survey and others like it have been criticized for failing to capture people’s real mood. Moreover, the study itself only began collecting data in 2002, two years after the Second Intifada broke out and people may simply have grown inured to bombings and shootings.
Indeed, another study on the impact of terrorism and happiness came to different conclusions. Published in 2009, it surveyed attitudes in France, Britain and Ireland from 1973 to 2002 and found that terrorism was a real downer. Among its findings, it found that a resident of terror-torn Northern Ireland would be willing to pay as much as 37% of his income for a reduction in violence to levels prevalent in more peaceful parts of the country.
Orly Gal, executive director of Natal, a Tel Aviv-based center that helps people traumatized by terrorism, said large numbers of Israelis display symptoms of PSTD, which includes such things as feelings of distress and nightmares.
“Research shows that 10% of population in Israel is affected by terror or war. We are talking about more than 700,000 people,” Gal told The Media Line. “Children and women are affected much more.”
She said PSTD symptoms continue affecting people long after they are exposed to an attack and often are seen in people who have not been directly involved in an attack at all. For them, Natal runs a hotline in additional to its team of 120 psychologist for the most serious cases.
“We see that in emergency situations people run to the doctor because they are under stress. When it’s quieter, like now, they go to a psychologist because they have the time to take care of themselves,” said Gal. “When it’s quiet, more people approach us for long-term treatment.”