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Are We Becoming Numb To Terrorism And Mass Violence?

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Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Floral tributes are seen behind a bullet hole at Cafe Bonna Biere as France observes three days of national mourning on November 15, 2015 in Paris, France.
What’s your morning routine? Chances are it involves checking your inbox and skimming the headlines. Spiralling house prices. Celebrity deaths. Lying politicians. And increasingly, horrific acts of terror and mass slaughter taking place all over the world.

If you live in northern Europe, you may be waking up each morning with a heavy sense of dread in the pit of your stomach. Will today be the day my loved ones or I will be directly affected by the terrorism and indiscriminate mass slaughter that seems to have stepped up a notch on the continent in recent weeks and months?

A wave of deadly violence hit France and Germany in July. 84 people were killed on Bastille Day in Nice, and a priest was killed by two ISIS supporters. In Germany, there were five violent attacks in just over a week, including a shooting in a Munich shopping centre that killed nine people.

Terrorism and lethal violence has been happening and continues to happen the world over. We’ve seen bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq; mass shootings in the U.S., and a shocking knife attack in Japan. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, the number of global deaths from terrorism rose from 18,111 in 2013 to 32,685 in 2014, and this number has increased nine-fold since 2000.

In today's world, where newspaper articles like “How to survive a terror attack” seem genuinely useful, our generation’s awareness of the risks of terrorism and mass violence has never been higher. Partly this is because as young adults we’re more clued up on the news than we were when, say, 9/11 happened in 2001. But it’s also down to the pervasiveness of social media and our 24-hour news cycle.

We live in a world of push notifications, liveblogs, instantaneous eyewitness accounts and increasingly, livestreamed video filmed at the scene of the latest atrocity. Acts of brutal violence feel more vivid and closer to home than ever before, even if they’ve taken place on the other side of the world.

We could spend hours reading, watching and listening to news reports about these events if we wanted to, and on social media – often where we go to unwind – the threat of terror looms large. Hashtags, Facebook updates, WhatsApp messages and Snapchat stories mean we can’t escape news of these terrifying events.

No one is suggesting that this daily struggle is in any way comparable to the reality of being caught up in an attack or living in a country where the threat of war and mass violence is pervasive. Living in a relatively safe country like the UK, we should thank our lucky stars daily.

But what effect is this constant stream of bad news having? And what effect might it be having on how we collectively think about the threat of terrorism and mass violence in the UK?

Everyone's reaction is different, of course, but from talking to other young people, it’s clear that some are becoming less shocked and increasingly numb with the news of each attack. It’s not that they’re bored of hearing about it, but the sheer frequency makes their response less emotional.

Break one, thousand will rise #CharlieHebdo #JeSuisCharlie #raiseyourpencil

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“I’m just not surprised anymore,” one 23-year-old man from Manchester told Refinery29. “When Charlie Hebdo happened everyone stood up and took notice, but, tragically, with this latest spate of attacks, I’ve struggled to stay on top of when and where they’re happening. Every week there seems to be a new one.” And he’s not alone in feeling this way.

A 29-year-old woman from London said that as terrorism has taken over news bulletins, she's become less and less shocked at each news event. “When the news of the Paris attacks came through last November, we all stopped what we were doing. We left dinner early, we left the pub and went home, we texted each other ‘have you heard?’ type messages, and called loved ones. We didn’t talk about anything else that night, and we went to bed uneasy, scared, shocked.
"Maybe this was because it was in an area that so many of us had visited over the last few years, or because the attack targeted young people having a good time, but it had a major impact.”

Because of the relentless news cycle, now it feels like terrorism has become a topic of constant national conversation in the UK, she said. This means that, “Now when news comes through, on Guardian notifications, or Twitter or whatever, yes it’s awful to read, it’s horrific, but it’s not shocking or unexpected," she said.

“We should go to bed uneasy and shocked after each new attack, but the power of the images, the headlines, and the news of a terrorist attack, is less.”

No research appears to have been conducted yet into the specific effects of the most recent wave of terrorism in northern Europe, but existing theories of the impact of the media on human behaviour suggest that increased and consistent coverage of violence may, indeed, have a numbing effect.

“One concern about increased and consistent coverage of violence in the media is that we may become desensitised to the violence,” Dr Morgan Tear, research officer in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics, told Refinery29. “In the scientific literature, desensitisation is a process whereby repeated exposure to a distressing stimulus diminishes the emotional response to the stimulus.”

When it comes to violence in the media, desensitisation theory suggests that when we’re repeatedly exposed to graphic violence in news reports for prolonged periods, the psychological impact may decrease until it no longer affects us and we become emotionally numb. In other words: We get used to bad news.

Most research in this area focuses on using repeated exposure to reduce the impact of phobias, and less is understood about the psychological effects of violence in the media, said Dr Tear.

However, studies show that some people experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) linked to exposure to violent news coverage. One of these symptoms is “emotional numbing” – dealing with feelings by trying not to feel anything – which sounds a lot like desensitisation, and dulled responses to others and the outside world.

Researchers at the University of Bradford showed that viewing violent news on social media can have this effect. They put images and information about violent events, including the 9/11 attacks, school shootings and suicide bombings, in front of 189 participants. Of those, 22% were “significantly affected” by what they saw – despite them having no previous trauma, not being present at the traumatic events and having only watched them via social media. Furthermore, those who viewed violent events more often were more affected.

Dr Pam Ramsden, from the research team, said the fact that nearly a quarter of participants scored high on clinical measures of PTSD was “quite worrying”. “With increased access to social media and the internet via tablets and smartphones, we need to ensure that people are aware of the risks of viewing these images and that appropriate support is available for those who need it,” she added.

Similarly, in another study, of more than 2,000 U.S. adults after 9/11, the more time people spent watching TV coverage of the attacks, the more likely they were to experience symptoms of post-trauma related stress.

It might be that some of us are choosing to become desensitised on purpose – deciding to not engage with the news as often as we once did to avoid becoming upset. For many of us, especially those prone to worrying, the alternative – becoming so engrossed and emotional over each atrocity so that you end up living in fear – isn’t really an option.

“Many of us avoid looking in detail at the images, especially when we’re told they’re going to be distressing to protect ourselves from unnecessary exposure to trauma,” Emma Citron, a consultant clinical psychologist, told Refinery29. “People know that looking at these images is traumatic, so I think people are quite sensible about that.”

Avoidance becomes almost a coping mechanism, she said. “We can’t take it all in – we just have to get on with our days and in that sense we lose interest [in the news] because there’s nothing we can do about it. What’s the point of letting it affect our mood and performance?”

The level of numbness we experience could also be linked to the way stories are presented. Are the victims anonymised or is their individuality focussed on? Are there children involved? Remember how much attitudes towards the refugee crisis shifted after the heartbreaking photo of two-year-old Alan Kurdi emerged last year. “Anonymous news about people doesn’t really touch us psychologically,” said Citron. “A general fact of 84 dead is horrible but it doesn’t affect us personally. Some people are so sensitive that they might feel low for a week, but most of us think it’s awful and terrible but aren’t affected in the same way."

The majority of people won’t necessarily experience emotional numbing, however. Barry Richards, professor of political psychology at Bournemouth University, believes continuous or repeated exposure is more likely to have a cumulatively traumatising, rather than numbing, effect in most people. “We are deeply programmed to abhor murder, and though for a few individuals that programming can be disrupted, I don't think it can be worn thin in the public as a whole by simple repetition,” he told Refinery29.

But he acknowledges that “for some people a way of dealing with the anxieties it produces may be to try and switch off from it.”

One thing that seems likely is that people who have been personally affected by terrorism or a mass atrocity, who have come close, or who live in a high-risk area, are less disposed to becoming desensitised to reports of new attacks.

A survey conducted in the wake of 9/11 found that 17% of the U.S. population living outside of New York City reported symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder, however those who lived closer were more vulnerable. Furthermore, a study conducted in the weeks following the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005 found that 31% of Londoners reported “substantial stress symptoms”. This fell to 11% seven to eight months after the attack, but even then, people’s levels of perceived threat remained high: 52% believed their loved ones’ lives were in danger and 43% believed their own life was in danger.
So the reason people in the UK might be experiencing a reduced reaction to terrorism is that we – thankfully – haven’t seen a large scale terrorist attack since the 2005 bombings. Professor Barrie Gunter, from the University of Leicester, told Refinery29: “Over time, the repeated occurrence of terrorism on the continent might eventually produce reduced reactions, but if similar events then occurred in the UK, emotional reactions would be as severe as ever because they would be perceived in a different way because of their proximity to where we live.”

Citron also said we are more likely to grieve for – and pay attention to events “that happen on our doorstep." She added: “You see images of people crying in Belgium and elsewhere because they are close to home and live five minutes away, or they know friends or neighbours who have been affected. I don’t really think we grieve other people’s sorrow much.”

When we’re caught in the middle of an attack ourselves, our fight or flight response kicks into gear and we sure as hell take notice of what’s going on around us. It may sound selfish, but it’s human nature. And for many who have had terrifying experiences like this, it becomes more likely that they will empathise with victims and become emotional each time there’s a new attack, rather than numb.

Henry Wong, 22, was living and studying in Paris at the time of the attacks last November that killed 130 people. He was eating in a busy restaurant in the 10th arrondissement, about 10 minutes away from the attacks, and escaped from the area unharmed, but the experience had a lasting impact on his perception of subsequent attacks. “You can’t help but relate to the situation in some way and compare events. How would I have reacted? How is this situation different to what happened in mine? In that way, it makes your response more self-centred,” he said.

However, it has also given him an insight into the situation and what others may be going through. “The panic you feel, the sense of confusion, and how you want to let your loved ones know you’re okay. It adds a more human element to my reaction instead of just looking at figures and reading reactions.”

He added: “It’s easy to think terrorist attacks are things that only happen far away from home, so being so close to one made me realise it’s a problem we all have to deal with.”

With the head of the Met Police saying just this week it was a case of “when, not if” another terror attack would happen on UK soil, and the official threat level at "severe", it’s clear we can’t let ourselves become desensitised to the very real horror of terrorism.
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