Fear Takes Flight

(Charles Dharapak - AP)
By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Washingtonians do not appear to be in a tailspin of fear over last week's revelation of an alleged terrorist threat aimed at airliners. One prominent District psychologist says he doesn't anticipate much trauma to result from the event.

Alan J. Lipman, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for the Study of Violence, says it's too early for observable reactions. Even after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, fears and worries took some time -- up to two weeks -- to develop to the point where people sought help from a therapist.

And the latest threat is unlikely to have nearly the same psychological impact. Most significantly, the alleged plan for in-flight explosions was thwarted and nobody was killed.

"People have a variety of reactions to an unsuccessful plot," Lipman says. "They feel relief, admiration for security in Great Britain and the U.S., and concerns about the appropriate degree of risk" they should feel.

As for the renewed awareness of the terrorist threat and the need for vigilance, the earlier events may prove protective.

"People have become a bit inured to this," Lipman says. Since Sept. 11, he says, people "may have taken precautions to protect themselves, but they've seen that they have survived and the people they love and care for have survived. That creates a certain sense of security."

To Lipman, the lack of frantic calls to his office is a sign that people are evaluating the available information and using it to establish the degree of caution they need to take.

This tempered response carries its own risk, Lipman notes: the potential for underestimating a true threat.

After all, the news on Thursday was full of genuinely fearsome facts and phrases: Officials said a plan to carry out "mass murder on an unimaginable scale" was "days away" from execution. After reporting the arrest of two dozen alleged conspirators, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff allowed that "we cannot be sure that the threat has been entirely eliminated or the plot completely thwarted."

Consequently, Lipman doesn't expect everyone to take this latest incident in stride. Those who had particular difficulty coping with Sept. 11 may well find their psychological struggles revived.

"One of the phenomena associated with post-traumatic stress disorder is that, when you've been traumatized by an overwhelming experience, the tendency is to have that reawakened by [less powerful] events that remind you of that experience," he says.

Robert R. Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist who specializes in trauma, said some people are experiencing "anticipatory anxiety" to heightened alerts and emerging details about the alleged conspiracy. But is this fear strong enough to influence behavior?

"We won't know for a few weeks, after the summer," he said. Then it will be clear how many people canceled vacation plans because of their fear of flying.

Meantime, Butterworth said, he's observing another emotional reaction: "Not just fear, but anger . . . It's almost like they are so mad because of the inconvenience." ยท

Staff writer January W. Payne contributed to this report. Join Washington psychotherapist Jerilyn Ross athttp://www.washingtonpost.comfor a Live Online chat today at 10 a.m. on phobias. Comments: health@washpost.com.

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