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How resilience can blunt impact of terrorist attacks

People attend a vigil for victims of Saturday's attack on the London Bridge, at Potter's Field Park in London, on Monday, June 5, 2017. AP Photo/Tim Ireland
Saturday’s London Bridge terror attack, in which seven people were killed and dozens more wounded, marked the third such incident in the UK in the past 10 weeks.

We asked Northeastern professor Stephen Flynn, founding director of the university’s Global Resilience Institute, to reflect on the importance of remaining resilient in the face of chronic terrorism.

Londoners took to social media to show that they would not be cowed by terrorism, tweeting messages like “Going to IKEA for meatballs and maybe a rug” and using hashtags like #keepcalmcarryon. Aside from proclaiming that they have moved on with their lives, what else can the average person in England do to show terrorists that their plots to intimidate and inspire fear will not work?

While terrorists are motivated for a variety of reasons, one thing that makes terrorism attractive as a means of warfare is that an adversary often finds that a relatively small investment in an attack can cause the targeted society to respond in costly and self-destructive ways. Accordingly, an overreaction to terrorist attacks can end up motivating follow-on attacks much in the way that negotiating with hostage takers can fuel more hostage-taking. It follows that the kind of stoic response that both Londoners and Israelis are noted for provides a measure of deterrence—not from every self-radicalized lunatic, but importantly for non-state and state actors who might otherwise see value in sponsoring these kinds of attacks.

In terms of what the British people can do beyond declaring they will “keep calm and carry on,” they can do the kinds of things World War II Londoners did during the Blitz: They can volunteer to provide auxiliary support to first responders in dealing with the aftermath of attacks. This is not an act of fatalism. Beyond the tangible contribution that volunteers can make when bad things happen, the process of preparing for emergencies helps to strengthen the social capital of a community while making attacks much less frightening when they occur. The “panic” response always requires two elements: an awareness of a clear and present threat, and a feeling of powerlessness to deal with the threat. The more prepared we are for emergencies, the more empowered we feel and the less afraid we become.

In an interview with The Atlantic, you contend that “People can’t entirely control the threat of terrorism, but they can control how they react to it.” What, in your opinion, do effective resilience policies look like, and how beneficial can they be in terms of mitigating future terrorist threats?

Effective resilience policies start with accepting the fact that like natural disasters, acts of terror will not always be prevented. Accordingly, it is important to plan for how to deal with them when they do occur so as to minimize the loss of life and to speed recovery. This is an important part of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing story. The speed at which healthcare providers—both bystanders and the professionals—responded to the bombings saved dozens of lives and offered a counter-narrative to what the terrorist were seeking. Not, “we are helpless and afraid and you should be too,” but “Boston Strong.” On the law enforcement side, the key is being able to respond rapidly to these events. This is something that the London’s Metropolitan Police did admirably when they intercepted and killed the three attackers within eight minutes of receiving the first call. The bottom-line: it is irresponsible to put all the eggs in the “protect and prevent” basket. An equal emphasis must be placed in planning to respond and recover.