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Open Source: How Can Public Health Stop Terrorism?

Compiled by Jackie Powder

My perspective on terrorism comes from having served as a Senior Adviser on Psychological Research to the Office of His Highness the Amir of Kuwait after the liberation of Kuwait; as a consultant to the NYPD from 2001 to 2003; and as a consultant in Oklahoma City after the federal building bombing. I saw terrorism used as a weapon in asymmetrical warfare and witnessed its effects on individuals, organizations and communities. I also saw that community cohesion and a resilient medical/psychological infrastructure foster strength and resilience. A sense of belonging and identity, as well as feeling part of something greater than oneself, is empowering. It not only fosters resilience in the wake of terrorism but also, I believe, serves to prevent it. By providing health, safety and education, and by working for justice for all, [we can make] terrorism become obsolete. Public Health is uniquely positioned to lead in these initiatives.

George S. Everly Jr., PhD, is on the faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School.

Public health cannot necessarily stop acts of terrorism. Fundamentally, terrorism is a mental health assault on populations; its ultimate intent, from terrorists’ standpoint, is to instill wide-scale fear and societal capitulation in the face of that dread. However, public health can play a vital role in identifying and implementing strategies to enhance communities’ resilience to terrorism’s psychosocial impacts. Psychological First Aid (PFA), for instance, is a public health-oriented intervention to enhance community resilience in the face of terrorism. PFA—designed for use by nonmental health practitioners—can help identify and triage those survivors at particular risk of adverse mental and behavioral outcomes. Research strongly suggests that terrorism preparedness trainings for public health and health care responders can and must enhance these workers’ willingness to respond to terrorism through efficacy-focused training to bolster their resilience as a complement to knowledge- and skills-based preparedness training.

Daniel Barnett, MD, MPH, is an associate professor in Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School.

Public health should work with others to better understand the epidemiology behind violent extremism. By focusing on the root causes and working to address them, public health can assist humanity to mitigate the prevalence of terrorist events. In addition, each community must also have in place a comprehensive public health system that has the capacity for early recognition of a new health threat in community and the ability to effectively respond to it. On a global basis, public health diplomacy, which works to mitigate the social conditions that allow violent extremism to thrive, must also be used.

Georges C. Benjamin, MD, is the executive director of the American Public Health Association.

There are myriad reasons a person may be driven to commit an act of terror: lack of basic human rights, discrimination, social injustice, poor socioeconomic conditions, mental health and behavioral issues, or a scarcity of food, water and housing. The resulting dehumanization has a significant impact on mental well-being, leaving a person vulnerable to extremist ideology. Investing in mental health services and resources is one way to intervene. If mental health providers are able to diagnose and treat behavioral disorders, it can mitigate the potential for destructive behavior and preempt violence.

Arshia Wajid, MBA, MPH, is the founder and president of American Muslim Health Professionals.

The answer to this question is: Public Health cannot stop terrorism. My experience includes over a decade of service to first responders post-9/11. As participants in the U.S. public health system, our most significant contribution may be emphasizing the truth about our limits and capacity. In addition, the media has impeded any positive movement made by our efforts by distorting the truth and promulgating fear, the core of terrorism. Operationalizing “lessons learned,” fostering resilience in this “new normal” and accurate information sharing may be the best we can do. 

Cherie Castellano, AAETS, LPC, is the program director of Cop 2 Cop, Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, and co-author of Psychological Counterterrorism & World War IV.