Maria Hartwig and Mark Fallon, who previously contributed the important and popular guest post on state-sponsored bullshit, are back with another timely, insightful, and significant piece. I thank them for sharing it here.

Terror as Public Policy: How Terrorism Breeds Terror Policies

by Maria Hartwig and Mark Fallon

We can all feel it in the air; we can even smell it—fear is all around. America is in a state of terror, again. Pick your poison: A porous border, parent-teacher chaos, a resilient virus, congressional deadlock, the spectre of another Trump run and a bogus “big steal,” not to mention the horrifying images of the Kabul evacuation, and, not so long ago, mobs at the Capitol and heavily armed U.S. soldiers on American streets. 

These are the images of fear. When such images of fear—terror, really—strike the hearts of people, we have several ways to react, many of which turn out to result in retaliation and further suffering. 

This terror—terrorism—is not new on the American landscape. We are now two decades past the September 11, 2001 attacks on our nation, almost three past the bombings in Oklahoma City and at the Atlanta Olympics. The images of the twin towers of inferno in lower Manhattan, the smoldering ashes at the Pentagon, and debris field near Shanksville, Pa., are burned deeply within the fabric of our conscious memories. As poignantly chronicled in the Netflix documentary Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, primal fear can result in reactive decision-making. When emotions are high, and rationality is low, we make poor decisions. 

Terror management theory (TMT) is an explanatory framework for how we experience existential terror, what we do to counterweight its burdens, and how it affects psychological and behavioral processes in substantial and at times shocking ways. What is critical to realize is that existential terror affects not only the public, but also politicians, policymakers, and those involved in shaping and executing public policy. It is compounded when fear is operationalized and the public’s view of reality is reshaped to enable policies, through what is referred to in tradecraft as perception management. While fear is a survival emotion, we will explain how minds and perceptions can be manipulated, in what we refer to as fabricated evidence to alter reality (FEAR).

Policymakers are human beings and therefore subject to the same psychology as the ordinary person. Here, we will describe the psychology of how acts of terrorism can and does lead to specific psychological reactions of fear. This fear, fueled and stoked by FEAR, in turn leads to the hatching and implementation of policies of retaliation, like the grotesque terror policy underlying the post 9/11 torture program culminating in the human rights disaster that is Guantánamo Bay.

Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory was proposed by an American anthropologist, Ernest Becker, in his 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death. Becker suggested that we are not properly wired to handle the thought of death; we deny it, but we cannot fully do so, because we are all going to die; therefore, we must find a way to manage the terror. Social psychologists then built upon Becker’s work to create the modern scientific theory that we call TMT. But it’s theoretical only in the scientific sense, meaning it’s a sound explanation, much like the theory of gravity or the Darwinian theory of evolution.

The first premise of terror management theory is that we are organisms hard-wired to self-preserve ourselves at all costs. It’s buried in our DNA: behold the humble amoeba shying away from danger. The instinct to survive is by necessity a mandate for living creatures. humans, we also have the capacity not only to remember the past (retrospection), but also the capacity of peering into the future (prospection). Prospective thinking is very handy indeed, since it affords us glimpses of the future, and the subsequent ability to act according to some more or less rational norm.

But being able to peer into the future also has the possibility of filling us with terror. It is because when we do so, we see our own death looming; inevitable and possibly crippling us with existential terror. The second premise of terror management theory is that we must find a way to negotiate the circumstances so that we avoid death, or at least pretend to. One possibility is to believe in a religious afterlife, wherein death is only a signpost on a longer journey. For those not inclined to believe in an afterlife, and instead believe that death represents the end of one’s life cycle, there is a second possibility: We can believe in being part of something larger than ourselves – our legacy, or the culture, norms and traditions that make us who we are. It is these belief structures and social tribes that serve as a buffer against existential terror because they allow us to transcend death: Even if we ourselves might perish, the legacy can live on. 

What happens when terror strikes? Whether it is in the literal form of terrorism, or whether it is any sort of stimulus that stirs up profound existential fear, people’s defense mechanisms kick in. These defense mechanisms lead us to rally around our tribe, close ranks, and more loudly and clearly express allegiance to shared values. It leads people to cling to their tribes; their perceived allies; those who think like them, look like them etc. – their so-called in-group.

Former Vice President Cheney’s ‘Meet the Press’ interview in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks forecast the impending policy disaster. He set the tone for a Nation in fear, when he announced “It is a mean, nasty, dangerous dirty business out there and we have to operate in that arena.” President Bush’s September 17, 2001 Memorandum of Notification, known as The Gloves Come Off memo are still classified. While the Senate Detainee Abuse Hearings and Senate Torture Report Executive Summary are convincing evidence of the operational, tactical and strategic cost and consequences of what might seem an irrational reaction to an attack from nineteen extremists with boxcutters. It may be instructive to assess that reaction, or we could reason an overaction, as it may be instructive to view those decisions through the lens of the politics of fear – terror as policy, driven by fear, and propagating FEAR at the same time.

Rationality and irrationality

David Hume famously proclaimed that reason is a slave to the passions. If we would translate this to contemporary psychological research, we would say that the non-conscious part of the self is more powerful than the conscious part. This is of course reminiscent of classic Freudian psychological model of the mind as an iceberg, where only a minor fraction of the total mental activity occurs above the surface of consciousness. That emotions and motivations – what both both Hume and Spinoza called the passions – drive our thinking (even the thinking we perceive to be dispassionate self-reflection or so-called rational thought) is beyond dispute in modern psychological science. All such cognitive processes are carried out in parallel with an emotional system that runs its hardware and software in the background at all times. 

The consequence of human psychology is such that when we are struck by terror, when the ancient brain structures that wire us to survive are activated because we are terrified at the prospect of death, we become psychologically dislocated from a state of existential balance. In response, we become protective of our cherished values, we embrace those who think like us, and we shun and shame the Others. We rally around our own and lash out at those we believe to be threats to our existence, or to the values and belief systems that give our existence meaning. Whether or not these belief systems are anchored in actual facts becomes secondary; it is the belief systems themselves that give us an anchor for the storm of fear

As Robert Woodward so aptly informed us in Bush at War, Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News shaped Bush’s thinking (e.g. belief system), using Karl Rove as his cutout, imploring the President to use “the harshest measures possible” in dealing with his subsequent actions. Not long after, President Bush signed his November 13, 2001 military order titled “Detention, Treatment, and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism.” We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of that military order and we still have 39 prisoners at Guantanamo, some in indefinite detention without trial, and those suspected of perpetrating the 9/11 attacks, and the October 12, 2000 attack on the USS Cole (DDG-67) have yet to be brought to trial. Justice denied is justice deceived. 

The consequences of fear: Existential terror as an engine of evil

Tackling the question of human evil is a mighty task, and is bound to generate all kinds of more or less amorphous questions about the definition of evil, whether humans are born good or evil, or whether are in a moral limbo. However, there is a scientific interpretation of evil following Ernest Becker’s work and TMT which is quite tangible indeed. It shows remarkable behavior in response to experience of profound terror. In short, it makes people more punitive and lash out more strongly against those who threaten cherished values and norms. For example, in one study municipal court judges either were or were not reminded of their own mortality. Then, they had to set bond for a hypothetical prostitution case. Judges in the control condition assigned an average bond ($50) which was in line with then-current typical rulings. However, judges who had briefly pondered their own mortality set an average bond of $455 – nearly ten times more punitive in their judgments. 

Of direct political importance, research published in 2004 showed that reminders of 9/11 (in all likelihood a reminder of death) increased support for President George W Bush. Remarkably, one study showed that a common justification for harsh interrogation techniques including torture is raw retaliation as response to existential shock. Even more remarkably people’s verbiage in defense of torture in interrogation tends to be utilitarian – ‘torture is a good policy because it works’), however, they are actually operating on motives unknown to themselves, motives which entail protecting the psyche from existential dread.

Terror policies can have catastrophic consequences, especially for those working within the national security space, as they become unwitting pawns in play on a battlefield of fear. In April 2002, when the Military Commissions process was preparing to conduct mock trial exercises to bring the first detainees before Bush’s new military commissions process, United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair visited with President Bush at the Crawford Ranch in Texas. The official White House press release praised Great Britain for the contributions in the war against terror and added a new dimension. Upping the ante and elevating the fear factor, Bush emphasized the importance of denying terrorists weapons of mass destruction. At the press conference Bush admitted he and Blair “…of course, talked about Iraq. We both recognize the danger of a man who’s willing to kill his own people harboring and developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Blair chimed in “We know that those weapons constitute a threat” and emphasized “They developed that destructive capability for a reason.”

There is little to do about how our brains and minds are constructed, other than at a minimum have some awareness about it and how it makes us behave. Knowing that being terrified can lead us to lash out against outgroup members, can lead us to more polarized thinking and in fact even seriously hurt those who represent the Others, may be useful in itself. When it comes to the images we see in the media of major political unrest, on the return of extremism, we become psychologically dislodged whether we like it or not; and we act in accordance with this existential terror. While being terrorized compels us to act, it may be that these impulses should be reigned in, and that most rational course of action is the iconic line from the movie War Games: The only way to win is not to play the game. 

However, in real life, lives are at stake and the politics of terror policies costs lives. What has since been declassified, in part, is a bombshell Memorandum from former Secretary of State Colin Powell to President Bush about his meeting with Blair, pledging support for the invasion of Iraq in response to the 9/11 attacks. By July 2003, the US suspended any proceedings against British detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. Colin Powell went before the United Nations, with CIA Director George Tenet sitting beside him, claiming that there were both WMD and al-Qaeda in Iraq. Wrong on both counts, the terrorist connections to these terror policies was fabricated information obtained from Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, after being rendered to Egypt to extract this data, rather than bring al-Libi to justice before military commissions. 

Dead men tell no tales and al-Libi was turned over to the government of Libya, rather to Bagram or Guantanamo, and the Libyans reported he was found dead in his cell of an “apparent suicide.” The Senate Torture Report found that al-Libi “lied {about the link} to avoid torture.” This may explain why Prisoner 10016, Abu Zubaydah, Prisoner 063 aka Mohamad al-Qahtani, Prisoner 760 aka Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Prisoner 239 aka Shaker Aamar, and Prisoner 558 aka Moazzam Begg remained in Guantanamo long after the official DOD Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF) found no evidence to support the allegations against them. 

The fear of torture, propagation of fear and terror policies has impact on a global scale. This is the undeniably true and unpalatable consequences of FEAR and the Terror Management Theory lens of terror policies. Or, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his iconic first inaugural address: “Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself.”

About the Authors

Maria Hartwig, PhD, is a Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her research focuses on interrogation and the psychology of deception and truth, in particular in the criminal justice and national security space. Along with Mark Fallon, she is the Co-Founder of Project Aletheia, a not-for-profit platform aimed at bridging the gap between science and practice of interrogation.



Mark Fallon is the Director of ClubFed, LLC, an Expert Consult, Expert Witness and Strategic Advisor on matters of counterterrorism and criminal investigation. A leading authority on the integration of the psychological sciences to improve the practice of effective questioning and global policing, Mark was a member of the 15-person Steering Committee of Experts that developed the Méndez Principles on Effective Interviewing for Investigations and Information Gathering. He is Past-Chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) International Managers of Police Academy and College Training (IMPACT) Section and is currently serving as the Interim Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL) at the University of Pennsylvania. A Visiting Scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he Co-Founded Project Aletheia as a knowledge center to bridge the gap between the science and practice of interrogation. Based on his acumen, knowledge, and experience in both the research and practice of interviewing, debriefing and interrogation, Mark has designed and developed the SMART Tradecraft on Effective Interviewing as part of police reformation initiatives advocating procedural just and virtuous policing. 

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