A Spree of Violence Can Shake a Community's Worldview

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The “continuous trauma” of a drawn-out event like the Austin bombings is different than a one-time disaster.

After 19 days, the fear and anxiety that have haunted the city of Austin, Texas, may have reached an end on Wednesday. The suspect in a series of bombings blew himself up in a car as the police approached. Six different bombs, considered linked by the police, have killed two people and injured five more since March 2. Four of them exploded in Austin; one went off in a FedEx facility in Schertz, Texas (in a package headed for an Austin address); another was found and recovered undetonated at another FedEx facility near the Austin airport.

The suspect was a 23-year-old named Mark Conditt, and he left behind a videotaped confessionAccording to The New York Times, Austin officials have cautioned that there may still be other bombs out there, planted before the man died. While it appears that Conditt worked alone, authorities have not yet ruled out the possibility of accomplices. But even if it is truly over, residents of the Austin area have already been living with the knowledge that a bomber is at large for the better part of a month. That kind of violent-crime spree can take a toll on a community—both while it’s happening and after it’s over.

Michael Cannell is a journalist and the author of Incendiary, a book that chronicles the story of another serial bomber—the so-called “Mad Bomber” who terrorized New York with more than 30 bombs in the 1950s. “He had kind of a genius for stoking fear,” Cannell says. “The fear in these cases is disproportionate to the actual threat. Homemade bombs—yes, they can kill and cause terrible damage, but they are not enormous explosives. They are days, or more likely, weeks, apart. Relative to the other threats—I’m thinking about gun deaths, I’m thinking about car accidents—serial bombers do not present a statistically enormous threat. Yet the fear and anxiety they produce can paralyze entire communities.”

“When you have an active perpetrator in a community, society is living on the edge of its seats, wondering when is the next shoe going to drop,” says Scott Bonn, a criminologist and the author of Why We Love Serial Killers. “There’s heightened anxiety, it’s a state of terror.” Paranoia creeps in; in Austin, police responded to hundreds of calls about suspicious packages.

There’s still much that’s unknown in the Austin case, including the motive for the crime. But typically with a serial crime spree, be it bombings or serial killings, the sowing of fear is the point, Bonn says.

“I interviewed David Berkowitz”—the serial killer known as “Son of Sam” who killed six people in New York in 1976—“and he was well aware that he had New York City in the palm of his hand,” Bonn adds.

Under these conditions, people may go to great lengths to change their behavior to feel a modicum of safety. Because Berkowitz targeted brunettes with long hair, some women in New York reportedly cut and dyed their hair, or covered it with wigs. In 1990, when five University of Florida students were killed within days of each other, The Washington Post reported that stores in Gainesville saw a rush of mace and gun purchases.

One study found that during the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington, D.C., 45 percent of residents reported going to parks, shopping centers, and other public places less than usual. More than a third said they were staying home more, and a small percentage said they’d missed one or more days of work because of the attacks. In a separate study of D.C.’s homeless residents, 65 percent said they’d restricted their activities during the attacks, presumably because they were more vulnerable and exposed than people who could take shelter in their homes.

In Austin, during this recent bombing spree, The New York Times reported that some people were “avoiding opening packages or even answering their front doors out of fear,” though others were determined not to let the fear disrupt their lives. “People seemed to keep their eyes trained downward—looking for suspicious bags and backpacks, packages, and strands of wire across sidewalks.”

The sustained nature of a violent-crime spree, where the criminal remains at large for some time, makes it a different sort of trauma than a one-time event like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. After disasters, psychologists characterize people’s risk for negative mental-health effects by thinking about “dose of exposure,” says Amy Nitza, the director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at the State University of New York at New Paltz. People who were closer to the event, or exposed to it longer, are at greater risk.

But with the Austin bombings, “you have a greater number of people with a lower dose of exposure,” Nitza says. “Who is classified as a victim or a survivor becomes much more broad.”

One study referred to this kind of exposure as “continuous trauma” when looking at the psychological state of some local students nine days after the Gainesville murders. It found that depression was the main symptom seemingly brought on by the killings—not anxiety or stress. “While anxiety may have been quite pronounced in the first few days following the killings, we speculate that such high levels of anxiety were not sustained for a long period of time,” the authors write. “Perhaps when efforts to solve the crime quickly were unsuccessful, anxiety levels decreased as individuals began to feel helpless, hopeless, and depressed.”

“I see how that can make sense,” Nitza says. “When the situation is chronic, and there’s this chronic level of uncertainty and not knowing where the danger is, it’s really hard on people physiologically for their fight or flight response to stay on.”

(It’s worth mentioning that these effects are not exclusive to places that are briefly rampaged by a serial killer or serial bomber. A paper on the sniper attacks noted that the psychological effects are likely similar to “those caused by the chronic community violence that is endemic to many inner-city neighborhoods in the United States.”)

Once the criminal is caught, and the situation resolved, “most people are resilient,” Nitza says. “They’re going to bounce back to their pre-event level of functioning.” It’s reasonable to expect that some, though, will continue to struggle. The study on D.C. residents, conducted seven months after the sniper attack, found that rates of PTSD symptoms were twice as high as rates in a nationally representative sample. Nitza says that people with previous histories of trauma are more likely to be at risk.

The broader psyche of a community is likely to be changed by such events, too, but it’s harder to quantify exactly how that disruption shapes the atmosphere of a place.“People may have their worldview shaken in a way you wouldn’t with a more acute geographically limited disaster,” Nitza says.

George Metesky—the name of the “Mad Bomber” from the ’50s— tended to target public spaces, such as Radio City Music Hall and Grand Central Station. “He made us aware of how fragile our civic safety is,” Cannell says. The Austin bomber’s M.O. was in some ways even more invasive: putting bombs on people’s doorsteps. A reminder that people aren’t always safe even in their own homes.

In his book, Cannell quotes Metesky as saying: “I’ve read that a man with a hammer can wreck a 16-inch naval gun, just by hitting it until it shatters. It’s the same with bombs.”

Or in other words: “It isn’t about the size of the explosion,” Cannell says. “It’s about the size of the public reaction.”

Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where this article was originally published.

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