Terrorist attacks are horrifying.
In the wake of each one, we see the faces of victims on our screens. We hear interviews from witnesses breathlessly describing the terrors they endured. We feel a lot of conflicting, disorienting things fear, sadness, anger, confusion, hopelessness, and despair sometimes all at once.
We’re often left wondering why?
It’s easy to feel utterly helpless when terrorism takes lives. But there are ways you can defy the people and ideologies that inflict so much tragedy.
1. First, if you can, be the helper.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers,'” Mr. Rogers once said. “You will always find people who are helping.”
It’s a quote that often circulates in the wake of terror attacks. But it’s not just because it’s reassuring; it also rings true. Anyone can be a helper if they’re in a position to do so.
Helpers opened up their homes for victims and survivors in the wake of the May 22, 2017, bombing in Manchester, U.K.
Helpers also drove hundreds of miles to take home stranded travelers from the airport after the 2016 terrorist attack in Brussels. Small-business workers helped to protect their patrons in Paris last year after gunfire and blasts killed over 100 people.
Let compassion, not fear, inspire you to act in the hours and days following an attack. (Helping others doesn’t just benefit victims; it helps us cope with tragedy, too.)
2. Then, remember terrorism seeks to divide, and don’t let it.
Whether it’s right-wing extremists targeting Planned Parenthood or jihadists targeting a French music venue, remember that terrorists are often hell-bent on creating the divisiveness that allows their message to thrive.
The vast, vast majority of Muslims, for instance, vehemently reject the messages behind groups like ISIS or al-Qaida. In fact, Muslims not Christians or Jews are by far the biggest victims of Islamic extremism. In the same way Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t represent Christianity, radical Islamic groups don’t represent Muslims.
3. Now, turn off the TV.
When tragedy strikes, we tend to stay glued to cable news for hours, hungry for more details, even when watching makes us more scared and more anxious. Our 24/7 news model is the perfect, sensationalized medium to disperse terror near and far, and extremists understand this well.
Vox’s Carlos Maza breaks down how damaging this sort of news coverage is for our brains:
Listen to the American Psychological Association: After a terrorist attack, it’s best to watch cable news sparingly (if at all).
4. When you do watch or read about what happened, especially as the news is still breaking, don’t fall for or share fake news.
Terrorism seeks to breed chaos. There’s usually a rush of contradicting news reports in the hours following an attack (all the more reason to turn off cable TV). Your social media feeds will be inundated with images, requests for donations, questionable quotes from supposed eyewitnesses, and photos purporting to show the immediate and gory aftermath of the attack.
News outlets or pundits sometimes jump to conclusions about the attackers’ race or religion a knee-jerk reaction rooted in xenophobia and irresponsibly spread false or unconfirmed information. And some people, incredibly, exploit the tragedy for clicks and attention.
Don’t add to the chaos. Vet what you’re reading and sharing to make sure it’s accurate. If you’re not sure, don’t share it. If you see people spreading false news, let them know.
If you choose to donate to an organization, make sure it’s a credible one like the many doing lifesaving work in support of refugees.
5. Donate to the people and causes affected by terror.
No one better understands the destruction Islamist terrorism can bring like refugees in countries like Syria and Iraq. Whether they’ve been affected directly or were uprooted due to the political ramifications of terror groups, refugees desperately need our help. Learn more and support organizations like UNICEF, Save the Children, and Islamic Relief USA.
In the U.S., domestic terrorists often target groups based on factors like race, politics, or religion. A Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado, a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the streets of Dallas, where five police officers were shot and killed, an LGBTQ nightclub in Florida they’ve all been ground zero in recent atrocities. When terrorists attack these groups and causes, we can fight back by supporting the groups’ missions, helping them rebuild and reopen, and building bridges to boost understanding.
6. Put the real threats of terrorism into perspective.
In the U.S., you’re far more likely to die in a parachuting accident or be buried alive than to be killed by a radical jihadist. You’re also more likely to die at the hands of right-wing American terrorists which, of course, isn’t a comforting thought, but it does say a lot about how differently we see and react to radical Islamic extremism and domestic threats.
Now that you know the facts…
7. Don’t cancel your plans; go to a concert, the movies, or your favorite restaurants.
After all, the fears we typically experience after a terrorist attack are pretty irrational, as psychiatrist Richard Friedman expressed in The New York Times in 2015.
“[The president] has to help us all realize that when we are in the grip of so-called emergency emotion extreme fear and anxiety we privilege our feeling over our thinking,” he wrote. “And our estimation of the danger we face is exaggerated by our fear.”
Go live life as you normally would free of fear. That’s exactly what most terrorists don’t want.
8. Support leaders who want to fight all forms of terrorism with facts and level-headedness not with fear-mongering.
Many times, American right-wing extremists who carry out heinous acts of terror are excused as “lone wolfs,” and their atrocities are overlooked or minimized by our politicians. If a terrorist’s skin is white, reaction to their crimes will be much different than if they’re from, say, Syria.
Support leaders who understand the nuances of both global and domestic terrorism and know how to fight it.
9. Talk about the damage of toxic masculinity.
Terrorists and extremists from all walks of life and religious beliefs usually have one thing in common: They’re almost all men. Mass shooters, Christian extremists, jihadists, and others around the globe often find purpose in ideologies that give them a (false) sense of power and control.
We need to talk about how our collective inability to stomp out toxic masculinity the attitudes that confine males to being violent, aggressive, and unemotional is swaying men to find their purpose within extremist sects of all sorts.
10. Share news stories that help counter negative stereotypes about Muslims.
In the case of a terror attack that ISIS or another Islamist extremist group takes credit for, it’s especially important we acknowledge how most Muslims are reacting after terror strikes.
They’re as scared and horrified as anyone else.
After an attack near the U.K. Parliament building in March 2017, Muslims United for London raised thousands of dollars for victims and their families. Muslim groups in Florida rushed to get blood donations for victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando last year. In the wake of the Manchester, U.K., bombing, Muslim charity Human Appeal created a campaign to aid those affected by the atrocity.
These stories don’t reflect the few. They reflect the feelings and attitudes of most Muslims.
11. Reach out to Muslims in your own community.
Needless to say, anti-white hate crimes don’t spike in the U.S. after a right-wing extremist goes on a shooting rampage. Islamophobic hate crimes after a jihadist attack on the other hand? That’s a different story.
This can leave American Muslims feeling isolated and targeted while fueling the type of division that acts as a recruiting tool for terrorist networks.
As an ally, this is when you’re needed most.
Leave a friendly note for the Muslim family nearby (or, better yet, knock on their door and say hello). Get lunch with the Muslim student who lives down the hall in your dorm building. Offer to walk with Muslims to and from mosques, like New Yorkers did last year, so they’re more protected from violence on the street.
Do what you can to let our Muslim neighbors know they’re welcome here.
12. Whatever you do, don’t succumb to fear.
Do just the opposite.
As former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said in 2011 after a horrific attack by a right wing extremist resulted in the deadliest incident in Norway since World War II (emphasis added): “We are still shocked by what has happened. But we will never give up our values. Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.”
Remember: Compassion and empathy do far more in fighting terrorism than divisiveness and fear.
“Fight or flight” is real, and it makes sense that those instincts tell us to build walls or turn away from our neighbors in the face of senseless violence. It’s in those moments especially that we have to remind ourselves that that’s what extremists want us to do.
When terror strikes, turn off the TV, parse through the fake news, and do what you can to help those who need it most. Live your life exactly how terrorists hope you don’t.