Domestic and international terrorism have had a significant impact on individuals, communities, and organizations around the world, leading many to question what can be done from a public health perspective. While acts of terrorism cannot be stopped through the efforts of public health officials alone, there are a variety of proactive strategies that may help reduce the frequency and severity of these incidents.
Studies in conflict and terrorism are increasingly focused on the efficacy of preemptive community building and social cohesion programs, which hold the potential to deter violent attacks by creating more robust support structures at the local level. Unlike traditional reactionary approaches, these initiatives seek to identify and treat the core causes of political extremism and the underlying mental health issues that may leave an individual vulnerable to radicalization. But to make a real difference, it’s important to first understand the full scope of the issue.
A brief primer
Terrorism is not a modern phenomenon — using violence and intimidation as political tools long predates the 21st century — yet the scale of contemporary terror attacks far exceeds most historical examples. Today’s “War on Terror” can trace its roots back to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, which caused the death of nearly 3,000 Americans, according to FBI statistics. Following the high-profile attack, terrorism became a mainstay in public discourse and even led to the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
One challenge of addressing global terrorism has been the lack of consensus about how the term should be defined. An article in the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health pointed out that “a suitable universal definition remains elusive because different bodies, organisations, and government agencies have different definitions to suit their own particular role, purpose, or bias.” While conversations about this issue are often dominated by references to large-scale acts of violence, the impact of global terrorism reaches far beyond the immediate loss of life and damages to public infrastructure. For example, the use of terrorism as a weapon of asymmetrical warfare has had a lasting impact on the psychological well-being of citizens around the world.
Prevention vs. reaction
Until recently, experts have largely focused on the development of comprehensive terrorism response plans that prioritize the coordination of emergency services and law enforcement personnel following an attack. This allows medical professionals to minimize casualties through the prompt treatment of victims while also establishing clear protocols for containing hostile actors to prevent additional harm to the public. These measures have undoubtedly saved lives, yet they are incapable of addressing the core causes of terrorism or generating preventive solutions that can be implemented on the individual and community levels.
Rather than relying on a passive approach, many public health officials have begun advocating for preventive programs that can increase community cohesion and create a more resilient psychological infrastructure. A 2017 article published in Health Equity argued that more attention must be paid to the social determinants of terrorism, as identifying risk factors may provide actionable insights into how preemptive strategies can be effectively deployed. The paper pointed out that interpersonal and structural factors — including poverty, discrimination, and political disenfranchisement — can significantly increase an individual’s risk for violent radicalization and terrorist behaviors. This suggests that a greater awareness of the socioeconomic challenges faced by at-risk populations could lead to a significant reduction in terror-related incidents.
Community resilience models
The National Institute of Standards and Technology defines community resilience as the “ability to prepare for anticipated hazards, adapt to changing conditions, and withstand and recover rapidly from disruptions.” A resilient community, therefore, is one that is capable of engaging in a wide range of proactive activities before and after an act of terrorism occurs. Populations with a high degree of social cohesion are better equipped to address the immediate repercussions of a violent attack and provide the psychological support that community members may require. According to the United Nations, social cohesion is built around three key values:
- Social inclusion: The ability of citizens to participate equally within the economic, social, and political landscape of their community
- Social capital: The degree of trust that exists between people and institutions, which contributes to an overall sense of belonging within a society.
- Social mobility: The presence of equal opportunities within a given society that ensures each individual is capable of improving their economic and social well-being.
In a sense, social cohesion can be measured by the presence or lack of civic participation within a given community. Populations that have access to adequate resources and opportunities for upward mobility are able to come together in times of hardship and address the overall health of their communities. Less resilient communities do not have the ability to accurately identify risks that threaten the broad public good, leading to more severe psychosocial impacts following an act of terrorism. So where do public health officials fit in?
How an MPH can help you build resilient communities
At Regis College, we prepare students who want to foster social cohesion by providing the skills and experience they need through our Master of Public Health program. Creating more resilient communities depends on the collaboration of government agencies, advocacy groups, and civil society, which requires expert public health communicators who can bridge the gaps between these disparate groups. Our online MPH features a concentration in Health Policy and Management that guides students through the complex landscape of public health policy toward sustainable goals and actionable solutions. The curriculum features a variety of specialized courses that can help you develop more effective terrorism prevention strategies, including:
- Social and Behavioral Sciences
- Concepts in Health Administration
- Health Policy, Politics and Perspectives
- Contemporary Issues, Special Populations and Policies
Interested in a more research-focused career? The MPH program also offers a concentration in epidemiology that can provide insight into the root causes of violent extremism and give you the tools you need to mitigate the prevalence of terrorism-related events.
Want to learn more about the online MPH degree program at Regis College? Contact us today for more information.