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7 July bombings five years on: The Psychological Impacts of 7/7

Commentary, 7 July 2010
Terrorism
It is important that the public do not allow the events of 7/7, or any terrorist activity, to fundamentally re-shape the way they go about their everyday lives, but it is important that we acknowledge that the events of 7/7 can still be causing psychological distress to those who were most significantly affected by it as well as the general public.

It is important that the public do not allow the events of 7/7, or any terrorist activity, to fundamentally re-shape the way they go about their everyday lives, but it is important that we acknowledge that the events of 7/7 can still be causing psychological distress to those who were most significantly affected by it as well as the general public.

By Dr. Tobias Feakin and Charlotte Allan for RUSI.org

7 July bomb victimSince the bombings of 7 July 2005, we have thankfully not seen another successful attack occur in the UK.  There have been thwarted attempts such as the unsuccessful plan to blow up multiple transatlantic aircraft in the so called 'Bojinka II' plot in 2006, the attempted bombing of Glasgow airport and Haymarket in 2007 along with other plots which have been foiled before their enactment. 

This is in large part due to relative successes that the security service and police have had in countering the threat that terrorism presents the UK, yet the number of plots that have been uncovered is indicative of the level of threat that we face in this country.  The government for their part have responded with new legislative powers for the threat to be policed, some four new major Terrorist Acts have been passed in the last 10 years, which have enabled the threat to be countered. 

However, at what cost does this come and are we in danger of allowing psychological scars to manifest within a society which has become increasingly used to giving up areas of liberty in order to counter the threat that small groups of individuals within our society provide? Most importantly are we forgetting the families of those who died in these events and the psychological impact that such tragedies have upon them?

Ongoing psychological impact

The greatest tool that a terrorist has at their disposal is the capacity to change and inconvenience our patterns of everyday life and make us fearful of the unknown and unimaginable.  The events that unfolded on 7 July 2005 may have drifted to the back of the minds of the general population, but there is reason to believe that the psychological impact is still as acute today as ever.  Those people most obviously affected by the bombings were undoubtedly the relatives of the fifty-two people killed, as well as the near 700 who were injured. 

For the relatives of those killed, this anniversary will be a time for grieving and remembrance, and reflection on the past.  However, coupled with this, is the more serious possibility of guilt, and social withdrawal, which often reflect the individual's inability to accept their survival.  For those who were injured, perhaps they face the more psychologically challenging feat of continuing their lives without fear or a change in their routine. 

PTSD

Survivors of traumatic events are by default more likely to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a disorder which elevates their normal reaction to an experience to an extent which negatively interferes with their daily lives.  While trauma symptoms are an expected part of the recovery process, for example fear, disbelief and anxiety, PTSD symptoms are prolonged and heightened levels of these associated emotions and can severely alter the victims' daily lives.  Paranoia, uncontrollable rage, emotional numbness and depression often are results of PTSD, and can, in severe cases, lead to substance abuse. 

The long-term effects of this disorder may have a negative impact not only on the daily routine of the victims but also on their relationships.  The paranoia, and heightened anxiety, as well as substance abuse, may lead to isolation from ones family and friends if left unnoticed and untreated.  The 7/7 attacks can be seen, therefore, to have had a lasting and negative impact on those people most closely associated with them, which may still be affecting them today.

Widespread emotional stress

While it may be thought that these psychological disruptions only affect those who were directly involved in the bombings, the emotional numbness of the PTSD sufferers may be extended to members of the public who were not so closely affected by the attacks.  That numbness was witnessed by this correspondent on the day of the attacks:

"On the day of the 7/7 bombings I was in the final throws of writing my Ph.D thesis, and working within primary schools as a teaching assistant and sports coach.  One of my roles as a sports coach was to train the schools' cricket teams, including the girl's under-11's team. On the day of July 7 2005 we had been invited to play in a cricket tournament in Hyde Park.  One of my star players that day was a young Muslim girl, whose family I had been in close contact with trying to convince them that they should allow their daughter to come with the group and play.  One of her father's concerns was that anything could happen on such a trip including a terrorist attack, which of course I suggested was ridiculous and highly unlikely to occur...how wrong I could be.  I often wonder how that child's family reacted to the bombing, if it meant that she would not be able to go on school trips in the future because of that experience?  Had that event changed irreversibly the psychology of that family unit in feeling safe about letting their daughter go anywhere in London without them by her side?" [1]

Avoid desensitisation without raising alarm

It is interesting to think on this anniversary how many of us now reflect on what happened during that day in 2005 and assess how it has shaped some of our own actions  in and around London?  It is indeed difficult to strike a balance for the public from being aware of the threat to being desensitised to that threat.  The desensitisation of the general population, otherwise known as 'threat fatigue', could well be seeping into our society due to the type and quantity of mass media coverage that is given.  It is important that the public do not allow the events of 7/7, or any terrorist activity, to fundamentally re-shape the way they go about their everyday lives, but it is important that we acknowledge that the events of 7/7 can still be causing psychological distress to those who were most significantly affected by it as well as the general public.

For the government who are responding to acts of terrorism, they must be able to do something that terrorists will not, that is to re-assess the methods at their disposal for responding to that threat, and potentially reverse the psychological damage that attacks have had.  This can be done through reassessing key areas of legislation that are outdated or abused, self-reflect on approaches to countering certain threats, and not be scared of making changes where changes are required.

It is incumbent upon us to treat the terrorist threat as a risk amongst many, creating prevention mechanisms that do not compromise our quality of life or our liberties as this is an aim of terrorist activity and we should not succumb too lightly.

 

NOTE

[1] Recollection from Dr Tobias Feakin

Author

Dr Tobias Feakin
Senior Associate Fellow

Dr Tobias Feakin is Australia's inaugural Ambassador for Cyber Affairs. He leads Australia's whole of government international... read more

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