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July 2005 | Uncompleted

Epistemology of Terror in the Moment


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It is one thing to assert universal values to which all aspire around the world. It is another to recognize an existential experience common to many around the world, irrespective of personal circumstances, status, age or wisdom. Whilst there may indeed be a great deal in common between aspirations to peace and freedom, there is a case for recognizing the greater degree to which a sense of terror may be shared.

Faced with increasing levels of terrorism, it could be assumed that the sense of terror is confined to the few in places susceptible to attack by terrorists. The argument here follows from that developed elsewhere regarding the ubiquity of terror whatever forms it takes (cf Varieties of Terrorism: extended to the experience of the terrorized 2004). There an emphasis was placed on the terror of daily life as experienced by many -- to the point of forcing significant numbers into substance abuse, mental illness or suicide? [more | more]

It is reported that some 250,000 a year commit suicide in China -- with a further 2.5-3 million unsuccessful attempts -- the brightest typically fearing inability to fulfil parental explanations [more]. Whether it takes the form of existential terror, fear, insecurity, panic, anxiety, lack of trust, or uncertainty, it affects the most affluent and modern societies (cf Bart Pattyn and Luc Van Liedekerke, Anxiety and Uncertainty in Modern Society, 2001). How should the quality of that terror in western countries be compared with the quality of terror faced by those in developing countries confronted by starvation and the death of their family members? How insulting is it to those faced with such death to have their terror demeaned by a legalistic definition ignoring the form of terrorism that gave rise to it?

But the concern here is not with the extent of terror in the world but rather with the quality of experience in the moment with which it may be associated. The concern is therefore not with terror from the past by which one may in some way be haunted. Nor is it concerned with the terror anticipated in connection with some future event -- such as dying. The focus is on how terror configures experience in the present moment.

Definitional preamble

It assumed that there are degrees of fear and terror, ranging from mild anxiety through terror of unimaginable kinds. Possible frameworks for distinguishing these are discussed in the earlier paper under Distinguishing degrees of fear and terror.

The concern here is not to ignore varieties of terror because they are mild or unfocused, but nevertheless focus on the more severe conditions even if they may only constitute a temporary form of negative "peak experience" -- borrowing from the terminology of the states of consciousness literature. Perhaps they might be termed "trough experiences" following C S Lewis (The Screwtape Letters) who offers that metaphor in contrast to the "mountain" and "valley" variant.

The distinction between terror and "panic attack" -- or some form of existential fear -- may be irrelevant to those living the experience. For a collectivity, the earlier argument drew attention to the possibility of a scale analogous to the DEFCON scale for nuclear threat or even a scale like that for forest fire threat. The media use a crude scale for what amounts to the terror or threat level associated with movies. It is possible that different areas of a city could have indicators indicating the appropriate fear /terror level, perhaps changing according to the time of day (as with some traffic guidance panels). Threat indicators are however quite distinct from a measure of the actual collective experience of panic or terror for which the earthquake Richter Scale might offer a better analogy.

Concerned at the lack of academic insight into the emotions associated with traumatic moments of history and associated irrationality -- including 9/11 -- Joanna Bourke (Fear: A Cultural History, [commentary]) examines the predominant fears experienced and documented in Britain and the USA over the past 150 years.

Integrative perspective associated with terror

Under conditions of terror there is no room for the niceties of conceptual distinctions and neatly ordered categories. Terror is a reversion to a kind of cognitive "Big Bang" condition -- the seconds in which the universe was born and before the array of chemical elements were formed, and bonded in a rich diversity of ways.

If such diversity is to be understood as the set of cognitive categories through which space-time is observed and understood, then the condition of terror provides a degree of integration preceding that fragmentation. Under such conditions there is a kind of direct and unmediated engagement with reality. From an epistemological perspective, terror might be understood as prior to the emergence of any stable distinction between rationality and irrationality.

Given the distinct a priori foundational statements typical of different epistemological theories, the condition of terror might be understood in the following ways:

The coherence of the experience of terror might be fruitfully explored through the current epistemological focus on coherentism.

Of course the most focused studies on such matters would be those associated with torture-assisted interrogation -- especially those wit the object of behaviour modification and brain washing. They would tend to be classified. Other studies focus on anxiety, fear and panic. Of particular interest would be studies of crowd psychology under conditions of panic. A variety of contrasting "cognitive waves" might then be understood as passing through the collective, offering or undermining patterns of understanding. Terror might then be undetood as partly characterized by cognitive turbulence. As a consequence of the framing of the challenge of terrorism and proposed response, there is also the possible emergence of what amounts to a "globally terrified society" u nder permanent conditions of cognitive turbulence (cf Vann Spruiell, Crowd Pschology and Ideology: a psychoanalytic view of the reciprocal effects of folk philosophies mand personal actions, 1987)

inversion of:

Failed initiatives of civilization

postponement, procrastination, rationalization

Perverted apotheosis through terror

resolution of contradictions through terror

global governance self-governance (suicide bomber, or victim of terror/torture)
integrative transdisciplinary synthesis existential experiential coherence in the moment of terror
transcending polarized perspectives transcendence of distinctions
reframing terminal aging (dementia) existential terror of being about to die
interfaith mediation of existential terror direct engagement with existential terror
enhancing the sense and quality of place dramatic focus on the here-and-now
resolution to act embodiment of resolution
security secure in the knowledge
global ethic inherently global ethic
coherent vision inherently coherent vision
participative inherently participative
enhanced sense of identity enhanced sense of identity
heightened awareness heightened awareness
global personal

Temporal focus associated with terror


Material transcendence associated with terror


Universality of terror


Deliberate engendering of terror


Inadvertent engendering of terror


Suicide bomber

black hole

shadox of failure of integrative, postive initiatives


Jamie Arndt et al.. To Belong or Not to Belong, That Is the Question: Terror Management and Identification With Gender and Ethnicity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, Vol. 83, No. 1, 26-43

Mervyn F. Bendle. Theories of Existential Terrorism: A Comparative Study of Russia and Germany, c.1870-1940 [abstract]

Christine Bryden and Morris Friedell. Dementia Diagnosis: "pointing the bone" (National Conference of the Alzheimer's Association Australia in Canberra, March, 2001) [text

A key emotional reaction in dementia is 'existential terror' (Cheston & Bender, 1999, Understanding Dementia, Jessica Kingsley, London.p. 155).

Anthony Burke and Minerva Nasser-Eddine. The existential terror: The United States and Israel after September 11. Australasian Political Studies Association Jubilee Conference, Canberra, 2 October 2002

This paper works at the intersection of the politics of identity, military strategy, conflict and nationalism to examine the impact and construction of 911 in the US and Israel. It takes as its point of departure the anxieties resonating around George W. Bush's question to Congress and the American people: "Why do they hate us?" We examine how politicians in both countries have framed the attacks in identity terms, to shore up shaky and contested images of security and being in opposition to threatening patterns of otherness, violence and resistance. We critique the way that narrations of Islamic and Palestinian terrorism have been used to quarantine and dissolve opposition, police public opinion and legitimate escalating deployments of force, and, most significantly, to close out the question of deeper political change that is central to both why the attacks occurred, and how counter-terror strategies can be more justly and effectively pursued. We speculate that their resort to Manichean, violence-obsessed policy discourses do not in fact separate them from their protagonists but reveal them, bound together, in a geopolitical hall of mirrors. Trapped in the same logic of violence, their responses can only be a performance of terror, not its resolution; a perpetuation of insecurity, not its defeat.

Jeffrey Johnson. Epistemology of Panic. Diotima: a philosophical review, 2001, 1, 2 [text]

Arthur J. Deikman. Them And Us: cult thinking and the terrorist threat. Bay Tree Publishing, 2003

Anis Hamadeh. Terror as an Object of Science, November 2004 [text]

Thomas A. Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg. In the Wake of 9/11: the psychology of terror. Washington: American Psychological Association, 2002 [reviews]

Andrew Silke (Ed). Terrorists, Victims and Society : psychological perspectives on terrorism and its consequences. John Wiley and Sons, 2003 (Wiley Series in Psychology of Crime, Policing and Law)

Becker, E. (1968). The structure of evil. The Free Press. Purchase here

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. Free Press

Joanna Bourke. Fear: A Cultural History. Virago, 2005 [commentary]

S. Roof. An Epistemology of Partial Truths. Dec. 2002 [text]

Louis Hoffman. Death and Human Limitation, 2004 [text]

Pascal Desimpelaere, Filip Sulas, Bart Duriez and Dirk Hutsebaut. Psycho-epistemological styles and religious beliefs [text]

Bart Pattyn and Luc Van Liedekerke. Anxiety and Uncertainty in Modern Society. Ethical Perspectives 8 (2001)2, [text]

FUREDI, Frank. Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectations, Cassell, 1997.

Hier S.P. Conceptualizing Moral Panic through a Moral Economy of Harm. Critical Sociology, Volume 28, Number 3, 2002, pp. 311-334(24)

moral panic have been founded on a narrow treatment of the ways in which the latter have conceptualized panics uncritically as irrational societal overreactions stemming from some variant of 'social anxiety.'

Death and Delusion: A Freudian Analysis of Mortal Terror By Jerry S. Piven, (Greenwich CT: Information Age Publishing, 2004) Reviewed by Daniel Liechty [text]

Kate Arthur. Terror of Death in the Wake of September the 11th: Is This the End of Death Denial? Probing the Boundaries: Making Sense of Dying and Death Conference Brussels Thursday 14th November - Saturday 16th November 2002. Doctoral Candidate [text]

Salzman M.B. Globalization, Culture, and Anxiety: perspectives and predictions from terror management theory
Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, Volume 10, Number 4, October 2001, pp. 337-352(16)

Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. By David Hartman. Jewish Lights. [review]

Tom Pyszczynski. What are we so afraid of? A terror management theory perspective on the politics of fear
Social Research, Winter, 2004 [text]

Anthony Lake. Leaders and Followers: Sources of Terrorism. 21 March 2002 [text]

terrorism today is not aimed at achieving a particular goal so much as simply lashing out in personal, political, or religious hatred directed at the hated modern world. The terrorism America faces today, in other words, is largely existential terror.

Directly or indirectly, globalization has elicited a reaction in which local cultures react against the values of democracy and individual choice, including the separation of church and state.

Despite the fact that Usama bin Laden has a goal— expelling American influence from the Middle East—he is in many ways an existential terrorist. He is not using terrorism to strike some sort of deal, and there is no way to deter or sway him from his objectives. This is a fight to the finish.


The most widely accepted definition and description of panic disorder is given in the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Panic disorder consists of recurrent panic attacks, which is a temporary period of intense fear or discomfort, accompanied by at least one month of persistent worry about the attacks. To qualify as a panic attack, at least four of thirteen common symptoms must be experienced within a ten-minute period. Some of the symptoms are physical such as palpitations, dizziness, sweating, chest pains, shortness of breath or a choking / smothering feeling, nausea, flushes or chills, tingling or numbness and, shaking or trembling. More of the symptoms are cognitive, e.g., depersonalisation, terror, loss of control / fear of going crazy and fear of dying. Panic disorder is frequently accompanied by agoraphobia -- the fear of not being able to escape from a certain place or situation and of consequently experiencing embarrassing symptoms or a panic attack in that situation.

George Marcus's Paranoia Within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation. (University of Chicago Press 1999)

Barry Glassner. The Culture Of Fear Why Americans Are Afraid Of The Wrong Thing (Perseus 2000) by

Corey Robin. Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford University Press 2004)

Robert Goldberg. Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (Yale University Press 2001)

Aaron Lynch. Thought Contagions in the Stock Market. Journal of Psychology and Financial Markets 1, 1, pp. 10-23, March 2000. [text]

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