After the Boston bombing: The psychology of alienation and fear


People embrace before a moment of silence honoring the Boston Marathon bombing victims in Copley Square, near the bombing sites, on April 22, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.


Mario Tama

BOSTON, Mass. — The days following the Boston bombing last week have raised more questions than answers about the suspects' motivations and the circumstances surrounding the attack.

GlobalPost talked to Sam Sommers, a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of "Situations Matter," about some of the psychological factors leading up to the bombing and the emotional consequences of it.

The former classmates and neighbors of the suspects have said they seemed quiet and nice and well-mannered. Given what we know right now about the situation, and speaking more generally, what kind of pressures could they have faced as immigrants seeking asylum?

Admitting ahead of time that it’s not my direct area of expertise, there are research studies that look at the experience that immigrants – not just to the US but elsewhere – go through. There are certainly additional pressures of being an immigrant, in terms of navigating a new system, the bureaucracy of it, employment, education, learning new languages in some instances, not to mention navigating that intersection between your family ties and your ethnic identity and heritage, and also the desire to make connections in a new society.

It’s also a little hard to speculate – because that’s what this is, speculation – about this particular instance. They are, of course, individuals who immigrated to this country, but we’ve also certainly had bombings and terrorist attacks perpetrated by folks who are not immigrants. We also have many immigrants who have not done anything like this. We’re obviously speculating but there is a fair statement to make here which is that a new immigrant to a society wrestles with a variety of both logistical and psychological identity related issues.

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One of the points you raised is, with everyone currently talking to the media about the individuals in question, particularly the younger sibling, most of the comments are pretty consistent that he was a “regular American kid” and participated in activities that were worthwhile.

There is a lot about this situation that is sobering. But I think one of the really striking aspects is that by many of those accounts you have an individual who is described by others as being “normal.” And yet, he is apparently capable of this kind of violence and atrocity. I think that’s difficult for all of us to swallow and makes the narrative even harder.

On the other hand, with one of the more uplifting aspects of this situation, again, you had seemingly “normal” individuals downtown on Boylston Street who ran towards the explosions instead of away from them to help strangers out when they had grievous, military-type injuries. They behaved heroically.

People who by all accounts would have been described as being totally "normal" the previous week aspired through their behavior to acts of heroism instead of acts of atrocity.

Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations made this comment in a piece about this issue: “Second generation Muslims in the West lack a sense of belonging in their adopted countries.” This is very early on in the investigation of course, but at this point it appears the suspects were “self-radicalized.” What do you think would make them open to that kind of influence?

It’s a great question, the answer to which we don’t know. I don’t think we’ll ever know, because while one can offer generalized conclusions along the lives of second-generation immigrants, the experiences and pressures and so forth, making any sort of definitive conclusions about individuals is impossible to do based on scientific literature.

Certainly there are plenty of second-generation immigrants with Islamic beliefs who are proactive and productive social members of their communities.

What are the candidates you look to? You look to personality, and environmental and situational explanations. Was there anything about one or both of these brothers in terms of their personality, their susceptibility, the influences and messages that made them more likely to “self-radicalize”?

I’m not really sure we’re ever going to have an answer to that. If we did, things like identification and prevention of these incidents would be almost foolproof.

I think that it’s certainly one of the great aspects of human nature and why it’s so interesting to study scientifically, that we are so complex. Our behaviors and tendencies are multiply determined by different causes. It’s also one of the key frustrations in trying to pinpoint ‘why did this person do that’.

I was thinking about people’s response to fear, both positive and negative, in the wake of the bombing. What are the psychological scars left behind by events like this, both on the people in the vicinity and the public in general?

There is something uniquely psychologically powerful about this kind of event. There have been incidents even in the last week since these bombings which just in sheer numbers rival or even surpass the bombings, whether it’s the factory explosion in Texas or the slow and steady trickle of gun deaths in the US or the casualties in bombings or military operations abroad. There is something about this situation that from an American perspective has captured the public’s attention. There’s a confluence of factors: the fact that it was a public event, it was televised live, followed by the 24-hour adrenaline-fueled manhunt.

You alluded to the idea that fear has both positive and negative consequences, and I think that’s an important conclusion. The negative one is that people around here are doing a double-take when they hear sirens. They are maybe having second thoughts about being in public places. All are kind of normal reactions that people would associate with traumatic experiences.

There are some positive effects of threat in many respects as well. All this talk about Boston coming together, Boston Strong and “we are all Boston,” all the things you hear in Boston and elsewhere with regard to the city… the perception of threat tends to bring people together and cross boundaries that are otherwise in place.

I give an example in my social psychology class, which I don’t offer to trivialize this situation at all. In science fiction alien invasion movies, that’s always the prototype of how you bring humanity together.

When Earth experiences an alien attack, at some point you’re going to get the montage of people celebrating in the streets of Jerusalem, as well as Damascus or London as well as Paris and New York. You get all these people coming together for the common good of humanity.

There is truth to that. Perceiving a threat from other corners brings people together, but that in itself has downsides because of the denigration of the source of that threat.

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Any sort of backlash you’re seeing now towards people who are Muslim, towards people who are perceived to be “the other” or from this group that is viewed as the source of the threat is the downside, the major downside, to fear.

However, the threat also in some respects can inspire a sense of community and belonging and social support. Like anything in human nature, it’s complicated.

Some media coverage of the Boston bombing threw suspicion on innocent people from certain kinds of backgrounds. How harmful and long-lasting are the effects of such misreporting after events like this?

What you hear people who do media studies say is: “Media depictions shape but also reflect sentiment that’s in society.” The conclusions that are made in some media quarters about the perpetrators of these bombings certainly have the ability to influence the way people think about certain groups, to inflame pre-existing biases that may be latent.

It’s a chicken-and-egg question, where media may be reflecting something that’s already present in society. The idea that media depictions are both influencing us and holding up a mirror to things that are already there in society is pretty accurate.

The media’s decisions about what to cover and how to cover it are not happening in a vacuum, and are then reinforced by what the public’s tuning into.

This is a very complex situation that is still developing, but is there anything else noteworthy about the current situation?

I've been wrestling with the question of, while this is unambiguously a great tragedy, whether we will maintain the perspective to realize that these things happen elsewhere and in other forms. There was the photo from the folks in Syria, which I found pretty poignant. Not only the condolences from somewhere so far away, but also the astute observation that it's terrible what's happened to you and it happens here every day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.