NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 17:  People stand behind police lines as firefighters, emergency workers and police gather at the scene of an explosion in Manhattan on September 17, 2016 in New York City. The evening explosion at 23rd street in the popular Chelsea neighborhood injured over a dozen people and is being investigated.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The psychology of terror
01:25 - Source: CNN

For the last 15 years, we have lived in a climate of close calls.

Even though there have only been a few terror attacks since 9/11 that resulted in loss of life, there have been plenty of attempts: A botched car bombing, explosives smuggled in underwear, a bomb hidden in sneakers.

They have eroded our feelings of security and altered our behavior – from how we board airplanes to how we react when we see a bag on the side of the road.

Now, after a tumultuous week that saw four incidents in three different states, we are confronted with fresh questions: Could these have been prevented? Is there a terror cell? And with a pivotal presidential election entering its final weeks, how will the candidates handle the attacks? How will we, the voters?

This is how the next few days will go.

First, we’ll search for motives

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Whenever we are hit by an attack, the most precious commodity is information. This means, a waiting game fraught with frustration.

No official has suggested ties between the mall attack in Minnesota and the explosions in New Jersey and New York, but the proximity of the attacks links them in people’s minds.

Unease, vigilance and assumptions will color the coming days. It’s never easy to parse facts from conjecture when our world is on edge, but some will confuse and conflate Dahir A. Adan, the Somali-born Minnesota attacker, and and Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspect in the New York and New Jersey attacks. And as they do, some may lash out at innocent, law-abiding Muslims and immigrants, as we’ve seen happen before.

Next, we’ll exercise an abundance of caution

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After 9/11, a nationwide anthrax scare had us checking every fine white powder we came across. After Paris, we saw an immediate uptick in suspicious package and person alerts.

A climate of uncertainty creates a climate of false alarms. Already, we’re seeing it happen.

On Monday, a train station in Boston was evacuated due to a suspicious bag. A federal courthouse in Atlanta was evacuated after a report of a suspicious package. Police cleared a suspicious package at New Jersey’s Rutgers University.

In an everyday context, this caution means altering our routine. We take our shoes off at TSA gates. We pack tiny bottles of shampoo in our carry-ons.

In a larger context, terror attacks change our laws and the way our government works. Think of all of the changes 9/11 brought: The Patriot Act; the Department of Homeland Security.

Third, we’ll talk about a ‘new norm’

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US Rep. Charlie Rangel, who represents Manhattan, said the weekend attacks – and a level of vigilance needed to combat them – represent “a new norm.”

Christiane Amanpour posed the question after the Brussels bombings in March: “Is terrorism the new norm for Europe?”

After the Nice attacks, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted, “Civilized & freedom loving nations cannot allow this to become the new normal.”

The “new norm” line is used fairly consistently after a major attack.

But what is the “new norm?”

“Our focus now is on a much more disparate threat that’s hard to see – unpredictable, motivated, and driven by people who are just disturbed,” FBI Director James Comey said.

With threats coming from unpredictable places and from unpredictable people, maybe the new norm is just a constant low-burning awareness that the next human atrocity could be right around the corner.

Fourth, there’s the fear of a backlash

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There is quantifiable evidence that, following attacks carried out by Islamic extremists, Muslim communities suffer increased abuse and violence. In 2015, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported an “unprecedented” spike in “discrimination, intimidation, threats, and violence” toward Muslims after the Paris attacks.

This summer in France, the memory of those attacks, coupled with the July tragedy in Nice, led more than 30 beaches to institute a “burkini ban.” (It was overturned by a French court in early September, but the effects are still being felt. Just this week, an Australian woman said she and her mother were ridiculed and forced off a French beach for their conservative swimwear.)

The Muslim community in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where the mall attacker Adan lived, is already bracing for backlash.

“For thirty years people have been building bridges in our community,” said local Somali community leader Haji Yussuf, “and we are all afraid that this will disappear because of this one incident.”

The fact that so many Muslims in America, like thousands that call St. Cloud home, are also immigrants presents yet another opportunity to heighten the tenor of immigration and refugee debates.

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump made such a link Monday during a rally in Fort Myers, Florida.

“These attacks, and many others, were made possible because of our extremely open immigration system,” he said. “Immigration security is national security.”

Fifth, it may affect what happens in November

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How did Trump, Clinton differ in terror attack response?
04:21 - Source: CNN

November’s election inches ever closer. The stakes are high, and this weekend’s events may add another layer of complexity to the crucial contest.

A CNN/ORC poll conducted in June shows more Americans think terrorist attacks in the US are imminent now than at any point since 2003. Obviously, these attacks are unlikely to change that perspective.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted around the same time also shows more Americans believe Hillary Clinton would handle the issue of terrorism better than Donald Trump.

Both candidates have weighed in on the issue.

“This threat is real, but so is our resolve. Americans will not cower. We will prevail,” Hillary Clinton said Monday. She also called her opponent Donald Trump a “recruiting sergeant for the terrorists.”

Beside his comments on immigration, Trump fired back in Fort Myers by calling Clinton “weak.” He also took to Twitter to say it was “time to change the playbook” when it comes to dealing with terrorism.

Eventually, it will be business as usual

Call it resilience or call it resignation but life will very quickly cycle back to normal. Viewed from a cynical eye, it’s just the tides of human attention washing in and then out again.

From a more hopeful vantage point, a sense of normalcy, coupled with vigilance, is the most measured reaction to the threat of terrorism.

This is the M.O. of every great city that has been struck by terrorism. We saw it after the Boston Marathon bombing. We saw it after the Paris attacks.

Following Saturday’s bombings, New Yorkers made a show of pointing out that, when you live in a big city, especially one that’s survived an attack like 9/11, being tough and resilient is the only way.

“I am so proud of my fellow New Yorkers. Most of us defied the urge to lash out in fits of hysterics,” one New York City resident wrote in a Facebook post. “Of course, we shouldn’t have to fear when the next attack is going to happen, but they’re going to keep trying. And we’re going to keep staying strong.”