Feature

In addition to all that military psychologists are doing to prepare the nation for terrorist attacks, the U.S. Department of State also employs a cadre of mental health professionals to help its employees handle the aftermath of such attacks, as well as other troubles related to their international work.

Currently, nine psychologists and psychiatrists in Washington, D.C., and many more in overseas embassies, consulates and missions, support the department's employees and their family members--70,000 are eligible for services.

"Foreign Service employees of the State Department have been coping with increasingly hostile environments for years," says Stephen J. Schoen, PhD, a psychologist in the department's Office of Medical Services (OMS). The recent attacks, he says, have spurred in employees "the types of emotions seen in many Americans: sadness, anger, disbelief, etc....What we have found most helpful is just being available to listen to people."

One former OMS staffer, psychologist Samuel Karson, PhD, provided such support to civilians and employees in his capacity as its chief psychologist during the late 1970s. He also studied and taught a course on terrorism in the Foreign Service Institute in the early 1980s, and, years before that, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he served as chief psychologist in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Aviation Medicine. There, he offered pilot screening for alcoholism and psychological problems, coached sky marshals and helped train pilots how to respond during airplane hijackings--known then as skyjackings.

The Monitor talked with Karson about how today's terrorists are different, and what the country might do to circumvent them.

Q: How are the planning and behavior of these new terrorists different from the way that skyjackers operated in the 1960s and 1970s?

A: When I was in FAA, the skyjacker usually took over a plane and asked for large amounts of money. I traveled to the federal prisons and interviewed the skyjackers. I evaluated them to determine their motives. Typically, it was because they were asking for money or hearing voices. Most had antisocial personality disorders.

More recently, this was a well-trained mission. It was monumental. How they pulled it off with that kind of efficiency is absolutely amazing to me....The psychological question is, what is it in a person's background that makes them capable of performing and justifying massively destructive acts killing hundreds or thousands of people without any feelings of guilt or remorse--any more than you or I would get from killing a horde of ants?

It reminds me of Okinawa in 1945 when I saw the Japanese Kamikazes--1,500 small planes took off on suicide missions. They crashed into U.S. Navy battleships and destroyers and believed they were going to Japanese heaven. They had been brainwashed. Their emperor was already God, and he had promised them heaven.

Q: How can we better respond to the planning and behaviors of today's terrorists?

A: Our weakness is in not knowing the intention of our enemies. There has to be lots of war-gaming--hiring consultants to see if they can infiltrate the enemy and find out its weaknesses. You need to get massive amounts of information about the terrorists and their culture and language and psychology. Bin Laden is like a cult leader. When the time comes, he will say, "Now you go and kill yourself." It's hard to understand unless you are involved in the mission. [An analogy could be] in football, if a team player breaks a limb but not until the game is over does he feel pain. You have to bring it back to something you have some understanding of.

I hope that their military training is nowhere near as thorough and effective as it appeared [on Sept. 11] because it exposed America's vulnerability and all the things we need to be doing for security. We'll never get it 100 percent. You have to look at cost versus decrease in possibility. We used to say when I was overseas, we can't make it impossible for anyone to penetrate our embassy, consulate or home, but we can try to make it as difficult as possible.

It wasn't like the information wasn't out there about preventing this. I knew we needed to invest more in security, but no one wanted to spend the money. Now we are talking about spending $2 billion.

Q: How will the government need to revamp its training to deal with such terrorism?

A: We need a well-done analysis, looking at primary and tertiary prevention. The typical training that we have been using for years is if a skyjacker comes aboard, you play ball and deliver the plane intact, to say nothing of the people. If the crew were to resist, that would make the hijacker angry, so we had the flight attendant take the lead and ask if he wanted something to eat or drink--establish a relationship--and that way, very few people got hurt. That's the curriculum that was in force up until just a few [weeks] ago.

The problem is, if a sky marshal has a weapon and someone takes over the plane, there could be danger of overreaction. There's the danger that the gun you have--the precaution you have--is what brings the plane down. You need balance between precaution and payoff. That is a lot of how I see life.