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New Services Surface to Help Victims Cope After Terrorist Attacks

March 23, 1987|LEONARD BERNSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

They are not a psychologist's typical clients:

- The guilt-ridden postal worker who had called in sick Aug. 20, the day Patrick Sherill went on a shooting rampage in an Edmond, Okla., post office, killing 14 people and then himself.

- The men, women and children who escaped a nightmarish shoot-out aboard a Pan American Airlines jet in Karachi, Pakistan, Sept. 5, then lined up two days later to find their blood-soaked luggage before boarding another plane.

- The police officer at the July 18, 1984, massacre in the San Ysidro McDonald's restaurant, whose child was wearing the same shirt as one of the youngsters murdered by James Huberty.

But as the growing number of terrorist attacks and occasional random acts of mass violence have become a fact of modern life, these people are increasingly asking psychologists for help and presenting them with special problems to solve.

That trend was highlighted this weekend during the 1987 California State Psychological Assn. convention at the Hotel del Coronado. Among the many workshops and symposiums on such topics as child abuse, psychopathology and psychologists' legal rights were speakers on three panels discussing the trauma associated with terrorism, hostage-taking, random violence and disasters.

"Twelve years ago, when I began working in this field, (terrorism) was a very low-profile topic where the probability of this type of incident and hostage-taking affecting the lives of citizens was very, very small," said Chris Hatcher, chairman of the association's task force on terrorism. "Now . . . we have a rather large number (of people) whose personal lives will be touched."

"We tend to think that the victims are only the people who are directly involved," said Michael Mantell, chief psychologist for the San Diego Police Department, who worked in the aftermath of massacres in the San Ysidro McDonald's and the Edmond post office. "The point of this research was to say, 'Hey, world, victims come from all over, and they're people who you don't even think about'."

Who are the victims? In addition to ex-hostages and survivors of terrorist attacks, they are the police and emergency medical technicians shattered by what they see at the scene. They are the wives, husbands and children of those involved, who no longer feel safe. They are bystanders who saw it all happen but could do nothing to help.

Psychologists also note that terrorism and unprovoked attacks also make people jittery, though few who simply read of these incidents in their newspaper show up for therapy.

Nevertheless, hostage-taking scenarios are appearing more frequently in movies and television shows, Hatcher said. And people are altering their behavior. There are fewer cruises in the Mediterranean and more in the Caribbean since the Achille Lauro hijacking, and air traffic in Athens has decreased since the bombing of an airplane there, Hatcher said.

"Some people have said that the odds of being a hostage in Western Europe or the Middle East are the same as being struck by lightning in the U.S.," Hatcher said. "While that may be true, a significant number of people's behavior has been altered by these events."

"When you and I get on a plane and we're worried about a bomb, that's terrorism," said Mantell, who calls massacres like the ones in San Ysidro and Edmond local terrorism. "There doesn't have to be a bomb. The bomb is secondary."

According to the Rand Corp. of Santa Monica, 138 international terrorist incidents caused 37 deaths in 1968, the first year the company started counting. In 1985, the worst year to date, there were 484 incidents and 878 deaths. Last year, the figures dropped slightly to 415 incidents and 400 fatalities.

The Rand count includes only politically motivated attacks by terrorists against people or institutions in another country. The violence in Northern Ireland and fighting between Lebanese factions, for example, is not included.

Rand lists 37 terrorist incidents and three deaths in the United States and Puerto Rico last year, down from the 52 incidents that also caused three deaths in 1985.

This expanding violence has created new challenges and opportunities for psychologists, including helping to prepare people for violent episodes. Major corporations now routinely advise their executives about how to decrease the risks of traveling to unstable areas abroad, Hatcher said.

The businessmen are cautioned to disguise obvious clues that identify them as wealthy American industrialists. Executives should not keep corporate identification in carry-on baggage, wear expensive jewelry and watches, travel first class (a recommendation often ignored) or dress in expensive suits, Hatcher said.

If they are taken hostage and singled out, captives are advised to try to communicate with their captors. Talking about their children and families may make the captive more "human" and therefore less likely to be killed, Hatcher said.

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