The Culture of Learned Helplessness

How the politicians and media are teaching us to be helpless in the face of terror

November 7, 2016

The United States has entered an era of domestic terrorism I often refer to as the “New Normal”. It’s become very clear that terror’s weapons can be anything from knives (Minnesota), to guns (Orlando, San Bernardino) to bombs (NY/NJ, Boston). Even trucks (Nice, France) have been used by terrorists to cause casualties among decent citizens.

In previous attacks on American soil, we have acted quickly and decisively to confront the enemy (Pearl Harbor comes to mind). Yet, unlike FDR, our current president seems to consider acts of terror a deserved consequence of the West’s terrible history of behavior towards Muslims, despite much of it occurring 1,000 years ago during the crusades.

The administration’s strategy has been one of apology tours and withdrawals from places where the U.S. had made significant gains, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether the original intervention was wise or not, the result has been to cause a vacuum that plunges the regions involved into chaos.

Americans are being told that there is nothing that can be done as the rogue states of the world, such as Iran and North Korea, develop their arsenals for an aggressive action that will probably occur within the next few years.

Recently, Sadiq Khan, the newly-elected Muslim mayor of London visited New York City, commenting to the effect that we had better get used to more attacks. Instead of an aggressive plan of action that allies can use to combat the events, he recommends “exchanging ideas and best practices” as if he was addressing a breakfast at the Chamber of Commerce.

The message given by people like Mr. Khan and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who called the recent bombing an “intentional act” but balked, temporarily, at the words “terrorism” and “bomb”, is that there’s nothing you can do about these events. Just live your life and accept that some of you may be blown apart, stabbed in the back, or shot in the head.

Don’t worry, though: Mayor DeBlasio says that “militant violence is vanishingly rare” (since retracted) and that “we must continue to pursue an inclusive approach to resettlement” of refugees from the Middle East. Well, given recent history, militant violence doesn’t seem so vanishingly rare to me or anyone else with a television or computer.

Mayors Khan and DeBlasio are encouraging a certain state of mind: “Learned Helplessness”. Learned Helplessness is a phenomenon identified in animals in the 1960's by Dr. Martin Seligman, which occurs when a subject is repeatedly subjected to a negative stimulus (in this case, an electric shock to a dog), that it cannot control or escape. Eventually, the animal “learns” to give up and stops trying to avoid the stimulus, acting utterly helpless, even when it is later presented an opportunity to escape.

The concept of Learned Helplessness has many applications in human education and psychology, but upon further examination, it seems to have become more. It has become the cultural norm in many places.

You only have to watch the news to see examples of Learned Helplessness in action. Instead of responding with outrage, politicians, media, and many in the general public adopt a funereal stance, as if death in a terror event is no different than death from a lightning strike. Commentators bemoan the state of the nation instead of suggesting courses of action to stop the hemorrhage. Blood in the streets, whether it’s murders in Chicago or bombings in New York, is reported like a sudden storm. It happened, it will happen again, and let’s hope that no one gets wet next time.

Yet terrorism is a very different kind of weather; it’s weather that we have caused by our inaction, by our helpless, victimized attitude. We can’t control the storm clouds on the horizon, but we can control the wave of refugees that contain the next generation of jihadists with more comprehensive vetting methods. We can also control those that travel to known jihadist training destinations, to be certain they don’t return without proper scrutiny.

We can, while maintaining a refugee’s cultural identity, take steps to help them develop an American identity as well. This means we must give them a means to achieve their pursuit of happiness in their new country. Those who feel dispossessed and hopeless may lapse into Learned Helplessness, but they may, alternatively, strike out at their presumed "oppressors". We have to provide jobs and educational opportunities if we want stop the proliferation of terrorists on our shores. If we can offer a promising future, there will be less incentive to want to blow oneself up.

When citizens fail to act upon terror events, such as in the Orlando shootings, where one man with a gun was able to cause 100 casualties, it encourages more incidents. Each “successful” terror act (one that causes Western suffering) serves as a template for future ones. As an example, the pressure cookers used in the NY bombing had as their precedent the Boston Marathon bombings.

We must separate the radicalized few from the peaceful majority of their ethnic community. When communities are satisfied with their future prospects, they will be less willing to tolerate those among them who damage those prospects.

Can domestic terrorism be stopped? Perhaps not completely at this point; but a change in our culture from one of Learned Helplessness to one of awareness and assertive intervention, both on behalf of at-risk communities and against those who may seek to do damage, is a good start.

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Copyright ©2016

Joe Alton, MD is a retired Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, Life Fellow of the American College of OB/GYN, and a writer on medical preparedness for disasters and epidemics. He is the NY Times/Amazon bestselling author of The Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide for When Medical Help is Not on the Way, The Ebola Survival Handbook, and The Zika Virus Handbook. His website at has over 850 articles, videos, and podcasts on medical preparedness. He is also the host of the nationally syndicated talk show "American Survival Radio" in collaboration with Genesis Communications Network at

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