This time, the target was the public square.

A sports arena. A concert hall. Popular restaurants. People out on a Friday night in one of the most vibrant cities in the world, enjoying themselves — until the shooting started.

The coordinated terrorist assault across six sites in Paris on Nov. 13 left at least 129 dead and more than 350 wounded. The psychological damage will spread much further, experts say, as the cellphone videos, tweets crying for help and all the other media bearing witness to the massacre burrow deep into the collective unconscious.

“One of the things we’re most concerned about is the fact that graphic pictures and videos are spreading the terror and anxiety far beyond the directly impacted people,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, professor of psychology and social behavior, medicine and public health at UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology. Silver has studied the impact of the 9/11 attacks and Boston Marathon bombing on the general public. “We’ve seen that this can have psychological and physical health consequences for consumers of this media,” Silver said.

“Nous n’avons par peur” — We are not afraid — quickly became a rallying cry in France over the weekend, just as it was in January when 12 staffers of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were shot by Islamist extremists. The resolve is admirable. But is it enough to keep people from staying home with the curtains drawn in a world of increasingly mobile, alarmingly sophisticated terrorist organizations such as Isis and Al Qaeda? Major sectors of the entertainment and sports industries rely on the willingness of fans to gather in large numbers in public spaces.

“One of the things we’re most concerned about is that graphic pictures and videos are spreading the terror and anxiety far beyond the directly impacted people.”
Roxane Cohen Silver, UC Irvine

The majority of victims in Paris were killed during the siege of the Bataclan concert hall, when gunmen with automatic weapons silently began shooting hostages one by one, according to witness accounts. It’s doubtful anybody who bought a ticket to the sold-out Eagles of Death Metal show feared that the crowd would be a terrorism target.

In the U.S., the horror of the random killings in Paris follows a series of shootings in theaters that has stoked fears over the simple act of going to the movies. Even houses of worship are vulnerable, as a white supremacist proved with the killings of nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church last June.

After the Paris attacks, the National Football League announced heightened security measures at all of its stadiums. Concert promotion giant Live Nation did the same at its venues worldwide, citing the events in Paris and the need to exercise “an abundance of caution.”

Such safeguards were also taken in the wake of the 2012 shooting rampage at an Aurora, Colo., theater that left 12 dead and 70 wounded. Movie theater owners in many cities subsequently stepped up bag checks and installed metal detectors.

Among those killed in the Nov. 13 attack
Nick Alexander 36; merchandise manager, Eagles of Death Metal
Thomas Ayad 34; product manager, Mercury Records
Maxime Bouffard 26, director
Guillame Decherf 43; writer, French culture magazine Les Inrocks
Gregory Fosse 28; music programmer
Mathieu Hoche 38; cameraman, France24 news channel
Marie Mosser Universal Music
Manu Perez Universal Music

But moviegoing hasn’t plummeted, despite two outbursts of gun violence this past summer, one of which left two women dead and nine wounded in Lafayette, La. Social psychologists say the desire to continue with regular routines offers its own kind of consolation after a tragic incident.

“It’s a basic human motivation that when we experience feelings of insecurity, we try hard to re-establish a sense of feeling secure,” said Linda Tropp, a professor of social psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “We crave a sense of normalcy. We want to get back to our routine and remember other things beyond this tragic event that has happened.”

The heightened availability of mainstream and social-media coverage of terrorist acts — documented to the nanosecond in the case of Paris — brings the harsh reality of global instability into America’s living rooms and smartphones. That unease helps spur a kind of us-vs.-them tribalism that can sow fear and prejudice.

“When we experience uncertainty and chaos in the world around us, we become more motivated to identify with groups,” Tropp says. “We want to align ourselves with people who are like us. Through the psychological goal of seeking safety, we unite more with our own groups and feel wary of people who are different.”

Cultural, racial and ethnic differences magnify that wariness when a threat is perceived, she added. That’s why so many Muslims in Western countries struggle against the perception that all Muslims identify with Islamist extremist groups like those claiming responsibility for orchestrating the Paris attacks.

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Nationally, public opinion about the threat of a major terrorist attack hitting the U.S. has held steady during the past decade, with about 25% of adults saying they are “very worried” about another strike, according to a survey in January by the Pew Research Center, conducted days after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they were “somewhat” worried, while 36% said they were “not too” or “not at all” worried.

In the wake of a tragedy like the one in Paris last week, networks are quick to yank shows with plots that eerily echo real-life mayhem. Sharing the same sensitivities, movie studios often hastily revamp marketing campaigns of similarly affected movies. But social scientists are increasingly concerned that Hollywood portrayals pale by comparison with the gory details of man-made and natural disasters that can be spread in an instant via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like.

UC Irvine’s Silver noted that the “onslaught” of images and first-person accounts are having a big impact, particularly on children and youth.

“We see these kind of events as cumulative — the more you see,” she said, “the more anxiety people feel.”