Mass panic and trauma: Spate of random knife attacks unnerve Koreans

Posted on : 2023-08-08 16:04 KST Modified on : 2023-08-08 16:04 KST
Experts suggest minimizing exposure to footage of attacks, as watching it can prompt feelings of anxiety
Firefighters and police respond to misreports of a gas attack and person on an armed rampage at Sinnonhyeon Station in Seoul on Aug. 6. (Yonhap)
Firefighters and police respond to misreports of a gas attack and person on an armed rampage at Sinnonhyeon Station in Seoul on Aug. 6. (Yonhap)

Amid a series of mass stabbings and dozens of online posts threatening similar attacks, related information has been spreading indiscriminately on social media, bringing the public’s anxiety to a fever pitch. Experts say that the Korean public is in a state of “mass panic.”

Mistaken reports of a terrorist attack on Line 9 of the Seoul subway system on Sunday illustrate the state of mass panic the public is in. Following reports that the subway “smelled of gas,” that people were “running and falling down,” and that someone was “causing a disturbance inside the station,” the train stopped at Sinnonhyeon Station, and as passengers disembarked the train in a hurry, seven were injured in the tangle. Shoes that had come off and other passenger belongings lay scattered about inside the train at the time of the incident.

A police official explained, “When someone screamed, passengers in the next car over started evacuating without knowing the reason, and rumors even spread that a mass stabbing had taken place, but nothing of note was discovered.”

On Friday and Saturday, reports were received of public disturbances at Gaebong Station in the Guro District of Seoul as well as from the city of Sacheon in South Gyeongsang Province, prompting passengers and the public to evacuate, but these turned out to be false alarms as well.

Experts believe the public’s “anxiety threshold” has significantly declined following successive mass stabbings and threats of armed attacks in well-trafficked areas. Despite investigative authorities signaling that strict measures will be taken against those posting terroristic threats online, similar threats of armed rampages have continued to go up ever since the stabbing spree in the Sillim neighborhood on July 21.

As of 6 pm on Monday, the police had charged 194 individuals in relation to death threats online, arresting and detaining 65 and 3 of these individuals, respectively.

“With similar incidents reoccurring within a short period of time, the trauma people are feeling is akin to that felt during disasters,” commented Sim Min-young, the director of the National Center for Disaster and Trauma. “The commotion in Sinnonhyeon Station appears to have been caused by such mass trauma.”

The occurrence of crimes in densely populated areas, which had been believed to be safe, amplified the fear felt by the public. A 44-year-old surnamed Kim who lives in the Mapo District of Seoul shared, “I saw [footage of] the incident in Sinnonhyeon Station, and I understand why those passengers ran away. As things were similar in Itaewon and in the underpass in Osong, I think one can be in real danger if they don’t become sensitive to threats.”

A 24-year-old surnamed Kim also remarked, “When I’m walking in the streets, I take my earphones off, just in case. I also avoid areas close to where stabbings have been forewarned or areas that are crowded.”

“The recent crimes were suited to make people think, ‘If I’m unlucky, I can easily become a victim,’” explained Kim Tae-kyeong, a professor of counseling psychology at Seowon University. “On top of that, with similar incidents reoccurring, the thought that such an incident can keep happening is growing.”

Our social media-based environment that allows for the quick and easy circulation of information is also another factor adding to the public’s anxiety. Pictures from the scene of the stabbings in both the Sillim neighborhood of Seoul and in Seohyeon Station in Seongnam, including those showing blood from the attacks, spread like wildfire. In the case of the incident in Sillim, CCTV footage from a nearby store capturing the crime and the apprehension of the culprit indiscriminately circulated in the form of short clips no longer than one minute in length.

An internet environment that lends itself to active online communities is ironically serving as a channel through which threats of murder and fear are being proliferated.

“While utilizing vehicles to indiscriminately ram through pedestrians in public squares existed in the 1990s, as we live in a social media society today, information is spreading haphazardly without guidelines,” commented Kyung Hee University sociology professor Lee Taek-gwang.

Sungkyunkwan University sociology professor Koo Jeong-woo commented that while online communities can “play a positive role in generating public consensus,” they can also “serve as a pretext that emboldens offenders.”

“Criminals often feel alive when they observe the impact of the posts they put up,” Koo pointed out.

As if to reflect the anxiety gripping South Korean society, a new website called Terrorless has emerged that provides updates on death threats and the status of their posters. The site’s creators, 01ab, a community composed of four college students, stated, “We wanted to lessen public anxiety by providing information regarding irresponsible murder threats to the people,” adding, “We hope the service ends soon and safety returns to our society.”

Experts advised that the public be exposed to pictures and videos from crime scenes as little as possible.

“Being indiscriminately exposed to pictures or videos of incidents can make you sensitive and feel insecure,” stated Kim Dong-wook, the president of the Korean Association of Psychiatrists, stated. “Efforts should be made to minimize such exposure.”

By Jang Na-rye, staff reporter; Kim Yoon-ju, staff reporter; Kim Ga-yoon , staff reporter; Lim Jae-hee, staff reporter

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