9/11 Left Permanent Scars on the American Psyche

SUNDAY Sept. 11, 2011 -- Seven decades and several wars have past, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor still packs a psychological punch for many Americans. Enduring as a kind of national tipping point, it serves as the moment when a stunned young country shed a provincial sense of isolation and strode onto the world stage with the now-iconic can-do bravado of the "Greatest Generation."

9-11 decade series

A half-century after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the emotional resonance of that sad and shocking event also continues to reverberate across time, marking the moment when a confident and optimistic nation forever lost its innocence.

So on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., sociologists, psychologists and historians are focused on the country's most recent cataclysm and a key question: Has 9/11 similarly altered the American psyche?

"Absolutely," said Dr. Michael Brodsky, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles' David Geffen School of Medicine. "9/11 is a singular, unparalleled trauma that every American can relate to," he explained.

"The attacks affected our national sense of identity enormously," he said. "First of all, we've had almost two centuries of peace on the mainland. We've been protected by two oceans, and largely immune from the kind of terrorism that many people all over the world have long experienced. And that has engendered in us a strong collective sense of invulnerability. That was shattered on 9/11."

Brodsky added, "Though there are similarities with something like the Kennedy assassination, in many ways 9/11 was a very different event -- and has inflicted a different sort of trauma on Americans.

"Everyone who was around remembers where they were on both occasions," he noted. "And both elicited grief. And a great deal of lasting collective pain. As well as a national loss of pride."

But, he added, "unlike with the assassination, 9/11 was a moment of collective panic about the safety of loved ones in major population centers and power centers in the country. It was actually a personal threat, exacerbated by the fact that terrorists struck at unsuspecting individuals in relatively mundane locations where any number of Americans can imagine they could have been on that day."

And it was entirely unexpected, added Georgetown University Medical Center psychologist Priscilla Dass-Brailsford. "That's what makes it so different in terms of its consequences, and why it's had such a fundamental, haunting effect on Americans," she pointed out.

"This was a disaster that affected us all, because a disaster doesn't choose its victims," she said. "It can affect anyone in its path of destruction. It's not quite random -- it was a targeted event. But it wasn't as if the bullets or the bomb had a name on it. You could have been there. You could have been hurt."

Brian A. Monahan, an assistant professor of sociology at Iowa State University, agreed.

"In terms of the fears and vulnerability it unleashed, 9/11 is a real sprawling threat with a persistent echo, versus the JFK event, which seems isolated and closed," he said.

"Now we have had collective fears before. The Russians and the Cold War, for one," Monahan added. "So it's too simplistic to say that everything is completely different now, that we're a nation transformed. Yes, we have drastically different airport security. But are we an entirely different culture as a nation? I don't think it goes to that extent.

"At the same time," he noted, "I also don't think Americans really feel that 9/11 is all over now -- even with the capture and celebratory component over the killing of Osama bin Laden. So unlike past national traumas of historical significance, the collective fear that 9/11 has given rise to remains palpable."

Dr. Prashant Gajwani, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, took that sentiment one step further.

"September 11th completely dwarfs the assassination of JFK, in terms of the enormity of the scar it has left on the American psyche," he said. "The definition of post-traumatic stress disorder requires you to watch somebody else trapped in a life-threatening situation. Which, of course, millions did on TV.

"And the images of the smoking towers have left memories that will not fade," Gajwani added. "Because as we watched, we all went from a strong feeling of confusion as to what's going on to an almost immediate shift to 'America is under attack.'

"And since then the situation has not really changed," he said. "We keep getting reminders of how American interests are under attack. Which reminds us of our vulnerability. The sense of security we had up until 9/10, that nobody could touch us here in America, is gone," Gajwani explained.

"The mass and scope of this tragedy is just too big to get over quickly and has already left a huge impact that will remain for several generations," Gajwani added. "It's become part of who we are as Americans today. It's part of our memory, part of what we feel, part of our DNA. And so 10 years later, we really are experiencing PTSD on a national scale."

For his part, G. Scott Morgan, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Drew University in Madison, N.J., feels that the impact of 9/11 on the American sense of self is strikingly singular.

"You often hear comparisons, say, to Pearl Harbor," he acknowledged. "But the impact of 9/11 is so large that it has to be seen as a special event. It was a threat to people's understanding of their world around them, their stability, their understanding of how their life works, how their life is ordered. And as of September 11th, Americans no longer lived in a world in which they felt safe and secure. It made them feel incredibly vulnerable."

Morgan, who is the lead author of "The Expulsion from Disneyland: The Social Psychological Impact of 9/11," a new study published in the September issue of American Psychologist, sees one positive note rising through all the terror.

"The shock to our collective system also woke us up. Patriotism spiked and remains higher today than before 9/11. Volunteerism went up on a national level. And, at least temporarily, Americans seemingly became more engaged after 9/11," he said. "It may be fleeting, but to the degree that we were ignoring the rest of the world, 9/11 did spark a greater interest in what was going on outside our borders."

Georgetown's Dass-Brailsford pointed out that 9/11 was a blow not only to the American psyche but to the global psyche as well.

"It's a marker, a point of understanding, a significant touchstone, not just for American society, but for the whole world," she said. "The whole world was made to feel vulnerable after 9/11, because America is such an icon. This is such a big and supposedly safe country. So when America became so vulnerable after 9/11, the whole world started to feel vulnerable and unsafe. There were ripple effects. And they were felt everywhere."

Ethan Katz, an assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, sees clear evidence of these ripples here at home, and suggested that the American psyche may now be riding a back-to-the-future wave.

"I'm a historian, not a psychologist, but I can tell you that 9/11 has affected the American mentality significantly on several fronts," he said. "Of course there's been a loss of our sense of overall security. And there's been a loss of our sense of preeminence in the world," he noted.

"But I think 9/11 has collectively thrown us back, psychologically and politically, into a Cold War mentality," Katz added. "It's the national belief, not seen since the early to mid-1980s, that we are now, again, in an intractable global struggle with no end in sight. And with that perception of increased vulnerability, there has also been a rise, which many Americans wouldn't even necessarily realize has taken place, in our willingness to trade off civil liberties and privacy for measures that we believe will make us safer.

"It's very hard to make forecasts about how all this will all play out long-term," Katz noted. "But you could argue that, looking back in 50 years, we'll actually see 9/11 as a major turning point: A permanent change in the American sense of self."

More information

For more on the psychological effects of 9/11 trauma, visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

To read HealthDay's story on the psychological toll of 9/11 on people in New York and Washington, D.C., click here.

To read HealthDay's story on how 9/11 has shaped the lives of many young Americans, click here.

To read HealthDay's story on the lasting health problems of 9/11 first responders, click here.

To read about the Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll assessing 9/11's impact on Americans, click here.

Posted: September 2011


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