9/11: The Psychological Fallout


A new book, culled from interviews with survivors and witnesses of the World Trade Center attacks, reveals why Americans were unprepared for that day, and how our fear turned to rage.

Do you remember where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001?

I was in Manhattan on the Upper West Side, getting dressed for work when I turned on the local news and saw the first tower on fire. The news anchor reported some sort of explosion. Someone called into the station from New Jersey and said, in a trembling voice, “I know it's sounds crazy, but I think that plane deliberately flew into the building.” I didn't understand exactly, but the word “deliberately” shook me.

I called my father in California and told him to turn on the TV: “Something's happening in New York,” I said.

The rest of that beautiful, blue-sky day felt very long. I made it to work in midtown, but we were told to go home, and along with thousands of other New Yorkers, I started walking uptown. Most people were calm, but some wondered whether whoever had bombed us downtown would now train their sights uptown, Two days later, the winds shifted, blowing the dust from the collapsed towers back to my apartment uptown. I coughed all night. And cried.

John Jay College Professor and psychoanalyst Charles Strozier was also in Manhattan on that day. Strozier, who had been studying and teaching about terrorism and violence for many years, watched the towers fall from outside his office in Greenwich Village. He scarcely had time to process his own reaction when patients began coming in, many who had been downtown, in the towers, and witnessed the horrors first-hand.

“I felt a mission to study what had happened,” says Strozier. “I wrote a protocol, got accelerated approval for a study, and started interviewing two weeks later.”

The results of his work were published in August in the form of a book entitled “Until the Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses.”

Strozier, who has since created John Jay's Center on Terrorism, spoke with The Crime Report about the decade shaped by 9/11 shaped a decade, and the difference in reactions between New Yorkers (and Washington DC residents) who experienced the attacks, and most of the rest of the country, who watched it on television.

The Crime Report: You write in your book that Americans “couldn't have been less psychologically prepared” for 9/11, but the U.S. had experienced terrorism before.

Charles Strozier: With Oklahoma City (1995) it was one person. Basically a guy who had an imagined community, and thought he was part of something much larger, so he built a bomb and blew up a building.

But the best explanation for what happened seemed to be Timothy McVeigh's own personal psychology and pathology. It didn't connect with larger themes. It didn't make people think differently—like maybe there's some new kind of violence in the world. He wasn't part of a terrorist group or a cult. He was just a guy who had gotten radicalized.

I think one has to appreciate the historical context to appreciate the power of the culture of fear that 9/11 set off. Nothing is completely new in the world, but an attack like 9/11 seemed to come out of nowhere. We'd run out the Cold War, and we really thought we were invincible. So the tragic drama of not only attacking us, and carrying out this unbelievably complicated, successful plot on the major centers of power, symbols of American financial and military might, was really shattering.

When 9/11 happened, there was a sense of total dread, partly I think, because of the nature of the attack: it evoked that fear of apocalyptic, nuclear destruction that lives just below the surface in all human beings in the nuclear age.

People who were caught up on the dust that day told me that they thought it was the end of the world. They saw the funnel created by the falling towers as a mushroom cloud. One woman I interviewed, Miranda, escaped the South Tower was overcome by the dust and thought it was nuclear war.

TCR: One of your subjects said he made a concerted decision not to watch television because he didn't want his reactions to be dictated by media personalities. How did the media affect the country's psyche?

CS: I do think there's something to the way the country responded to 9/11, and the way New York responded and I think that's because the rest of the country watched on TV and thus had an inauthentic psychological response. It's not real, it's literally filtered—there's a screen. I think it led to fear, and then people jumped from that to anger and rage. And rage is a feeling that is easily manipulated.

TCR: And for a while, the news played those images of the towers falling, and people jumping out of the buildings, almost on a loop. People were glued to the TV.

CS: And that repetition intensifies experience. So the repetitive watching of 9/11 on TV, not living with it, where it's real and authentic becomes cartoonish. You have the same feelings about it over and over again. I think that's part of what led to that kind of numbing and then to those feelings of rage. And it just happened as an accident of history that we had an administration led by fundamentalists who already had an agenda of expansion and control— they had things they wanted to try to accomplish politically and geopolitically, like making wars abroad—and they were able to manipulate that rage to serve their own purposes.

In New York, we suffered and we cried and we were confused: but we didn't jump to making wars and killing people to avenge what we went through. New York was a center of anti-war sentiment, and the center of that was downtown, in Union Square where all the memorials were. One of my subjects put this beautifully. He said, “The country watched the movie, but we were in the play.”

TCR: Near the end of the book, you write that on 9/11 “something broke in our souls and we have yet to find a way for healing it.” What might heal it, do you think?

CS: The country endured an awful tragedy, and then suddenly we're thrown into one war, and then another war. And these are huge wars. The relatively low level of fatalities really disguises the significance of the wars. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been involved, [along with] their families and their wives and children. And it's had all kinds of political consequences and turmoil. I mean we've been a country at war for 10 years.

I actually wrote that line about healing two years ago, and I think that the death of bin Laden is enormously important. His death coming right at the moment of the tenth anniversary, and as we're winding down the wars, gives it a kind of ending. Nothing ever ends neatly in history, it's always messy, but now at this anniversary we're at as much an ending point as you ever have in history.

TCR: After all the war and security hysteria that defined America’s post-9/11 responses, do you think we’re any safer from terrorism?

CS: Absolutely, we are safer. For one thing, the charismatic and operational head of Al-Qaeda is dead and the organization on the ropes. Of course the movement still has some energy and there will undoubtedly continue to be attacks in its name, especially in Europe, which is geographically closer and easier to access than the U.S, but they will be erratic. Robin Wright, in an excellent recent book, “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World,” argues that in fact the turning point in the Muslim world turning against the outrages of Jihad carried out in its name was around 2007.

And for all the false starts and inadequacies the American intelligence world is in much better shape, coordinates its work better—and the model is the work in New York of the FBI and the NYPD Counter Terrorism Bureau in the Joint Terrorism Task Force—and is finally learning the damn languages. In the 1990s everyone in the CIA knew only Russian.

There will certainly be an occasional attack. It is virtually impossible to prevent some yahoo exploding a bomb in the subway at some point. But a coordinated attack that would kill thousands is extremely unlikely, especially here. I worry about a dirty bomb more than anything, given the extreme fears of any kind of radiation release, but it is also extremely difficult to move radiation. So now you can sleep easy!

Julia Dahl is acting managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers comments.

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