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Fear Eats the Soul: 9/11 and the Cycle of Fear and Violence

To observe the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Insight asked two Smith professors to consider the struggle of ideas reflected in the collective social and moral conversations that took place in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy. What follows is their examination of the legacy of ideas since then, in the cultural lens of the profoundly personal, political and philosophical.

/ Published September 9, 2011

Most of us can recall where we were when the attacks of 9/11 first entered our awareness and dramatically changed our society, our world and for many of us our lives. We now accept having tight airport security and a Department of Homeland Security—and even the use of the word “homeland” in describing the United States. It is not surprising that we can remember where we were on 9/11; indelible memory is a common response to tragedy.

Within a few days of 9/11, I was asked to provide counseling to employees of a multinational corporation who had escaped from the World Trade Center and were temporarily relocated to a building nearby. For two weeks I lived two blocks from ground zero in a friend’s apartment, which was covered with dust and debris and smelled of smoke. In the early morning I would run along the Hudson River noting the gap, like missing teeth in the skyline, where the WTC had been; at night after work I would walk down to ground zero, where twin beacons created the illusion of ghostly towers. When I conducted my first debriefing with employees, their fear and distress (mixed with my own shock and sadness) seemed overwhelming, but over time I felt more confident and centered as I realized that I could be helpful, at least in the short term.

Joshua Miller

Most of those I counseled had detailed recollections of the smells (burning fuel, choking dust), sounds (screams, elevators crashing in their carriages) and sights (people groping their way down stairwells, the face of someone headed back into the building, who probably never returned). I was struck by the resilience of those employees who had been members of particularly tight work groups—their close relationships helped them through the catastrophe and seemed strengthened by their having survived together.

As I listened to their stories, what most surprised me was their lack of appetite for revenge; they felt some anger, to be sure, and a desire for justice, but of the hundreds of people I talked to, none wanted the country to go to war or to punish the innocent civilians in the countries believed to be connected to the violence. From my work responding to those involved in disasters and armed conflict in the United States and other parts of the world, I have found that most people do not seek retribution; rather, they want to rebuild their lives and reconstruct meaning. (See sidebar for ways to help those recovering from a disaster).

Another common response to want to be near other people. The day after 9/11 as I swam laps in a pool, a stranger joined me and, though we were alone in the pool, chose to swim in the lane next to mine. She later told me that she just wanted to be close to another human being. After the tragedy, people throughout the city publicly expressed their grief in spontaneous ways: erecting make-shift shrines, tying yellow ribbons on fences, posting pictures of the missing in public places. Knots of people stood on street corners cheering the construction workers being bused to ground zero, and there was a sense of bonding with strangers —almost as if we needed to reassert our social ties and shared humanity.

What few people want after a disaster is to experience uncertainty and unending fear. This does not help them heal and recover; rather it keeps them in a constant state of suspicion and vigilance.

Those who engage in aggression always feel that it’s justified. To justify killing others involves a process of dehumanizing the “other”: losing all sense of empathy or attachment—ultimately destroying our fundamental human connections. Most killing of this nature is justified by referring to perceived injustices (or anticipated future threats) at the hands of one’s “enemy” and bolstering these claims through religious and political ideologies and exculpatory discourses. It is not only the victims and targets of violence who are in need of healing: acts of aggression morally compromise perpetrators, and at some level they live in fear of retaliation for their acts.

Nearly three thousand people died in the 9/11 attacks. Many thousands more lost parents, children, brothers, sisters and friends. Those whose duty it is to respond to disasters—firefighters, police and emergency medical technicians—died in the line of fire. There are also many less visible casualties: the ongoing health concerns of those who were exposed to the toxic debris in the years following the event, particularly the brave, patriotic and intrepid construction workers, firefighters and police who worked long hours on ground zero, and now suffer from lingering physical, psychological and emotional wounds.

The immediate framing of the 9/11 attacks as an act of war has led to hundreds of thousands of casualties in response to the attacks. The casualties sparked by 9/11 grimly continue to mount: more than six thousand U.S. soldiers have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and many more have been wounded. The continuing war in Afghanistan—the longest war ever fought by the United States—is taking an immense psychological and social toll on the soldiers and their loved ones. There are estimates that more than 100,000 Iraqi and Afghani civilians have died from the conflicts. When Osama bin Laden was assassinated by U.S. forces, some saw this as justice, yet others gained neither solace nor a greater sense of security. The use of torture, condoned by the Bush administration, tarnished America’s global image, undermined the values for which the country was fighting, and dissipated the international goodwill initially extended to the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11.

None of this contributes to conditions that would allow people to heal individually and for a society to mend collectively. A cycle of violence creates an atmosphere of fear and, to borrow the subtitle of one of the late German director Ranier Werner Fassbinder’s films, “fear eats the soul.”

As with all disasters and acts of terrorism, 9/11 occurred in a context that predated the event as well as shaped its response and aftermath. The country was already bitterly divided politically when the tragedy occurred. Decisions taken after 9/11—fighting two wars without instituting a draft and offering major tax breaks rather than asking for shared sacrifices—divided the country further. The decade since 9/11 has also been one of tremendous technological expansion—particularly with the Internet, social media and PDAs. While this has the potential to bring us closer together, it also has led to segmentation and social isolation—associating only with others who think like you and avoiding those who are different or have conflicting views. This is augmented by another trend that predated 9/11 but has continued since—people (usually white) moving to increasingly homogenous (racially, economically and politically) neighborhoods. All of this—wars, unequal sacrifices, increasing inequalities of wealth, social segmentation, and an increasingly negative view of government services that help those in need—has shattered the brief autumn of social cohesion following 9/11.

9/11 was a seminal event in an ongoing conflict that may not abate for years. Domestically, surveillance of citizens has increased and our borders have been tightened. Anti-immigrant sentiment existed before 9/11 but the increased post-9/11 fear and nativism have led to excessively punitive laws aimed at immigrants.

Visitors pay their respects to fallen New York City firefighters at the Memorial Wall at the firehouse on Greenwich Street across from the World Trade Center site.

In contrast, the recent tragedy in Norway, while different in a number of respects from 9/11, illustrates how a society can respond to egregious acts of violence without losing its moral compass—not only by affirming its most deeply held values but by acting in accordance with those values. Will 9/11 ultimately have been an event that led to the revitalization of our democracy or to its erosion and even demise? The specter of an escalating and unending cycle of war, terrorism and violence will continue to be the legacy of 9/11 unless we can somehow manage to grieve and mourn our losses as a nation while also acknowledging the harm that we have done to others in reaction to our pain: Psychological and social healing are aided by reconciliation with adversaries. And the divisions in our society, which have widened in so many ways since 9/11 can only be narrowed through policies that promote shared sacrifice and social justice and emphasize our collective stake in improving the welfare of the lives of all of our residents.

The rupture of human empathy and connection that led to the terrible tragedy of 9/11 and its fearful scar can only be healed by asserting our own humanity and seeing the humanity in those we fear. It will be sad if the legacy of the lives lost and hearts broken by 9/11 is one of dread, suspicion, social divisions and continued violence; we can honor, if not transform the meaning of 9/11 by reasserting our moral values, abiding by them and reconstituting human connections within our own nation and across the world.

Joshua Miller is professor and chair of the social welfare policy and services sequence in the Smith College School for Social Work and has been appointed as a distinguished visiting professor at Beijing Normal University, School of Public Policy and Social Administration. He has co-authored Racism in the United States: Implications for the Helping Professions with Ann Marie Garran, and his latest book, Psychosocial Capacity Building in Response to Disaster, is due to be published by Columbia University Press in February 2012.