- Lessons learned from the trauma of 9/11 can guide us during this time of fear and division.
- Humanity is hardwired for resilience in the aftermath of trauma.
- Acceptance and compassion are key to surviving loss, change and grief.
“We’re not about what happened on 9/11. We’re about what happened on 9/12.” — Jeff Parness
Where were you on the morning of September 11, 2001?
On the East Coast, the morning was memorable for being astonishingly perfect: weatherless—neither hot nor cold—bright and crisp with cloudless blue skies. The tranquility was a jolting counterpoint to the atrocities that began to unravel at 8:46 a.m.
On that day we experienced an unprecedented attack on America that awakened us to the unimaginable—America’s vulnerability to external threats by well-funded zealots with a malevolent agenda. Four hijacked planes resulted in catastrophic death and forever changed us as a country. In the days that followed the TSA reimagined and strengthened airport security. The Patriot Act expanded the government’s authority, limited traditional checks and balances, and expanded the surveillance of American citizens. A War on Terror led to military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The events of that ghastly day continue to reverberate 20 years later.
As intended, Americans were terrorized by the horror projected in the news. The fear was soon further compounded by anthrax randomly delivered to suburban mailboxes. Some corners of the country witnessed hate crimes against Arabs and Muslim Americans. Fear was rife. The future was uncertain. In the days after 9/11, a RAND Survey Research Group found that 44% of Americans reported one or more symptoms of extreme stress. For those closer to New York, the stress levels were reportedly higher, 66%.
Yet, in the hours, weeks, and months that followed, something surprising and unexpected occurred in a country historically rife with political division. Polarization appeared to vaporize. People throughout the world expressed love for the USA. The global community rallied in support of their American friends.
In short, during the darkest moment of modern American history, Americans looked fear directly in the eye and chose to live with compassion. They demonstrated remarkable resilience.
Today, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we find our country once again stressed by fear. We are grappling with a different horror, a global pandemic seemingly without an endpoint, one that has killed four million people in 21 months. Again, two decades later, we live with uncertainty and fear.
We would do well to reflect on the lessons of that fateful day.
1. As individuals, we are inherently adaptive to traumatic events.
We have learned that resilience is a shared response to traumatic events.
George A. Bonanno in his book The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience Is Changing How We Think of PTSD reports that a study conducted in the aftermath of 9/11 found that the public’s initial response to the events of 9/11 resulted in feelings of intense emotion, dread, and fear. Yet over time, these feelings dissipated, and most Americans returned to a state of stable mental health.
Bonoanno writes that people generally tend to rebound after confronting traumatic incidents ranging from military combat to violent injury, and natural disasters. He reports that two-thirds of those who experience these and other life-changing events eventually return to their pre-event mental health state.
Patricia Resick of Duke University, an expert on post-traumatic shock syndrome (PTSD), explains, “Strong emotions do not equal psychopathology.” We are all familiar with the fight or flight response, which is a normal physiological reaction to extreme stress necessary to keep us alert should future trauma be imminent. However, over time this response dims, and feelings of fear and sadness resolve.
This can be applied to our response to the global pandemic. Covid-19 ushered in social isolation, financial pressures, and an uncertain future. The immediate response was skyrocketing rates of self-reported anxiety and depression, substance abuse, and suicide ideation. The Centers for Disease Control reported the numbers nearly doubled those anticipated prior to the pandemic. Yet the medical journal The Lancet last year reported that mental health and suicide rates had stabilized and were not greater than prior to the onset of the pandemic. Importantly the exception has been those with ongoing mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, who remained at heightened risk. But for most, the stress-related symptoms had resolved.
Lesson: We should be confident that following adverse events, trauma, and stress-related symptoms will normalize for most people.
2. Traumatic events can unify factions and bridge divisions.
Immediately after 9/11, Americans were stunned. Yet it didn’t take long for them to rally. Images of unity are memorable. Throughout the country, people greeted and hugged friends, neighbors, and even strangers on the street. Political division melted as supporters of all parties proudly flew the American flag. Blood donations soared. Religious groups met to pray together and forge a greater understanding. The news was filled with reports of heroism and examples of many who ran toward danger and not away. There were even tributes held for search and rescue dogs who were sent to the site of the devastation to locate survivors in the twin towers.
As Geraldine Brooks so well said, “September 11, 2001 revealed heroism in ordinary people who might have gone through their lives never called upon to demonstrate the extent of their courage.”
A study published by researchers from a university in Germany revealed that acute stress can lead to greater cooperative, social, and friendly behavior. They noted this response is so powerful that it may even be responsible for our very survival as a species.
A report in Scientific American confirms the German study. “One reason why stress may lead to cooperative behavior is our profound need for social connection. Human beings are fundamentally social animals, and it is the protective nature of our social relationships that has allowed our species to thrive. Decades of research show that social connection is a fundamental human need linked to both psychological and physical health including a stronger immune system, faster recovery from disease and even longevity.”
This need for human connection in the aftermath of the tragedy may have even contributed to a reduction in hate crimes. Initially, after the attack pockets of the country experienced a backlash against Arab and Muslim Americans. Attacks rose from a couple of dozen in the year 2000 to more than 450 in 2001. But the spike was short-lived. Jeff Jacoby reports in the Boston Globe that within a year of the attack, the FBI reported that the number of offenses against Muslims and Arab-Americans had fallen by two-thirds and to today remains stable.
Hussein Ibish, of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said soon after 9/11 that the far more typical reaction to these atrocities was the “outpouring of compassion from so many people who came forward. Really, the common decency of most of our fellow citizens came out.”
This goodwill was also evident in the months after Covid-19 began ravaging the world. Who can forget the nightly banging of pots and singing on balconies in New York and Italy, both hard hit in the early days of the pandemic? Again, blood donations soared. Mask-wearing neighbors checked in on neighbors. Communities gathered outdoors across fences. Churches and community groups organized food and pharmacy deliveries for those who were housebound due to age, fear, or illness.
Once again, in 2020 compassion and caring defeated fear. As we know much division has arisen in 2021 over vaccinations and masks, but we can look to the early days of the pandemic for solace and hope that over time human caring will overcome whatever separates us.
Lesson: To flourish in life, as Mother Teresa said, “We must remember that we belong to each other.”
History repeatedly shines a bright light on the powerful nature of human resilience. We witnessed individual and community resilience in the months after 9/11, and, more recently, from our early experiences navigating a global pandemic.
It should reassure us that as a society we have previously survived grief, pain, loss, and change by acceptance of our new normal. And we can take comfort—and find relief—in knowing that the reset for humanity is only found in kindness and compassion. Historical examples abound where a hand reaching out during dark times can lead to the end of conflict and division. All we need to do individually is to reach out our hand.
We know from our shared past experiences that, as Rumi said, “the wound is where the light enters you.”
Wall Street Journal George A. Bonanno, September 4-5, 2021
Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020 Weekly /August 14, 2020 / 69(32);1049–10
Study by Markus Heinrichs and Bernadette von Dawans at the University of Freiburg, Germany,
PhD Essay, Terrorism, Did 9/11 Bring People Together
Boston Globe Since 9/11, Americans have embraced their Muslim neighbors, September 5,2021