Never Forget: The Lasting Psychological Impact of 9/11

We’re all survivors, but we’re all scarred.

Posted Sep 11, 2016

 Derek Jensen, public domain
2004 Tribute in Light Memorial.
Source: Derek Jensen, public domain

“Nietzsche said, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ but, of course, whatever doesn’t kill you leaves scars.”

–Joe Frank, At the Border

Somewhere in my closet, I have a VHS tape, recorded off a CRT television with rabbit-ear antennae, with grainy footage from the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The footage features the World Trade Center set ablaze, the second airplane flying into the South Tower, people jumping one after another to their death a hundred stories below, and plumes of dust and smoke billowing after the towers finally came down. I’ve never watched that tape and I probably never will, but the images are burned into my memory nonetheless.

The morning of 9/11, I was on the West Coast. A friend called, waking me from sleep and telling me to turn on the television. I spent the next few hours glued to the screen while scrambling to get in touch with friends who were working in Lower Manhattan. Later, when a third plane flew into the Pentagon, I tried tracking down my father, who was working across the street at the time.

Thankfully, I didn’t lose anyone on 9/11. My friends in Manhattan made it out of Ground Zero unscathed, eventually making a long sojourn across the Brooklyn Bridge to get back home later in the day. My father likewise walked several miles in a daze, but in time, made his way back home. By the evening, all my friends and family were accounted for.

As far as my own experience, watching 9/11 unfold on television from the safety of my living room couch, I remember feeling shocked, confused, and frightened. Living underneath the flight path of a nearby airport at the time, things were eerily quiet as air travel was suspended for the next week or so. But when flights started up again, I distinctly remember that the sound of jet engines overhead set me on edge.  

For my generation, 9/11 was the pivotal event of our adulthood, having only experienced the shooting of President Reagan and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster as children. Fifteen years removed, we now have a new generation that wasn’t around to witness 9/11, having only been born in its aftermath. And yet, all of us—regardless of where we were, who we lost, and whether we were alive at the time—feel the psychological repercussions of our national trauma, taking for granted the effects that are deeply embedded in the realities of today.

The U.S. is at war with no clear end in sight. We think nothing of taking off our shoes and belts in long lines at the airport, despite evidence that TSA screening doesn’t work. Most of us readily give up any semblance of electronic privacy in the name of Homeland Security. We’re mistrustful of foreigners, even though the U.S. has always been a country of foreigners. We worry incessantly about the threat of more terrorist attacks. And now, in the midst of a presidential race, we’re a nation divided, squabbling between perspectives that reflect a kind of post-9/11 humility and the desperate hope that we can “make American great again.”

If the historically low ratings of our current presidential candidates is any reflection of the state of the union, it would appear that we live in a time of maximal pessimism about government. Perhaps that was an inevitable outcome for a country that lived through the deadliest attack on homeland soil in the history of our existence. If our leaders were unable to keep us safe then, is it any wonder that some took their skepticism to the point of conspiracy theory, coming up with 9/11 denialism and the so-called “Truth Movement"? Is it any wonder that some level of skepticism has taken root in the mainstream, reflected in the backing of political outsiders like Bernie Saunders or Donald Trump who we hope might take our country in a different direction?

Of course, if the legacy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is mistrust of government, a palpable awareness of Middle East politics and Islamic terrorist groups, and a pervasive culture of fear, it’s worth reminding ourselves that this was presumably the exact intent of 9/11’s perpetrators. From their perspective, mission accomplished.

But what about the perspective of the 9/11’s survivors? No doubt, some of us have deeper scars than others. But regardless of how the events of 9/11 touched us individually on that day, we’ve been traumatized as a nation. We’re all children of 9/11 and we’re all survivors, one way or another.

In my experience as a psychiatrist working with patients who have endured trauma, it’s not unusual for friends and family to find themselves wondering why a survivor, years later, can’t “get over it.” The answer is simple—if the traumatic experience isn’t transformed, it retains the immediacy of the original experience.

If survivors are to heal from trauma, they must first acknowledge that it happened. They must remember. They must appreciate that it has shaped them in profound and irreversible ways. And then they must set about doing the hard work—reorienting themselves to the present, rewriting the wrongheaded lessons that trauma has taught them, and figuring out how to escape the past and forge a path into a new future.

"Never forget." Though I’m in no hurry to dig out my old VHS tape of the day, one of my favorite remembrances of 9/11 is Tom Junod’s article from Esquire, “Falling Man.” Originally published in 2003, it attempts to reconstruct the identity of a man (captured in a series of photographs by Richard Drew) who, having jumped from the World Trade Center, is seen suspended in air, in one long, tumbling, downward plummet. Junod finishes his essay conceding that the Falling Man’s identity remains elusive, but concludes:

Richard Drew's photograph is all we know of [the Falling Man], and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves. The picture is his cenotaph, and like the monuments dedicated to the memory of unknown soldiers everywhere, it asks that we look at it, and make one simple acknowledgment.

That we have known who the Falling Man is all along.

Junod seems to suggest that the Falling Man represents all of us, symbolizing someone or something we lost 15 years ago. As individuals and as a nation, let’s all remember what we lost in 9/11. Let’s think about how it’s shaped the country that we live in today. And if we’re unhappy with the state of things now, let’s not get mired in finger-pointing and an all too common externalization of blame as we cling to the familiarity of our injured bodies and lives. If we are to recover from trauma, let’s instead ponder about how we can all get on the same page, becoming part of the solution to heal our national scars, in an effort to retrieve a part of what was lost.

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter.