On the morning of September 11, 2001, with the attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) and the Pentagon, the world that many of us thought we knew, was altered. While thousands of people were directly exposed to or witnessed the attacks from close proximity, millions around the globe watched the events in real time or repeatedly over time on news channels. The attacks of 9/11 will likely be the most witnessed terrorist acts in modern history.
The events that unfolded on and after 9/11, and the subsequent terrorism around the globe have created a climate of fear and anxiety. These are the psychological outcomes that terrorists seek to inflict. Terror can only be effective if it leaves lingering concerns about safety; if it disrupts the most basic ways citizens manage and control their lives.
The overall goal is to document and critically examine the comprehensive and wide-ranging mental health response after 9/11.
“Wide ranging psychological impact”
Whether the research on the psychological consequences of 9/11 suggest a unique and substantial emotional and behavioral impact among adults and children.
In what way the impact of these attacks exceeded the individual level, affected communities and specific professional groups, and tested different leadership styles.
How professional communities of mental health clinicians, policy makers and researchers were mobilized to respond to the emerging needs post-disaster.
What are the lessons learned from the work conducted after 9/11, and the implications for future disaster mental health work and preparedness efforts.
Shortly after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, the nation began to mourn, and around the country Americans began to commemorate the victims and demonstrate their patriotism. Some flew the American flag from their front porches and car antennas. Others pinned it to their lapels or wore it on t-shirts. Sports teams postponed games. Celebrities organized benefit concerts and performances. People attended impromptu candlelight vigils and participated in moments of silence. They gathered in common places, like Chicago’s Daley Plaza, Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach and especially New York City’s Union Square Park, to post tributes to the dead and to share their grief with others. “I don’t know why I’ve been coming here, except that I’m confused,” one young man in Union Square told a reporter from the New York Times. “Also a sense of unity. We all feel differently about what to do in response, but everybody seems to agree that we’ve got to be together no matter what happens. So you get a little bit of hope in togetherness.”
Meanwhile, people turned to their faith to help them make sense of the attacks. “We join with our fellow Americans in prayer for the killed and injured,” the imam at the Al-Abidin mosque in Queens told his congregation. At the Washington National Cathedral, the Reverend Billy Graham implored his listeners “not to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people and a nation,” but to “choose to become stronger through all the struggle to rebuild on a solid foundation.” And at Grace Church in Manhattan, the Reverend Bert Breiner asked parishioners to “please go forth into this world with love as though everything depended on it, because as we now know, everything does depend on it.”
Did you know? Nearly 36,000 units of blood were donated to the New York Blood Center after the September 11 attacks.
Americans tried to bolster the rescue effort in any way they could. Cities and towns sent firefighters and EMTs to Ground Zero. Lines to donate blood at Red Cross offices and other blood banks were incredibly long–there was an entire day’s wait in Madison, Wisconsin. New and established charities raised money for the victims and rescue workers. It was possible to donate to the Red Cross with just one click on Amazon.com, and the organization raised $3 million that way in just two days.
Looking for scapegoats in their suffering
But for some Americans, their grief manifested itself as anger and frustration, and they looked for someone to blame for the attacks of September 11th. Reverend Jerry Falwell made news by saying on his television program “The 700 Club” that “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way–all of them who have tried to secularize America–I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”
Anger erupted into attacks on people of Arab and Muslim descent, with nearly 600 incidents in the first 10 days after the attacks. Five hundred furious people mobbed a Chicago-area mosque and refused to leave until they were forced out by police. A Pakistani grocer was murdered in Texas.
A man on an anti-Arab rampage in Arizona fatally shot a gas station owner who was an Indian-born Sikh. (This type of confusion was not uncommon, since many Sikhs wear turbans, have beards and are seen as looking, as a member of the Sikh community told the New York Times, “more like bin Laden than Muslims do.”) FBI Director Robert Mueller said over and over again that “vigilante attacks and threats against Arab-Americans will not be tolerated,” but harassment and violence at mosques and in Arab-American neighborhoods continued for months.
Political leaders urged calm and promised aid. New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who rose to national prominence thanks to his leadership in the wake of the attacks, urged decisive action against terrorism and encouraged New Yorkers to try to return to their normal lives. He appeared on “Saturday Night Live” with several firefighters on September 29 (in the opening monologue, Lorne Michaels asked if it was okay to be funny at such a sad time; Giuliani replied, “Why start now?”) and orchestrated a major promotional campaign designed to lure tourists back to his beleaguered city. New York Governor George Pataki activated the state’s Emergency Operations Center; created a new Office of Public Safety to check on the state’s bridges, tunnels and water supplies and won bipartisan support for a plan to establish a Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and a state-run World Trade Center Relief Fund.
Meanwhile, President George W. Bush was able to win a broad mandate to act in the nation’s defense. In a speech on September 20, he asked citizens to be “calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat,” and promised that the United States would triumph over terrorism–“stop it, eliminate it, destroy it where it grows.” After the United States began military operations in Afghanistan in October, the president’s approval rating soared to 90 percent. Congressional leaders responded, too: They passed a $40 billion disaster relief bill in September and, the next year, the USA Patriot Act, which gave investigators a great deal of leeway in their domestic surveillance activities and made immigration laws more stringent.
Despite such anti-terrorist measures, many Americans continued to feel uneasy. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, nearly half of all Americans reported symptoms of stress and depression after the attacks. Many thousands of Americans lost loved ones on September 11. Millions more watched the unrelenting news coverage of the attacks, looked at the wrenching photographs in the newspaper and listened to heartbreaking interviews with firefighters, survivors and relatives of victims feeling that, at least in some small way, the trauma of the day was theirs too.
Memorials, commemorative ceremonies and time have helped many to begin to heal, but for others the shock and horror of that day in September remains painfully fresh.
Reaction to 9/11