• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

The strong rise from the ashes

About 9000 counsellors occupied Lower Manhattan offering their services to anyone who was even tangentially connected with this catastrophe. Some of these trauma tourists predicted enormous increases in post-traumatic stress disorder and related mental problems.

Even a year after the attack, the president of the Washington, DC, Psychiatric Society warned that “there are not enough psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers or other crisis counsellors to treat the fallout from a massive, unimaginable horror”.

Thankfully, the therapeutic scaremongers have been proved wrong. The predicted outbreak of an epidemic of serious, long-term trauma proved to be a fantasy of therapy entrepreneurs. Although some psychologists still insist that even watching television scenes of the catastrophe could trigger a traumatic response, it is evident that people are far more resilient than the crisis response teams gave them credit for. A study published this month in a special 10th anniversary of 9/11 issue of the journal American Psychologist indicates that in their enthusiasm to intervene and help New Yorkers after the attack, some mental health professionals may have made matters worse.

Patricia Watson, co-author of one of the case studies published in the journal, stated that they “couldn’t really tell if people had been helped by the providers, but the providers felt great about it”. In other words, while this form of therapeutic intervention appears to enhance the morale of the therapist, it is of dubious value to patients. Indeed, some of the methods used, such as debriefing those directly affected by the crisis, can disorient those suffering mental anguish and pain. Encouraging patients to relive their painful experience can push people into depression. As Harvard psychologist Richard McNally notes, the response of mental health intervention “brought attention to the limitations” of debriefing.

The good news, McNally argues, is that human beings are far tougher than experts believe. As George Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University in New York, says: “We were remarkably resilient.” He takes the view that, despite all the dire predictions, people have not been “permanently scarred”. Bonanno and other psychologists believe that human beings possess a formidable capacity to bounce back and to deal with adversity and misfortune. Many Americans continue to grieve for the people they have lost and live with deep emotional wounds, but what they suffer from is not an incurable illness but existential pain.

The debate on the impact of 9/11 on people’s emotional life is not merely of interest to mental health professionals. The meaning of a catastrophe, such as the one faced by the people of New York 10 years ago, is ultimately determined by how people react to it. In particular, the response of a community to an act of terrorism can play a decisive role in influencing the outcome of the conflict.

The message sent out by the trauma tourists in the aftermath of 9/11 was that people lacked character and emotional resources. Nor was the expression of this sentiment confined to a small group of mental health professionals. The premise that vulnerability constituted the defining feature of the American psyche was communicated in a variety of forms in the aftermath of 9/11. It is worth recalling that in the post-9/11 world vulnerability has acquired an idiomatic character that pertains to individuals facing the threat of terrorism. George W. Bush did not have to elaborate on his words when he noted that on “September the 11, 2001, America felt its vulnerability”. His audience would understand that insecurity, apprehension and fear represented permanent and important dimensions of the nation’s psyche. The widely used formulation “America the Vulnerable” consciously represents vulnerability as not simply a condition to be endured but as a defining feature of American identity.

Sadly, in the past 10 years, through this paradigm of vulnerability, the sense of powerlessness has been cultivated as part of the normal state of being. The positing of people as victims of circumstances reflects Western cultural sensibilities towards the supposedly unprecedented uncertainties confronting 21st-century society.

The belief that a society is intrinsically vulnerable stands in sharp contrast to the way that people in previous decades were encouraged to perceive their engagement with adversity. Throughout the past century the ideals of strength through adversity transmitted the expectation that people would respond with fortitude to violent threats.

Today’s representation of vulnerability as a dominant feature of existence is alien to the cultural norms associated with the Blitz spirit, which celebrated the ideal of the Aussie battler or of a hardy people fighting back. Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill expressed this sentiment in the aftermath of his army’s retreat at Dunkirk, when he said: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Churchill’s declaration demanded that the British people fight, regardless of how they felt. This is a very different approach to the vulnerability-led response of Bush to 9/11, which simply sought to provide assurance that the American people would be able to cope with their hurt.

Western societies did not diagnose themselves as suffering from the condition of vulnerability until the 1980s. Before this time, research into disaster response suggested that communities were surprisingly good at coping with even the most tragic disruption to their lives. Experiences such as the civilian response to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Britain, the Allied bombing of Germany, the dropping of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and a variety of natural disasters in the 50s and 60s indicate that communities were able to develop resilience, and therefore minimise the destructive consequences of these incidents on their morale. In a review of these experiences, Charles E. Fritz, a pioneer researcher into the human impact of disasters, concluded that most “disasters produce a great increase in social solidarity”, which tends to reduce the incidence of most forms of personal and social pathology. History shows that the impact on the national psyche of sudden military attacks are mediated through cultural and political influences and institutions. Such violence need not simply traumatise its targets. It can provoke a determination to fight or stimulate the construction of a community around a common cause.

At the outbreak of World War II, British policy-makers expected that one of the outcomes of the conflict would be an increase in the number of mental patients. And although arrangements were made to receive the expected flood, there was no increase in numbers. Studies reported a similar pattern from experiences as varied as the conflict in Northern Ireland and the Spanish Civil War.

Sociological and community studies indicate that, throughout history, threats to human survival have played an important role in the construction of communities. Even in today’s highly individuated globalised society, calamities have a unique capacity to encourage acts of solidarity and altruism.

It is evident that despite the predictions of therapeutic scaremongers, the recent experience of a community’s response to terrorism and violence bears out the insights provided by disaster researchers. Studies of 9/11, the terrorist attack in Bali in 2002 and in London in 2005 highlight the resilience of the target communities. In all these cases people responded to terrorist attacks through acts of solidarity rather than panic.

Ten years after 9/11, there is no consensus among psychologists about the mental health impact of a terrorist attack. But whatever the opinion of mental health professionals on specific cases, it is evident that contrary to pessimistic expectations, the destructive impact of such terrible episodes can be contained by the emergence of social solidarity and community purpose.

A healthy democracy can bounce back after a terrorist attack and learn to live with such a threat. However, it can do this even more effectively if it genuinely believes in the power of its people and refuses to define itself as intrinsically vulnerable. Fortunately therapeutic entrepreneurs did not succeed in turning the people of New York into a population of helpless patients. Now what is needed is for governments to encourage people’s capacity for creative thinking and capacity to improvise. It may sound old-fashioned, but often it is through engaging with adversity that a nation catches sight of its potential greatness.

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