The day the psychology of America changed forever

By Garland Y. (Gary) DeNelsky, Ph.D.
November 1, 2001 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

The day dawned bright and beautiful over nearly all of the continental United States. It was the type of bright, blue, late summer day that called to mind crooner Neil Diamonds’ hit song of years ago, September Morn.

But before the morning of September 11 could really get underway, one era ended and a new one began. The new era reflected a very different psychology than the era that had preceded it. Simply stated: Americans had lost their sense of homeland security, their previous feeling of national invulnerability. The implications of this loss are profound.

The immense changes were not limited to those individuals whose lives were so tragically lost at the hands of the outrageous, barbarous terrorists, the thousands more who barely escaped with their lives, and the millions more who witnessed the horrific events of September 11 unfold across their television screens. Indeed, every American was forever changed in ways that we are only beginning to discern. These changes are even likely to affect those yet unborn.

Americans have come to take for granted the basic security of their homeland. The last time this country was attacked-–December 7, 1941-–our military base at Pearl Harbor was struck by the war planes of a foreign enemy. This military action was a powerful and immediate solicitation to war. Throughout World War II, our nation was constantly on guard against further sneak attacks, resulting in “blackouts” and other preventative measures (including shameful treatment of our American citizens of Japanese descent).

No attacks of note occurred, and as the war ended four years later, we reverted to our implicit (and generally unspoken) feeling of homeland invulnerability. After all, the last really big war that had been fought on our soil was a civil war, and the last time anyone made any credible move against our nation within its borders occurred about two centuries ago. Other countries might host wars on their soil, but not the United States. We were too powerful, too well-defended, and geographically blessed with large oceans and friendly neighbors. The concept of long-range nuclear missiles made us uneasy, of course, but did not strike the type of fear deep in our hearts that the recent events have. Most of us accepted the “rational model” of mutually-assured destruction which assumes that the leaders of any nation that would initiate use of nuclear weapons would be committing national if not personal suicide, an action most improbable. On September 11 we came face to face with fanatical zealots who planned and used their own suicides as a central tactic.

Before September 11, Americans did not of course feel totally safe in their own environs. In addition to the “normal” dangers of life (automobile accidents kill 40,000 or more of our citizens annually, tobacco brings death to nearly half a million before their time each year, alcohol and other drugs kill several thousand, the easy availability of firearms kills several thousand, etc.), we have been increasingly exposed over recent years to the “deranged killer” who periodically opens fire in our schools, shopping centers, restaurants, post offices or other places when and where we least expect it. These deranged killers, although highly dangerous and capable of killing dozens at a time, are quite disturbing to us but they have not had the enormous and lasting impact on America’s psyche that September 11 will have. It is more than a little ironic that one of Americans’ biggest concerns on the days preceding September 11-–at least as reflected in the press-–was the unprecedented number of attacks by sharks on swimmers in our southern waters. How trivial that danger seems now!

All of these dangers contribute to a sense of uneasiness in our lives, to a bit more anxiety, but they do not result in any fundamental (and irreversible) change in the way most people look at and live their daily lives. Indeed, many of us used to enjoy some anxiety regarding possible attacks, almost the way we enjoy the safe “danger” of roller coasters; movies that featured attacks on the United States whether from outer space or fictitious malevolent nations were almost inevitably big draws at the box-office. Deep down, of course, we knew such attacks could not happen. Movies such as these are likely to lose their appeal from now on.

What happened that terrible Tuesday changed our lives a great deal, changed them immensely, and probably changed them irreversibly. Those changes are much broader and deeper than the visibly increased security in airports, government buildings and other public places. When children (and adults) look skyward and see a plane that seems to be flying a bit lower than usual, will their minds not instantly flash back to that incredible scene of the World Trade Center’s South Tower being sliced into and transformed into an inferno? When we become part of a large gathering at a sporting event, concert, or other venue, will we not feel a sense of mass vulnerability? Instead of strength in numbers, there is now a feeling of heightened danger. A tall building is no longer cause for awe and admiration. It is likely to be perceived as a potentially choice target of devastating proportions. When (if ever) will some architect have the temerity to design another breath-taking skyscraper? If it is built, who among us will wish to work or even visit there?

This loss of basic safety may expand in the months and years ahead. What is to stop the cunning, devious plans of a terrorist who decides to unleash a barrage of biological or chemical warfare by means of a small, crop-dusting airplane? Who will prevent a terrorist from poisoning the water supply-–and the citizens-–of one or more of our major cities? What will prevent the annihilation of thousands if not millions by a suicide bomber who sneaks a nuclear device into this country in a suitcase? For those who so carefully and successfully schemed how to turn large passenger jetliners into human guided missiles, is any monstrous act, no matter how far-fetched, not possible? With the new combination of potentially devastating technology, extreme ideology, and fanatic people willing to suicide for their “cause,” any scenario involving mass death and suffering of our civilian population is now conceivable. If, heaven forbid, another terrorist action occurs against our nation and its people, our already diminished sense of security will be wounded still further.

Noted psychologist and personality theorist Professor Abraham Maslow theorized decades ago that after our physiological needs such as hunger and thirst are met, we must meet our safety needs met before we can move up the hierarchy of needs and fulfill any of our higher needs such as needs for belongingness and love, esteem needs, needs for self-actualization, cognitive needs, and so on. The horrible events of September 11, 2001 have made it considerably more difficult for any of us to feel safe and, therefore, harder for us to focus fully on our higher human needs. As time passes-–and hopefully, if no more terrorist actions occur-–we will gradually drift back toward feeling a bit more secure. But can we really, really reassure our children that their lives (and ours) cannot be brutally swept away in a few horrible moments on even the most beautiful of days, even if they take the normal precautions of safe living which all good parents try to teach? Our land and our people have been attacked and violated without warning in a savage, brutal fashion.

We will do the best we can. We will mourn the terrible toll of human life lost, New York City and the Pentagon will rebuild, our stock markets will recover, consumer confidence will gradually return. Hopefully, we will capture many would-be terrorists and neutralize their heinous plans before they are unleashed, further bolstering our confidence. We will try to provide the proper therapy for those of us whose psychic wounds from all that happened are especially severe. We will bounce back, because the human spirit is if nothing else highly resilient, and time does have a tendency to heal.

But, deep down inside each of us, will we feel the same, really the same, ever again?

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