Ten years ago, America lost its terrorism virginity. Again.
Our memories are short, so many Americans don’t seem to recall the tragic loss of 168 lives — including 19 children under the age of 6 — in Oklahoma City in April 1995. Or the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 189 Americans in an explosion over the UK.
But 9/11 was America’s “Big One,” where 2,977 victims lost their lives that fateful day ten years ago. It is a day few of us will ever forget.
It’s hard to say much about the psychology of terrorism. Terrorism is meant primarily to terrorize its victims, and immediately after 9/11, most Americans were justifiably anxious and fearful. We never had such a damaging attack before on American soil, so it tends to leave an impression on you.
But mostly, according to research by Back et al. (2010), we were angry. That’s according to analysis of 85,000 different pager messages sent on September 11, 2001. The main emotion to come through initially after the attack was anxiety. But it was quickly replaced by anger, which dominated the emotional context of these messages, far surpassing the emotions of sadness and anxiety. If the attacks were meant to make us anxious and fearful, they only succeeded in doing that partially. They mostly made us angry and ultimately vengeful.
So we went to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Nine and a half years later, we killed the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden, not in Afghanistan, but in neighboring Pakistan. Meanwhile, the U.S. and our allies have lost 2,606 additional lives fighting this war (not even counting the contractor or civilian casualties). U.S. and coalition forces have lost another 5,029 lives fighting the related Iraq war.
Memorials help us not only to remember, but to give our grief and remembrance something to focus on. Like many Americans, I didn’t think too much about the Oklahoma City bombing when it occurred. I felt bad for the people who died, and the families affected, but since I didn’t know anyone personally, it didn’t really hit home for me.
Until I visited the Oklahoma City bombing memorial and museum. The more I learned and experienced the people’s stories, the more the emotional impact of what actually occurred hit me. The lives lost became real to me.
I remember sitting by the reflecting pool, looking upon the 168 chairs in the field, and crying… thinking, somewhat naively, about what a meaningless loss of life. The museum put the memorial into perspective for me. Those names became more than just names on a piece of metal or stone — in death, they suddenly became the living, breathing and meaningful souls they were in life. I will remember.
9/11 also brought with it not only the fear and anger of having innocent people attacked, but ongoing stress that has impacted people’s lives. While we don’t live in the constant fear of terrorist attacks like people in some countries do, our collective stress level went up after the attacks. According to Holman & Silver (2011) who studied 2,592 people from across the U.S. over a 3-year period immediately following the attacks:
Reports of physical ailments increased 18% over three years following 9/11. 9/11-related exposure, lifetime and post-9/11 stress, MD-diagnosed depression/anxiety, smoking status, age, and female gender predicted increased incidence of post-9/11 ailments.
9/11 caused increased stress, which causes more physical ailments across the board, especially if you were already at greater risk for such. It continues to haunt our lives, even years later.
On this tenth anniversary of 9/11, I hope we can all remember the sacrifices so many have made in the name of terrorism. Someday I hope I can have the same experience for the victims of 9/11 as I had for the Oklahoma City bombing victims… To understand who these people were and to pay them the proper respect a victim of a terrorist act deserves.
Last, let’s not forget the thousands of lives that have also been impacted by the wars on terrorism since 9/11. Too often they go unremembered for the sacrifices they and their families have made to bring the terrorists to justice.
Back, M. D., Kufner, A. C. P., & Egloff, B. (2010). The emotional timeline of September 11, 2001. Psychological Science.
Holman, E.A., Silver, R.C. (2011). Health status and health care utilization following collective trauma: A 3-year national study of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Soc Sci Med, 73, 483-90.