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Experts Discuss Psychological Fallout from Terrorist Attacks - 2001-09-12

For those involved in the terrorist destruction in New York and the Pentagon - the injured, the witnesses, the family and friends of casualties - the physical and psychological trauma have just begun and may be prolonged. But what about people across the United States far removed from the carnage and debris? Psychologists say they foresee a growing loss of a sense of national security that began with terrorist attacks in the 1990s.

An undercurrent of U.S. culture is a sense of rugged individualism and a common desire for distance from the rest of the world. Isolationism was once a strong political ideology and still resonates with many in the United States. Two wide oceans on either side of the country seemed a protective moat against the kind of unrest that plagued other parts of the world. But that feeling of coziness has ebbed over the past decade, beginning with the 1993 attack against the World Trade Towers and the 1996 bombing of a federal government office building in Oklahoma City.

Psychologist Laurie Young, senior vice president of the National Mental Health Association, says the latest terrorist binge against the Trade Towers and the U.S. Defense Department will further upset the popular notion of an invincible United States. She said, "It's about a kind of sense of security and naivete that we've had in this country that you don't see in other countries around the world. I think we will see a lot of anger expressed in people and a sense of powerlessness, a kind of frustration this idea that we've been perceived as strong and invulnerable and the kind of frustration of, why can't the government do something to protect us from this kind of activity?"

For psychologist Gerard Jacobs, director of the Disaster Mental Health Institute at the University of South Dakota, the latest terrorist acts may force the people of the United States into an unwanted acceptance of certain grim realities about the world. "I think there will be an increased sense of the loss of innocence in the daily experience in the life of Americans," he said.

The terrorism against New York and the Pentagon are being compared to the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor 60 years ago. But Tokyo's air armada represented a known and fixed enemy, whereas the latest terrorism is like all such acts - springing forth from shadowy perpetrators, which Laurie Young says adds to the discomfort of Americans. She continued, "It's one of those things that keep the fear free-floating. You can't name a specific target. You can't make it predictable. That's what makes this so terrifying and unsettling to people."

Yet however different the latest terrorist attacks are from Pearl Harbor, they may cause a similar reaction the rousing of Americans from an indifference to terrorism, just as the Japanese nudged the United States out of isolationism during World War II.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute psychologist Russell Jones says there could be a new vigilance. "I think it may serve to strengthen the nation," he said. "I think it may serve to bring together coalitions, groups of individuals, et cetera, that will attempt to ensure the safety of our nation. It may serve in some ways a positive function in just making us more aware of the vulnerability of our nation's people."

At the National Mental Health Association, Laurie Young believes the terrorism could motivate a fortress mentality among many and their calls for enhanced national defense. At the very least, she foresees a strengthening of security precautions at airports and other public facilities well beyond the stringent precautions adopted after the Oklahoma City bombing five years ago. She said, "I think it will change our country.