Every generation has its “Where were you? …” moments when everything Americans think we believe about reality shifts and transforms into something else.
For our grandparents, it could have been the start of the Depression or Pearl Harbor Day (Dec. 6, 1941). For our parents, the 1960s were fraught with thunder strikes, including the deaths of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King.
However, the “out of nowhere” morning of Sept. 11, 2001, shook us collectively to the core.
Have politicians and the media “over-scared” us since? Yes and no, says Dr. Sue Cornbluth, a clinical psychologist and professor at Temple University focused on parenting.
“Was it entirely their fault? Not really. The terrorist attack shattered our illusion of safety in America. As a result, news today is scarier to watch.”
The more things change … “Recently we heard of the tragic Colorado movie theater shooting. The media covered this story for days, showing the pictures of the murderer and going over closely every inch of the investigation. Similar to 9/11, this excessive coverage evokes fear in people, and now we have to be aware of our safety when we go to the movie theater.”
Cornbluth does acknowledge, however, that this very dark cloud over our collective psyche may have a silver lining: “One positive aspect perhaps to come from the media reports of 9/11 is it possibly made others” act more heroically.
“We saw in Colorado how people were throwing their bodies over others to protect them, just as people from 9/11 tried to take over the plane that crashed in Western Pennsylvania.”
Even with the shock of that day, psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, a member of UCLA’s Neuropsychiatry Institute and a scholar in public health with the National Institute of Mental Health, says she believes that a lot of Americans are still in denial about the continuing and profound significance of 9/11.
She documents her years of research on the subject in the book Coping with Terrorism: Dreams Interrupted.
“On one level, we hear some news about terrorism every day, but on another level we are sticking our head in the sand so that we can stay in denial,” states Lieberman.
“Even though Osama Bin Laden is dead, terrorism is not. The terrorist ideology is very patient and is still working daily to conquer the ‘non-believers’ in the West. Meanwhile, the psychological impact of 9/11 has affected every aspect of our life.”
How so? “The obesity epidemic is due to Americans eating more comfort food, like ice cream, cake, pasta and potatoes. It is also a major cause of our economic crisis because we have become more anxious, depressed, distracted and less productive.”
According to Cornbluth, the watershed event spared no one, including children who had not yet been born.
“Subconsciously, as parents, we, as a whole, have become much more protective of our children,” Cornbluth observes. “We want to keep our children close at all times and have to talk to them about tragic events such as 9/11 and, more recently, the Colorado shooting.
“By doing this, we tend to believe that we are protecting them and keeping them safe. This is not a conversation parents want to have with their children but one we must have.”
“I also think that, as a whole, parents are teaching their children to be more patriotic, and that 9/11 brought us together as a country.”
Lieberman says that although some parents have become more pro-active about talking with their children about the realities of the post-9/11 world, they should be direct and honest about why everybody needs to be on guard about how dangerous the world can be.
“In general, parents are more cautious about knowing where their children are and about having constant means of communicating with them, typically via cell phones,” says Lieberman.
Rosalie Jacobs, a psychotherapist in Bucks County, says that Philadelphia’s being one of America’s more culturally diverse and most historic cities resulted in a deeper impact among Philadelphians.
“I would bet that following that horrific day, almost all adults who lived in the Philadelphia area have a story of someone they knew who either perished that day or had a near mishap being at the world Trade Center that morning of 9/11,” Jacobs continues.
“I have heard many accounts from family, friends and acquaintances since 9/11 of people who have canceled vacations, and are afraid to travel by planes, boats and planes and leave the country for fear of terrorism.
“How many times have you heard or seen a low-flying plane since 9/11 and shivered in your shoes?”