Attacks bombard America's psyche

Living: As Americans deal with a new stress in different ways, experts say the nation's next steps will determine the psychological direction of the country.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 23, 2001|By Susan Baer and Ellen Gamerman | Susan Baer and Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Patty Grooms of Fairfax Station, Va., lies awake at night - midnight, 1, 2 o'clock - listening to the rumble of fighter jets patrolling the Washington skies and wondering what form another terrorist attack might take. Contaminated drinking water? Poisoned air?

Ken Manges, a psychologist who works on the 18th floor of a Cincinnati high-rise, has been counseling some patients by phone because, he says, they've developed skyscraper anxiety.

Uzo Dike, a 33-year-old legal assistant in Chicago, has sat transfixed at his television, shedding more tears than he has since his mother died when he was in high school.

And Ramin Saeedpour, a Nashville chiropractor of Iranian descent, has a new fear to add to all the others. As he sat at a traffic light last week, someone sprayed his car with red paint-gun pellets. When he got to work, he heard that some tenants in his building were asking if he could be a terrorist posing as a chiropractor.

The casualties that resulted from the terrorist attack on this nation are still being tallied, counted in numbers so horridly high they beg for new words in our vocabulary to describe our grief. But there is another type of casualty that, in many ways, is proving incalculable: the psychological havoc that has been wreaked on a nation that was just sitting down to a cup of coffee when all semblance of life's routine was suddenly shattered.

"It's not just being afraid of planes," says Todd Gitlin, professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University. "Something deeper got cracked - the illusion that America was protected by oceans. That's a deep illusion in American history. And it's an illusion we cherish."

President Bush, in his address to the nation last week, said he recognized that "many citizens have fears tonight" but asked for Americans to be "calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat."

Still, along with American flags and red-white-and-blue ribbons, the pervasive loss of that sense of invulnerability has been showing up everywhere since Sept. 11, tinged with profound sadness and unspeakable anger.

Some are defiantly carrying on with their daily routine and future plans, refusing to let terrorists gain a foothold on their lives, but scores of Americans are canceling trips and staying close to home and their families.

"Now that we're entering this war era, I don't want to leave my kids," says Grooms, a mother of three young girls, who canceled a trip to Hawaii she and her husband had planned for next month. Her 9-year-old daughter tearfully begged her not to go.

Gun sales are up. Flight attendants are looking for new occupations. Innocent, unattended packages, misinterpreted remarks or even suspicious-looking people are resulting in evacuated buildings, malls and airplanes everywhere.

A car alarm is accidentally tripped in the parking lot of a nursery school, and mothers who have just dropped off their children frantically rush back in, fearing - they don't even know what, just some horrible calamity.

"The diabolical elements of this attack are wondrous to behold," says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy of Stanford University. "It makes you wonder how much the terrorists anticipated the reverberations in not only the economy, but people's way of life and sense of security."

A Pew Research Center poll showed that - since the attacks - nearly half of all Americans have had difficulty concentrating and one in three have trouble sleeping at night. Nearly seven in 10 are praying more, and nearly three out of four are frightened watching television reports.

Historical parallels

Because the devastation on American soil was unprecedented, and the U.S. retaliation is just beginning, the long-term consequences for our way of life and state of mind aren't knowable yet.

"Whether Sept. 11 becomes a hinge of history the way Pearl Harbor was depends on the way events unfold," says William Galston, director of the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. "Pearl Harbor changed everything. Vietnam changed everything. Desert Storm changed nothing."

Galston says Pearl Harbor led to a sustained national commitment that called on all citizens to reorganize their lives and lasted long enough to insinuate itself into the marrow of our society. "It was not the event. It was the way the country responded that changed everything," says Galston, a former Clinton White House aide. "There's no question this was a huge shock to our national system, but I'm not yet persuaded the response to this will be as far-reaching or long-lasting as Pearl Harbor."

There are some parallels. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, where 2,403 Americans were killed, was thought to have destroyed the nation's sense of impregnability at the time, much like the recent strike.

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