Adjusting to our new world

September 12, 2002|By Irwin J. Mansdorf

RAANANA, Israel -- With the passage of time, wounds heal. Most wounds, that is.

Some emotional wounds, however, are unique. They are the products of extraordinary events and often never completely heal.

In societal terms, the memories of what caused these wounds leave an imprint that becomes part of the history and collective consciousness of the culture.

Such were the events of Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And such are the memories of Sept. 11.

In the days leading up to the commemorative events of 9/11, attention was again being focused on every aspect of that tragic day: the hijackers, the planes, the rescuers and the victims. We hear that "we will never be the same," but how many of us really understand what that means?

The suffering of those who lost relatives or very close friends last September is something few can comprehend and even fewer can imagine. They are undoubtedly the central victims of the tragedy. But the circle of terror expands, and that circle includes many, many others who had only tangential contact with the event. This larger circle constitutes society's victims; those who will continue to live in the shadow of terror although they personally have not suffered a family loss.

That is the nature of terror.

Accidents, earthquakes and crime are tragedies that claim far more victims each year than terror attacks. Yet terror has a far greater impact on society, an impact that strangely enough is not entirely negative. Coping with terror has a curious flip side, one that fosters and cultivates a sense of resilience and strength that was not quite as palpable before the event.

Unlike other events that have a discrete beginning and end, terror is amorphous and undefined. Once terror is upon us, it becomes part of our lives and part of our consciousness. We recognize its presence and we take steps to deal with it. Whereas we once would have had little patience waiting in line at the airport, we now look at time-heavy security procedures with understanding. When bridges or tunnels are now on alert, we suddenly become able to tolerate once-intolerable delays.

Does all this mean that we actually adjust and adapt to terror?

The short answer is yes. Throughout history, people have learned to adapt to war and threat. Veterans have returned from horrendous combat situations, civilians have survived attempts at ethnic cleansing and genocide, and countries have come through civil strife. But all this does not come without a price.

The human spirit is capable of enduring much pain and rising above it. Terror is perhaps unique in that in its uncertainty lies a breeding ground for rumor, fear and anxiety. Unlike other more discrete and overt catastrophes, we know that terror will strike, but we never know when, where or how.

Ultimately, society will find a solution for terrorism.

Until then, all of us will discover ways to meet the challenge of a world where a collection of determined ideologues holds the power to influence and change our lives in the most terrible and far-reaching ways. While we as individuals are being targeted, it is not us personally that terror seeks to hit. It is society as we know it that is being targeted, and it is society that will respond to fend off the challenge to our individual physical and psychological well-being.

When tragedy strikes and when crises arise, we turn to our families for support and comfort. In the national tragedy and continuing crisis we face in battling terrorism, we are all family and our collective responses become a source of comfort, strength and resilience.

Our fears, our anger and our anxiety may be unusual, but they are totally normal. So is the upsurge in patriotism that is evident all around us. A few years ago, it was rare to see an American flag in front of a house, even on a holiday. Today, one can hardly go down a block in Anytown, U.S.A., without seeing a flag hung in a window or on a door.

While our lives really will never be the same, it doesn't mean they will be poorer. We mourn, we cope, we fret and we survive and grow. The events of Sept. 11 were seen by all of us and continue to be seen, heard and read about. In a very real sense, we were all there and we continue to be there.

We were all victims.

Irwin J. Mansdorf is a psychologist living in Israel who has dealt extensively with the after-effects of terror both in Israel and the United States. He serves as a consultant to Project Liberty, a federally funded program providing counseling and services to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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