We all remember where we were. It was one of those defining moments of history.
We remember the blue of the sky — the juxtaposition of beauty as a backdrop of terror.
We remember our guts squirming into knots as we tried, in desperation, to make sense of what we were seeing: planes, fireballs, debris, open skyline. So much destruction.
We remember billowing smoke.
We remember not believing it. Any of it.
Sept. 11, 2001, was that moment when the world changed. We do not travel the same way. We do not approach foreign policy the same way. We see privacy issues in a different light. We think about the world far more cautiously.
We process news differently. We process grief at a different threshold. As a nation, we remain angry.
In an article in The Conversation, Dana Rose Garin, a research scientist for the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, University of California-Irvine, wrote about the lasting effects — not just on those whose lives were directly impacted by the worst acts of terrorism on American soil to date, but to those who simply observed from the safety of their homes.
9/11 changed our psyche, Garin writes.
According to the online article, “the vast majority (over 60%) of Americans watched these attacks occur live on television or saw them replayed over and over again in the days, weeks and years following the attacks.”
Garin notes that as an applied social psychologist, “I study responses to natural and human-caused adversities that impact large segments of the population — also called ‘collective trauma.’ My research group … has found that such exposures have compounding effects over the course of one’s lifespan.”
Unsurprising, the researchers found it was most relevant for children who have grown up in a post-9/11 society.
According to the article, the outcomes include mental health, such as post-traumatic stress symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It might be somewhat obvious that people directly exposed to a collective trauma like 9/11 might suffer from associated physical and mental health problems. What is less obvious is how people geographically distant from the epicenter or ‘Ground Zero’ might have been impacted,” she writes. “This is particularly relevant when considering the impact of 9/11 on children and youth across America: Many reside far from the location of the actual attacks and were too young to have experienced or seen the attacks as they occurred. The point is people can experience collective trauma solely through the media and report symptoms that resemble those typically associated with direct trauma exposure.
She maintains that the events of 9/11 ushered in “a new era of media coverage of collective trauma, where terrorism and other forms of large-scale violence are transmitted into the daily lives of children and Americans families.”
These harmful effects persisted in the years following 9/11. For example, the team found measurable impact on the mental and physical health (such as increased risk of heart diseases) of the sample three years after the attacks. Importantly, those who responded with distress in the immediate aftermath were more likely to report subsequent problems as well, the article states.
“Overall, our research indicates that the impact on children growing up post-9/11 likely extends well beyond the physical and mental health effects of exposure — be it direct or media-based. Each tragic incident that individuals witness, even if only through the media, likely has a cumulative effect,” Garin writes. “Nevertheless, the positive finding is that most people are resilient in the face of tragedy. In the early years after 9/11, several studies examined how 9/11 impacted children nationally. Like adults, children exposed both directly and through the media tended to be resilient in the early years following the attacks and symptoms generally decreased over time.”
In other words, all of us are getting used to the new normal that came as a result of 9/11. And our tolerance for traumatic events — whether it be mass shootings, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, and other acts of violence — is higher.
What we must remember today as we reflect is not just for the lives lost that day 20 years ago, but what we lost as our way of life. We learn. We adapt. We grow.
And we heal. Because fortunately, as the smoke clears, a beautiful day remains there for us.
This editorial also appeared in the Rutland Herald.