Saturday, September 10, 2011

Why 9-11?

So, are you feeling like dog poop yet? Sick of the coverage? Want to talk about something -- anything else? Welcome to the 10th anniversary of 9-11, and to being a human who has experienced trauma. If you didn't read what I had to say yesterday about getting through this in a healthy way, I highly suggest it -- that one was more important than what I've got to say today.

What is it about 9-11 that holds such power over us? More Americans have died, after all, in Iraq and Afghanistan than did during that one day. There have been other big, national events -- Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing -- that got our attention when they happened but don't seem to affect us quite the same way. Why?

First of all, I think there is an argument to be made that each of these events affected our society significantly. Certainly the Kennedy assassination did. While I won't put all of the '60s on that event, it was a catalyst. Each generation seems to have their "big thing," and 9-11 was ours.

But something does separate the September 11th attacks in our consciousness. If it wasn't worse, it was different. It is different.

PTSD is unusual in its diagnoses because, unlike most disorders, the cause is part of the diagnosis. You can be diagnosed with depression, for example, without having something obvious causing your depression. But in PTSD, there are particular criteria the trauma has to meet.

First, the person must have witnessed an event that they sincerely believed had the possibility to threaten the life or physical integrity of or cause serious injury to themselves or others. September 11th? Check.

Second, the person must have responded, at the time, with feelings of intense fear, horror or helplessness. September 11th? Check.

Of course, the Kennedy assassination, for those who saw it or saw the footage, met those same criteria. But there is one key difference.

On September 11, 2001, we as a country all witnessed an event that killed over 3,000 people. But more than that, we experienced an event that we sincerely believed had the possibility of killing us. We didn't just have intense horror or helplessness. We had intense fear. We don't like to admit it, and maybe it seems a little silly looking back, but the simple fact that someone was out there targeting Americans simply for being Americans, coupled with the idea that regular folks went off to regular jobs and never came back, was and is really scary.

My daughter was 3 years old on 9-11. She didn't know what was going on, but slowly, over the following weeks, she asked questions about the things she noticed -- flags in windows, singing the "Bless America" song (as she called it). We answered the questions she asked and nothing more. But she knew it was bad. After one such conversation where I had to reassure her of her own safety as I tucked her in, I remember coming out of her room and saying, "The good news is, our daughter now feels perfectly safe. Now who's going to tuck me in and make me feel safe?"

The real truth is, no one is. We can't go back to thinking it can't happen. All we can do is acknowledge that it's there and it's scary, and remind ourselves that it's still really, really, really unlikely that any one of us will become a victim of a terrorist attack. If we can channel our inner toddler, maybe that will be enough.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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