The Traumas of 9/11 and its Effects on the American Psyche
An Interview with Psychohistorian Charles B. Strozier
Posted Sep 10, 2015
On September 11, 2001, psychoanalyst Charles B. Strozier stood on the sidewalks of Greenwich Village and watched in shock and disbelief as the World Trade Center towers collapsed into rubble. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack, many traumatized New Yorkers turned to him for treatment and care. Survivors and family members in search of insight attended the classes he taught on terrorism at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, where he is a professor of history as well as the director of the Center on Terrorism. This threefold experience of the attacks—on a personal level, as a New Yorker impacted by the shock of that day along with everyone else, and as an American citizen; on a professional level, as a psychoanalyst helping clients cope with the aftermath of feelings of trauma and fear; and as a kind of therapist of the American psyche, attempting to analyze one of the nation’s most significant collective traumas in its history—placed Strozier in a unique position, allowing him a vantage point that few others shared.
A noted authority in the field of psychohistory, which brings psychological perspectives to the events of history, Strozier has published books and scholarly articles on genocide, fundamentalism, the apocalypse, war, trauma, and the psychology of Abraham Lincoln. He has also been nominated twice for a Pulitzer, including for Until the Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses.
In our interview, Strozier is among the first to draw a distinction between the emotional responses of New Yorkers and those in the rest of the country who watched events unfold on television. He also makes a compelling case for how the collective trauma suffered by the American people in the wake of 9/11 activated deep-seated complexes in the national psyche around apocalyptic fears, or what he calls “endism”—the location of the self in some future narrative.
Strozier also traces the rise of a troubling form of “new violence” in the modern era to America’s decision to use nuclear weapons to end World War II, and the existential crisis this has engendered in the American psyche. As Strozier commented during our conversation, “When things are moving along normally, whether for an individual or a country, the underlying psyche is less apparent, and remains out of sight. But in times of extreme crisis, one gets a clearer insight into the significant forms in the psyche, such as forms of the self and identity structures.” The following interview is condensed and excerpted from America on the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture (Lantern Books, 2015).
Pythia Peay: You began your career as an historian, and then quickly became drawn to the emerging field of psychohistory, or exploring history from a psychological perspective. You were the founding editor of The Psychohistory Review, as well as a student and colleague of the American psychologist Heinz Kohut. What psychological insights have you drawn from the tragedy that struck America on September 11, 2001?
Charles Strozier: A very important dimension of 9/11 was the contrast between the experiences of those in New York and the rest of the country. This difference has important political meanings.
PP: Before we get into the political implications, can you describe this contrast in more detail?
CS: For those in New York, 9/11 was a visceral, physical, powerful experience. Many saw people die: bodies were raining down and splattering on the ground—it was awful, just awful. There were scenes of chaos, terror, and fear; people were terrified, streaming across the bridges and to the ferries to get out of the city. Then there were the Trade Towers collapsing on the ground, right before everyone’s eyes. When did we last have a hundred-and-ten-story building collapse in front of our eyes? Never! So there was no context for what was happening.
All throughout that Fall, New Yorkers continued to live with bomb threats and the lingering trauma. As the ruins continued to burn, a funereal smell filled the air, as we literally breathed the incinerated victims into our lungs. So although there were what I call different “zones of sadness” in relation to each person’s physical distance or proximity to the towers, everyone in New York had a visceral, shared experience of immediacy—in an instant we were all survivors.
PP: What do you mean by “zones of sadness”?
CS: Early on, I began reflecting on the difference between the experiences of those who were at Ground Zero, and those who lived further from the epicenter. For example, I work in Greenwich Village. While I watched the disaster unfold, I was a participant-observer: I had my own suffering, but I didn’t see anybody hit the ground, and I wasn’t caught up in the cloud of debris. So the idea of zones of sadness emerged as a way of appreciating that, during 9/11, there were various topographic and psychological spaces, each with its own kind of suffering, that ordered New Yorkers’ survivor experiences.
By contrast, the rest of the country saw it on television. Those in Omaha or Atlanta, for example, didn’t have the same physically gut-wrenching experience of terror as those in New York. Not only has there never been a disaster or a terrorist attack like 9/11, it was also the first time in history that a major disaster was watched live on television as the event was unfolding before our eyes. But the psychological context of watching 9/11 on television was one of safety—viewers were literally screened from the scenes of death and fear.
PP: So what were the political implications of this contrast between New Yorkers’ up-close experience of 9/11 and the rest of America, who watched from the security of their homes and offices?
CS: People watching the event on television throughout the rest of the country felt horror and anger, which quickly jumped to rage. The key psychological difference between anger and rage is that anger is directed and has a clear target, while rage is diffuse and undifferentiated; it just rails. That’s why rage is so easily appropriated in a political context; it doesn’t have an object, which is why it can be politically manipulated. And that is the sequence that I would argue occurred in the rest of the country.
As it happened, by an accident of history, we had an authoritarian regime in government that wanted to project American power and make wars in the Middle East. So the Bush administration was able to take advantage of that undirected rage throughout the populace and move quickly on an agenda that had already been defined.
PP: I would have thought rage would have been more connected to being in the epicenter of the tragedy, versus having it screened through the media and physical distance.
CS: If you lived in New York there was sadness and fear, as well as a reluctance to see what was very profound suffering turned into war-making abroad. Added to that, throughout the country that Fall there was a surge of patriotism, with giant flags flying everywhere. But many New Yorkers felt that the experience was being taken away from them and used for other purposes, while people were still in deep mourning. They didn’t even finish cleaning up the pile until May of the following year; the fires burned until December 20, 2001—so it was really a hundred days of disaster.
PP: What has been the fallout from the way Bush handled—or mishandled—the tragedy of 9/11?
CS: The single most important fact of America in the last decade is that we’ve been a country at war. Within weeks after 9/11 we were at war in Afghanistan, and then we were in another war with Iraq. And those wars have been huge wars. The relatively small number of Americans who died in those wars is highly misleading, as tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have been lost. And in another first, Americans, for the first time in military history, implemented a dramatic new procedure—forward operating surgical theaters and trauma centers—within miles of the front. They also perfected the recovery of the injured through Apache helicopters; the injured were stabilized, then flown to a military hospital in Germany.
For these reasons, most of the thousands of injured American soldiers survived. But they survived maimed, without limbs, and suffering brain injuries and filled with PTSD; many of them fell into alcoholism and homelessness. So, much of the trauma of 9/11 was quickly absorbed into the collective traumas of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the fact remains we wouldn’t have had either of these wars if it weren’t for 9/11.
PP: As I listen to you, it’s almost as if something very self-destructive to America happened in the way the wars unfolded that worsened the original trauma of 9/11. Is that how you would see it?
CS: Absolutely. War itself creates a deepening, aggravating trauma that doesn’t stop; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq created an ongoing double trauma on top of 9/11.
PP: In addition to examining these multiple traumas of 9/11 and the two wars we’ve waged, I’d like to take a longer view, and ask you to talk about the rise of what you’ve termed the “new violence” in our time. Can you say more about what that means?
CS: Not only have our means of destruction—in which one bomb in one plane can wipe out an entire city—vastly increased with nuclear weapons. Now, with a pull of the trigger, the simplest handgun can get off thirty to forty shots, and with one load a shooter can wipe out an entire store. That’s a twentieth-and twenty-first-century phenomenon; one hundred and fifty years ago it took anywhere from twenty seconds to a minute to reload a rifle for just one shot.
Psychologically, this changes the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. With death by the sword, for instance, the killer and the victim stared into each other’s eyes. But now the physical distance between those who carry out violence and their victims has been greatly increased, and this also creates a psychological and emotional distance, a new kind of numbing. Violence in this dehumanized form is frightening in its capacity to undermine empathy and feeling for others.
PP: You also write about the phenomenon of post-nuclear “apocalyptic dread,” and how that shaped America’s reaction to the events of 9/11. I grew up during the Cold War, I live just fifteen minutes from downtown Washington, D.C., and for a few frightening hours that day I thought the world was coming to an end.
CS: So you can imagine what it was like being in New York City! But in fact, the culture of fear that emerged out of 9/11 has to be understood in the context of an apocalyptic experience, as much as the actual event itself. Because it was so intense, so awful, such a surprise and so totalistic, our experience of it was apocalyptic. But we have to distinguish between what the event actually was, and our experience of it. Psychologically, the felt experience of the people within the disaster was that it was an apocalyptic event. It was not: it was monumental, but it was not an apocalyptic event.
PP: What caused these apocalyptic fears to surface so quickly?
CS: Apocalyptic concerns have been a part of human culture since the beginning. That psychological experience, or “endism,” as I call it, is the awareness that we could all die, and that the world could end. Until the nuclear age, however, the idea of the world coming to an end took an act of imagination: typically it’s been those with powerful imaginations, like artists, mystics, and psychotics, to even be able to take in these kinds of collective death concerns. It also required God. Historically apocalyptic texts have almost all been religious, such as the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, because the agent of the apocalypse is the divine. But with nuclear weapons in the world we don’t need God anymore.
PP: And we don’t need to have an act of imagination?
CS: It’s a different kind of an act of imagination. Apocalyptic dread is a new thing in the nuclear age, because we no longer need God to end things. We live in an age of constant, ultimate threats to human existence—scientific threats—because we can end the world, and we know it. That knowledge changes the meaning of the present, the past, and the whole notion of the human future, even the meaning of life itself. Therefore, nuclear weapons changed us psychologically in ways that we’re just beginning to understand.
PP: How has it changed us psychologically?
CS: There’s a paradox, at least in the Western hemisphere, of living in relative peace, and of enjoying technological advances and material abundance: all the markers that should bring some degree of happiness. And yet beneath everything there’s a profound malaise about life and uncertainty about the future, because now we’ve opened up a new dimension that reverses the natural sequence of how things have always been.
Whereas before it took an act of imagination to think about the end of history, it now takes an act of imagination not to think about it. If you’re at all aware, this awareness exists just below the surface, and an event like 9/11 brings these apocalyptic fears to the surface.
PP: So what you’re describing is a deep-seated existential crisis in the American psyche.
CS: Absolutely. What could be more absurd in the true existential sense than the idea of destroying human civilization in the name of defending one’s ideology or country? There is no greater collective insanity. Another way of phrasing this is that the illness that we suffer is nuclear weapons.
PP: How deep do the roots of this apocalyptic “endism” and nuclear illness go in the American psyche? The early Puritan settlers fled Europe inspired by visions of starting a new life and with the belief they’d been sent on a divine mission to build a New Jerusalem.
CS: The Puritans were entirely religious—they wanted to create the “city on the hill.” They were idealistic people who were trying to create theocratic communities that were fair. But they often slipped into tyranny and authoritarianism, and by the middle of the seventeenth century they were at war with the Indians. The most important example of the apocalyptic strain in the American character, however, is Christopher Columbus.
PP: Christopher Columbus seems like an unlikely avatar of the apocalypse. I thought his goal was the discovery of new sources of wealth in what he thought would be Asia.
CS: There’s been a lot of new scholarship around Columbus; his diaries were translated in 1991. As it turns out, he had incredibly wild apocalyptic fantasies, calculating that the world was going to end in 1650. He believed that he was going to discover the Garden of Eden, where he would find gold, as promised in some readings of the Bible, and that he would also liberate the Holy Land. By his third journey in 1495 he was calling himself the “Christ Carrier.”
So what really motivated Columbus in his so-called “discovery” of America were these intensely religious apocalyptic images.
PP: So what you’re saying is that our response to the terrorist attacks on September 11 was filtered through this apocalyptic, end-of-the-world strain in our historical character, which dates back to Columbus and extends forward to the atom bombs we dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.
CS: Despite our best efforts to forget, these narratives run deep in the American psyche. But these kind of historical memories can never really be eradicated. People I interviewed for my book, for instance, and who saw the towers come down, saw it as a mushroom cloud, and instantly thought that a nuclear weapon had gone off in New York. People caught in the dust and debris also believed that it was the cloud from a nuclear weapon.
Another one of the intriguing but terrifying aspects of 9/11 is that 2,479 people were killed. I hate to even point this out, but there have been events where far more were killed, such as the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and so on. So it’s not just the numbers of people that were lost that makes 9/11 so huge. It’s the apocalyptic dimension that surrounds it, and that locates the event psychologically, as well as when it happened, how it happened and our experience of it, that led to such an incredible psychological and political perfect storm after 9/11.
PP: Are there any other traits in the American character that could offset these apocalyptic fears and the rise of a new violence?
CS: I do have hope. There are positive strains of idealism, commitment, and compassion within the American character. Those qualities can move us toward greater community and understanding; so the potential is there for healing some of the deepest and most severe problems that we live with. We have tremendous resources and I think we have genuine democracy and genuine free speech—we can get the word out when we want to. And we have great wealth, even though that wealth is distributed inequitably.