Our Collective 9/11 PTSD

Manhunt Underway For Marathon Bombing Suspect

Michael Cohen echoes me on the difference between America’s reactions to events like the marathon bombing and gun violence:

Londoners, who endured IRA terror for years, might be forgiven for thinking that America over-reacted just a tad to the goings-on in Boston. They’re right – and then some. What we saw was a collective freak-out like few that we’ve seen previously in the United States. It was yet another depressing reminder that more than 11 years after 9/11 Americans still allow themselves to be easily and willingly cowed by the “threat” of terrorism. …

If only Americans reacted the same way to the actual threats that exist in their country.

Which is to say that the terrorists succeeded in almost every way possible. The day after the IRA bombing of the hotel in which she was staying, injuring 31 and killing five, Margaret Thatcher gave a speech, on schedule, to her party conference. The IRA suspects were still at large and threatening to kill again:

Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.

Norman Geras thinks these arguments miss the point:

The supposed ‘overreaction’ to terrorist attacks isn’t primarily about the extent of risk relative to accidental death, or about fear for one’s own safety. It’s about people taking quite proper exception when, finding it morally outrageous indeed that, individuals moved by some grievance or other and/or the tenets of a murderous ideology, freely choose to put the innocent in peril by random acts of violence.

I wrote about this for my Sunday column. I am second to none in finding these acts morally outrageous, which is why we need to exercise more control in not giving them more power over our psyches than we need to. I think, in many ways, we’re still living with 9/11 collective PTSD:

Last week shows how terrorism works. It terrorizes – and the trauma of that terror lies often buried in the psyche for years, and untreated and un-addressed, it can suddenly return, without perspective or rationality. In some ways, this is understandable. Before 9/11, Americans outside Pearl Harbor, had lived for centuries feeling relatively invulnerable to the terrorism that I grew up with in Britain in the 1970s, or that occurs routinely as a consequence of the US invasion of Iraq (on the day of the Boston marathon, 65 Iraqis were murdered by terrorist bombs). 9/11 was so traumatic, in fact, that it led the US to adopt the torture techniques of totalitarian regimes and to invade and occupy two countries. Americans lost it. And I cannot say I was immune. It changed Americans because we allowed it to traumatize us.

Before 9/11, terrorism didn’t have this kind of power. The first bombing of the World Trade Center did not “change everything”. Last week, the historian Rick Perlstein noted that in Christmastime, 1975, an explosion at a La Guardia baggage claim killed 24 civilians, with severed limbs and heads flying all over the place. No one was ever found responsible – and the city of New York was not under lockdown. It’s different now.

Which means bin Laden succeeded as well – in simply terrorizing Americans. Take this statistic: the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism found that the number of terror attacks in the US in the decade before 9/11 was 41 a year. Since 9/11, it has been 19 a year. And yet our terror panic endures – and even grows. It seems we cannot yet simply live with and through occasional terror. We demand its complete absence, in the black-and-white way Americans often do:

We think in absolutes, in terms of avoiding all harms and dismissing potential benefits instead of debating the relative contributions of both. … “Never eat red meat”. “Never let kids watch TV or play video games”. “Never eat soft cheese while pregnant”. “Never fail to screen for disease”. And so on.

Is this a United States thing? Or am I just wired differently? I’m just not sure that the way we react to potential harms is the best approach. This includes, by the way, our response to terrorism.

Previous Dish on Americans’ response to terrorism here.

(Photo: At around 11:45 a.m., April 19, this was the view on Congress Street looking towards Post Office Square as a lockdown-in-place was in effect in Boston during the during the ongoing manhunt for a suspect in the terrorist bombing of the 117th Boston Marathon earlier this week. By Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.)