911 – Mainstream Media and Human Trauma

I taught a psychology course, Trauma, Abuse and Recovery,  where we discuss both personal trauma and more public, large-scale traumas like natural disasters.  In addition to natural disasters of course, are those made by “man” including the 911 attacks on US soil.  Students are asked to prepare one paper on the trauma, suffering and responses to victims and survivors of a large-scale event takes place.  Among the questions they must answer are: What are survivor immediate needs? What kind of help was provided? Was that help effective? etc.  They can choose any event covered by the media in which 100 or more people are affected.

Media coverage of 911

The coincidental ten-year anniversary of 911 has me thinking that the trauma resulting from 911 is not a black and white thing– “Islam is bad, Americans were attacked, American survivors are suffering.”  It is more complicated than that.  Last week I talked about the re-traumatization survivors experience during media anniversary coverage each year.  I talked about how there was a backlash regarding the graphic/sensationalized media coverage of the first anniversary in September 2002.  In my recollection, anniversaries since then were less sensationalized and more sensitive.  I searched extensively for popular media acknowledgement or mental health expert criticisms of first anniversary coverage but could find nothing specific.  I was looking for warnings that sensationalized coverage is harmful to survivors’ recovery or that graphic coverage was in bad taste after the 2002 anniversary. Nothing.

I did find articles offering several different perspectives on the traumas suffered right after the event and today that are complicated by political, economic, social and religious forces.  I provide a range of brief perspectives below along with article links and let readers follow up on areas of interest.

1.  How traumatized were Americans after 911?

Benjamin Radford,has characterized the idea of widespread, ongoing trauma as a patriotic myth, “the idea that most American’s lives profoundly changed after 9/11 is simply a patriotic myth.”  His perspective is that media accounts by their nature, focus on the most dramatic responses to an event – the most panicked the most emotive, etc.  He says that Americans getting on with their lives is not an interesting story and so, is not covered or discussed.

Link: Were Most Americans Rally Changed by 911?

2.  Children’s exposure to 24/7 news coverage – a caution to parents.

On September 13th, 2001, Laura Bush was interviewed on “Larry King Live” about the tragedy.  Literally two days later, Mrs. Bush knew that the experience of watching graphic video footage on CNN and other news channels was not good for children.  First, they would be suffering because their parents were upset and preoccupied.  Second, a small child is formulating his/her ideas about the world.  It just isn’t healthy to see buildings blowing up and people talking nonstop about how many people died. In fact, many networks (non-news channels) preempted regular coverage for days afterward. There is a good summary of what news channels did on Wikipedia (link below).  911 gave birth to the 24 hour scrolling ticker which remains today on most news stations. Mrs. Bush knew that good child development requires parents that reassure children, tell them they’re safe and that the adults are in control.  It was great advice that applied then and now.

Link: America Under Attack: Talk with First Lady Laura Bush

Link: List of entertainment affected by the September 11 attacks

3. PTSD, Self-care and managing the dose of re-creation exposure

The mental health community is well aware of the trauma symptoms many survivors are still suffering today. On September 8th this year, Mental Health America reminded Americans that the coverage would bring up memories and could result in troubling symptoms.  They provided a list of resources and some clinically sound alternatives to remember the day instead of watching graphic pictures and re-enactments.  Survivors will continue to re-experience the events for many years, depending upon their pre-event mental health and the amount of healthy support they receive, etc.  This would be the case if they were celebrating the anniversary of a very private event.  They would have some control over what images they “let in.” With 911, however, Mental Health America understands that the images of this event are out of each survivor’s control and are everywhere.  These external forces can often only be managed by turning off the television.  Something Laura Bush also advised parents to do in her 9/13/2001 discussion with Larry King.

4.  Brain changes and PTSD

Emily Sohn wrote a piece in September 2010 entitled: “911 Imprint Persists in American Brains, Bodies” in which she quotes Barbara Ganzel, neuroscientist at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. “It makes sense that our experiences would affect our brains and bodies.” This article includes a discussion of studies showing strong chemical reactions in the amygdala, the part of the brain that forms emotional memories when 911 survivors were shown emotional images. This differed the reactions of those who were less directly affected by the 911 tragedy. Dr. Ganzel has also studied resilient individuals who somehow make sense of the trauma, experience healing and return to a pre-trauma level of functioning.

Link: How accurate are our memories of 911?

5.  Litigation

Apparently one case is winding its way through Manhattan courts in which the mother of Mark Bavis, a passenger on one of the planes that crashed into the towers, alleges that she is owed compensation.  This compensation is for suffering the unimaginable “21 minutes of terror” just before the plane crashed into the tower. I wonder if this mother has allowed her mind to process or picture what it might have been like for passengers. What it would be like to see the towers coming closer as the plane approached. I heard one voice recording of a flight attendant describing the plane as “way too low” and then her voice cuts off.  One of the reasons I can’t watch re-enactments of the events of flight 93 is that I can’t keep my mind from imagining this experience.  It is almost too much for me to process, too painful.  Mark Bavis’s mother is holding on to this pain and doing what she feels is right by trying hold someone accountable for the horror. I wonder if this will actually help her heal but that’s the thing.  In my own mental health practice I see patients healed or at least helped by things I would have cautioned against.

Link: http Who should pay for 911?

6.  Positive use of the media for social change, advocacy

I learned a new phrase,  “mediated suffering.” It refers to when the media covers devastating suffering so that people far from the event can understand it. This phenomenon can be used so that the world will not ignore human suffering even if it takes place on the other side of the world.  The 2011 white paper is: “Suffering up Close: the Strategic Construction of Mediated Suffering on Al Jazeera English,” credited to Tine Ustad Figenschou at the University of Oslo, Norway. In summary, media coverage that brings the view in close and personal to human suffering can engender awareness, empathy and  potentially give rise to “political argument and institutional strategy,” in other words, positive change.

Link: Suffering Up Close

7. Trauma and suffering by innocent Islamic Americans and visitors

This is an angle that received far less media attention in the early aftermath of 911 and still does today.  One theory is that this view was drowned out by right-wing politics.  I don’t have an opinion on all the forces that might be responsible.  It’s complicated.  But something I found on this site surprised me.

I came across a web page that brought  home a new aspect of suffering that I had only abstractly considered before reading the material.  If I had close friends who practiced Islamic traditions or who wore traditional garb, I would have felt this more deeply, earlier. The page is sponsored by the Study of Islam Section of the American Academy of Religion.  This is a nonprofit group founded in 1909 with 10,000 members today. Members are largely faculty and graduate students at colleges, universities, and divinity schools in North America.   The mission is “furthering knowledge of religion and religious institutions in all their forms and manifestations . . seeking to enhance its broad public understanding.”

Six days after the 911 attack, this group released a statement signed by 38 religious scholars from around the globe titled “Scholars of Islam speak out against terrorism; clarify position of Islam.” There are several statements and resources noted but the one I was struck by, characterized the attacks on US soil as “murder,” indefensible, and not a part of Islamic teaching.  The narrative goes on to say that Muslim students were afraid to wear traditional garb and that some had fled the country in fear. Many of their students were citizens of non-middle eastern countries and had nothing to do with middle eastern politics. The materials and references on this web page were created on September 17, 2001, six days after the attacks. According to the site, this material has been used as a scholarly source by individuals around the globe to provide balance to anti-Islamic sentiment both right after the event and today.

Reading this material helps me to picture a young Muslim American studying at one of the 38 colleges noted on the page, watching the planes crashing into the World Trade Center with horror not only for the deaths and aftermath, but thinking, “I’m not going to be safe.”

I wonder if Muslim Americans might not have felt safe in the following months of 2001 to come out against the attacks.  Perhaps they were fearful of drawing any attention to themselves.  Perhaps this was one of the reasons for the 38 scholars to make as large a list as possible before signing the document. I heard then and continue to hear now urgings by non-Muslims for members of the religion to help us understand how radical Islamist connect their terrorism to what is an otherwise a peaceful religion. 

I’m glad the tenth anniversary has passed and hope survivors have found some peace and healing.

(c) Copyright Benoit Consulting, LLC 2011 all rights reserved

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  1. Nice work, and well written! As with so many things in life, this event and the variables related to it are so much more complicated than they appear initially. So many people are subject to the repercussions of these traumatic events, some large and some not so much. But, they are both equally significant, at least with respect to the trauma victim. Similar to the old saying concerning beauty, “trauma” is in the eyes of the beholder. Thanks for all the great information and I look forward to more!

  2. Thank you Michael. I appreciate your comments and thoughts. Definitely not black and white in the way Americans understood it initially!

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