The Terrorist Attacks of 9/11:
A Brief Review of Impact and Response
James JF Forest, Ph.D.
Director of Terrorism Studies
U.S. Military Academy, West Point
Abstract. This paper reviews the findings of several studies on the economic and psychological impact of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, and identifies common themes and important similarities (as well as key differences) from this research literature that inform our understanding of national resilience. The paper then examines some of the ways in which the U.S. has responded to 9/11 in terms of preparing our communities for future terrorist attacks. While federal, state and local authorities have held numerous preparatory exercises, this analysis argues that it is a mistake to rely solely on the government to deal with the immediate impact of terrorist attacks. Community education and empowerment must play a prominent role in any comprehensive homeland security strategy. Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) initiatives have been developed throughout the United States to do just that, and provide an important model for other countries who seek to build resilience in their communities. Further, in our efforts to do so, there is much the U.S. can learn from the experiences of other nations who have faced terrorist attacks for many years, including Colombia, Ireland, Israel, Spain, Sri Lanka, Russia, and Turkey. Finally, this analysis concludes that leadership, preparation, communication, education, and the development of social capital are vital elements of any strategy for building community resilience in an age of terrorism.
Keywords: Resilience, terrorism, psychology, preparation, education, social capital.
Please Note: The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and not of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Military Academy, or any other agency of the U.S. Government.
Draft: Please do not cite this version without permission of the author
Contact information: Dr. James Forest, Director of Terrorism Studies, Combating Terrorism Center, 122 Lincoln Hall, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY 10996. E-mail: email@example.com. Phone: 845-938-5055. Web: http://ctc.usma.edu
On a bright and sunny morning of September 11, 2001 (hereafter referred to as 9/11), nineteen middle-aged Arab men—believers of an extreme interpretation of Islam and members of a terrorist organization calling itself al Qaida—boarded four U.S. commercial airliners with the intent of hijacking the plans and using them as makeshift guided missiles to attack American landmarks. Once airborne, all four teams of hijackers successfully took control of their respective airplanes and began to carry out their lethal plan. Two of the planes were flown directly into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, resulting in a massive fire which weakened the structural integrity of the skyscrapers and eventually caused them to collapse. A third team piloted their aircraft into the Pentagon, headquarters of the U.S. military, on the outskirts of Washington, DC. The fourth team, however, was en route to their target (also in Washington, DC) when the passengers stormed the cockpit in an effort to retake the aircraft. The terrorists then forced the plane into a nosedive and crashed in a Pennsylvania field. By mid-morning, nearly 3,000 lives had been lost, including the passengers on all four planes, occupants of the buildings attacked, and hundreds of fire department and police officers who were attempting to evacuate the World Trade Center when the towers collapsed.
The events of this morning were obviously dramatic, but their impact was felt nationwide with great immediacy as they unfolded—mainly because these events happened on live television. As several research studies have noted, on 9/11 people nationwide turned to television, radio and the Internet to learn about what had happened, and for some the media became an extremely significant means for the spread of fear.1 After the first airplane hit the World Trade Center, TV camera crews in New York City raced to the scene, while other cameras situated on tall buildings throughout the city were turned to focus on the burning skyscraper. Thus, when the second tower was hit, Americans nationwide saw it happen live. The collective gasp of horror uttered by news commentators at the scene was echoed throughout a nation that had just witnessed an act of mass murder.
The 9/11 attacks left an impact on the citizens of the United States similar to only one other event in our history: the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. In both cases, an act of violence, perpetrated by a lethal and cunning adversary, took us by surprise and shattered a widely-held assumption of invulnerability. In the months immediately following both attacks, a new sense of national vulnerability led to changes in a variety of domestic and foreign policies, not all of which were security-related. This essay describes some indications of this sense of vulnerability after the attacks of 9/11, with special focus on the psychological and economic impact of the attacks. After providing an overview of resilience, based on research conducted on the response to terrorism in other countries, the discussion then explores some of the ways in which government agencies and communities throughout the U.S. have responded to the post-9/11 security environment, and suggests five key areas—preparation, education, communication, leadership and building social capital—in which greater efforts can help build our nation’s resilience in the face of the current global threat of terrorism.
2.The Psychological Impacts of 9/11
Witnesses to horrific events such as the attacks of 9/11 often experience symptoms of stress, sometimes for years afterwards.2 The range of psychological and physiological reactions that people experience is based on several factors, including prior experience with the same or a similar event; the intensity of the disruption; the length of time that has elapsed between the event occurrence and the present; individual feelings that there is no escape, which sets the stage for panic; and the emotional strength of the individual.3 According to many psychologists, exposure to terrorist attacks can produce symptoms of what is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD describes an individual who has been exposed to a traumatic event who experiences at least one recurrent symptom related to the event (such as intrusive, repeated recollections or dreams of the event); persistently avoids people, activities or places associated with the event; and cannot recall important aspects of the trauma.4 This individual also shows disinterest in their usual daily activities and a sense of foreboding about the future such that they no longer expect to have a normal life. These symptoms, in conjunction with hyper arousal (difficulty in falling or staying asleep, outbursts of anger, hyper vigilance, an inability to concentrate, or exaggerated startle responses), may lead to significant impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of the individual’s life.5
After the attacks of 9/11, a variety of research studies were conducted to help determine the psychological impact of the attacks. According to one study, about 90% of the residents of New York and Washington, DC, three to five days after the attacks, reported feeling upset, being bothered by disturbing memories, or having difficulty concentrating or falling asleep.6 In another study, residents of New York reported symptoms consistent with PTSD and/or depression.7 According to a study conducted by the RAND Corporation, those living closer to the scene of the attacks, those who experienced a direct personal loss (a friend or loved one) on 9/11, and children were more likely to exhibit these symptoms.8 The impacts of the attacks were also felt far outside of New York and Washington: almost 20% of Americans across the country reported symptoms of distress.9 Certainly, constant news coverage of the attack and its aftermath—complete with many replays of the video footage showing the second plane hitting the World Trade Center—helped Americans far from these cities feel closer to the event.
A survey conducted by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal on September 12, 2001 found that the most frequently reported emotional responses among Americans to the attacks on 9/11 were anger, sadness, and disbelief.10 Sadness was the most frequent reaction among New Yorkers, followed by anxiety and fear.11 Sixty percent of Americans said that they cried, 50% that they were tense or nervous, and more than 45% reported feeling “sort of dazed and numb.”12 Another commonly cited response to the attacks was an outpouring of assistance amid the grief. Indeed, research has shown that immediately after the attacks, injured and disabled persons were not run over by panicking crowds or left behind helpless, but instead had been carefully assisted and taken calmly to emergency service personnel.13
People did many things in response to the attacks, but what they did not do was withdraw from others.14 In New York City, food banks and Salvation Army posts were filled with donations of bottled water, food, clothing and dog food for the animals helping in the search around the World Trade Center, while a national survey found 36% of Americans making donations to relief services.15 Shortly after the terrorist attacks, more than 9,000 grief and crisis counselors arrived in New York City to provide aid to families and rescue workers.16 According to one study, the number of Americans who thought that others were helpful was higher than it had been since the 1970s.17
In a related development, a surge of interest in the nation’s military services led to higher recruitment and enrollment figures for several months after 9/11. Similar trends were seen by recruiters for CIA, FBI, Air Marshall and other agencies, while the heroic status accorded to the NYPD and FDNY led to greater interest among children nationwide in becoming a police officer or fireman. A surge of flag-waving patriotism was also seen, with speakers fomenting nationalist pride by reminding us of great American achievements: our country has landed men on the moon and brought them safely home again; we have been victorious in two world wars; we defeated the Soviets in the Cold War; and so forth. A legacy of national success permeates our past, feeding a sense of American pride. Thus, despite the fact that the most powerful and wealth nation on Earth had just been wounded by a handful of radical extremists, it is possible that this patriotic pride helped us in our grieving and resilience-building process.
According to psychologists Susan Brandon and Andrew Silke, stress and uncertainty produces social behaviors: people seek out others, perhaps to enhance social support, or to help to affirm one’s cultural view of the world and the threat.18 The American Psychological Association notes that “social support is critical to managing stress. Caring and supportive relationships can provide emotional support that may buffer the impact of acutely stressful situations or crises and allow for expression of difficult emotions. Supportive social networks also can provide assistance and information relevant to managing traumatic stress.”19
Almost 100% of Americans surveyed after 9/11 reported that what they did that day was to talk with others about the attacks.20 Almost 30% of Americans polled said that they had called or e-mailed a friend or relative in New York or Washington on 9/11, and 75% of Americans checked on the safety of close family members.21 Another widely observed response to 9/11 was a noticeable increase in attendance at religious services. A nationwide survey found that 90% of Americans had religious thoughts or engaged in religions actions, and that 60% had participated in group activities like memorials or vigils, which can provide a sense of community.22 As Brandon and Silke illustrated in their recent study of the psychological effects of terrorism, religion is known to foster recovery during bereavement by providing a stable belief system and by providing social support from a religious community.23 The social aspect of an individual’s response to terrorism appears to be one of the most important. One study of coping with the aftermath of 9/11 revealed that those with smaller social networks, poorer quality social support, and those who resorted to maladaptive coping styles (such as self-blame, substance use and emotional suppression) reported much higher levels of distress after the terrorist attacks.24
Another psychological impact of 9/11 is less studied, but lends itself well to a discussion of national resilience in the face of terrorist attacks. On September 12, 2001, the nation awoke with a sense of vulnerability that had not been felt in the American psyche since the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in. In the instance of both Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the events were unanticipated by the American public.25 In the early morning hours of 9/11 (before the attack), the American public had little reason to feel less secure than they did on September 10, 2001. But the following day—and for months afterwards—many Americans showed symptoms of PTSD, of heightened fear for their own safety (and for the safety of their loved ones), as described above. In one national poll, more than 85% thought that the attacks of 9/11 comprised “the most tragic news” in their lifetime.26 In another poll, 66% of the sample thought it likely that there would be another attack in Washington and New York.27 This sense of insecurity was largely a product of the terrorists’ indiscriminate use of violence against highly visible civilian targets. A new element of potential danger was introduced into our ordinary, daily lives.
And yet, as many observers have noted in the years since 9/11, Americans have shown remarkable resilience and fortitude in coping with the new changes in the global security environment. In fact, for most people, the distress produced by exposure to a single incident does not persist for very long.28 A variety of studies have confirmed that the passage of time has reduced the psychological impact of 9/11 for most individuals. The absence of any significant attacks on U.S. territory since 9/11 has certainly helped this resiliency. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, socio-psychological changes in the U.S. included an increasing (thought tacit) support among some communities for individual profiling at security checkpoints; increased suspicion of “foreigners” and recent immigrants (illegal or otherwise); a mixture of support for and animosity towards inconveniences of new security procedures at airports; and anxiety about ‘the next attack’—all of which led to widespread public support for the Bush administration’s initial policies of invading Afghanistan, passing the PATRIOT Act, establishing the Department of Homeland Security, and other post-9/11 national security initiatives. Indeed, the visceral response among the American public to the gory details, images and video footage of the attacks produced incredible political pressure for government action.
If 9/11 did indeed bring about a sense of vulnerability, Americans quickly regained a sense of their relative global power in October 2001 through the defeat and removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan. A great deal of national pride and confidence was produced by the successes of the most powerful military force in the world, and most polls showed strong support for government leaders, emergency response professionals (particularly the NYPD and FDNY), and our global allies (particularly Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, whom many considered to offer the most articulate damnation of al Qaeda). America stood strong in this dark hour, and as rescue efforts at the World Trade Center were replaced by the gruesome task of recovering victims and clearing away the blood-stained debris, the normal rhythms of most people’s daily lives resumed. Television networks returned to their ordinary programming, people began to fly on commercial airlines again, and the initial shock and grief of the event subsided.
In sum, although the nation as a whole experienced 9/11 in some fashion or another, most studies indicate that the strongest short- and long-term psychological impacts of the attacks were mainly localized to those in or new Washington, DC and New York City. Memorials and other ceremonies commemorating the victims are still accorded a fairly high profile, but television networks no longer cancel other programs to provide these events with live coverage. Victims’ families have been provided compensation to help their financial recovery, and some have also taken advantage of professional counseling to help them deal with their personal losses. Some who lost their husbands or wives have remarried; many have moved to other parts of the country, with no interest of ever returning to visit the site of the attacks. While the investigation into the attacks of 9/11 received considerable nationwide attention, other events also captured the spotlight, like the Anthrax letters of October, 2001; the Washington, DC sniper of 2002; various hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes across the globe; and of course, the military intervention in Iraq that began in March 2003. For most Americans, the grieving process is long over and—much like the nations’ economy—the psychological recovery from 9/11 was relatively swift.