9/11: Life Outside the Bull's-Eye

People living in New York or Washington, D.C., may understandably have a certain amount of fear of new terrorist attacks. But for many others across the U.S., a much vaguer sense of unease has settled in.

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To tourists, Brownsville, Vt., is a ski destination, owing to the presence of Mt. Ascutney, but to residents, it's horse country. Talk at the lunch counter of the Brownsville General Store usually revolves around horses, but sometimes strays to the latest doings of children and grandchildren, as patrons wolf down the daily special, served hot off an old cast iron stove.

It would be strange indeed if conversation were to dwell on the headlines of the many regional newspapers stacked by the door: "Bin Laden Said to Be Organizing for a U.S. Attack," "Analysts Warn of Small-Plane Terrorism Threat," "2 Charged With Plotting to Bomb Train Station."

The likelihood of terrorists striking here is, one might even say without knocking on wood, nil. Yet the threat of terrorism affects everyone somehow, even those who live outside the bull's-eye.

Before I moved up here, I was often able to forget about terrorism. Just as often, however, the threat gnawed at my nerves, especially when I navigated the throngs of pedestrians around Rockefeller Center, or whenever the subway suddenly ground to a halt mid-tunnel. It was also difficult to look out the window of my Brooklyn apartment at the empty patch of sky where the Trade Center towers once stood, or on bright mornings, not to recall the snow of ash and spindrift papers that fell on my street, and then to avoid a lapse into imagining where my wife, whose office was in lower Manhattan, would have been had she left a bit earlier for work that morning.


Far removed from that now, I'm like most Americans in not fearing direct injury by a terrorist act. In an Aug. 17 Gallup Poll, two-thirds of Americans surveyed said they were "not too worried" or "not worried at all" that they might fall victim to terrorism. The fears I had in New York have faded to a vague sense of unease about the future, which I suspect I share with many others, too.

"The threat of terrorism is more immediate if you were close to it," says Robert Jay Lifton, MD, distinguished professor emeritus of the City University of New York and a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard University. But the continuing "war on terror" is covered nationwide. "It keeps anxiety active, or even overactive," he says.


If you don't have much cause to worry about being blown up, gassed, or irradiated by terrorists, the possible threat to your livelihood and savings may be enough to keep you generally on edge.


Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs after Sept. 11, 2001. What's more, about 60% of American families are invested in the stock market. If the other shoe drops, reverberations will show on the ticker. In a recent survey of National Association for Business Economics members, 40% said they thought that terrorism poses the greatest short-term risk to the U.S. economy.

Older Americans who remember it, and younger ones who are historically minded may fear, ultimately, that more terrorist attacks could plunge us into another Great Depression, or at least a deep recession. "The model of the Depression looms somewhere in the background," Lifton says.

Culture of Fear

Before terrorism came to roost in the national psyche, another grave menace produced decades of anxiety in the U.S. -- the threat of all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. No one, from Broadway to the back roads of Vermont, would have been spared from that, so shouldn't we have already adjusted to living under a shadow of impending doom?


Not necessarily, Lifton says. He has studied the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, in depth and wrote about its lasting effects in his book, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial. He also described the psychological consequences for those who survived the blast in another book, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima.

"My whole study of Hiroshima was an effort to render it real," he says. "There were many defense mechanisms used against nuclear war," including "psychic numbing," a term he coined to describe the reduced emotional sensitivity people tend to develop when confronted with inconceivable horrors.

"The terrorist threat is more visceral," he says. Whereas it's hard to get one's mind around the idea of nuclear apocalypse, it's somewhat easier to imagine terrorist attacks. "Something deadly really took place," he says, and most of us lived to tell about it. "The threat is perceived as finite, and therefore actual."


That's not to say there were never any real worries before the fall of the Berlin Wall. "One should never be nostalgic for the structures of the Cold War," he says. "There was considerable real danger."


Linda Sapadin, PhD, a psychologist in Valley Stream, N.Y., and author of a self-help book, Master Your Fears: How To Triumph Over Your Worries and Get on With Life, suggests that the problem many Americans face today is not that their lives have become more dangerous, but that they are "accommodating fear instead of overcoming it," she says. "Fear has become a mindset."

Neuroscientists have found that fear appears to originate in a region of the brain called the amygdala. When it receives possibly threatening stimuli, it triggers automatic responses, like the release of stress hormones and increased heart rate. But it also kicks that information upstairs to higher brain functions, with which you can evaluate the perceived threat rationally, and either accept it as real, or disregard it.

"If you don't do that, then you're just stuck with the reflexive response," Sapadin says. Some people don't think things through well enough, she argues, so they learn to fear everything. "They feel hemmed in by the world rather than free to explore it," she says.


Direct experience -- fire burned me, now I fear fire -- isn't the only way fear is learned. In a 2001 study, researchers at New York University found that the amygdala activates when people encounter things they're merely told to fear. Subjects in the study were told they would get an electric shock when shown a certain color on a computer screen, and although none of them actually got a shock, MRI images showed that their amygdalas lit up when they saw the color.

Perhaps we are all learning to have fear responses when we hear "terrorists" because we're told we should fear them, no matter how far removed from bodily harm we may be.

WebMD Feature


Published Sept. 7, 2004.

SOURCES: Robert Jay Lifton, MD, distinguished professor emeritus, City University of New York, lecturer on psychiatry, Harvard University. Linda Sapadin, PhD. The Gallup Organization. National Association for Business Economics Policy Survey. Society for Neuroscience. National Institute of Mental Health. News release, New York University. The New Yorker, Sept. 6, 2004.

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