My Turn: Healing the collective trauma of 9/11

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, October 2, 2015 1:01am
  • Opinion

I completely disagree with everything stated in the Juneau Empire’s Sept. 24 editorial “Reckless endangerment.” I found its tone extremely troubling and think the claims made about the people seeking refuge from Syria’s civil war were beyond the edge of exaggeration. But I also think it was an editorial that needed to be published.

Whether this was the opinion of one member of the Empire, a collective effort, or from someone with Morris Publishing Group (the Empire’s parent company), it reflects a reality in America that we shouldn’t deny. A lot of people fear the Muslim world right now, especially those from the war-battered regions where many have joined ISIS, Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

Are those fears rational? I don’t think so. But it’s their viewpoint on an important subject and they have a right to express it. After all, it was on the opinion page.

Censoring opinions that support the prejudices of a statistically significant portion of the population won’t make America the tolerant society that our laws imply we are. It will only drive people’s fear, anger and hatred underground, where it could metastasize into a more divisive cancer on the nation’s body politic.

We need to have a serious dialogue about the kind of fear expressed in the Empire editorial, and it’s my belief it comes from an unresolved psychological trauma stemming from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

No one who witnessed the twin towers fall will ever forget that day. And no one can question the severe psychological wounds New Yorkers suffered by being so close to ground zero. But because their trauma was so recognizable, there were teams of professionally-trained therapists prepared to help them come to terms to with it.

However, the vast majority of us only saw it happen on television. Our experience was more like a virtual reality.

An analogy to what I’m suggesting is how people on the front lines in a war zone are affected after they’ve seen dead, mutilated bodies of children. We’d be repulsed by such images if they were shown on TV, but we wouldn’t suffer from the same kind of post-traumatic stress experienced by a soldier, reporter or humanitarian aid worker.

Additionally, there wasn’t a widespread effort to address the psychological impact that 9/11 had on most of the nation. We were expected to return to relatively normal lives soon afterward, while still being subjected to endless cycles of news stories of the aftermath.

And remember the rhetorical question so often asked, “Why do they hate us?” No one seriously examined it. Instead we were inundated by media stereotyping of a whole culture. It was no different than the Empire’s statement that Syrian refugees are from “intractably retrograde cultures that are completely and fundamentally at odds with freedom-loving Western society.”

Indeed, political correctness swung 180 degrees from the liberally-imposed restraint against using racially-charged language to an extreme dedication to American exceptionalism. People who suggested that our foreign policy in the region played a role in making Muslim extremists want to attack us were ridiculed as self-hating Americans. Meanwhile, repressed prejudices returned to the surface as what is now labeled “Islamophobia,” along with some renewed racial biases toward black Americans and other minorities.

To some degree, these became our cultural norms. And although it’s not as bad now, whenever we’re confronted by a serious problem in the Middle East our nation again embraces its role as the victim of 9/11, which further stokes the unjustified fears of the entire Muslim world.

As individuals, neither victimhood nor repressed hatred are psychologically healthy. The way out begins by searching through one’s entire past for the root of the problem. Whether or not it’s pretty doesn’t matter — we must accept every chapter in our life story if healing is our goal.

Collectively, it’s been too easy for both sides of the politically correct spectrum to debate these issues with only like-minded people. We’ve become accustomed to choosing only the stories we want to hear. All that’s accomplished is the creation of two self-righteous platforms that have divided us even further.

To honor our true American values we have to show genuine consideration for opposing viewpoints no matter how offensive they seem. And it includes a willingness to sincerely examine the difficult truths about America’s role in creating the turmoil that continues to plague so much of the Middle East. Otherwise, we’ll remain stuck in endless cycles of fear, anger and hatred.

• Rich Moniak is a retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.

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