|FEATURES Winter 2001|
After September 11, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton sent a series of e-mail messages to the campus community to calm fears and to send thanks for campus-wide efforts. In the message from September 28, he said:
Today, more than two weeks since the events in New York City and Washington, D.C., the Washington University community continues to direct its thoughts, prayers, and actions toward the victims of this national tragedy, as well as to their families and friends. Thank you, once again, for making Washington University a safe and caring community. We have all seen many examples, both on our television sets and right here in St. Louis, of the heroic actions of men and women who have answered the call for help and assistance. Thanks to all of you who have donated your time, your blood, and your money to help those in need.
Thank you also for going out of your way to make Washington University a community free from hatred and injustice, and for respecting all of our students, faculty, and staff, especially those from Arabic and Muslim backgrounds. At such a time as this, unity within our own community is one of the strongest messages we can send to the world.
To keep informed on all the activities and services available on campus in the aftermath of this tragedy, I want to direct your attention to our newly created Web site: http://wupa.wustl.edu/tragedy/.
Thank you once again for all that you have done and are doing to make Washington University a great place to live, work, and study.
When Trauma Doesn't Fade
As the horror of the attacks continues, we must remember that the public health impact of this attack will not end when the bodies are buried. The psychiatric effects of disasters can last much longer.
For several years, my colleagues and I have studied the survivors of disasters. We've worked with victims of floods, tornadoes, mass shootings, plane crashes, earthquakes, and the bombings in Oklahoma City and at the U.S. embassies in East Africa. We've learned many things. For one, people with a history of psychiatric illness are the most vulnerable to psychiatric problems following a disaster. And the most common psychiatric disorder is post-traumatic stress disorder. This is very treatable if we are vigilant about getting help for those with symptoms.
People closer to a disaster are more likely to be affected by it. But just as a pebble tossed into water continues to make concentric waves, a disaster can prompt people with no immediate connection to feel strong emotionssadness, anger, or upset.
Whether we were running for our lives in New York's financial district or just watching the events unfold on TV, most were deeply affected by this disaster. But it's important to know that having such symptoms as intrusive images of the disaster in our minds or sleep problems is not the same thing as developing a psychiatric illness. To have post-traumatic stress disorder, symptoms must persist for at least a month.
We've learned from studiesparticularly from survivors of the direct bomb blast in Oklahoma Citythat most people need time to process grief and anger before moving on. But some develop avoidance and numbing symptoms, which include not wanting to think about the disaster, feeling distant or feeling isolated from others, and avoiding reminders of the event. These are the people whom health professionals need to watch most closely. In Oklahoma City, individuals with at least three avoidance and numbing symptoms went on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder 94 percent of the time.
While television may give adults a surreal sense of distance during a disaster like this, the events can be more immediate for kids. Children are carefully attuned to their adult caregivers, so if you're upset, they may be, too. Remember, when you explain your feelings to children, do it in a manner that's consistent with their level of development. It does no good to talk about the intricacies of terrorism with a very young child. "Some people died, and I'm sad," would probably be a better approach. Younger children especially need information to reassure them that they are safe.
To Defeat the Terror, Fight the Hate
In 1986, the Osama bin Laden part was played by Moammar Khadafy. After the Libyan leader killed our citizens in acts of terrorism, President Ronald Reagan declared a holy war against him, sought a global alliance of righteous nations, summoning all our might against the common evil. On the theological front, Reagan convoked a White House conference on Armageddon. On the military front, he sent our F-111s to bomb Tripoli, Benghazi, and Khadafy's home and headquarters. We missed Khadafy, killed his adopted daughter, and provoked enormous anger throughout the Muslim world. Khadafy took his revenge in 1988 by having Pan-Am Flight 103 bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland.
My point is not simply to suggest the eerie similarity with the apocalyptic language from the White House, but to offer that earlier Crusade (a word that sends shivers down Arab and Muslim spines) as a cautionary lesson for those planning the current effort. What we failed to appreciate in 1986, and what we may again overlook to our chagrin, is the depth of anti-Western and anti-American hatred on the street in the Muslim world, and the scope and strength of Islamic militancy and radicalism arrayed against us.
First, all that hatred isn't simply a product of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or of our support for Israel, or of alleged American international sins of commission or omission. These are part of the larger picture of anti-Western animosity and are frequently used as excuses for violence against us. They do not, in any case, explain the suicide bombers or the horrors of September 11.
Second, we need to recognize that there is no uniform reaction to us on the street in Muslim countries: We may be envied and emulated on one street and reviled on another. Anti-American demonstrationsparticularly when TV cameras are presentcan be staged in one locale, erupt spontaneously in another. While there is a reservoir of goodwill and sympathy for us throughout the Muslim world, especially after September 11, so, too, are there strong currents of anti-American feeling: Membership is growing in terrorist groups as well as in radical and militant Islamist groups, particularly in colleges and universities. Anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Semitic literature is increasingly available from Cairo to Jakarta. And the popularity of hate-mongering fundamentalist teachers and preachers is widespread.
Some governments (Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan) are as much sponsors of anti-Western, anti-American propaganda as they are of terrorist groups. These regimes feed the popular currents of hate within and outside their own borders. Osama bin Laden, a symbol of virulent anti-Americanism and at once preacher, organizer, and sponsor of terrorism, apparently found willing hosts for his networkand sympathetic ears for his messagein at least 50 countries, including the United States.
Third, the purveyors of hate find ready resonance in 200 years of accumulated anger and resentment against the West's continued domination of the Muslim world and the humiliation of its people in repeated defeats at Western hands. Israelcharacterized as an evil partner in the "ZionistCrusader Alliance"is seen as the modern vanguard of that unwelcome Western presence and hated all the more because all Arab efforts to eliminate it have failed. Given the street's anger at the Muslim world's own homegrown tyrants and the general misery of its masses, plus the steady stream of religiously inspired invective against America, Israel, and the West, it is hardly surprising that recruits for "martyrdom" are so readily found on the streets and in the madrasas (religious schools). These people see themselves as heroic catalysts of an apocalypse that will not only destroy their enemies, but usher in their version of God's kingdom.
That we are again embarked on a campaign to root out terrorism is judgment enough on the failure of the 1986 effort and a warning that unless we try to understand the complex forces we face today, we will fail again. As the suicide bombers are deluded about their effect on history, so may be our faith in the outcome of yet another call to stave off Armageddon. I hope we have not promised ourselves and the world more than we can deliver, and that we will only act after the most careful and fullest appreciation of what is before us.