We don’t typically share first person narratives, but this is an emotional and relevant issue for many Americans. Rather than share something less meaningful to me, I offer my experience of 9/11 and the way I try to make sense of it as a social psychologist.Today marks the 15th anniversary of 9/11. The national tragedy was also a local one for me. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb about an hour’s drive from New York City (which, to me, will always be the city). My town was full of commuters who worked in the city. The skyline was visible from our beaches. Half of my classmates were originally from New York. Proximity to the city and, thus, its cultural and financial opportunities was taken as a matter of course, but that didn’t diminish people’s pride of it. After all, it’s New York City. Legendary.
I was 13 on September 11, 2001. In my middle school that day, rumors buzzed, most only half-accurate, about what was happening a mere 22 miles from where we sat: a plane flew into the Empire State Building. No, it was the World Trade Center. What? How could a pilot be that off course? No one understood then that it was terrorism. Why would anyone suspect that? We were sheltered, privileged from that type of national tragedy, like most Americans at that time. The new normal hadn’t yet descended. Teachers had been asked not to say anything to us, and social media didn’t exist. Parents were picking their kids up from school all morning. By lunchtime, our table had three empty seats. Missing were three of my friends whose parents worked in the city (they ended up being okay, fortunately). That’s when we knew something serious had happened. I managed to get some more information out of my guidance counselor at lunch; he liked me. He wouldn’t give me many details, but when I asked, Is it really bad? Are people dead? He said yes.
By the time we walked home from the bus stop, the rumors had evolved: there was still a plane in the air, and no one knew the target. I craned my head up to see if I could spot anything. It was sunny that day, the sky a brilliant blue. Details like these seem dramatic, clichéd, but they underscore the contrast between what seemed impossible and what was actually happening. We knew now that it was terrorism, but the implications of what that truly meant were still uncertain.
That night, my parents and I, my younger sister—at 9, too young to understand but old enough to be scared—were glued to the news. The coverage was gratuitous, repeated footage of the first plane crashing into the North Tower, then the South Tower. Eventually, the collapse. People running, covered in ash, crying. At 13, I had never seen suffering so widespread. I couldn’t stop watching even though it made me feel terrible. My homework for the night, several pages from my Spanish workbook, lay forgotten in my hands, though I clutched the pages tightly.
The next day, I went to school. The township wanted to maintain routine as much as possible. Walking to my bus I smelled the smoke from the Towers that had drifted south. Classmates in the northern part of my town, closest to the city, woke to ash on their lawns.
Those following days, weeks, months blur together. Names were released of neighbors, classmates’ parents, parents’ friends who died in the Towers. Close call stories were told and repeated, like my parent’s friend who was supposed to be on the plane that flew into the South Tower. He had cancelled his business trip at the last minute. From a pier, my best friend’s dad watched one of the Towers come down. My cousin, who lived in Manhattan, volunteered for the bucket brigade at Ground Zero. These stories, these tragedies, they were national, yes. America had been attacked. But they were also local. They felt deeply personal to those of us in the tri-state area; I’m certain that was the case for those living in D.C., too.
The vividness of that day remains with me now, at 28. I still get goosebumps when I think about 9/11. I intentionally avoid movies and TV specials about that day. It upsets me too much. Sometimes, I get angry when I hear about 9/11 or see another movie about it. That day has already done too much damage to the American psyche. Let’s stop profiting from people’s grief.
Now that I’m older, the pain of 9/11 and its aftermath have grown in complexity. I mourn that day and the lives lost, the loss of collective American innocence on a grand scale.
And now I see it through the lens of a social psychologist. Research indicates that shifting toward a more conservative ideology after tragedies is common.1 As our recent post on ideology explained, conservative/right-wing thinking is about endorsing the status quo, resisting change, and prioritizing stability and order. Going to war fits in that category. Taking action to return to the status quo is also a conservative action. This conservative shift happened to many Americans following 9/11. In one study, liberal and conservative participants alike endorsed more conservative attitudes after 9/11 than before.2 People who endorse conservative beliefs likely do so to reduce uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, or as a way to regain stability and order.3 In other words, becoming more conservative, even temporarily, is perceived to be a shield against threat. And that shield felt completely necessary to recover from 9/11. Just take a look at some of the headlines and news stories covering the attack (warning: some of these are graphic).
Unfortunately, this conservative mindset, driven by the desire to be safe, stable, to understand the environment around us, to take care of the threat, went awry too often in the wake of 9/11. In addition to the lives lost, I mourn the context 9/11 set for our country’s political and social agenda. The consequent nationalism bordering on jingoism. The Islamophobia. The justification for Weapons of Mass Destruction, later deemed to be false. The vigor with which we invaded Iraq; and a war that, 14 years later, many veterans who fought are ambivalent about its effectiveness (See Post 9/11 Veterans and their wars). At the time, I, too, supported President Bush’s actions. I believed we did need to go to war. America was hurting. My town was hurting. It was the only way! And I was surrounded by people who felt the same way, adults I trusted and respected. I know there were naysayers then, but I didn’t know them. My priority was to feel safe again.
So on this day, as a progressive anti-racist anti-war social psychologist, I reflect in the best way I know how. I feel pride in the way my hometown came together that fall. The way it honors its lost residents every September. I try to make sense of an event that rocked my foundation, whose subsequent events shaped my understanding of the world and my current identity. I don’t forget, but I also don’t accept the wrong that happened to many in the aftermath of that day. I try to be cognizant of the issues our country has now, as a result of 9/11 or independent of it. And I try to do my part, by working to understand the drivers of human behavior and sharing that knowledge. This blog is one means of that.
1, 3 – Jost , Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psych Bulletin, 129, 339-375.
2 – Nail & McGregor. (2009). Conservative shift among liberals and conservatives following 9/11/01. Social Justice Research, 22, 231-240.