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Dr. Cheryl Pappas

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In the Shadow of 9/11: Ten Years Later in America

Posted: 09/09/11 08:34 PM ET

As I read the heart-warming tributes on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and the beautiful words of hope and encouragement for our future, I can't help but revisit the truth of the social images from these last 10 years in America.

I'm talking about personal and social behavior in America; what has changed and become the norm in our society during the aftermath of terror.

Understandably, in the days, weeks, and months immediately following the attacks, America was depressed. In spite of George W. Bush's advice, I don't know many people who went to the movies.

Instead, practical life did limp along. There was an undeniable connection between strangers that lasted briefly. We all shared the extraordinary shock that such violence had happened in our country, and we felt it personally.

The colorful, carefree piñata of invulnerability and security that floated above the lives of Americans since the end of WWII was savagely smashed. No one knew what that would mean for our lives going forward.

Further, we didn't know anything about the level of hatred others in the world harbored against us. I remember countless people telling me that they didn't know anything at all about what seemed to be the urgently, newly discussed parts of the world; Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, places that we would soon be asked to understand intimately.

Country music swiftly raised the American flag against enemies after 9/11, notably in rabid patriotic revenge songs penned by Toby Keith. Sample lyric aimed at any would-be terrorists against America:

"We'll put a boot in your ass
It's the American Way."

Notable also, if less threatening, is singer Alan Jackson's musical response, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)", an anthem of both sorrow and ignorance, including these lines:

"I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell you
The diff'rence in Iraq and Iran."

I wonder if even in these last 10 years, in spite of daily television coverage, many of us really know much more now than we did then.

What was initial shock and terror for Americans became what I believe is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, an epidemic that has created a new society and way of being in America.

PTSD as a psychological disorder first appeared in 1980 in the DSM-IV-TR, the bible of psychological illnesses.

According to MedicineNet.com, "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an emotional illness that is classified as an anxiety disorder resulting from a terrifying, frightening, life-threatening, experience characterized as having long-lasting problems with many aspects of emotional and social functioning."

America's onset of PTSD was aided heavily by the repetition of televised Twin Tower footage that seemingly went on forever. Understandably, we couldn't see it enough; it was so shocking. The media looped it and looped it, until it was engraved in us.

What does a society of people suffering PTSD look like?

It is not surprising that a new form of depression became the norm for Americans, many of whom were depressed to begin with. It is hard for us to speak about this, mainly because we don't choose to, but the PTSD new normal includes public acts of out-of-control rage, which has become the hallmark of what our social experience often includes.

We see symptoms of PTSD everywhere in urban life. Some easy to spot symptoms are entitlement, inappropriate public acting out of hatred and rage, rudeness, inability to consider social decency. These behaviors are considered so common and normal today that it appears to be not just unpopular to discuss them, but conversationally shorted with a big "duh."

Some people say that reality television cheers on this lack of civility. Judging from the popularity of the reality "invasion" on television, we do remain enthused and amused by ever-increasing trashy human behavior on constant display. Perhaps this links up with taking this behavior to the streets, or perhaps not.

What is undeniable, post 9/11, is that the entitlement to act out uncivil behaviors in these last 10 years is off the charts.

I'm not saying that the entire problem with narcissism and anti-social behaviors in America was created on 9/11, but I believe 9/11's violence was extreme enough to break an already-fragile social dam.

In my opinion, we have not admitted, let alone addressed, our emotional unwellness in this decade following 9/11. The truth is, there is very little self-awareness psychologically among our people. While psychotherapy is no longer an exotic or shameful secret, the deeper emotional truths we personally live with are too often undisclosed, and not even known to exist by the people themselves.

And so, undiagnosed and untreated, the American People have become a case study in what happens when disease is left untreated.

The neighborhoods and streets of our cities broadcast these results in anti-social behaviors and scenarios which are also shocking.

The financial impact of this last decade is met without the famous resilience America was once known for. People are pitted against each other financially, socially, and emotionally. This is what we could be looking at on the anniversary of 9/11.

Instead, we are given a headline involving an alleged terror plan to occur on the anniversary of 9/11. I can't help but wonder whether political maneuvers somehow align with the media presentation of this headline. Why would we have to be loudly introduced to a theoretical, potential rerun of trauma and terrorism, I wonder.

I find it troubling that the American public would be given this Breaking News piece that dangles menacingly over our heads when we are helpless to respond protectively.

If we do have a national PTSD from 9/11 itself, the only impact of this news alert is to re-energize our fears.

Here are a few anniversary prayers. Hopefully you will add your own.

Give us a government whose job it is to protect and preempt any such attacks, and let them succeed.

Let us be awake and responsible for our own inflammatory actions in this country -- toward each other and other countries.

Stop terrorizing us with terror!

Rather than focus on the healing of a PTSD society, we have been encouraged to deny our feelings and be "treated" to the pharmaceutical anti-depression industry's campaign assaults.

Having studied personal changes in American behavior over these last 10 years, I am reminded that depressed people are easily manipulated against their own best interests.

As FDR famously instructed, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

As fear continues to be a tactic used against us, either in the form of a terror headline without a story, or simply as a warning for us to be "vigilant" with no further instruction, let us individually be awake to where we allow our minds to go.

Let us not forget 9/11 while we deliberately choose to heal, not deepen, our worst fears.