Terrorism and Me

09/16/2011 06:09 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2011

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I called my office, as I usually do, as soon as I woke up. There were 14 new messages from my psychotherapy patients since the night before, which was very unusual. As I listened to each one, they were all similar: "Don't worry about me -- I'm fine;" "I'm in Hawaii and I'm okay;" "I left New York yesterday and I'm safe." All of the messages were from flight attendants. I knew something catastrophic must have happened, but what?

I, like everyone else that morning, turned on my TV, and couldn't make sense of the horrific scenes on the screen. Having been a flight attendant for Pan Am for 20 years before I became a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, I was no stranger to terrorism. In fact, the threat of terrorism was just part of belonging to the global Pan Am family since the early 1970s, when we began having "sky marshals" on flights. There was no greater victory in the eyes of terrorists than to blow up an airplane belonging to Pan American World Airways, "the Queen of the Skies."

They did it several times, although most Americans have no memory of the 707 that was blown up on the tarmac in Rome, killing many and traumatizing others for life. Nor do they remember the Pan Am plane that was commandeered in Amsterdam and flown to the Egyptian desert, where it was blown to bits just minutes after the last passenger exited from the slides.

The national news about the events was minimized in order to discourage "copycat" terrorists. What Americans do remember, however, is the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Pan Am employees all over the world remember that day (Dec. 21, 1988) as the day the heart of Pan American died. After years of fighting valiantly to maintain its place in the aviation world -- against an onslaught of mounting competition on its traditional routes, rising fuel prices, deregulation and other factors -- Pan Am was on its way to success again.

The extremely loyal Pan Am employees had accepted many salary decreases and other givebacks, and finally it looked like the airline was going to make it. This was good news to me, even though I had quit my job in 1986 after 20 years of flying. The Pan Am family was never far from my heart, as is true for every former Pan Am'er you will ever meet.

But there, on the nightly newscasts, was the blue and white nose cone of Pan Am "clipper maid of the seas," lying shattered in a Scottish meadow. The talking heads on the various newscasts were all blaming the tragedy on the age of the Pan Am 747s.

Never mind that this plane had just completed a retrofit and was like new. But then, oops! When the news finally came out that it had been a terrorist bomb that had murdered 243 passengers, 16 crew members and 11 people on the ground, the newscasters then shifted the blame onto Pan Am's faulty security system.

Day after day, Pan Am bore the brunt of the media's blame, which meant that Pan Am employees had not only to endure the excruciating trauma from the loss of their colleagues, passengers and airplane, but also all the accusations from the outside that if Pan Am had just been more vigilant, this tragedy could have been prevented. As human beings, we like to believe that we can prevent bad things from happening if we just have the wisdom or foresight to see it coming.

At that time in 1988, Americans seemed to have no clue about the mindset and determination of the terrorists' agenda. Pan Am employees had known about, and lived with, that agenda for over 20 years. Can you imagine in hindsight putting the blame on the American and United Airlines after 9/11 for the terrorists' actions? Blaming the victims?

Many Pan Am employees felt shattered by the bombing of Flight 103, as well as by the reality that passengers no longer wanted to fly on Pan Am. In Americans eyes, even if only subliminally, Pan Am planes were like death capsules, and the airline's very survival was at stake. The terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie was truly the final nail in its coffin, and the company managed to hang on until December of 1991, when it closed its doors forever.

I'll never forget attending the Pan Am memorial service in Los Angeles for those who perished over Lockerbie. It was held at the peacefully beautiful Wayfarer's Chapel in Pacific Palisades. I needed to be with my Pan Am family where I'd always felt a strong sense of belonging. We felt a great comfort in being together.

The most difficult moment for me was when I was talking to the family of a brand new flight attendant who had been flying only a few months, and who had perished so brutally. Her father talked about his daughter's love of flying for Pan Am. I could only hope it gave them solace knowing that she died loving her new job.

The memory of that memorial service flickered in my mind as I joined the rest of the country watching the events of 9/11 unfold before our eyes. For former Pan Am employees, the destruction of the Twin Towers felt like another twist of the knife in all our hearts.

That day marked the beginning of a busy time for me, working sometimes what seemed like round-the-clock with traumatized airline personnel who knew that I had personal experience with terrorism. One of the worst aspects for them was the intense shame they felt for being afraid.

Working with trauma for me consists of three vitally important issues: retraumatization, the shattering of the "absolutisms of everyday life" and the need for a relational home in which to share our feelings of loss and grief (see my earlier blog, "Counting My People" ).

A traumatizing event like 9/11 is made worse for some people because it represents a retraumatization, a repetition of a childhood history of loss or pain that leaves them more vulnerable. Examples of such childhood trauma are the early death of a parent or family member, early separation from loved ones through divorce or tragedy, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness in the family or any form of abuse.

Retraumatization happens most often when there is a close replication of the original trauma, such as a loss of the way of life as one knew it, loss of a sense of power, loss of a sense of safety, loss of a sense of innocence or loss of a sense of control. When it happens, it brings back the same old feelings, such as terror, horror, shock, panic or helplessness. Retraumatization is the experience of a painful part of your life that feels like it's happening all over again.

Because we are all finite beings over whom death and loss constantly loom, we human beings develop "absolutisms of everyday life." This means we all develop unquestioned beliefs and assumptions that we unconsciously live by, in order to flee from the uncertainties of life and to maintain a sense of continuity, predictability and safety. For example, when you say to a loved one, "I'll see you tomorrow," it is taken for granted that both you and the other person are going to be around. "It is in the essence of emotional trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one's sense of being-in the-world" (Stolorow, "Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections" (2007).

For many airline personnel after the trauma of 9/11, the absolutisms of everyday life had been destroyed. Have a nice flight? Yeh, right! They had control of their passengers? Hm-m-m. They would be coming home? Well, maybe so, maybe not. They were all trying to figure out just what weapons they could have at their disposal. Break a wine bottle, and use the jagged glass? Spray CO2 in a terrorist's face? After all, their friends had died in the most terrifying way.

Traumatized people often see the world differently than others do. They feel anxious, alienated and estranged in an unsafe world in which anything can happen at any time. Anxiety slips into panic when it has to be borne in isolation; hence, it is essential that there be a place -- a relational home -- where painful feelings can be verbalized, understood and held. In the absence of a sustaining environment, emotional pain can become a source of unbearable shame and self-loathing, and traumatized people can fall into the grip of an impossible requirement "to get over it."

We need to develop bonds of deep emotional attunement within which devastating emotional pain can be held, rendered more tolerable, and hopefully, eventually integrated. Whether we do this in personal relationships, with a professional therapist or within a religious group, the development of these emotional bonds are ever more important in our chaotic world.

Along with the horrific images that airline personnel had to live with, is the difference between traumatic loss (for example, an airplane crash) and murder. While any traumatic loss confronts you with mortality, murder confronts you with both mortality and evil in a very personal way. The trauma is inflicted by evil intentions, and is extremely difficult to comprehend when it comes out of the blue, giving rise to a natural longing for retribution.

The death of Osama bin Laden, while it will never really bring "closure" to the families who lost loved ones on 9/11, nevertheless, brings a little comfort in knowing he can no longer bring violent destruction to the world. The Pan Am family, however, and those who lost precious loved ones in the bombing of Pan Am 103, have no such relief. We had to tolerate watching the release of Al-Megrahi on TV, the only person convicted of planning the murders. Al-Megrahi was seen receiving a hero's welcome in Libya by Muammar Gaddafi, who has recently bragged that he ordered the bombing of the 103. We are still awaiting our day of reckoning.