09/10/2011 11:08 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2011

The Psychological Meaning Of 9/11: Why That Day Felt Like 'The End Of The World'

Editor's Note: Part of an ongoing series of interviews with psychologists on the American psyche.

On Sept. 11, 2001, psychohistorian Charles B. Strozier watched as the World Trade Center towers collapsed into dust. In the aftermath, Strozier, also a psychoanalyst, treated many who'd witnessed the disaster, even as they picked their way to his office through the rubble. His new book, "Until the Fires Stopped Burning," is an account of his exploration into the deeper meanings of America's national tragedy based on eyewitness accounts and including the significance of the 10th anniversary and the role of apocalyptic dread.

A professor of history and director of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, Strozier is the author and editor of books on self-psychology, the psychology of violence and fundamentalism and themes in American history. The following is an edited version of our wide-ranging conversation on 9/11 and the American self.

Pythia: You have devoted a lifetime to the study of the American psyche. In your new book, what psychological insights have you drawn from the tragedy that struck America on Sept. 11, 2001?

Strozier: A very important dimension of 9/11 was the contrast between the experiences of those in New York and the rest of the country. This difference has important political meanings.

Pythia: Before we get into the political implications, can you describe this contrast in more detail?

Strozier: For those in New York, 9/11 was a visceral experience. There were scenes of chaos, with people streaming across the bridges to get out of the city. Then there were the [twin towers] collapsing on the ground, right before everyone's eyes. So while there were what I call different "zones of sadness," everyone in New York had the same shared experience of immediacy.

Pythia: What do you mean by "zones of sadness"?

Strozier: Early on, I began reflecting on the difference between the experiences of those who were at ground zero and those who lived farther from the epicenter. For example, I live in Greenwich Village. While I watched the disaster unfold, I didn't see anybody hit the ground, and I wasn't caught up in the cloud of debris. So the idea of zones of sadness emerged as a way of appreciating that during 9/11, there were various topographic spaces, each with its own kind of suffering, that ordered New Yorkers' survivor experiences.

By contrast, the rest of the country saw it on television. Those in Omaha, Neb. or Atlanta didn't have the same visceral experience as those in New York. In addition, this was the first time in history that a major disaster was watched live on television. The psychological context of watching 9/11 on television was one of safety -- viewers were literally screened from the scenes of death and fear. All throughout the experience older, white father figures were telling us what it meant.

Pythia: What were the political implications of the contrast between New Yorkers' up-close experience of 9/11 and the rest of America?

Strozier: Watching the event on television aroused vicarious feelings of anger. But vicarious feelings are not totally authentic, and they can be easily manipulated into rage. The key psychological difference between anger and rage is that anger is directed and has a clear target, while rage is diffuse. That's why rage is so easily manipulated in a political context -- it doesn't have an object. And that is the sequence that I would argue occurred in the rest of the country.

As it happened, by an accident of history, we had an authoritarian regime that wanted to project American power and make wars in the Middle East. So the Bush administration was able to take advantage of that rage and move quickly on an agenda that had already been defined. This was no hidden agenda. Wolfowitz, Cheney and others had been writing papers all through the '90s -- they knew what they wanted.

Pythia: I would have thought rage would have been more connected to being in the epicenter of the tragedy, vs. having it screened through the media and physical distance.

Strozier: If you lived in New York there was sadness and fear, as well as a deep reluctance to see what was very profound suffering turned into war-making abroad. There was a sense of confusion around what Bush was doing -- that the experience was being taken from New Yorkers and used for other purposes while people were still in deep mourning. The fires burned until Dec. 20, so it was really 100 days of disaster.

Pythia: What has been the fallout 10 years later from the way Bush handled -- or mishandled -- the tragedy of 9/11?

Strozier: The single most important fact of America in the last decade is that we've been a country at war. And those wars have been huge wars. Indeed, the relatively small number of Americans who have died in those wars is highly misleading. In another first that marked 9/11, Americans, for the first time in military history, implemented a dramatic new procedure -- forward operating surgical theaters and trauma centers -- within miles of the front. They also perfected the recovery of the injured through helicopters, who were immediately flown to a military hospital in Germany. For these reasons, most of the thousands of injured soldiers survived. But they survived maimed and filled with PTSD; many of them fell into alcoholism and homelessness. So while they seem like small wars, the effects have been huge.

Pythia: It sounds like a perfect storm of events: the terrorist attacks, the administration having a pre-existing agenda in place, creating a perfect opportunity to go to war, leading to the longest wars the country has ever fought, along with the trauma of the swelling ranks of physically and mentally injured soldiers.

Strozier: That's a great metaphor. But the crucial ingredient in this perfect storm is the quality of the leadership we had at that moment, and who took advantage of the psychological context of the culture of fear to sell that war. It's difficult to imagine we would have gone into Iraq if Al Gore had been in office. We probably would have had phase one of the Afghan war, but not phase two.

Pythia: As I listen to you, it's almost as if something very self-destructive to America happened in the way the wars unfolded that worsened the original trauma of 9/11. Is that how you would see it?

Strozier: Absolutely. The wars created an ongoing, deepening and aggravating trauma. That's part of what we have the opportunity to reflect on 10 years later.

But now Osama Bin Laden is dead -- and that's a very important event. Al-Qaeda is on the ropes and, while it will be a little while, the wars are ending. So this whole phase of what we've been through this last decade has bookends: 9/11 and the 10th anniversary are the two bookends for a decade of disaster, war and trauma in the American self.

Pythia: In your book you describe the psychological significance around anniversaries that mark both private and cultural loss. You write that on the anniversary of a loss, we "re-enter the psychological space of mourning." Can you say more about that?

Strozier:Technically this is called "anniversary activation," and it happens especially on the first anniversary, which is the most important, and is usually marked by events or rituals. But not all anniversaries are of equal power to evoke trauma. The individual or collective experience of moving forward is unpredictable, and certain things in subsequent years may trigger remembering. It may also be triggered around analogous events that are not necessarily attached to the anniversary -- just as Hurricane Katrina, for example, triggered memories of 9/11. But the 10th anniversary moves personal loss into historical memory.

Pythia: This is a phrase rich with meaning. Say more.

Strozier: The 10th anniversary is not always better. It is far more likely to have powerful effects on survivors and family members, and to call forth renewed suffering. For many survivors it's difficult because it means realizing that something very precious has been taken from them. I certainly have seen that already in the survivors with whom I remain in touch. A good number cannot even bear to be in New York on that day.

The story of Sally Regenhard, who lost her son Christian, a fireman, during the attacks, is an example. Christian was among the 41 percent of those who died on 9/11 who were never identified. As a result, among the remains of the unidentified dead are thousands of body parts. In the hope that in future years DNA analysis will advance enough to make more identifications, these body parts will be stored in a "Remains Repository" 70 feet beneath the 9/11 Memorial. This repository will be located behind a wall with a quote from Virgil's Aenid: "No day shall erase you from the memory of time," and will include a private family room.

This decision has stirred angst and disagreement in survivor groups, including Regenhard. She is apoplectic with anger, for example, over the prospect of millions of visitors making noise and eating candy bars while touring the memorial, including this wall of remembrance adjacent to the main exhibit. Basically tourists will be walking into a gravesite -- and they're not going to be prepared.

Pythia: This is such a poignant story, and I can empathize with Regenhard's anger. But how does her experience relate to the psychological significance of the 10th anniversary?

Strozier: Because her memories of her son are being taken from her and put into the memorial. The decision has been made; it's out of her hands. And that's the 10th anniversary: It's now part of history, which absorbs her trauma. You don't necessarily move on when history absorbs your trauma. But it is different.

Pythia: Compounding these larger, historic forces, you also write about the phenomenon of post-nuclear "apocalyptic dread," and how that shaped America's reaction to 9/11. I live in Washington, D.C., and for a few frightening hours that day it felt like the end of the world.

Strozier: Indeed, the culture of fear that emerged out of 9/11 has to be understood in the context of our apocalyptic experience, as much as the event itself. Because it was so intense, so awful, such a surprise and so totalistic, our experience of it was apocalyptic. But we have to distinguish between what the event actually was and our experience of it. Psychologically, the felt experience of the people within the disaster was that it was an apocalyptic event. It was not: It was monumental, and it was an apocalyptic experience, but it was not an apocalyptic event.

Pythia: What caused these apocalyptic fears to surface so quickly?

Strozier: The apocalyptic dimension of existence has been a part of human culture since the beginning. That psychological experience, or "endism," as I call it, is the awareness that we could all die, and the world could end. Until the nuclear age that awareness took an act of imagination. It also required God. Historically, apocalyptic texts are almost all religious texts, such as "The Book of Revelation,"because the agent of the apocalypse is the divine. But with nuclear weapons in the world we don't need God anymore.

Pythia: And we don't need to have an act of imagination?

Strozier: It's a different kind of an act of imagination. Apocalyptic dread is a new thing in the nuclear age, because we no longer need God to end things: We can end the world, and we know it. Therefore, nuclear weapons changed us psychologically in ways that we're just beginning to understand. It's one of the intriguing but terrifying aspects of 9/11.

[In all] 2,479 people were killed. I hate to say it, but there have been events where far more were killed. So it's not the numbers that were lost that makes 9/11 so huge. It's when it happened and how it happened and our experience of it that led to such an incredible psychological and political perfect storm after 9/11.

Pythia: So this apocalyptic dread is part of the psychological make-up of our time. But we're not educated about that.

Strozier: If you're at all aware, that knowledge exists somewhere just below active consciousness, and an event like 9/11 can bring it to the surface. People I interviewed for my book who saw the towers come down saw it as a mushroom cloud and instantly thought that a nuclear weapon had gone off in New York. People caught in the dust and debris thought that it was the cloud from a nuclear weapon. So it is a fearsome idea, and something powerfully evoked by 9/11 and even mildly suggested by natural threats. Though I can only speculate, Hurricane Irene might well have intensified some feelings of apocalyptic dread in people.

Pythia: What do you hope for America at this 10th anniversary?

Strozier: We now have some perspective on how stuck we were before and after 9/11 in the superpower syndrome that led us to a misguided attitude that we could control history. But the 10th anniversary has the potential to serve as a catalyst in interrupting this trajectory, and to define paths toward peace and security.

After we dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, for example, Japanese survivors took a stand against nuclear weapons that has continued to this day. After Auschwitz, a global movement arose against mass killings. Likewise, 9/11 survivors can help us define "life-enhancing meanings" from this tragedy; they can also take the lead for the culture in acknowledging America's vulnerability and limitations. We don't have to be weak and helpless to be wise.

Pythia: But America has a hard time facing the idea of limitations. All I hear when we're faced with any kind of setback is that America is the greatest country in the world. Why is that message repeated over and over again?

Strozier: Thus we doth protest too much, right? Our assertions of strength ring a little hollow. We're highly vulnerable and in trouble economically. We have this massive inequality in our social and economic system. We've bled ourselves dry by fighting wars we should never have been fighting in the first place. And in the course of one decade we've profoundly distorted the fabric of our freedoms. We've corrupted our soul by embracing torture, here and abroad. We've lost a lot.

Pythia: Sobering words to conclude our interview. Thank you for your insights at this significant time.

Strozier: You're welcome.