The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks brought violence “home,” but changes in how society reacts to violence more recently cause more common and more frequent anxiety and worry, three college professors say.
Many Americans are “more heightened, more aware” of potential violence since more than 3,000 people were killed in the attacks 15 years ago today, said Harrison Davis, associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at the University of North Georgia.
Davis speculated some people may be more suspicious and fear large crowds now than just after 9/11 because of increased news coverage of violent events.
Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia, noted such change.
“Now, when anything happens any place in the world, it’s going to get reported,” he said.
He explained if violence occurs in Kabul, Afghanistan or Yemen, which “most people couldn’t find on a map if you gave them 30 minutes, it probably creates a sense that society is constantly under attack.”
Today marks 15 years since the attacks. Terrorists associated with al-Qaida hijacked four planes, crashing two of them into the World Trade towers in New York and one into the Pentagon near Washington. A fourth crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania when airline employees and passengers fought the terrorists.
More than 3,000 people died in the attacks, including more than 400 police officers and firefighters. Among the victims was one woman from Hall County, Edna Stephens, who was killed in the Pentagon attack.
ACTING OUT OF FEAR
Gnimbin Ouattara, associate professor of history at Brenau University, came to the U.S. as a Fulbright Scholar to study democracy two months before the attacks. He said Friday officials at Georgia State University, where he earned his Ph.D. convinced him to change his name, on the theory it would be better for him and his professors.
That change led to his visa being canceled after the 9/11 attacks, his arrest and a monthlong effort to straighten out paperwork.
Ouattara said he emphasizes asking questions, talking “in a measured way” and critical thinking with his students. He said he starts with the notion of nationalism as an “imagined community,” one which has shared values and symbols.
“The goal of (the 9/11) terrorists was to shut down the faculty of thinking, the critical thinking faculty,” he said. “If we act out of fear and not reason, we will multiply the mistakes and actually give terrorists a second victory.”
Davis is a faculty supervisor in UNG’s Clinical mental health counseling clinic, is certified by the Red Cross as a disaster mental health responder and has a private counseling practice in Sandy Springs. He has taught at UNG since 2003.
He said increased news coverage of violent events — domestic attacks and terrorism incidents — “have affected us in ways we’ve never imagined as citizens of the United States.”
He noted incidents have “come in various forms” — an attack on an elementary school, shootings at a black church in Charleston, mass killings at a Florida nightclub and shootings in San Bernadino, Calif.
“All of that has caused some significant stress,” Davis said. Those incidents “were a little closer to home” than attacks in Europe or the Middle East.
“It doesn’t matter who the perpetrator is,” Davis said. “It is convenient because we’re Americans.”
He said some attackers want to send a message and others are “just trying to fulfill some personal desire.”
One result, Davis said, could be that people are more wary of being in certain places — airports, sports arenas, being approached by police or walking in certain areas.
Some might have decided “to avoid events with large crowds,” he said. Individuals might be “a little anxious when they’re out in public.”
That same anxiety can result even when events occur a world away.
“The American media doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on what’s happening in the rest of the world, but these violent attacks do make the news every time,” Bullock said.
He said a bombing in Pakistan would get coverage, but an election in the same country probably would not, to the same degree.
BEING AWARE OF SURROUNDINGS
Davis noted that a recent online message threatened violence at a wrestling event at Philips Arena in Atlanta. He said Atlanta police and Georgia Bureau of Investigation said the event would still go on, but “you need to be aware of your surroundings.”
Such an occurrence “makes people question, ‘Should I attend this event?’”
Two recent incidents in airports caused panic because of loud noises, Davis pointed out. Neither was gunfire, but parts of the airports were shut down.
“People are hypersensitive,” he said.
He said he encourages people “to monitor your own feelings and your own thoughts. Notice when your emotions are a little bit more intense.”
Davis added, “A great place to start is just recognizing when you face some kind of stress,” and perhaps seek help from someone trained to deal with the feelings.
He noted people “need to know what’s going on. We rely on news organizations to warn us of certain things.”
In some cases, he said, he might recommend “let’s take a break from the news for a while.”
At the same time, Davis said, people should connect or reconnect with friends or family.
“Don’t isolate yourselves,” he said.
Bullock pointed out that such attacks are “still a fairly rare event.”
“Invariably, that’s the first line you hear: ‘I never thought it could happen here,’” he said.
Ouattara noted the terrorists of 9-11 were all students who could have learned “the simple idea that you could live and let live.”
“We are competing against those who want to trample these values.”