One Sept. 11 Lesson: A Little Bit of War Goes a Long Way

Ten years ago, residents of Lower Manhattan lived through one day of war. Many continue to live with its consequences

There’ve been nine anniversaries of 9/11, each with a variable mixture of grief and pride. The grief needs no explanation; it’s for the 3,000 lives lost and the shattering of innocence. The pride began as a reflex—the country survived and would rebuild. This year, for those of us who live in Lower Manhattan, that rebuilding has taken on a physical form. There’s a shiny new tower emerging where there was once rubble. A report by the Downtown Alliance rejoices that “Lower Manhattan is Back—and Better Than Ever.” A paper written last year by researchers at the New York Fed found that “the city has proved to be resilient,” and that dire predictions about 9/11’s economic impact “were not borne out.” Pride, it seems, has finally caught up with grief.

It’s a convenient and comforting view of the anniversary, but it simplifies the past 10 years. It’s been a long time since Americans endured war on our shores. Nobody around today can testify to the uncertainty and post-traumatic stress disorder left in the wake of Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. Those of us who lived in the shadow of the World Trade Center experienced exactly one day of war. Yet its consequences linger in unshakeable ways.

A door-to-door survey by New York City’s Health Dept. of Lower Manhattan residents living in Battery Park City and two housing complexes (one of which I call home) found that 50 percent continued to experience physical symptoms, mostly related to the Ground Zero fires, and that 40 percent reported symptoms “suggestive of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” at the end of October 2001. Those numbers translate into the kind of sudden life-changing event that most Americans experience only through movies. When the first tower fell, my building shook so vigorously that I prepared to leap on my 3½-year-old to shield her from flying glass. As we fled a few minutes later, I wondered if I would ever see my home again. For a terrifying moment, I thought I’d lost my husband, pushing the stroller a few feet ahead of me in the crowd. Twelve days and three temporary homes later, we moved back.

In the scheme of things, not much really happened to us. And yet the images remain: The wonder of seeing a jet fly low overhead. The disbelief when it slammed into the side of the north tower. The cartoon-like shape the plane cut into the façade and then the explosion of fuel tanks. It lasted seconds.

On the morning of Sept. 11, a magnificent day, who could have imagined that 60 hours later I would be comparing notes with strangers about which police checkpoints were easiest to transverse or that I’d spend months worrying about my daughter’s violent cough?

The authors of a paper in the current issue of American Psychologist cite research showing that 16.3 percent of 9/11 survivors included in a health-tracking registry had PTSD two to three years after the attack. That does not include depression and anxiety disorders diagnosed in others. Another analysis of responses from registry participants showed that more were suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms five to six years later than two to three years after the attack.

That’s after one day of war.

Imagine the worries of Iraqi parents whose kids were 3½ when the U.S. invaded to topple Saddam Hussein? What must it be like to grow up in Sudan, which has seen decades of civil war? Dr. Yuval Neria, a professor at Columbia University who co-authored the paper in American Psychologist, says there is more mental health risk “when you have retraumatization of people living through ongoing traumatization in a political context, war context or terrorism context.” But he adds, “You can have it both ways.” Some people “living under the shadow of uncertainty and in places that are unsafe get more used to it” and become more resilient, he says.

Which camp do you think you’d fall into? “We can never predict, successfully predict, beforehand,” says Dr. Neria, who was wounded in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. All the more reason to take a moment to think about how war—even a touch of war—transforms the lives of ordinary people. And to remember that for thousands of residents of downtown New York, a perfect day with a bright blue sky, low humidity, and just the right amount of warmth, will forever be a 9/11 kind of day.

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