Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Thoughts About The Impact of the 9/11 Conspiracy Trials

Recently, a foreign correspondent contacted me to ask what thoughts I had about the impact of the 9/11 conspiracy trials on New Yorkers. Her question invited thinking of the specific event of these trials as well as broader issues of recovery from trauma. For me, in addition to the hope that justice can be served in a just way are the issues of bearing witness and resiliency in the face of uncertainty.

Yael Danieli (2009) who has addressed the role of reparative justice for massive trauma, reminds us that while public justice is necessary for healing, true healing must always involve more than legal and political dimensions. Healing and the integration of unthinkable loss take place in all aspects of the individual (physical, emotional, cognitive, spiritual and psychological) and across all the social connections -couple, family, community, national and international – that he or she shares. Much as we have seen with those who have waited years for the trial of the accused when a family member has been murdered, or the courage of a rape victim willing to face a courtroom, seeking public justice, while important, is never easy. Justice served can often re-traumatize and invite more pain. It is part of the process of healing and closure – not the final answer.

Having worked with 9/11 survivors, family members of victims, firefighters, spiritual and mental health caregivers, I would say that for most the reaction to the the trial of the 9/11 conspirators will be personal and complex. The location and meaning of the trial as well as world-wide media coverage interfaces with what has unfolded for them and those they love since 9/11.

For many in New York and throughout the world, the trial of the conspirators and the public witness of accountability promise the possibility of social justice for social injury. For some New Yorkers it feels appropriate that the trial will take place on the soil where so many were killed.

Other have strong feelings against this. The revisiting of 9/11 brings for them a resurgence of the traumatic loss and horror of that day. While they have gone on despite the loss of spouses, children, friends, colleagues, engine companies and neighborhoods to mourn and rebuild, they steel themselves each year for the “ 9/11 anniversary events” when the stories, pictures and media offer testimonials as well as revisited pain. Many fear that this trial will have a similar impact.

As we have discussed in earlier blogs one of the impacts of trauma is an assault on safety, predictability and control. Trauma always involves loss because our sense of self, others, and the world as we knew it is no longer the same. Having been traumatized by unanticipated loss, it is difficult not to expect it. For many the location of the trial in New York creates fear of more attacks. Adding to their fears is the reality that the trial of the 9/11 conspirators does not mark the end of a war or atrocity. This is a world that continues to suffer in the face of terrorism and integral to terrorism is its’ assault on safety.

There are no easy answers to the impact of trauma or the search for reparative justice.
The best we can do is turn to each other….

Bearing Witness
One of the most powerful steps in recovery from any trauma is bearing witness in a social context. Whether that context is the sharing of feelings between a couple, a community welcoming back its soldiers, or a group of cancer survivors attesting to the battle they have fought, open sharing of your feelings to others helps restore a sense of well being.

These trials may be an opportunity for you to bear witness in a way you have been unable to feel since 9/11. They may offer a redress to lost loved ones who were deployed in the aftermath of these attacks. Or they may not feel personally valid or politically correct. They may bring back pain that comes with re-visiting. In any case, to share what you feel is to invite another to hear you. Social action is reparative if it gives you an opportunity to connect, bear witness to your feelings and be understood.

How do people go on and heal in the face of uncertainty?

Resiliency studies tell us that connection and belonging are the antidotes to the ongoing uncertainty in the world around us. Children who stayed with parents during the London bombings fared better than those sent away. Israeli students who were part of a school community, who had a sense of belonging, coped better in the face of continuous threats from rocket attacks ( Nuttman-Schwartz & Dekel, 2009).

Essentially there are many things we cannot control or predict. How this trial unfolds is one of them. But….

To belong – to be known – to feel understood – to love – to be loved- are the realities that make hope stronger than fear.

Further Reading:

Danieli, Yael (2009) Massive Trauma and the Healing Role of Reparative Justice. Journal of Traumatic Stress. Vol. 22,pp 351-357.

Nuttman-Shwartz, O. & Dekel, R. (2009) Ways of Coping and the Sense of Belonging in the Face of Continuous Threat. Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol.00, N.0),pp1-4.