It has been more than 13 years since 9/11, and some things that have become routine weren’t so in those blissfully ignorant days before that trauma, when the biggest news stories focused more on cheating politicians and shark attacks. With yet another fear-mongering alert that Al-Shabaab (the latest variation on a theme) is somehow targeting every mall in the entire North American continent, our media and other public institutions have kept the war on terror going. Fueled by a changing, Internet-driven culture and shifting profits, the media and political pundits are going for the quick sell; clickbait for people stuck in a post-recession reverie. But they wouldn’t be feeding us if we weren’t biting. Why are we such easy prey for this kind of ongoing hysteria? What is it about constant premonitions of doom that continue to thrill and excite us as mass media consumers in America?
Post-traumatic stress disorder manifests in some individuals who experience a life-threatening trauma, but it can also show similar signs in a larger culture that has undergone mass trauma as well, such as war or genocide. One might argue that 9/11, despite relatively few casualties compared with major wars, was still a major psychological trauma for America, which had never experienced a civilian domestic attack by an outside threat in its history. And the attack was definitely dramatic in its symbolism: The tallest buildings in Manhattan destroyed, key government buildings in our nation’s capital hit or nearly hit, comfortable office workers on a routine day brutally killed. The everyday, safe banality of American life seemed to be over.
Even if most people did not develop severe clinical PTSD like the first responders or the people truly exposed to danger at the scene, our country underwent a psychological reckoning afterward, one we perhaps still haven’t fully processed in a healthy, self-aware fashion. Complicating matters has been the concomitant rise of social media culture and technology in the last decade, leading to an interesting mélange of influences and coping mechanisms.
Some of the symptoms of clinical PTSD include re-experiencing and flashbacks that alternate with emotional numbness and dissociation. Persons afflicted with PTSD can be stuck in a vicious cycle of continued panic attacks and hypervigilance, where they perceive a threat in every corner – their “fight or flight” responses are on standby at all times. They interpret danger on a hair trigger. Sometimes they cope by actively planning ways to avoid and/or prevent anything that reminds them of the trauma. For example, some soldiers with PTSD avoid crowded malls because it sets them on edge. They dislike driving because any discarded item on the side of the road reminds them of a roadside bomb.