11 September was an attack, not only on our real security, but on our states of mind.
In the ordinary process of living we make many unquestioned assumptions: we won’t be attacked randomly or arbitrarily; we can depend on others respecting our physical and mental space; people won’t do us harm without readily understandable motives. We expect to be able to pursue everyday goals without fear-inducing intrusion.
11 September and its aftermath have brought these assumptions into question. Anxiety around normal activities has developed over the months since the murder of thousands of people, whose only crime was to go to work that day. Taken-for-granted activities such as going to work, opening the mail, flying, riding a bus and working in tall buildings are now increasingly grounds for fear.
Civilization has always consisted of what organisational and social theorist Elliott Jaques has termed ‘connected strangers’. We assume a connection with those around us whom we don’t know – our basic presumption is that others will not set out to hurt us while we go about ordinary living. Our lives need to be relatively stable and predictable to get our daily tasks done and to relax. We assume that murders occur for a (misguided) motive, ie, that specific people are targeted for particular reasons, not everybody randomly. In general, we trust that our armed forces will be able to protect us against violence from outside and our criminal justice system will protect us against criminal activity within our country. But terrorist activities subvert such protections.
The aftermath of the terrorist attacks reminded me of a concept developed by the psychiatrist RD Laing in his classic book on psychosis first published in 1960, The Divided Self (1). In this book, Laing described our everyday sense of ‘primary ontological security’. The ordinary person most of the time approaches life’s hazards from a standpoint of a ‘centrally firm sense of his own and other people’s reality and identity’, relying on the substantiality of natural processes and that of others. On the other hand, the ‘ontologically insecure’ person is lacking in such certainties – he or she may not possess an overriding sense of ‘personal consistency or cohesiveness’ and their ‘identity and autonomy are always in question’.
According to Laing, ‘the ontologically insecure person is concerned with preserving rather than gratifying himself: the ordinary circumstances of living threaten his low threshold of security’. This description underlines the large extent to which our personal identity is embedded in our social contexts and is a function of them.
To an extent, the terrorist threat challenges the reliability of our ‘ontological security’ and raises the spectre of ontological insecurity as a significant part of our lives. The terrorist threat of arbitrary persecution plunges us into another world where less and less can be taken for granted. The indiscriminate threat of terror can raise primitive anxieties to a threshold that can interfere with and even threaten to dominate our lives. In addition to the very real threats to life and limb, terror and the threat of terror can re-evoke primitive persecutory anxieties deriving from childhood.
In fact, the basic aim of terror is not the murder or injury of particular people, but the production of a state of terror, panic, demoralisation and deep disequilibrium in everybody.
The attack on our security highlights our fundamental reliance on mutual trust not to harm each other, in order that we can get on with our lives constructively. In everyday life, as American psychoanalyst Robert Stolorow observed in a 1999 article in Psychoanalytic Psychology, we unconsciously rely on absolutisms we do not question and are not open for discussion, such as somebody saying to a friend, ‘I’ll see you later’, or a parent saying to a child at bedtime, ‘I’ll see you in the morning’. According to Stolorow:
‘Such absolutisms are the basis for a kind of naive realism and optimism that allow one to function in the world, experienced as stable and predictable. It is in the essence of psychological trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one’s sense of being-in-the-world. Massive deconstruction of the absolutisms of everyday life exposes the inescapable contingency of existence on a universe that is random and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured.’ (2)
The epiphany of 11 September and the continuing terrorist threats since then have wrought this kind of trauma on a multitude of levels in many lives. In the wake of these attacks, cancer expert Michael Lerner suggested that many people’s responses were similar to finding out they had a serious disease. The threat of terrorism can produce feelings of panic, fury about unfairness – and it can force us to face mortality, malaise and an uncertain and insecure future (3).
After 11 September, many Americans, especially New Yorkers, felt heightened anxiety and depression. While mental health problems markedly increased, there is also strong evidence of resilience and reassessing priorities (4). The anthrax scare made some Americans afraid to open letters, and there are businesses and departments that now communicate only electronically.
Of course, one reaction to this threat to our security is denial, to ‘turn a blind eye’. Terror produces so much discomfort and anxiety across all aspects of living that it can be less immediately painful to try to ignore it. But this involves denying the reality and displacing the problems elsewhere. One method of avoiding this reality in the present case is to blame Western society for what happened, as a way to paralyse ourselves and avoid action against real threats. This can be rationalised as siding with the underdog against first-world imperialism, thus making the USA or the West responsible for most of the world’s ills. But the struggle against terrorism cannot be sidestepped by arguing that its causes lie in US policies.
The continuing terrorist threats and attacks are profound assaults not only upon our real security but on our states of mind. The response to this lies in action based on a clear-sighted view that terrorism is profoundly anti-human and is not ‘right’ or ‘left’. As Albert Camus put it in The Plague: ‘We should not act as if there were no likelihood that half the population could be wiped out; for then it would be.’
Dr Douglas Kirsner teaches psychoanalytic studies and philosophy and Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He is author of The schizoid world of Jean-Paul Sartre and RD Laing (buy this from Amazon USA), and Unfree Associations: inside psychoanalytic institutes (see karnacbooks.com). He was also a contributor to Blaming ourselves: September 11 and the agony of the left, reviewed on spiked (see Imagining America, by Josie Appleton).
(1) The Divided Self, RD Laing, Penguin Books, 1965. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
(2) The Phenomenology of Trauma and the Absolutisms of Everyday Life: A Personal Journey, by Robert D Stolorow
(3) US News and World Report, 26 November 2001
(4) Many Americans Still Feeling Effects of September 11th; Are Reexamining Their Priorities in Life APA press release, 11 February 2002
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