Arts, Culture & Humanities

9/11 reaction and resilience

Claude Fischer

New demographic reports about New York City have firmed up an impression that any casual walker in the city can draw: Manhattan is booming – booming in business activity and in human activity. The Times summary reads, in part: “Two new studies show that downtown has become a magnet. Between 2000 and 2010 . . . the population within a two-mile radius of City Hall ballooned by nearly 40,000 people.”

And the new Manhattanites lean toward the young, educated and affluent, with many raising children in the heart of the city.

Eleven years ago, in the wake of 9/11, lots of expert observers thought that lower Manhattan – indeed, much of the city – was doomed by the shock, the disruption, and fears of further attacks to precipitous decline. (Who would want to be high up in an office tower ever again?) That this prognostication was wrong points to a more general observation: the extent to which we overestimate the social shock of dramatic events and underestimate social resilience.

(I write as Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on the city. This, too, shall pass.)

9/11

To be sure, 9/11 was a trauma: thousands of lives lost, thousands of families bereft, the shock of a sudden attack, and a surging sense of vulnerability. (Personal note: Our son was about four blocks from the Twin Towers, had to walk uptown away from the debris cloud, and spent a few weeks displaced from his NYU dorm. Needless to say, we experienced, on top of the shared national shock, many personally anxious hours on 9/11.)

In the aftermath, commentators were certain that life would never be the same. Comedians even wondered whether telling jokes had come to an end. Yet, we see in retrospect how temporary — for all but the victims’ families — the disaster was. Life in America and even in New York returned to normal pretty quickly. Studies commissioned by the Russell Sage Foundation found that the local economy rebounded well. As summarized by John Logan, the data revealed that “. . .  the impact of disaster was relatively small and readily absorbed. Analyses of the [New York] economy show a strong rebound from the national recession and only temporary – if sometimes dramatic – sectoral losses. . . .  On the whole there seems more evidence that the city was back to normal by 2003 than that it was in the throes of a painful recovery.” The economic disruption of the Great Recession, in contrast, has been much deeper and longer lasting.

Social psychological data also fail to show the sort of long-term disorientation that some experts foresaw. True, many Americans at the time were highly stressed and responded accordingly (see, e.g., here). Some health symptoms of stress may have lasted a while longer, especially for those who watched the attack unfold on television (e.g., here). But it has been hard for researchers to detect major lasting consequences. For example, trend lines in Americans’ reports of their happiness, their trust in other people, and their religiosity show hardly, if any, blips attributable to 9/11. (Gallup recorded a 10-point drop in reports of being “very happy” in late 2001, but the loss was regained by 2002.) In contrast, as Berkeley sociologists Michael Hout and Orestes P. Hastings have shown, the Great Recession undermined more Americans’ morale for longer.

Even American politics returned to its normal trends. One oddity appeared immediately: the proportion of Americans expressing confidence in the federal government’s ability to handle international and domestic problems skyrocketed just after 9/11 – an oddity given that 9/11 was one of the greatest failures of national government in memory. Yet, that surge of confidence in Washington had subsided back to prior levels by early 2002 (Gallup).

If the economic and emotional shocks of 9/11 quickly receded, what has lasted are the policies responding to 9/11, such as: the wars on terror, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq; tightened airport security and its roughly 50,000 TAS jobs; harsh visa restrictions on foreign visitors; and symbolic gestures (e.g., flags on sports uniforms; “God Bless America” in the 7th inning of Sunday baseball games). We have recovered a lot faster from 9/11 than from our reactions to 9/11.

Implications

The 9/11 story reminds us that society absorbs great traumatic events, such as Katrina and the Kennedy assassination, to take two other examples. Everyday life must resume. People have to get the kids up for school, go to work, put food on the table, check in with relatives, get the car repaired, and so on. Wars, of course, are highly disruptive. Even then, as many observers have noted, when America’s wars have occurred somewhere else, as have all our wars since the Civil War, life continues almost normally (except, again, for the families and friends of the soldiers).

The more lasting disruptions in American history since the Civil War have not been the sudden events but the economic downturns – the Panic of 1893, the Agricultural Depression of the 1920s, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession. We know that the lives of many if not most Americans get distorted by these extended downturns and the consequences last for decades (see this earlier post).

It is interesting to wonder why we can react so forcefully and so patriotically to military attacks and so slowly and divisively to the economic disruptions.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

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