What (exactly) are we afraid of?

September 11 brings us face-to-face with our own mortality

We have come to fear flying across country, opening the mail, crossing suspension bridges. But perhaps underlying these conscious fears is a repressed one—the fear of own mortality.

One of the sanest voices in the land these days, surprisingly, has been Oprah Winfrey’s. She has consistently turned people’s attention to where it matters most—within. What (exactly) are we afraid of?September 11 brings us face-to-face with our own mortality. Like a bolt of lightning illuminating the night sky, the events of September 11 revealed to us something most of us spend a lifetime denying: the fact that we too shall die. And so we grieve—as individuals and as a nation—at the truth that death can come in an instant with business unfinished and loved ones abandoned.

“I think the major impact of September 11 is to make people more aware and more frightened of death in an immediate sense,” said clinical psychologist and author Robert Firestone shortly after the bombing. “They are bent out of shape by the perpetrators, who are themselves bent out of shape by religious attempts to quell death anxiety.”

This heightened anxiety may be doing more than just affecting millions of us as individuals. Our leaders, who have launched what appears to be an ineffectual military campaign in Afghanistan that could backfire by failing to topple the Taliban or Osama bin Laden (while destabilizing friendly regimes and recruiting new waves of anti-American suicide bombers), could also be experiencing these feelings. Even more alarming is what might occur should our present military campaign fail. Continued irrationality could lead the U.S., and/or its opponents, to engage in activity even more unimaginable than the events of September 11.

We’re on “high alert” about so many things these days—from flying across country to opening the mail to crossing suspension bridges. We fear working in tall buildings, losing jobs, the forfeit of civil liberties, the death of innocents in Afghanistan, the loss of more American lives, a wider war, and so forth. But, if Firestone and many other existential thinkers are correct, underlying these more conscious fears is a repressed one—the fear of our own mortality.

I began my own internal inquiry on this subject several weeks after September 11. What I found shocked me. I felt inexplicable waves of helplessness, a voice saying “What’s the use? You’ll be dead soon enough.” The depression would be followed by strong bursts of anger, as I suddenly found myself yelling at some obnoxious talking head on TV. I felt deep waves of sadness as I watched the post-September 11 telethon, particularly thinking of the sacrifice of the firemen. I began having weird, discordant dreams. I poured over the obituaries of the victims in the New York Times, experiencing waves of sadness, pain, love, despair. “I don’t have to worry about anthrax!” I heard a voice saying, and then realized it was mine.

What struck me most was the shift in my feelings toward my wife. I had read newspaper accounts that many couples have been impacted by September 11, some growing closer together, others falling further apart. Our experience was to feel a notable increase in intimacy, accompanied by a tremendous increase in anxiety, as the horror of our eventual and inevitable parting at our own deaths became real in a way it never had been before.

I began to wonder why I was acting so much more emotionally than usual. I felt vastly more unsafe now, yes, but my mind knew that I was in far more danger driving the freeway than getting on an airplane. My racing emotions were far outpacing the actual increase in physical danger I faced. I also know that while I felt tremendous rage toward Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, and saw them as inhuman as the Nazis, that my intense reactions went deeper than my fury at them.

Something was going on. But what?

I began to notice similar patterns in others. Friends and acquaintances were speaking more loudly than usual, assuring me that they weren’t afraid or calling for tough military action without the slightest idea of whether it would work. Formerly innocuous celebrities like James Woods were seen calling for “bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age.” Talking heads everywhere were yelling, rationalizing mass murder, questioning critics’ patriotism.

What struck me most was the irrationality of government officials like Richard Cheney and Colin Powell, who had waited six months before calibrating a careful military strategy in the 1990 Gulf War. Here the same people were suddenly lurching into an ill-advised military campaign against Afghanistan, which Defense Secretary Rumsfeld admitted might not even find Osama bin Laden, let alone topple the Taliban—but could provide the motivation for new and additional suicide attacks against us.

In the lull between September 11 and the onset of the bombing, it was common to hear the sensible opinion expressed that the perpetrators should be punished coldly and effectively. While it seemed clear that it would be dangerous to do “nothing” because this could only encourage more strikes against America, it was also obvious that it would be even more dangerous to do the wrong thing, e.g. military action that failed to topple the Taliban or kill bin Laden, while inspiring more suicide-bombers and bringing Taliban-like governments into power in nations with nuclear weapons like Pakistan.

From time immemorial, after all, terrorists have not only not feared retaliation from their targets but wished to provoke it, in the hopes that such retribution would radicalize “the masses.” But suddenly this common sense was forgotten. Virtually the entire nation was rallying behind a bombing campaign that within a few weeks was being criticized by the left and right as ineffective.

Why this heightened irrationality on both an individual and societal level? What was beneath it?

A few weeks ago I applied the existential thesis to my own experience. It seemed clear that September 11 had ripped away my ability to deny my own death. For me, the death of so many innocent civilians—ones so much like myself—had stripped away, if only for a minute, my ability to pretend to myself that I was not going to eventually die as well.

This thesis also seemed to explain the increasingly irrational behavior I was seeing on my TV screen, and the military campaign that seemed unlikely to succeed. What if the panic and confusion could not be allayed unless we were willing to look at our own death anxiety, rather than continuing to project it onto others?

Firestone has also written, in an article titled “The Origins of Ethnic Strife,” that “identification with a particular ethnic or religious group … protects one against the horror of facing the objective loss of self. Each person feels he or she will live on as part of something larger which will continue to exist after she or he is gone.” He recently added that “the terror of death provides the impetus driving members of a group to a defensive posture that leads them to believe that members of groups with different belief-systems are a threat. At times this is a driving force towards genocide and ethnic cleansing.”

Firestone believes that human beings are driven in this way to seek “immortality projects,” i.e., ways of achieving eternal life. It is for this reason that Americans turn to their flag in times of stress, as they identify with a cause—nationalism—that will survive their creature death. And it is for this reason that strong religious believers—whether Osama bin Laden or Jerry Falwell—not only embrace religious beliefs that offer eternal life, but turn viciously against those who do not share their beliefs.

This poses a problem for our policy-makers, who face a greatly intensified version of their fundamental Vietnam problem. Deterrence is based on the assumption that one’s enemy does not wish to die. But Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s statement that U.S. policy-makers’ fundamental mistake in Vietnam was to underestimate their foes’ willingness to die is magnified in the case of Muslim extremists. The Vietnamese were willing to die, but did not do so gladly. How does the threat of death deter people who seek it happily, believing that they will live forever in spiritual form by driving an airplane full of screaming civilians into a New York skyscraper?

The suicide bombers were, as Firestone said, “bent out of shape” in their attitudes toward death. And now their insanity has succeeded in bending the rest of us out of shape as well. It seems clear that the underlying cause of the tremendous increase in anger, fear, shock and every other emotion in the book since September 11 is the fact that each of us has been brought face-to-face with our own mortality in a way that was never true before.

One of the sanest voices in the land about how to respond to these strange days has come from where you might least expect it: Oprah Winfrey. Adopting the mantra, “Turn up the volume of your life,” Winfrey has consistently turned people’s attention to where it matters most—within.

For example, on her show Winfrey highlighted the following letter from “Mary,” a woman who decided to divorce her unfaithful husband as a result of September 11. “If I had been killed in the World Trade Center, I would have spent the last few years living with lies and half-truths. So I told my husband of 20 years to leave our home. I will regain my self-confidence and self-respect and now, my last thoughts on this Earth will be that I led a productive, happy life, surrounded by people who love me.”

Could it be that the healthiest response to September 11 is to resolve, like Mary above, that when we are on our deathbed we will be able to say that we lived the life we wished?

If millions of Americans, and our leaders, could look at their lives and futures in this way, it may not only help them but our nation. To watch the talk shows one would think there was no relation between hardheaded policy and how millions of Americans process their feelings in response to September 11. In fact, however, the two are intimately related.

The greatest danger facing our country today is not the terrorists, but the dangers posed by an overly emotional, irrational response to them because the public demands ill-considered action that cannot work. Far more Americans will die if we inflame many in the Muslim population against us, as Osama bin Laden and his colleagues wish, than if we do not.

It sounds far-fetched at present to hope that our national leaders might face these truths and, in so doing, develop a rational military and political policy.

But necessity is the mother of invention. As the largest generation in the history of the world to grow old at once begins to face its own mortality, perhaps baby-boomers will wind up surfacing this issue in ways that are now unthinkable.

One thing seems sure, though. Unless we—as individuals and a society—are willing to face our mortality, we are likely to continue to act out our anxieties about it both at home and abroad, with unimaginable consequences, for many years to come.