Projecting Fear: How America coped in the aftermath of 9/11

By Julia Conley

Two days before my first birthday, the World Trade Center in New York City was hit by hijacked planes driven by militant Islamic terrorists (cnn.com). Three thousand people were killed. Our country was stricken with grief and dread. When I was eight, my father was in a bicycle accident and was taken to the hospital. I was home alone that night and when the man who found my dad unconscious called my house, I picked up the house phone. He told me about the accident and I was stricken with dread. To make matters worse, my mom was at a meeting and was not picking up her cell phone. My father recovered fully, yet that moment shook me to the core. After that, I had a huge fear that my parents were going to die. When I had to spend the night away from home, I would have panic attacks and I would have to be picked up. For a few months, I despised leaving my parents for long periods, I did not attend camps, trips, or sleepovers. 

One day, when I was too scared to go on a class trip, my mom said “Julia, I love you and it pains me to see you uncomfortable, but this fear is holding you back. You are missing out on amazing experiences and opportunities because you won't spend the night away. I know it is scary, but you are strong and can fight this fear.” It did take time, and therapy, but I overcame my fear. I even ended up spending three months abroad in Peru and having a, yes, sometimes scary, but overall amazing experience that I would not have had any other way. This is where many Americans went wrong when recovering from the pain of 9/11,  we did not challenge our fear instead we let it rule us.

Similarly, when I was scared as a child, I thought I could run from and eliminate that which I thought was causing my fear; this only strengthened my anxiety. In the end, I had to address the root of my fear which I could not eradicate: myself. Unfortunately, the coping method of projecting and avoiding our fear plagues this country. On a collective level, Americans have decided that it is okay to blame others for our anxiety instead of taking responsibility for our own emotions.  

Considering the 2oth anniversary of 9/11, it is important to address how our country decided to place the fear of terrorists onto Arab and Muslim people. The U.S government started monitoring and surveilling Muslim institutions such as restaurants, student groups, and mosques (vaonews.com). The United States military invaded Arab countries in search of terrorist groups, killing innocent civilians in their path. American citizens, on the other hand, took the approach of spewing hate that resulted in the assault and death of innocent people. In 2017 the FBI released this chart showing the spike in Islamaphobic hate crimes in the years following 9/11.

Two days before the 20th anniversary of that day, Prof. Bailey displayed an article in class, it stated “20 years, $6 trillion, 900,000 live: The enormous costs and elusive benefits of the war on terror (vox.com).” It addressed the destruction and murders that President Bush’s “war on terror” resulted in. In response to the 3,000 people killed on 9/11 President George Bush decided to declare a “war on terror,” an “American effort to root out terrorism in the Middle East and beyond (brown.edu).” However, by initiating this act, Bush also implied that our country was going to war with an emotion. This is only possible if we give our terror a physical form, which we did in the shape of Muslims. Subsequently, Islamophobia and hate crimes skyrocketed. 

Although President Bush did condemn hatred towards Muslim people, even visiting a mosque post 9/11, the words “war on terror” had already stoked the mass fear of brown people. The results would have been drastically different if George Bush had declared a “moment of introspection and inner-courage.” We live in a society that has not been taught to take personal responsibility and self-soothe. 

The pandemic has proven this further as hate crimes towards Asian people have drastically increased. If we do not learn to deal with our fear from within, innocent people will continue to be killed. As a child, when I feared spending the night away, I was not taught to just stay in my house, I was taught to leave more and sit in the discomfort until it stopped being so unbearable. Ultimately, my life was enhanced, and I had experiences I never would have had otherwise. As an adult, I realize people in America need to do this. Especially after devastating events such as the attack on the World Trade Center or a pandemic. It is far easier for us to actualize our fear in others, but we need to grow up and deal with our own emotions. The results will be far more fruitful. 

 Sources: 

https://www.brown.edu/news/2021-09-01/costsofwar

https://www.vox.com/22654167/cost-deaths-war-on-terror-afghanistan-iraq-911

https://www.voanews.com/usa/how-911-changed-arab-and-muslim-americans

https://www.cnn.com/2013/07/27/us/september-11-anniversary-fast-facts/index.html

https://www.911memorial.org/learn/students-and-teachers/lesson-plans/muslims-america-after-911-part-ii

Julia Conley is an Atlanta native and a current junior at Davidson College.