President's Column

As I looked out across that vast Grand Canyon of devastation, I saw for the first time.

As I watched firefighters digging endlessly through that mountain of debris for one more body part of a fallen hero, my tears felt something for the first time.

As I reminisced about a family dinner in the magnificent Windows on the World restaurant atop the World Trade Center, I thought for the first time.

In a profound sense, it was all about psychology.

Vibrant lives of thousands of people from New York City and its neighboring global village were now images held tenderly in the arms of a million memories. The buzz of stock market dealings, the bustle of waiters and chefs, the whiz of elevators, the shoe-shine man's melodic brushes were silenced. But now their sounds echo in our collective dedication to transform this mindless tragedy into mindful reappraisal of our personal and national priorities.

From those sacred ashes

In mourning our loss of innocence, and fearing how our freedom was exploited by this spectacular act of terrorism, we have begun to realize that our initial sense of vulnerability is giving way to new-found wisdom and a surprising level of resilience. We grieve with the families and friends of the deceased, feel compassion for the many who suffered myriad tangible and intangible losses. In so doing, we reaffirm the centrality of the human condition. We go further when we revitalize the bonds of the social connection by making kin of strangers, by embracing diversity that enriches the mosaic of our national unity. People, not possessions, are our most valued asset.

In recognizing the fragility of life and fate's random assignments, we reaffirm the preciousness of every moment granted to us and marvel at the sheer wonders of existence. Many of our seemingly important "to do" lists of 9/10 were trivialized after 9/11. Our focus on material success and self-centered achievement--products of excessive future orientation--are being replaced by a more optimal time perspective. We need to work less, play more, connect more closely with family and friends, nourish our roots, and seek meaning and spiritual values in daily transactions. Doing so blends the pleasures of the present moment with the joys of a positive past perspective. Add in a sensible future orientation, and we have a temporal triad that generates a richly balanced lifestyle.

"The Experience" has dramatically altered our criteria for hero status, away from celebrities, the rich and famous, to more ordinary folks who are willing to make personal sacrifices for the well-being of others. These people volunteer because there is a need and they have a skill or the will. Along with the heroic firefighters, police and other emergency workers who died on that battlefield were untold others who have risked their lives and health for months. We can be proud of the many practicing psychologists who offered their health-care services at ground zero and the Pentagon within hours of the disaster, and who continue to give counsel, therapy and aid freely--they surely qualify as heroes.

The psychology of terrorism

Winning the battle against terrorism requires more than military might: We need to appreciate its psychological foundations. Terrorism is the process of inducing fear in a civilian population through violent actions that undercut trust and confidence, while creating a sense of personal vulnerability to random acts of evil. That dark side of human nature, which I and other social psychologists have been studying for decades, is the old yin of positive psychology's new yang. The mental preparation of suicide bombers, of fundamentalist warriors, involves intensely focused mind-control tactics that psychologists have studied in American cults of hate. "Psychological warfare," as applied principles of persuasion, will be needed to win the hearts and minds of the next generation away from a life of terrorism and toward one filled with realizable hopes for democracy through education.

The expertise of psychology's educators and scientists is also being put to use on many fronts in this new encounter with terrorism. As in World Wars I and II, psychologists are again rising to the challenges and opportunities created by this emergency.

I now want to issue a new call to accountability for all psychologists, for APA: Demonstrate that what we do and what we know makes a significant, relevant difference in the lives of people, organizations, communities and our nation. This is my primary presidential initiative. Can I count on you to help me fulfill it?