Reeling from the events of Sept. 11, Americans have sought solace in patriotism, in spirituality and in one another's company. One week after the tragedy, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and APA Past-president Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, spoke with the Monitor about the sources of encouragement he has found in the wake of the attacks.
Q: Is there any message of hope that we can take away from this catastrophe?
A: I think part of the job of someone who works on optimism is to think about silver linings in a tragedy like this. While I'm not an optimist by nature but by hard work and practice, I think there are several sources of hope for the future here.
First of all, it seems to me that since the end of the Vietnam War, we've seen a generation of Americans grow up that has not been challenged--a generation whose concern has been making money, doing well for yourself and securing yourself. I don't think America has seen itself as part of the world.
What this catastrophe brings home for us is that we are part of the world, and a vulnerable part of the world. I believe that we will see an entire generation of Americans, as of Sept. 11, forming an identity and a purpose that America has not had for a long time. We've known about the dangers of terrorism for 30 years now, but I think we've thought ourselves invulnerable to it. That arrogance has been an undermining force within the nation--it's been part of our failure to involve ourselves with the world and to take seriously that there are large groups of people in the world who vary from not liking us to hating us.
The fact that we're vulnerable brings us into uncharted territory--and America has a long history of rising to the occasion in uncharted territory. The terrorists have shown us that they're capable not only of low-tech terrorism on a massive basis, but that within their reach are nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism. Our realization that extreme jihad fundamentalism, this group of extremists, has hijacked this great religion and is a threat to civilization has galvanized the will of the people to do something serious about it, rather than just trying to firefight one situation after another. And if we wage that kind of war, it will make civilization safer and will make the world a safer place for our children and grandchildren.
Q: Do you see other sources of encouragement emerging from the tragedy?
A: These awful events have told us something about heroism. I've been dismayed by what, over the past 20 years, American people think are heroes--it's celebrities and athletes. We saw in New York, in the deaths of the firefighters and other rescue workers, what real heroism is, and that it's a far strike from Michael Jordan, Princess Diana and Nicole Kidman. So, I think we may see a revising and strengthening of basic values about who our heroes and heroines are.
Q: How can psychologists help foster peace in the future?
A: One of our impulses as psychologists is to try to understand why we're hated in the world and why the terrorists might have done something like this, when we consider ourselves such innocents.
That's important work, but we shouldn't kid ourselves--it's the work of decades. I'm all for understanding why we're hated, but there's something more urgent, and that is the national defense and the defense of civilization. If we look at what happens when fanatical governments topple--when governments that support jihad and murder topple--something interesting happens. There are almost no fascists in Germany or Japan now, and there are almost no Stalinists in Eastern Europe. When murderous governments topple, not all but many of their followers change their minds or simply vanish--particularly when it's followed by a Marshall Plan type of rebuilding.
That's where I believe psychologists can make a contribution. The feeling of national unity and purpose that we have now can be fragile, and it needs to be maintained. I think of the Manhattan Project, and I wonder if enough bright social scientists got together and asked whether there are major projects that could be undertaken that would aid the nation at a time like this, what would we generate? I believe that putting together, on an urgent basis, some of our best minds to brainstorm about how psychology can help the nation is a pressing thing for us to do.