As I write this column in mid-July, I am excited in anticipation of the August Chicago Convention, which I expect to be one of our most interesting, informative and entertaining of all time. Yet my customary enthusiasm is tempered by the everpresent new reality of a possible terrorist attack that could undermine these plans. Such is one legacy of Sept. 11; fundamental beliefs in the stability, predictability and controlability of our world in the United States have been undermined by those dramatic terrorist attacks. Surveys reveal that many Americans are still experiencing post-traumatic stress reactions, suffering grief over deceased family and friends, and coping with the fears from continual government warnings of imminent terrorist threats (that violated all psychological principles of effective alarms).
However, it is important to highlight the remarkable national resiliency following Sept. 11. We felt a sense of collective efficacy to make constructive changes in our lives. We recognized the preciousness of human life, the vitality of social connections and the value of living each day to the fullest. Many of us made resolutions to work less, play more, spend more time with family and friends, affirm our spiritual and religious beliefs, and volunteer our time and services as part of greater "global awareness." Civility was suddenly rampant in our urban centers, with "thanks," doors held open and smiling welcomes.
Pride in psychology's participation
I was especially proud of the way psychologist-practitioners swung into immediate action, offering counseling in schools, as well as long-term, pro bono therapy for firefighters and their families, as well as for survivors and other emergency workers. In meeting with some of these therapists and firefighters, arranged by my Brooklyn friends Ellen McGrath and Harry Wexler, it was evident that this was a unique learning experience for all involved. Col. Larry James, PhD, an active APA member, was recently honored by the military for his exemplary role in coordinating psychological services in response to the Sept. 11 attack at the Pentagon.
APA responded admirably by developing one of the most useful Web sites related to psychological aspects of response to terrorism, which became a valuable resource for members, the public and many institutions (see APA Helpcenter/disasters and terrorism). APA members also consulted with legislators, the FBI, the CIA and the military. Psychologists around the nation worked within the Red Cross-orchestrated Disaster Relief Network. Here in California, Bruce Bongar, Larry Beutler and I are in the process of creating a National Center on Disaster Psychology and Terrorism at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, Stanford University and the Palo Alto VA. Our goal is to expand research in the field of disaster psychology, to develop efficacious treatment protocols for various kinds of disasters and terrorist attacks, and to implement a graduate-level, science-based curriculum in this field that would promote clinical competence.
Are we reverting to habitual ways of responding?
But as we reflect back on where we have been and how we have changed as individuals, as a nation and as a discipline, how many of us are sustaining those September resolutions to alter our lifestyles in ways that will promote our personal health and communal wellness? Are we rebounding back to our habitual ambition-driven, future-oriented, self-centered way of being? Are we mindlessly willing to sacrifice hard-won freedoms for illusions of security imposed by excessive government restrictions--as Erich Fromm warned us in his classic book, "Escape From Freedom?"
The patriotism that swept the nation after Sept. 11 was based on reaffirming basic American values of democracy, honesty and fair play. But recently, that collective sense of patriotism has been shaken by evidence of unbridled corporate greed. As if it were not bad enough that the average CEO's compensation has risen from 70 times that of the average worker a few years ago to 410 times as much this year, deductions for their stock options rob the treasury of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes annually. The crimes of Enron executives and their many accomplices, when compounded by revelations of deceptive practices by other major corporations, have undercut consumer confidence, wiped out savings and pensions of workers, and contributed to the loss of $2.4 trillion in the United States' market value in the past year.
This is not supposed to be the American way. This is not the noble goal for which so many Americans sacrificed so much since Sept. 11.
We deserve better from those who lead us, or else they are no better than the terrorists we defiantly oppose.