September 11 ... Why We Still Feel Vulnerable

Date: 09/09/2002

A University of Western Sydney forensic psychologist says many people still fear further terrorist strikes, twelve months after September 11, because the intensive US military campaign in Afghanistan has failed to turn up alleged mastermind Osama bin Laden.

David Mutton says for many, there's been no real sense of closure.

"The suicide hijackings shattered the delusion we have of being safe in our own country, and that 'this sort of thing would never happen here'. Until Osama is captured and brought to justice, most Americans will still feel they're susceptible to further attacks."

Mr Mutton says recent talk of possible military action against Iraq over its refusal to allow weapons inspections also adds a new dimension to the debate.

"In psychology, it's called 'displacement'. If you can't bring about closure by attacking the true target, you turn your attention to a secondary demon. The US government may be trying to divert attention away from its failure to track down those responsible for September 11, by creating a new enemy," he says.

Mr Mutton says people around the world will feel a range of emotions on the first anniversary of September 11, particularly when they watch the powerful images again on television.

He says while the grieving Australian families of victims will have a hard time dealing with the blanket media coverage, it's people in the US who will probably feel the pain most acutely.

"Those who lost loved ones in the World Trade Centre will naturally be feeling high levels of emotion on the first anniversary, and the services planned for the Ground Zero site will reflect that.

"For those who got out alive, many may still be going through 'survivor guilt'. Survivors often experience depression, because they can't understand why fate spared their life, when a friend or colleague perished. Everyone else often focuses on the survivors' good fortune, which can make matters worse for them, because they feel their survival was random, and therefore not deserved."

Mr Mutton says the first anniversary will also be a testing time for New York's emergency service workers, who lost many colleagues when the twin towers collapsed.

"Emergency workers tend to form very tight working groups, with strong bonds between members. When one of that group dies through the course of their work, the loss is felt more acutely by the group as a whole.

"Survivors and the media have also painted them as heroes. We don't like our heroes to show their vulnerabilities, and many personnel will be afraid to report the trauma they may be going through. Some of those are still likely to be experiencing fear, depression and insomnia, and may not be seeking the help they need," Mr Mutton says.

"All of us should view the first anniversary of September 11 as a vital step in the grieving process. It was a traumatic event for everyone who witnessed it, and one which will have a lasting influence on the way we live our lives," Mr Mutton says.

* David Mutton is a forensic psychologist, and an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder. He served as the Chief Psychologist with the NSW Police Service for 11 years, and provided critical incident debriefing at the Thredbo Landslide Disaster, Port Arthur Massacre, and Glenbrook Train Crash. Mr Mutton has also helped establish a state-wide counselling and support service for police personnel involved with traumatic incidents.

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