Trauma recovery and justice: September 11 and its aftermath

Trauma and Recovery

The emotional reactions we experienced on September 11 and the days since are natural reactions to horrific events. The loss of life of so many people in the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the crash of the hijacked plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania are too horrible to grasp at first. Our initial shock is matched by disbelief and when we do start to realize what happened we often experience great sadness.

Other emotions take hold as well, everything from fear, guilt, and anger to even rage. The more we see on television, read in newspapers or hear on radio, the more the mind (and body) respond and attempt to adapt. This process of adaptation, though normal under the circumstances, sets off a range of reactions in individuals and groups. These reactions should be addressed in creative/constructive ways to allow the recovery process to begin, continue and for the eventual psychological integration of the trauma events.

The process of trauma recovery is critical and may include the following factors:

  • Everyone will go through the process at a different pace and in his or her own way. This is the case for groups as well.
  • Whether individual or group, recovery is critical to rebuilding or reclaiming what has been destroyed and taken away.
  • Individuals and/or groups need the time and a safe place for a “healing” response to trauma.
  • Emotions are normal and can be problematic. Anger, for example, if not acknowledged by others and constructively expressed, may lead to rage and potentially revenge against the perpetrator(s) of the violence-creating or continuing a cycle of violence.

To understand this last response, it is important to realize that a traumatic event threatens or takes away our sense of security and identity and makes life unpredictable, both in the moment and often for long periods of time afterwards. People living in America (and other parts of the world) are going through this place of uncertainty about their safety, identity and what the future holds for them. What they want is to reclaim the essential elements of a ‘normal’ life. How they go about this and how they are lead through the recovery process to a place of greater certainty and predictability is critical.

Trauma Recovery and Justice

What form of justice will continue and sustain a recovery process for the families of those lost in this tragedy, and for all of us as we seek security in our world? Is it only the punitive kind that uses the rule of law and possibly violence to ‘right the wrong’ or is it justice that leads to transformation of unjust circumstances through the development of just relationships? If the latter, then the relationships become creatively dynamic, nonviolent and ones that include:

  • Our ability to see through the fear that drives us to misuse power and abuses others to maintain, gain, reclaim or balance this power.
  • Structures that provide economic, social and political access to resources for all people.
  • Dialogue for tolerance, leading to a deeper sense of interdependency of individuals and groups of people across the world.

Justice for or as a part of recovery from trauma should, at minimum, reflect these elements of relationship. This says that relationships can be ‘just’ because they are based on a set of values that reflect the importance of our common human identity within a global context of different cultures and worldviews. And it is only this type of justice that will significantly contribute to breaking the cycle of both personal and structural violence. If the cycle continues, we no longer have the possibility of living together and never have the chance to recovery from one trauma to the next. This need not be the case. September 11, 2001 is about horrific events that we should grieve, but it can also be about discovering through the experience deeper understanding of how we can be with each other in the world.

Barry Hart, PhD, is the professor of Trauma, Identity & Conflict Studies at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.