Like many of you, I have been swept up in the coverage of the recent events in Boston, obsessively checking websites, my email and the tube for the latest updates. It’s been a grim week, creating an all-too-familiar combination of anxiety, anger and bewilderment that so marked the days immediately following the 9-11 attacks. The follow-on incidents of poison-by-mail brought back to mind the anthrax attacks that came on the heels of 9-11.
Then yesterday, we saw an echo closer to home of the besieged mindset, when the St. Lawrence County Community Services Building was evacuated following the discovery of an unattended backpack. (It turned out it was left behind briefly while its owner went to get some paperwork from his car.)
Morning Edition yesterday had a great feature examining the psychology of post-attack thinking: “Boston Blasts A Reminder Of ‘The Fragility Of Life” by Alix Spiegel. I had just heard the piece when the news came from the county building, and I wondered whether the same situation would have triggered such a response had it happened last week, before the Boston bombing.
Probably not, according to Spiegel’s thinking. He cites psychologist Jeff Greenberg, who did an interesting study in the aftermath of 9-11, using a technique called incomplete word stems. You give subjects the beginning of a word and ask them to complete it:
“You could fill it out with a death-related word or a nondeath-related word — so, for example, coff- could be either ‘coffee’ or ‘coffin,’ ” he says.
For a long time after Sept. 11, the probability that people would choose “coffin” instead of “coffee” was higher than normal.
Besides random jumpiness and morbid associations, the mindset may have important consequences in the national life, as well as the individual’s:
“When death is percolating close to consciousness, people become more ‘us vs. them’ — they become defensive of their belief system, positive toward those they identify with and more negative to those who espouse a different belief system,” he says.
This explains in part, he asserts, why the country became so polarized after the 2001 attacks. The immediate instinct to rally together was overwhelmed by the anxiety-strengthened differences among us.
As I sit and sip my cup of “coffin,” I think of Boston, New York and Washington, Oklahoma City and Newtown. If these experiences, in the end, only drive us further apart–what experience can bring us together?