Listening Post: Coffee or coffin?

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.

Skull and crossbones mug. Photo: Michael Marusin, CC some rights reserved

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?


8 Comments on “Listening Post: Coffee or coffin?”

  1. mollie says:

    And yet, that wonderful rendition of EVERYONE singing together at Boston Garden last night (yes, I noticed that a lot of the hockey players didn’t sing – they’re mostly Canadian after all) of the National Anthem. It’s stuff like that that HEALS us and brings us back together again. Says me, probably being a PollyAnna.

  2. Rebecca W says:

    Your headline brought to mind the great Eddie Izzard bit “Cake or Death?” (I’ll take the cake, please..)
    Joy, laughter, creativity- hard to keep that front in center in times like these, but if you can, you fight death with life!

  3. Sunshine says:

    I was there when this happened.
    The outcome from this misadventure is that it became abundantly clear to me that this building, which has no security at the entrance, is foolishly open to all kinds of unwanted behaviours.
    This building needs an exit plan for emergencies. No one knew what to do.
    With the wide variety of personalities visiting this building on a daily basis, a plan for evacuation (a written plan which all employees have and drills…just like the schools have) is definitely in order.

  4. A thoughtful and interesting post, Dale. Thank you.

  5. The Kid says:

    I think Greenberg was right. When frightened you go with those who think like you. I was always semi-amused by the number of cars with flags flying after 9/11 when only a small minority of people have ever served this country. And if anyone, those who do serve are the ones who get screwed the most by our own government and consequently….it’s flag wavers. (I served…I can say that.) Perhaps one of our biggest mistakes is not having universal service to the country. I have a relative who truly believes that having a civilian’s job is the equivalent of serving in the military…as if he passed road side bombs on the way to work. Universal service, with very rare exemptions, might make people think twice about what we are and who we are. More importantly it would give everybody a common experience about what our privileges are and what they mean. We have an income disparity that is beyond disgrace. CEO’s earning 345 times the pay of the common worker. Based on a ten dollar and hour wage a CEO would earn in that same hour $3,450. Based on a $30,000 a year salary a CEO would earn ten million three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Fair? No! We just watched the genius who created the Apple stores almost destroy J.C. Penny. (How’d that happen?) Five Walmart family members are billionaires. A CEO earning $500,000 a year would have to save every penny of that income for 2000 years to become a billionaire! (Who mads Walmart what it is? Us!…not them…think about it. Great idea? Yes. Great Country? Yes. Share more? I think so. A whole lot more. With one exception the few people I know with tons of money are not concerned with education, healthcare, food and housing….and are only concerned about themselves and having “more.” And few of us realize that we make the rich richer everyday with exemptions and tax dodges that the common you and me will never know. I have a relative who believes that he has the right to own the most gas guzzling polluting car one can have because “this is America” where money buys rights. So the more money you have the more you have a right to build a 10,000 square foot house and consume more energy than anyone else because you have “more.” The AMA limits the number of doctors that can graduate from Amercian medical schools…that’s insane! We should be paying folks to get medical degrees and build more colleges to train them! But money owns our government. It owns our prisons…it’s buying our schools…and we blame the poor for everything! Little wonder why Samuel Clements waited till he was dead to make fun of America’s infatuation with a religion founded to take care of the poor…as long as we blame them for everything that’s wrong. If anything 9/11 made us whackier than we were.

  6. David Duff says:

    Increasingly, it appears to me that the 24 hour news cycle makes it easy to obsess on the constant stream of factual and not-so-factual information, just a finger tap away. The fact of the matter is that the county office scare came about because somebody left their lunch unattended in their backpack – happens dozens of times a day at local schools and certainly it happens in my house when I realize halfway to work that my lunch is left on the counter.

    Coffee/coffin. Hypervigilant/just normal snafu. It’s up to us to decide our level of preoccupation and paranoia. Watching the 24 hour news cycle every 15 minutes is a precursor to staying frightened 24/7. We are in the throes of the latest “what’s happening right now”.

    Just for a moment, take the angst and anxiety as a consequence of the Boston event and imagine living with that 24/7, 365 days of the year, as they do in Beirut, as they do in Afghanistan, Pakistan and many countries in Africa.

    And we wonder why Suni and Shiia can’t get along? Why the Catholics and the Protestants can’t get along? It’s our own fear that causes us to react this way. If we let the purveyors and marketers of fear have their way, it will only get worse. For your sanity’s sake, turn the electronic media off and be in control of your life. Use it in a responsible, healthy fashion. Stop obsessing. Either we’re in control of it or it’s in control of us.

  7. Anne Burnham says:

    Thanks for the great piece, Dale? I have been thinking about Boston all week. I used to work at the Public Library in Watertown; and as one person interviewed on Fri said “It wasn’t the kind of place where you had to be afraid to go outside. What does Elena have to say about this all?

    Anne B

  8. Dale Hobson says:

    Hi Anne–

    First we heard about the bombing was a cryptic post from Elena saying she was safe in Newton. (where she works.) I think her reactions have been pretty typical, low grade anxiety until she had checked in with everyone she knew who might have been in danger, punctuated by moments of Holy Crap! when events took a new turn. I think she’s tired of living in the epicenter of mayhem, and was very relieved last night when the lockdown ended and the guy was caught.

    I doubt that the whole experience will change her view of the metro Boston area as a great place to live. She isn’t inclined much toward borrowing trouble from tomorrow. She leaves that stuff to me.


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