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What's The Best Way To Remember And Heal?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Later in the program, you probably heard all the talk about family at the political conventions that just ended. We'll ask our diverse panel of moms whether they heard anything from the conventions that mattered to their families.

But we want to start today by remembering that day 11 years ago when America came under attack from al-Qaida. Shortly after 9:00 in the morning, planes struck the Twin Towers in Manhattan. And later that morning, a third plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Here's President George W. Bush speaking on the night of the attack.


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes or in their offices, secretaries, businessmen and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror.

MARTIN: Every year since then, people across the country have taken a moment to remember the nearly 3,000 lives lost that day and to honor the families whose lives changed forever. But as time moves on, we thought this would be a good time to ask: What does it mean to commemorate this or any other national tragedy, and does it help or hurt?

To talk more about this, we called psychiatrist Dr. Carl Bell. He's the president and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago, and a good deal of his work focuses on violence and recovering from violence. Also with us is historian Kevin Levin. He lost a family member in the south tower, and he wrote about 9/11 for The Atlantic magazine in January.

Welcome to you both.

CARL BELL: Thank you.

KEVIN LEVIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Kevin, may I also say condolences to you and your family.

LEVIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: You know, Dr. Bell, I think it's worth mentioning that this conversation came out of an editorial meeting with our staff, and we were talking about whether - or how - we should mark the 9/11 anniversary this year on the program, as we have done every year. And so the question, then, I think to start with is: What purpose is served? What emotional need is served by marking these anniversaries?

BELL: Well, you know, when trauma occurs, it can either be used as something that sort of disrupts life in the form of a traumatic reminder, or it can be used in a healthy way, sort of like when they throw lemons, some people figure out how to make lemonade. How do you turn consciously traumatic helplessness into learned helpfulness is something that I think everybody can learn, because trauma is pretty common.

And these huge disasters are occurring, it seems, more frequently, but regardless, you've got to figure out how to do the traumatic helplessness and shift it to learn helpfulness. So I think it's a double-edged sword.

MARTIN: Mr. Levin, you know, we think of America as a young country that prides itself on releasing old grievances, do we not? And you wrote an article in The Atlantic in January about what the Civil War can teach us about 9/11 remembrance. Would you mind talking a little bit about that?

LEVIN: Yeah. I think one of the closest connections between remembrance of the Civil War and 9/11 is that, first of all, both of them were traumatic events that had to be dealt with on some level. And Dr. Bell just talked about the trauma of it all. But there's also a need to sort of look at the meaning of the event for each subsequent generation.

And when we look at the Civil War and Civil War memory, you know, what we find is that each generation has to figure out, you know, what that event means at any given time. And, you know, for the first few decades after the Civil War, it was really the soldiers themselves who had fought through the war who were really, you know, in charge, leading the commemorative efforts for the nation, making sense of it for themselves and for everyone else.

And I think similarly, in a case of 9/11, at least these first 11 years, the families of the victims have really, you know, taken the lead in showing the nation how to come to terms with the event, how to make meaning out of the event. And I think that's a very healthy thing, and I think we have a very, you know, human need to do so...

MARTIN: But is it...

LEVIN: ...especially when it's traumatic.

MARTIN: Do you find it - on a personal level, if you don't mind my asking - helpful or painful, or perhaps a bit of both?

LEVIN: I think both. The pain is one thing. The pain has to be dealt with on a number of levels. But it's also helpful, you know, to try to come to terms with it. I mean, I think like everyone else, trying to figure out how the event should be remembered. You know, as a teacher I have the unique opportunity to sort of work through some of my own personal questions and emotions with my students. So that has been very helpful for me, on a personal level.

MARTIN: Dr. Bell, what do you think on a - go ahead. Mm-hmm.

BELL: Well, you know, pain is often the shell that encloses understanding, and you've got to somehow have enough, I don't know, guts, wisdom to understand that. Because a lot of times, there's understanding underneath the pain, and Mr. Levin just talked about finding meaning, which is extraordinarily important in dealing trauma.

With trauma, you've got to tell the story to somebody who can listen. You've got to find meaning, and then you've got to find that understanding that's inside the pain. And some people, unfortunately, are so traumatized and hurt that they don't ever get to the understanding that's inside, and it's unresolved grief, which is not helpful.

MARTIN: We're talking about the benefits and perhaps the negatives of commemorating tragic national events like September 11th. We're speaking with psychiatrist Dr. Carl Bell. He's done extensive work in addressing violence and the aftermath of violence, and also historian Kevin Levin. So, Dr. Bell, you know, one of the reasons I find the comparison with the Civil War helpful, which is that - Mr. Levin pointed out in his writing, is that 9/11 is still divisive.

BELL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: There are people who draw very different meanings from it. Like, you remember in New York, there's still this ongoing and tense emotional argument about whether it's appropriate to have an Islamic place of worship even anywhere in the proximity...

BELL: Right.

MARTIN: ...of Ground Zero. And other people say, well, of course there should be.

BELL: Sure.

MARTIN: It's an example of our strength and tolerance as a country. Other people say, well, of course there should not be. And you have to believe that that's, in part, due to the fact that this is still such a raw event, even 11 years later. So I wanted to ask, as a group, is there a way that we could, as a country, utilize the inevitable, which is the anniversary, to make it an experience that enhances healing, as opposed to further adds to the division?

BELL: You know, one of the biggest challenges for this nation is how to manage its diversity. And it takes a lot of leadership skills, a lot of soft skills, a lot of emotional intelligence to do that on a very big scale. But there is a phenomenon from trauma called post-traumatic growth, and in post-traumatic growth, people actually learn from these kinds of experiences.

One of the things that I think America has learned is that it's not invulnerable, and things can happen on these shores, which is something that we sort of denied. Of course, the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor sort of shook that loose. But people are going to have diverse opinions. Some people are going to be thoughtful and wise, and others are just going to be limbic fight, flight or freeze. And it's balancing those forces that gives us practice, because it's going to happen again.

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

BELL: Because life is trauma. Life is death. You know, I mean, there's always something bad happening and something wonderful and beautiful happening. And we've got to figure out how to deal with that complexity.

MARTIN: Hmm. Mr. Levin, what about you, as somebody who writes professionally about historic memory? I'm really - do you teach about 9/11, and has that changed over the years?

LEVIN: Yeah. The way I've taught 9/11 in the past is - well, it's evolved over the last 10, 11 years. And I think with those first few years following 9/11, you know, I still had students who lived through it. They have a very emotional attachment to that event. And so the way I would approach it in class know, I still had students who lived through it. They have a very emotional attachment to that event and so the way I would approach it in class is to try to harness some of that emotion, so I would, you know, ask them to think about ways in which we can remember 9/11. If they were to open up a museum or construct a memorial, how would they balance some of the things between emotion and understanding, some of the things that the September 11th Memorial Museum is dealing with right now. But in the more recent...

BELL: See, that's healthy. That's very healthy.

LEVIN: Yeah. In more recent years, however, we can begin to look at 9/11 as a historical event, which is how I think my students are now coming to think of 9/11, as part of recent American and world history.

MARTIN: Dr. Bell, I was just going to ask you for just any closing thought that you have. Particularly interested in looking to next year, for example, the year after that. What kinds of things would you want us to be thinking about as we think about it?

BELL: Well, you know, I - being a psychiatrist and trying to help people deal with these sorts of adversities, I'm always trying to get people to see that they need to prepare for these kinds of situations when they're in the middle of them, to try to take a break so that you can think clearly. You know, when you're in the middle of a bad situation, it's probably the worst time to make a decision.

And then, once you've done those two things, prepare and take a break, you go back to the incident and you either try to change something on the outside, like we've done with airport screening, or you change your inside and you come to grips with the fact that you're not immortal. We're not a completely protected nation and that we've got vulnerabilities and strengths.

MARTIN: Kevin Levin, what about you?

LEVIN: I think, as a teacher, you know, really, the best way I can answer that question is I hope that Americans will, you know, at this point in time, you know, still engage with the sort of emotional side of, you know, memory of 9/11, their own personal connection, but begin to perhaps make that or take that step, maybe one step away, and begin to think more critically about 9/11 and what's happened in the wake of 9/11, but, you know, to try to begin to balance those two sides.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask how you plan to mark the day?

LEVIN: I'll probably talk to my family. I'll probably take some time just to walk alone for a few minutes and think about Alisha. That's what I've done every year since.

MARTIN: Kevin Levin is an historian. His latest book is "Remembering the Battle of the Crater" and, as we also mentioned, he lost a family member on 9/11 in the South Tower and he was kind enough to join us from Boston.

From Chicago, from member station WBEZ, psychiatrist Dr. Carl Bell. He's the president and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council and he's kind enough to join us from time to time to talk about important mental health issues.

Thank you both so much for speaking to us.

BELL: Thank you.

LEVIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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