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Home > Research Articles > Americans muster strength to fight fear


Friday, March 28, 2003

By Karen S. Peterson, USA TODAY

As the bombs fall in Iraq and the USA fears reprisals on its own soil, Americans must learn to deal with prolonged fear and uncertainty.

The country has had some practice since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But much of America, tucked safely away from probable terrorist targets, has not been truly tested. Do we have the right stuff for the long haul at home, for months if not years of pronouncements of Code Orange? And for the years of economic belt-tightening that may lie ahead?

For many, it will be a challenge to keep it all together. It is time to wonder: Just how resilient will we be?

"We are in uncharted waters," says Charles Figley, a stress expert at Florida State University. "There is a historic confluence of disturbing events in American history. We had 3,000 Americans die in one day on 9/11. We had a space shuttle disintegrate on re-entry, and one of our true triumphs, the space program, is in tatters. We have an unsolved mystery, a scourge of anthrax," as well as great economic uncertainty. "In terms of our safety, we are always on edge and are overloaded with information" from media that trumpet news 24/7.

It does seem that American mettle at home is yet to be fully tested. Most significantly, recent wars have been relatively short, with few American casualties.

But now Americans are dying in combat, and the faces of American prisoners of war haunt viewers at home. For many younger Americans, it is particularly shocking. They don't remember the Vietnam period and how it tore at the fabric of the nation.

Once again we see the faces of American protesters and the rumblings of domestic discontent. "We did learn by our mistakes in Vietnam" about fighting a war the country does not fully support, Figley says. "But we have not evidently learned enough about the politics of it." A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll this week showed that 72% favor the war with Iraq. But in many ways, "this nation is divided against itself over its military mission."

Until the stock market tanked, younger baby boomers took success for granted. But the dot-com bubble burst, and along with their older brethren, they may face working longer years to make up for economic losses.

"I worry because we are a spoiled society," says Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist with the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton. "We are used to being consumers and having almost instant gratification. I am concerned about Americans having the courage and perseverance to deal with terrorism."

Even the young seem jaded. "We are looking for alternative sources of information like the Internet because we don't trust what we hear anymore," says Mike Baab, 21, of Seattle. "We have lost our innocence since 9/11. This is the first time my generation has had to face any real hardship. This war against terrorism has the potential to either ruin or define my generation."

Except for those who stoutly serve plus their families, and the towns and businesses that depend on them Americans have not yet been called upon to make great sacrifices for the war.

Those who are polishing their golden years, those who saved and sacrificed to endure World War II, may become their guides.

The crucible that molded those who have been called "the greatest generation" now in their 70s and older was "a dozen years of the Great Depression," says Robert Thompson, who studies American culture at Syracuse University.

The crucible for younger generations "was this utopian dream period of about eight years when you put $20 into a mutual fund in March and by December it was worth $40," Thompson says.

After years of struggle, many of the nation's elders have a type of learned optimism, coping skills they have developed over time. "Of course, we have no control over the situation we are in now," says Leah Rosenbluth, 89, of Phoenix.

"But we still have to be active, do what we love to do, and do it well," she says. "In addition to my hobbies, I try to do something nice for someone every day. I find that it helps."

Despite generational differences, Americans display many traits that indicate they will endure the sacrifices that war and prolonged years of anxiety will require.

One is a cultural belief in rewards for their pain. "Americans expect that any suffering they endure will lead to a positive outcome," says Dan McAdams, a professor of human development and psychology at Northwestern University and author of the upcoming book The Redemptive Self. "The strong expectation is that after individual suffering or a public event such as 9/11, we will move upward and onward. We will get through this and come out ahead."

But there is a downside to this "cultural motif," he says. "This may be an overly optimistic and naive expectation that things will work out. If things do not go well in this war, it may turn out the notion of redemption is a fragile ideal."

What might help Americans find a haven from the fears that lie ahead? Reassurance may be found in both expected and unexpected places:

The knowledge that Americans have dealt with long-term fear before "We survived years of knowing we were on the edge of thermonuclear war," says Roy Licklider, a political science professor at Rutgers University and an expert on terrorism. "I spent much of my career working under the assumption that the world was going to be incinerated" in the Cold War. The fear of communist aggression prompted many American families to build bomb shelters. "That makes terrorism look like small beans," Licklider says. Much of our problem with the fear of terrorism is that "it is so new and strange to us. It is a matter of getting used to it."

Many other cultures have. "We can assume we are like people everywhere," says Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist who studies risk management at Carnegie Mellon University. "In Israel and Palestine, in Colombia, people go on living their ordinary lives," though they may have a brush with death at any time. "They continue to go to work. They continue to love their children. They have adjusted."

A belief in something outside one's self.

"If there is hope for developing a deeper character" in traumatic times, "it will come from religion, a foundation in religious faith," sociologist Wuthnow says. Faith sustains multitudes. Rosenbluth says: "My father influenced me greatly. He was a very spiritual man who used to say to me, 'Throughout my life, I am trying to connect with the source of my being, with God, who is the power of the universe.' I believe my father connected through joy and love, and I try to look for the joy in the tasks I do and be aware of the wonders of love in my life."

A strong sense of self.

Upbringing and genes do matter. Self-esteem is an important facet of any resilient personality, says Theodore Millon, dean of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Personology and Psychopathology in Coral Gables, Fla. "People who have the good fortune of having positive, strong parental support as children, opportunities, affection and care" will tend to develop a strong sense of self-worth, a trait that "helps deal with the stress and strain of life." Specific warnings from the government. "The American people will have the right stuff if we structure the situation in a way that reinforces their strengths and resilience," says David Barlow of Boston University's Center for Anxiety Disorders. Anxiety feeds upon "the sense that threats and danger are unpredictable and uncontrollable." Vague terrorist alerts only heighten the tension, he says. (Information on preparing for a terrorist attack is available at ready.gov.) Even if the jury is still out on whether Americans have the right stuff for the long haul, there are hopeful signs. Americans have not "ceased to be courageous," says Robert Bellah, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California-Berkeley. "We are not lacking in moral stature. We are quite capable of standing up against the bad guys."

The challenge, he says, is taking into account the various divisions in the country about "how long-term decisions are being made."

Untested Americans can be counted on to step up to the plate, stress expert Figley says. "There is every reason to believe that when push comes to shove, we will shove back." The national response to 9/11 was not an aberration. "We have so many examples and instances of Americans rising to the occasion."