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Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society 8.2 (2003) 187-199

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Days of Awe:
September 11, 2001 and its Cultural Psychodynamics1

Howard F. Stein

Near the end of September 2001, my seven year-old son, Zev, came home from school with, among other papers, a pencil drawing he had made. Everyone in the second grade class had been asked to draw something about Halloween. His was a simple sketch. In the center of the 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper was a tall, thin rectangular boxy figure, flanked on either side by a couple of long, concave, petal-like strokes. I asked him what it was about—was there a story? He said, "It's a haunted tower, and at the bottom is the haunted basement." I did not ask him for the geographical reference or for an interpretation. Nor did I think I needed to.

Together with his parents, he had watched with horror the televised events of September 11, 2001 unfold in New York City, Washington, D.C., and outside Pittsburgh. We were all struggling to find some form with which to represent what happened. This paper is no different. It is an attempt to comprehend, from many viewpoints, the days of awe that began on September 11, 2001 and which persist to this day. It is about how cultures often come to be haunted by calamities that befall them. And it is about the psychoanalytic interpretation of culture. We, who think we must struggle hard to find "psychoanalytic data" about culture, really do not have to work so very hard. It is readily there—painfully and liberatingly there.

Many understandings of and explanations for the September 11, 2001, jumbojet attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were offered in the immediate aftermath of the event. This paper offers a psychoanalytic perspective on the event and on cultural/historical accounts of it. Specifically, the role of irrational factors, their symbols and political actions, are explored. The events of September 11 resulted not only in immense destruction and loss of life, but in an assault on the American cultural sense of self and of group boundaries. In this paper the attacks are interpreted psychodynamically with respect to the symbolisms of place, and with respect to the larger cultural sense of place and of history among Americans and among those who attacked America—and those who supported the attacks.

The attacks resulted in a sense of violation and humiliation, in the experience of narcissistic injury, and in the effort, through war, to reverse that experience and restore group pride. At the same time, the terrorists and other radicalized Muslims were recoiling from narcissistic injury from the West as well. I argue that, in part, September 11 is the expression of a "crisis cult" (Devereux, "Charismatic"; La Barre) of modernization and globalization among many Islamic peoples, and that it in turn triggered a "crisis cult"(going to war) in the United States. Through an exploration of the symbolisms of September 11, 2001, and of the response to the attacks, I offer a preliminary interpretation of the meanings and causes of the attacks, and of the response to the attacks.


I approach with humility the task of offering a preliminary psychological understanding of the causes and meanings (Spiro) of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The world is abuzz with instant—and repeated—replay and almost immediate analysis. The task of sorting through the cultural rubble is neither easy nor quickly done. The sorting becomes all the more difficult when one takes into account the American penchant for assigning blame as the predominant mode of explaining risk and disaster (Douglas and Wildavsky; Douglas). Although I shall discuss many themes from September 11, perhaps the overarching theme is that of boundaries: their permeability, their violation, their collapse, their reaffirmation—Americans', [End Page 187] the attackers, those who identified and urged on the terrorists, and so...


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Print ISSN
pp. 187-199
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2003
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