— The scenes played out on TV and computer screens all across the nation — people spilling into the streets in jubilation over the news that Osama bin Laden had been captured and killed. Some recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Some sang the national anthem. Some clapped. Some cheered.
For the majority of us, the impact of Sunday night's events will be positive, bringing relief and a form of closure, experts say. But for some of those who were personally touched by the 9/11 attacks, the news may result in a rekindling of symptoms and traumatic memories.
“I just started crying,” said Janis Williams, 59, a retired California state worker who barely escaped her hotel at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. “It has reignited old feelings. When you go through something that horrible, you carry it with you.”
Williams said her sobs felt like “a release” of nearly 10 years of worry and wondering whether bin Laden would ever be caught.
“I think the phenomenon being experienced now and witnessed last night when the news was revealed is reminiscent of what occurred in this country on VE day — when World War II ended,” said Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, professor and chair of psychiatry at Columbia University. “When a population is burdened by the memory of an emotional trauma and then relief comes suddenly there can be a powerful release of pent-up emotions.”
No longer victims
Bin Laden’s death will help many Americans feel the world makes sense again, Lieberman said. For the past several decades, starting with the Iran hostage crisis, many had a sense that the nation was in decline, that its leaders had become impotent.
“This reaffirms our faith in the country, in our national identity,” Lieberman said. “And by and large, the emotional and psychological effects will be positive.”
The impact may be very similar to what occurs when a victim’s family hears a guilty verdict in a murder trial, said Dr. Steven Berkowitz, an expert in traumatic disorders and an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.
“There is a sense of release and a return to normalcy,” he explained. “There is a sense that they are no longer victims.”
Still, Lieberman said, there will be some who, because of a psychological vulnerability, will suffer anxiety as a result of the recent events.
“These people may tend to focus on and exaggerate the negative aspects of the situation,” he explained. “They will worry that this could provoke radical Islamic groups to try to retaliate.”
Some may feel reawakened PTSD
The capture and death of bin Laden may also rekindle post-traumatic stress symptoms in those who were keenly affected by the events of 9/11, experts say.
“There is this idea of traumatic reminders,” Berkowitz said. “So it’s possible that for people who were in the towers or the Pentagon or who lost loved ones that this will serve as a reminder of the actual event.”
Some of those people may experience an intensification of post-traumatic symptoms, said Lieberman.
“There is such a powerful experience now occurring as a result of the importance and suddenness of the event — as well as how it’s being amplified in the media,” he explained. “For some this will reactivate emotions they had previously experienced and found a way to manage or suppress in the 10 years after the attacks.”
Whether positive or negative, the impact of Sunday's events will most likely be short-lived, said Berkowitz. “Eventually they will be overtaken by day-to-day life,” he said. “We will go back to worrying about the issues we had been worried about before. College students facing finals will focus on those.”
For Janis Williams, bin Laden’s death offers a form of closure, but not a complete erasure. She still has nightmares about the tragedy and has thought about the events of 9/11 nearly every day for almost a decade.
“I’ve learned how to live with it,” she said. “But because I’m a witness and a survivor, it will never go away.”