Quake triggered 9/11 anxiety

Updated: 2011-08-30 13:16

By Ran Wei (China Daily)

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A minor earthquake hit America’s East Coast shortly after lunch on Aug 23. The 5.8-magnitude quake lasted for 20-30 seconds, according to the United States Geological Survey.

The epic center was near Mineral, Va, about 60 miles west of Washington, DC. However, millions of Americans from Maine to Florida felt the quake.

For many of them, the experience was the first in their lifetime. The earthquake was the strongest in the East Coast since 1944, when another 5.8 quake in New York rattled the region.

Fortunately, no major damage was done and no human life was lost. The earthquake hit at a time when people were at work or going about their daily business.

The quake turned a perfect late summer afternoon into a day of uncertainty for millions of residents in a region of Washington DC , Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. Because earthquakes are such a rarity on the East Coast, confusion was understandably high. But there was panic as well, fearing something else.

The concern was fed by scenes of massive fleeing from office buildings in midtown Manhattan, the evacuation of New York City offices, jammed wireless services and halted subway services.

Two New Yorkbased airports, John F. Kennedy and La Guardia, were closed temporarily. In the nation’s capital, similar scenes were witnessed and reported in the media. Hundreds of thousands who fled buildings poured into the streets at a time when they were supposed to be at work, while a large number of fire trucks with sirens blaring roamed the streets.

At the Washington Monument across the National Mall, tourists were ordered to evacuate. According to a news report, a tourist coming out of the monument screamed, “Oh, my God, it’s another terrorist attack.”

Indeed, the scenes in New York and Washington conjured up images reminiscent of the 9/11 panics in both cities, when hijacked airplanes knocked down the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan and crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va, across the Potomac River from Washington.

The media reporting of the rare shake the next day that highlighted the panicked crowds in New York and mass evacuations from federal and public buildings in Washington, including the White House, brought back memories of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks.

Three weeks prior to the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the quake rattled the nerves of millions living and working in Washington and New York.

These quake-triggered panics displayed what was termed the “post-9/11 syndrome”, a state of disturbingly high anxiety from experiencing the horrific events 10 years ago, which killed more than 3,000 Americans.

Therefore, earthquake panic reveals deep-seated wounds in Americans’ psyche caused by 9/11. The attacks have become a part of what the philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs called “collective memory”. The attacks have been stored in the memories of millions of Americans who either experienced the attacks or learned about them from the media.

A few months ago, the New York-based Daily News polled 434 New Yorkers shortly after the killing of Osama Bin Laden. According to the poll, when asked “How often do you think of the events of 9/11”? as much as 23 percent said they thought about the events of 9/11 “everyday” and 26 percent said they thought about them “every week”, while 20 percent “said they did so “every month”. Only 2 percent reported that they “hardly ever” thought about the attacks.

The earthquake panic on Aug 23 activated that collective memory. From a communication perspective, it appears Americans resorted to a schematic approach to interpretation of the surprising quake. The scenes of mass fleeing in New York and Washington in 2001 formed a schema. At a moment of high uncertainty and seeing familiar scenes of massive panic, suspension of wireless telephone services, and evacuation of public buildings, they engaged in a cognitive short-cut to interpret the event as another terrorist attack. Using a Chinese proverb, it’s like they have been “bitten by a snake on one morning, being afraid of the rope by the well for 10 years”.

The attacks inflicted on 9/11 have lasting wounds on millions of Americans; the lasting wounds were vividly revealed in the quake-trigged panic. This reminded me of something a veteran New Yorker friend of mine said when I asked him about his safety the day following the 9/11. He replied, “I’m safe and all right, but our soul is broken.”

Critics of America in the post-9/11 world often failed to appreciate the depth of the nightmares that Americans have had in experiencing the 9/11 terrorist attacks on their homeland covered live on television.

The same polls sponsored by the Daily News asked respondents “Are you concerned about another terror attacks taking place in New York?” Twenty percent said, “Yes, they are concerned all the time.” And 36 percent said they were “often” concerned.

 Therefore, the quake-caused public panic betrays an uncanny sense of vulnerability among Americans, which to a great extent explains, but by no means justify, the absurdities of airport security screening throughout US airports, such as X-rays of a 6-month baby in diapers or a full search of a 95-year-old grandmother in a wheelchair at Northwest Florida Regional Airport.

As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America approaches, the quake panic in a way acknowledges the fact that 9/11 has a significant bearing on the worldview of Americans. The world’s sole superpower fell victim to deadly attacks by theorists from a land far away — something Americans have never experienced in its 235-year history. The panic also says the two anti-terror wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did not fix American’s “broken souls” and killing Osama Bin Laden on May 1, 2011, has not healed the 9/11 wounds.

The post-9/11 syndrome as displayed in the late August earthquake panic provides a perspective to understand the thinking and behavior of the US government, as well as average Americans in a post-9/11 world.

The author is a professor of journalism at the University of South Carolina.