How 9/11, the pandemic and other big events rewire our fear circuitry

What we can learn from the fear we felt — and still feel during the pandemic — and the ending of the war in Afghanistan.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) A janitor walks past Transportation Security Administration sign reading: "If you See Something, Say Something," to encourage citizens to report suspicious activities at Union Station on Tuesday, April 16, 2013.

“See something, say something.”

In the days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, this saying emerged in New York City and soon spread nationwide. Suddenly, we were all on the front lines in the war against terrorism.

Is that an unattended package? Time to call in the bomb squad.

What are those men up to? Might be worth contacting the FBI.

Is that truck parked in a suspicious place? Call 911.

In 2001, the nation grieved as a whole, pulled together and feared the next attack. We went to war, and then, a few years later, we went to war again. We rounded up people at Guantanamo. We over-surveilled Muslims. We passed laws intended to help track potential terrorists and accepted new security procedures. We killed Osama bin Laden. And, most recently, we ended the war in Afghanistan, though not in a way anyone hoped.

We changed.

It has been 20 years since the most devastating terrorist attack ever inflicted on our soil. It’s a time to reflect on how those assaults affected us and how the threats have morphed. It’s time to think about the lessons learned from Afghanistan. For young people, Sept. 11 is a pivotal moment in history they learn about in school. But for those of us old enough to remember where we were when the planes hit the World Trade Center, Sept. 11 is far more visceral. If you remember where you were, you probably remember what you felt, and it was likely a mix of anger, confusion, panic and fear.

We were under attack. All of us.

The power of fear

That tightening in your chest, that feeling of doom, that desire to protect your loved ones — that’s all normal, and it was felt widely.

The nation experienced a collective trauma, and it was documented by researchers at Utah’s Intermountain Medical Center. Looking at blood samples, they tracked elevated stress markers in our DNA and charted a rise in heart attacks.

“The interesting thing about fear is that it’s primal, and it’s universal,” said Anu Asnaani, a clinical psychologist at the University of Utah. “Fear is normal. Fear is natural. And fear is important.”

(Courtesy photo) Anu Asnaani is a clinical psychology professor at the University of Utah who focuses on fear-based disorders.

It also can cause problems. She said the “see something, say something” motto was an important step to help protect the public, but it could also lead to hyper-vigilance and result in post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s when people get that physical response to fear at times when it isn’t helpful. There’s a whole lot of gray between a healthy dose of fear and a clinically diagnosed disorder.

Big events — like 9/11 — rewire our fear circuitry. This could explain why you get a little jumpy when you see a plane flying low or hear about increased security because of a terrorist threat.

“Those things,” Asnaani said, “can retrigger some of the very same fear reactions that we would have had.”

Your body is remembering how you felt back in 2001. For some, those reactions may be more intense than for others. But it is normal.

There are few collective traumas as large as a mass terrorist attack. A pandemic, however, is one of them. Asnaani connects the two.

“It’s not unreasonable to have walked away from something so atrocious [as 9/11] and been like, ‘The world isn’t safe anymore. I’m not safe anymore. Nothing feels safe,’” she said. “That is an absolute corollary to what could be happening with COVID-19. I could have the same ‘I’m not safe anymore. The world is not safe’ reaction.”

Her advice: Don’t dodge how you feel. Accept it. Recognize we all process things at different speeds. Get help if needed. You can call the Utah Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The goal should be to live a life worth living, understanding that threats are out there.

Also, we should remember. We should carry with us the memory of Sept. 11. We should learn from the coronavirus crisis we are living through.

“As difficult and as uncomfortable as that can be,” Asnaani said, “it can be really very helpful for us in our lives moving forward.”

Threats change

Ben Holder took a year off after high school and was living with his family in Washington, D.C., during the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The deaths of nearly 3,000 people transformed how he viewed the world and what he ended up studying. He took classes in political science and economics, with a focus on security in the Middle East.

He later joined the FBI and was in the academy when then-President Barack Obama announced in 2011 that Navy SEAL Team 6 had killed Osama bin Laden. Holder is now the supervisory special agent in charge of the international terrorism squad in Salt Lake City.

He said the value of “see something, say something” remains even as the danger from terrorists has evolved.

“We can’t do our job without the public,” Holder said. “Our relationship with the public is vital for us to be able to stay ahead of threats.”

He lamented that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, there “was a lot of negative stereotyping,” which led to “a lot of bad threat reporting.” That focused largely on Muslims, but he said it also included anyone who looked different.

“Utah is a pretty homogenous state, so people who look different kind of stand out here,” he said. “That led, in my mind, to unfortunately bad information being passed at times. But the FBI learned from that.”

He said it is harder for law enforcement and, by extension, all of us to track the shifting threats from terrorism. The Sept. 11 attacks happened before the ubiquitous nature of smartphones, before social media. Now jihadists can send propaganda around the world and radicalize people, such as the man who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Fla. He claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2016.

There also are increasing threats from white nationalists and what Holder calls “anti-government, anti-authority groups” within our country.

He said another large-scale attack like the one from 20 years ago is unlikely but noted that Americans die each year at the hands of terrorists.

Smaller-scale attacks are harder to track and harder for all of us on the front lines to keep an eye out for. So, he suggests, we should continue to trust our instincts.

“The intuition that people have about when something looks wrong is usually right,” he said, “and so even if it doesn’t fit what an individual would think would qualify as a threat, you should probably report that.”

You can call 801-579-1400 to reach the FBI’s Salt Lake City office. The national hotline is 1-800-CALL-FBI or tips can be submitted online at tips.fbi.gov.

Learning from Afghanistan

Most of the terrorists who pulled off the Sept. 11 attack came from Afghanistan. The U.S. military launched an offensive to decimate al-Qaida and ensure that other terror groups couldn’t use that country as a launching pad for more assaults against our homeland.

That effort has proved successful, given that al-Qaida has tried yet failed to strike inside the United States again. But the war in Afghanistan is far more complicated.

Now, 20 years later, the military pulled out in a frantic evacuation that left behind some citizens and many Afghans who helped the U.S. An emerging terrorist group, ISIS-K, unleashed a suicide bomb that killed 13 U.S. soldiers, including Utah’s Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover. The 31-year-old was inspired to join the Marines because of the Sept. 11 attacks.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Family members at a vigil at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City for Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. Hoover was killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The Taliban is back in charge, and worries abound that it could spur an al-Qaida resurgence.

This may mark an unsatisfactory ending of the 9/11 generation. It has left many questioning the long fight in that country and what it means for terror threats moving forward.

“The world doesn’t know what to make of the U.S. at the moment, and I think that has absolute ramifications for each and every one of us,” said Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah who commutes between Utah and Jerusalem. He served in the Israeli Defense Forces in 2001 and is an expert in counterterrorism.

He agreed with President Joe Biden’s decision to end the war in Afghanistan but found the Taliban’s quick advance and the rushed U.S. exit disheartening.

“Will this lead to an increase in terrorism? I don’t buy that,” Guiora said, “but I understand that there is a concern out there.”

Instead, he said, this shows that the United States has failed to understand how the Middle East works.

Levi Lee is an Army veteran who spent a year in Iraq and then three years in Afghanistan as a contractor working with U.S. intelligence agencies.

“I went to Afghanistan after we killed Osama bin Laden,” the Salt Lake City resident said, “because I thought I was going there to help shut the place down, turn off the lights and hand over the keys.”

The fighting continued six years after he left Afghanistan.

Like Guiora, he said the way the U.S. left “absolutely sucks, but think about what’s happened to everyone else who leaves Afghanistan” — referring to past military conflicts involving the British and the Russians in which both countries left Kabul surrounded in violence.

(University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law) Amos Guiora

He argues most of us have simplistic views of this volatile area of the globe. There are warlords, the Northern Alliance, the Taliban, terror groups and, now, because of the long U.S. involvement, a generation living in urban areas that has been educated.

“It’s not monolithic over there,” Lee said. “There are a lot of players now.”

He’s not as hard on the U.S. as Guiora. He believes the intelligence community learned and matured over the past 20 years. His example is the ISIS-K suicide bombing at the gates of the Kabul airport. The U.S. had intelligence that a blast was likely and put out warnings a day in advance that people shouldn’t be in that area. Still, so many Afghans wanted out of the country that some took a chance anyway.

“That is the opposite of my experience in Iraq in 2005,” Lee said. “We had no idea what threats were upon us, so we’ve come a long way. We absolutely have come a long way.”

He said the soldiers leaving on the last plane out of Kabul might be the end of a movie. “But ISIS-K definitely creates a franchise where there can be another movie about how we continue the global war on terror against these enemies in a different manner than boots on the ground, counterinsurgency, nation-building nonsense.”

The terrorist threat “metastasized” beyond Afghanistan long ago, Holder said. And it will remain part of our lives, with threats online, abroad and at home.

You have a part to play. If you see something, say something.