Mutations of the Mind

Iconic events change our mind's gestalt. Following their jolting onsets, we see and behave to the world differently.

I was born in Boston. I ran the Boston Marathon 12 years ago and finished at around the four-hour mark - just about the time the first bomb went off during last week's horror. I am shaken and disheartened that such an atrocity could happen in America - and in my home city, no less.

Just as I felt after 9/11, I will now go forward altered and anxious.

And that is the tragedy of terrorism. It changes the mind's DNA. It forces mutations - permanent ones that live on for ages. Who among us walks the streets now without some primal fear that we might - at any minute, become victims to purposeful killing - killing whose only purpose is to intimidate?

We become targets of psychological paradigm shifts that altered our thoughts and behavior. This willful act of mutating the mind's world view is what the terrorists want - and unfortunately, they succeed. Their ultimate goals are never realized. But the wake of emotional destruction survives and affects us all.

Science backs up this assertion. According to a 2008 study by researchers at Cornell University, the brains of otherwise healthy individuals are irreparably changed after horrible events, like the 9/11 attacks. The study found that after such traumatic events, the gray matter in key emotion centers of the brain decreases, suggesting that bad experiences have real and lasting effects on the brain.

The fact that should reassure us - that there has not been a terrorist attack in the US since 9/11 - hardly dampens the slow simmering fear left in us by that and our present outrage. Neither does the reality that one has a much greater chance of being hurt or killed while driving - than by an act of terror - mollify our feelings.

The most critical cause of mental illness is when do not feel in control of our world. Relief comes when we are able to act to solve and rein in those elements that have been out of our sway. Are there responses we, as a nation could take to lessen the impact these acts of violence have had upon us?

Perhaps we have begun that pursuit.

With the increased use of drones, we are beginning to instill the same fear forced upon us in the bad guys. They are no more immune to the potential of random killing than we. Waking up to a hovering drone and to be struck down in a nanosecond creates a common fear in the terrorist world - the same as we experience. While the use of drones has been justified in their capacity to get at terrorists without collateral casualties, their potential to create fear of random violence has been seldom mentioned. In this sense, we have - perhaps unwittingly - fought fire with fire. Before we reach a consensus on their use, we must consider their impact upon the psychological equilibrium of the enemy.

As well, this might be the time we begin to assess and alter the manner we allow immigrants from countries that harbor or support terrorist groups. Extensive background checks might be required for travelers to the US from such countries. Why would we not create better screening of those coming from Saudi Arabia when fifteen of the 9/11 perpetrators were Saudi nationals? Pakistan, which has a checkered record at best in tamping down terrorist activities, is also a country from which immigration to the US should be more tightly monitored.

There are others.

Lastly, we must become a country that again believes in hope. Hope is what terrorism helps to erode. But the country's zeitgeist now is that the future seems out of our control. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 16% think their children will be better off than themselves.

Many feel that the frontier mentality that has driven us forward is lost and that political gridlock is corroding our belief in getting anything done. We urgently require political leadership prepared to offer hope and deliver on it.

It must be stewardship that delivers. FDR's fireside chats eased the country's anxiety over the depression. Similarly, Churchill stiffened the necks of the British people during the German Blitz. The mutations of our psyche from terror could be lessened with inspiring leadership from our political leaders.

Let us hope.