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Wounded Psyche
An essay by David Ropeik

audio Listen to Ropeik's essay.

Sept. 27, 2001 -- Many scientists who study risk would remind us that the chances of a terrorist attack are extraordinarily small. They would argue that in figuring out how to respond to terrorism, that we should be rational and compare it against risks that are more likely and invest our resources where they'll do the most good. They might point out that heart disease will kill 120 times more Americans this year than died in the worst terrorist attack in history.

Such talk is nonsense. Risk is a matter of emotion, not just of fact. Yes, we can and should do everything that makes us physically safe, but we must also recognize the risk that terrorism poses to our psyches, to our general sense of well-being and what that damage does to the way we live our lives. Right now we run the very real risk that it will take too long to laugh again.

"We feel in a daze because the attack destroyed more than lives and buildings. It took away our right to feel any positive emotion."

David Ropeik

David Letterman and Jay Leno, two of our national leaders of levity, were respectfully somber when they first returned to the air. Sporting events, entertainments were postponed or canceled. At a party with friends a few days after that dreadful Tuesday, a party planned long before the horror, we drank a little and ate a lot, moved from conversation to conversation. The music was loud, but nobody danced, and we all left early. It just feels wrong right now to be happy, inappropriate to laugh, disrespectful to the enormity of the pain and tragedy even to smile or joke or have any kind of a good time.

We feel in a daze because the attack destroyed more than lives and buildings. It took away our right to feel any positive emotion. We belong to many families beyond our immediate relatives and our circle of friends. We belong to our faith family, to our local civic family, to our national family and, ultimately, to the family of humankind. And no matter how far we live from Washington or New York or Pennsylvania, these were not distant deaths; the victims were not strangers, no matter that we might not have known any of them personally. They were members of our families.

So we are living a prolonged, national funeral, and the time for mirth and joy has not come back to us, not yet. It will, it must, but as we fight to bring laughter back into our lives, we should remember that responding to the risk of terrorism and to any risk means more than just making us physically safe. It also means making us emotionally safe, freeing us to slowly replace our worries and doubts with smiles and hope.

David Ropeik is the director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.