by Steven Botticelli, Ph.D.

In voicing their opposition to the building of a Muslim cultural center near ground zero, several public figures have expressed concern that the project would interfere with the healing process for those close to victims of the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center. Whether cynical or sincere, these remarks beg the question of how healing from traumatic loss actually takes place, as well as where we are as individuals and as a nation in our “healing process,” nine years after the attack.

It has become clear to me as a psychoanalyst that grieving requires another’s acknowledgement of one’s loss, and is further facilitated when one is able to see past her own loss to recognize the losses of others. Further, and perhaps counterintuitively, the most “successful” healing often is accompanied by a willingness to take responsibility for the injuries one has inflicted on others, or that have been inflicted in one’s name.

A recent Newsweek profile of a woman who lost her firefighter son in the 9-11 attack offered a fine example of this. Adele Welty traveled to Afghanistan in 2004 to try to change Afghans’ perceptions of Americans, and got more than she bargained for. “The compassion and caring that was extended to me as a grieving mother was one of the most healing experiences of my life. These Muslims, who themselves lost family members in a US bombing, welcomed me into their homes, were willing to speak with me, and agreed that we must work together for peace. I found not one instance of anger at me for the devastation my country had wrought on their homes and families.”

Moreover, Welty has been moved to think about anger and how she has expressed it in her own life. “Anger expressed violently is something we live to regret. Especially those of us who have lost a child remember every single time we got mad and yelled and felt our anger uncontrolled. We reach a point in our lives when we can look back and say, ‘There are many better ways I could’ve handled that, had I had the knowledge and skills to do so.’ We need to learn them.”

Not surprisingly, one’s mode of dealing with loss is related to one’s politics: Welty supports the plan to build the cultural center.

Psychoanalytically speaking, it is hard not to read the intensity of feeling on the part of some of the plan’s opponents (out of all proportion, by any rational appraisal, to the construction of a community center by an avowedly peaceful group) as reflective of a refused process of mourning. Perhaps George W. Bush provided the model for this refusal when he declared, ten days after the attack, that the time for mourning had ended and the time for resolute action had begun. Vengeance however turns out to be a poor substitute for mourning, as has certainly become evident by its consequences on the world stage and (as observable in clinical practice) in the inner world of individuals as well. When understandable, unavoidable anger persistently shapes itself into fantasies of revenge, it redounds as fantasied retribution against one for the vengeful act for which further revenge must then be taken, absorbing one in a vicious cycle of revenge and retribution that deflects from sadness and forecloses the process of mourning, of taking stock emotionally of what one has lost.

As Joan Didion has written so insightfully, when grief is refused, magical thinking takes over. One wonders whether the ferocity of the reaction of some of the opponents of the cultural center is fueled by such thinking. It is as if they believed that if the center’s construction could be prevented we could be returned to a time before 9-11, a time before terrorist attacks, wars and recession, a time before we had to hear so much about Muslims and their violent or peaceable projects, and perhaps in so doing could retroactively prevent the attack itself from taking place, undoing the terrible losses of that day.

Even in the face of dispiriting displays of bigotry, however, we witness moments that remind us of the possibility of mutual recognition, of remorse for an injury inflicted. The New York Times reported an exchange between a protester and counterprotester at last Sunday’s competing demonstrations. A supporter of the cultural center, Michael Rose, carried a sign reading “Religious tolerance is what makes America great” into the area where opponents had gathered. An apparently enraged man approached him, threatening that if the police were not present he would be in danger. A few minutes after the police dragged Mr. Rose away from the crowd, the man who had threatened him appeared again.

“I am sorry for what I said to you,” said the man. “I disagree with you completely, but you have a right.”

Therein lies the only real path toward healing.