9/11, Islamophobia, and the Politics of “Healing”

By Steven Botticelli

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. Thus at a pitched point in the controversy last August, Sarah Palin tweeted, “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.” Around the same time Abraham Foxman made a statement against the building of the center, referring to “strong passions…keen sensitivities…counterproductive to the healing process” (Pollitt, 2010, p.10) evoked by the plan.

As people who might claim to know something about healing, we as psychoanalytic therapists should be alert to occasions when the trope of “healing” is deployed in support of political agendas. Whether cynical or sincere, these figures’ 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.

Our psychoanalytic understanding of grief and mourning has become deeper, and more relational, since Freud provided the essential insights of Mourning and Melancholia (1917/1957). Grieving requires another’s acknowledgement of one’s loss, and seems to be 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. Contrarywise, an insistence on the uniqueness of one’s loss does not bode well for one’s recovery from that loss.

A recent Newsweek profile of two women who lost their firefighter sons 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” (Miller, p.33).

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” (Miller, p.33).

Sally Regenhard, who also lost her son on 9/11, feels she has “wasted the past nine years of my life in meetings” trying to recover part of her son, none of whose remains were ever found. “I’m still searching for my son,” she says. The profile adds, “Recently she has turned her attention to the question of human remains” (Miller, p.31).

Not surprisingly, one’s mode of dealing with loss is related to one’s politics: Welty supports the plan to build an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, while Regenhard opposes it.

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 9/11 attacks, that the mourning period was over and the time had come to take action. 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 oneself 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 (2007) has written of so insightfully, when grief is refused, magical thinking may take its place. 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, before terrorist attacks, wars and recession, 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 of remorse for an injury inflicted, that remind us of the possibility of mutual recognition. The New York Times reported an exchange between a protester and counterprotester at competing demonstrations over the building of the cultural center that took place on August 22. A supporter of the center, Michael Rose, carried a sign reading “Religious tolerance is what makes America great” into the area where opponents had gathered. An 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” (Doty, p.23).

Therein lies the only real path toward healing.


Didion, Joan (2007), The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Vintage International.

Doty, Cate (2010), Yea and nay rallies near proposed Muslim center. The New York Times, Aug 23, p. 23.

Freud, Sigmund (1917/1957), Mourning and melancholia. Standard Edition, Volume 14, pp. 243-258. London: Hogarth Press.

Miller, Lisa (2010), War over ground zero: A proposed mosque tests the limits of American tolerance. Newsweek, August 16, pp. 27-33.

Pollitt, Katha. (2010), Ground zero for free speech. The Nation, Aug. 30/Sept. 6, p. 10