A bequest from 9/11

It is almost impossible to write anything about “9/11” which is
not offensive to someone. There is often a hope that from horror,
tragedy and death will come reconciliation and mutual
understanding. Not so here, regardless of the pleas of many
survivors and bereaved.

The truth is that, for all the anguish, prayers and “candles in the
wind”, those two terrible puffs of flame in New York have become
the basis for deepening division. They have laid bare the
prejudices of all of us. So far there have been two (unfinished)
wars, bombs across continents and the prospect of an unending “war
against terror”. Rich have been set further against poor, Arab
against Jew, Muslim against Christian, young against old, powerful
against powerless and the rich First World against the majority
world. Everything is made partisan, even people’s individual
suffering and grief.

9/11 has raised a host of issues: legal, architectural, urban,
social, military, economic, but mostly geo-political. Governments
know that emotional responses to such disasters are just for public
consumption. Every competent military man appreciates that, when
things go wrong, it is your own side you have to re-examine, not
“the enemy” and that military intervention is usually the
short-term alternative to seeking political solutions.

The pattern of war established in the 20th century was of civilian
casualties increasingly outnumbering military ones. Now in the 21st
century, this proxy approach to war is being ratcheted up further.
War has become the symbolic way in which hostile leaders
communicate with each other, killing more women, children and
civilian conscripts in the process.

9/11 has highlighted the shortcoming of treating political issues
in personal terms, as well as the inadequacy of isolating
individual actions and experience from their political

That leads us to the human side of 9/11; how individual loss was
dealt with. Here the emphasis in the US seemed to be on
counselling, “closure” and compensation for loved ones and those
who were left. But crude ideas of closure and instant counselling
are likely to be little more helpful than counter-cries of “we
didn’t need that in our day”, “we got by on our own”, which have
left many traumatised people unable to sort out their experience
for the rest of their lives.

9/11 can be seen as an extreme high-profile instance of a broader
issue. A growing proportion of deaths can now be seen to have
broader political and social relations, as human beings have
learned how to control natural forces and overcome disease and
want. We can see this when we compare mortality rates for HIV/Aids
in the West and the rest of the world. Whether deaths and disease
are a result of pollution, unequal distribution, the creation of
natural hazards, crime, inequality, discrimination or war, they can
increasingly be traced to how societies, corporations and
governments behave, rather than to individual behaviour or random
accidents of nature.

Social work, with its emphasis on social approaches and the
interrelation of the personal and material, is well placed to take
on this issue in ways that are helpful for people facing loss and
death. Good social work practice has always been concerned with
addressing individual and societal issues and shown an awareness
and understanding of their interrelations. In the UK, specialist
palliative care social work is already recognised as one of the
most valued (if overlooked) areas of social work. Tackling taboos
around death and loss are part of the daily routine of its
practice. Complementing this with a systematic focus on the
political and social relations of death and loss is likely to be
helpful now.

9/11 has already led to change in social work education in New
York, with, for example, educators including trauma training on
courses to take account of the needs of service users originating
from war-torn countries. There are clear parallels here for the UK,
both relating to the Northern Ireland experience and the appalling
circumstances of many refugees and asylum seekers now coming the
way of social work and social care.

Let’s hope these ideas take off on both sides of the Atlantic. Then
at least some small good might come out of all the suffering that
there has been since 11 September 2001. As Mahatma Gandhi said:
“All through history the way of truth and love has always won.”
This is still true now of social work, as it is of international

Peter Beresford is professor of social policy, Brunel
University, and is involved in the psychiatric system survivor

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