Posts Tagged ‘9-11’

The Sewol moments before it finally turned turtle and sank. By then, many of those on board were already dead. Could some have survived if they had acted differently?

The Sewol moments before it finally turned turtle and sank. By then, many of those on board were already dead. Could some have survived if they had acted differently?


Like everyone else in the world, we have been devastated and distressed by the sinking of the South Korean ferry with its likely loss of 300 lives, many of them teenagers from one school who were on a field trip. The entire event occurred in less than an hour.

What is now emerging is that many of the young people killed died because they were told to stay in their cabins or in the cafeteria area, an act that the South Korean President has called “tantamount to murder”. Given the excessive deference to authority common in Asian countries, that is exactly what they did, and it appears to have condemned hundreds to an unpleasant and possibly avoidable death. Of those students and other passengers who were nearer the edge of the ship and on the outside many survived.

But what if the passengers had ignored crew demands and made their own decisions, based on their observable situation? What if, indeed, we were to do the same, in an emergency situation.


Many able-bodied occupants of the north tower fled down stairwells to safety, some stayed where they were.  Firefighters such as Mike Kehoe (pictured) actually headed up to help the wounded. Kehoe's Ladder 11 firehouse lost six men that day, but he survived to face a life forever changed not only by 9/11 but by the iconic image in which he unwittingly appeared.

Many able-bodied occupants of the WTC north tower fled down stairwells to safety, some stayed where they were.
Firefighters such as Mike Kehoe (pictured) actually headed up to help the wounded. Kehoe’s Ladder 11 firehouse lost six men that day, but thankfully he survived to face a life forever changed not only by the tragic events of 9/11 but by the iconic image in which he unwittingly appeared.


Much work has been done on what is known as the “Survivor personality”. Stories abound of those who escaped from the 9-11 attack, for example, because they insisted on leaving via the stairwells rather than gathering on high floors until advised to leave, until in many cases it was too late to leave.

Before his death in 2009, “resiliency expert” and psychologist Al Siebert, PhD listed those factors he considered give some people a better chance of surviving a disaster.

Of course, survival in a deadly crisis is challenging because of the shock and unexpectedness of the threat. During the chaotic turmoil of a deadly emergency some people feel overwhelmed and freeze up. Others panic and may act in senseless ways that reduce their survival chances. Many become highly emotional and believe they are going to die. In contrast, a few people quickly comprehend the reality of the new situation, accept that they could die but nevertheless don’t panic, and take action to increase their chances of surviving.

Calm seems to be the key dividing factor.

And in real life deadly situations it is wrong to think that a person will necessarily fight to survive at the expense of others. It is not “either me or you”, it is “both me and you.” Stories of survivors usually reveal that in the survival turmoil they extend their coping skills and their commitment to live to those around them. They reflexively act in ways to keep both themselves and others alive.

Being a survivor in life and death emergencies is an outcome from interacting with everyday life in ways that increase the probability of survival when survival is necessary. Your habitual way of reacting to everyday challenges influences your chances of being a survivor in a crisis or an emergency. The interaction includes three core elements:

  • Quickly absorb accurate information about what is happening.
  • Feel confident that something can be done to influence events in a way that leads to a good outcome.
  • Be willing to consider using any possible action. Do whatever it takes.

First, of course, one needs to survive the “toss of the Cosmic Coin”. Before a deadly disaster, no one can predict who will live or die. Chance and luck play a role when a group of people is trapped in a deadly shooting, a sinking boat, or plane crash. But the survivor personality research reveals that if you are still alive after others have died, there may be moments when what you do can make a difference in whether or not you live or die.

So here is what survivors do.

In a Crisis, Survivors Rapidly Read the New Reality

Life’s best survivors are people who are habitually curious. This habit predisposes a survivor to quickly read the new reality in an emergency. This quick comprehension of the total circumstance is called “pattern empathy.”

Those who decided to leave the Sewol immediately survived. Those who did not, did not survive. A harsh reality, but one from which lessons can possibly be learned.

Those who decided to leave the Sewol immediately survived. Those who did not, did not survive. A harsh reality, but one from which lessons can possibly be learned.


While reading their new reality they simultaneously scan internally for the best action or reaction from their reservoir of paradoxical response possibilities. This automatic and sometimes unconscious reflex can cause the individual to later be astonished by what they’ve done, and to wonder just how he or she accomplished it.

In a crisis, the survivor reflex is to rapidly “ask” un-verbalized clusters of questions, such as:

  • What is happening? Not happening?
  • Should I jump, duck, grab, yell, freeze, or what?
  • How much time do I have? How little?
  • Must I do anything? Nothing?
  • What are others doing? Not doing? Why?
  • Where do I fit in the scene?
  • Have I been noticed? How do I appear in their eyes?
  • I am faced with a dangerous person. What is the dangerous person afraid of? How anxious are they? How will my actions affect them?
  • How are others reacting? What are their feelings?
  • How serious is this?
  • How much danger exists now? Is it over?
  • Does anyone need help? Who doesn’t?

The more quickly a person grasps the total picture of what is happening, the better his or her chance for survival.

The reading of the reality includes a quick empathy assessment of others in the situation.

This includes scanning the emotional states of others in the survival situation to judge how helpful or unhelpful they may be and reading the emotional state of any attackers that may have caused the danger. There’s no point obeying a steward on a plane that is in a forced landing situation, for example, is that steward is clearly panicking. Your opinion of their advice must be measured against how much you trust the advice they’re giving.

Alertness, pattern recognition, empathy, and awareness can be viewed as a sort of “open-brainedness.”

This open-brainedness is a mental orientation that does not impose pre-existing patterns on new information, but rather allows new information to reshape the person’s mental maps. The person who has the best chance of handling a situation well is usually the one with the best mental maps, the best mental pictures or images, of what is occurring around them.

In contrast, those people who are not able to survive well tend to have incorrect or distorted  constructions of what is happening in the world outside their bodies.

To Survive an Emergency: Above all, Stay Calm

Telling yourself to “stay calm” and “relax” is a useful. Several deep breaths will help. Rage, screaming, panic, or fainting are not good solutions to a crisis (unless done out of choice as a way to affect others.)


The bodies of the young college students were found piled up just inside the entrance of the Kiss nightclub in Brazil, when more than 230 people died in a cloud of toxic smoke and set off a panic. An early investigation into the tragedy revealed that security guards briefly prevented partygoers from leaving through the sole exit.  Brazilian bars routinely make patrons pay their entire tab at the end of the night before they are allowed to leave. The security guards made a dreadful decision - and some of them sadly died, too.

The bodies many young college students were found piled up just inside the entrance of the Kiss nightclub in Brazil, when more than 230 people died in a cloud of toxic smoke from the band’s pyrotechnics, which set off a panic. An early investigation into the tragedy revealed that security guards briefly prevented partygoers from leaving through the sole exit. Brazilian bars routinely make patrons pay their entire tab at the end of the night before they are allowed to leave. The security guards made a dreadful decision to slow the evacuation – and some of them sadly died as a result, too.


Anger, fear and panic narrow what a person sees and reduces response choices. The evidence is clear on this point. Being calm improves awareness and effective actions.

Laughing and Playfulness Improve Efficiency

Playful humour enhances survival for many reasons.

Mental efficiency is directly related to a person’s level of emotional arousal. At high levels of arousal a person makes mistakes. He or she reacts too fast, panics, and may act in dysfunctional ways. (The exception is for an action requiring simple, powerful, muscular effort. High arousal can create super-human strength.) When a person is highly emotional, he or she is less able to solve problems and make precise, coordinated movements. Laughing reduces tension to more moderate levels and efficiency improves.

Playing with a situation makes a person more powerful than sheer will power. The person who toys with the situation creates an inner feeling of, “This is my plaything; I am bigger than it. I can toy with it as I wish. I won’t let it scare me. I’m going to have fun with this.”

Another advantage of playful humour is that it redefines the situation emotionally. The person who makes humorous observations is relaxed, alert, and focused outward toward the situation to be dealt with. And a benefit of playful humour is that it leads to the discovery of creative solutions.

Be Open to Do Anything

Survival chances are increased by quickly considering a wide-range of response choices. This can lead to acting in a way that is opposite from what most people might do or opposite from what you typically do.

The benefit from having this type of open-to-ideas personality is that you are always open to do something new or different, which may be required by the situation, while people with trained personalities are limited to what they’ve been taught to do.

Survivors are complex. They have many paradoxical traits and attributes. This gives them choices for doing one thing or doing the opposite, depending on their reading of the situation. Inner complexity is why survivors are more flexible and adapt more quickly than people with rigid, inflexible ways of doing things.

Life-Competence Helps in Emergencies

Survivors who are alive because of actions they took in a life and death emergency acted out of reflexive self-confidence.

Their daily habit in life is to keep learning ways to be better at having things work well for themselves and others. When they make mistakes or don’t handle something well, they convert whathappened into a valuable learning experience. Through this process of self-managed learning they keep getting better at whatever they apply themselves to and become more and more self-confident in their ability to handle new, unfamiliar, and difficult challenges.

Healthy self-appreciation and a positive self-concept make life-competent people invulnerable to personal threats, victim games, and con artists. Their empathy skills let them see that a raging or threateningly dangerous person, for example, is not powerful, but is someone in great pain, may be trying to overcome feeling helpless, or is misdirecting angry rage felt toward others. Perceptive individuals see that anyone whose rage is so out of control that they want to kill people they don’t know, is an ineffective, emotionally weak person. This allows them the psychological control over their frightening situation that will allow them to make calm, rational decisions to maximise their chance of survival.

Totally Commit to Doing Your Best

The survivor reaction to a crisis is like side-stepping a charging bull.

One reads reality rapidly by asking oneself clusters of questions nonverbally, relaxing strong emotions, and noticing something amusing to laugh at. At the same time, total attention is on surviving and turning the situation around. The person makes an emotional commitment to handle what is happening and focuses on finding a way to succeed. The solution, the action, is usually creative and it works by re-defining the situation.

When problems or new difficulties occur, survivors recover quickly from feeling discouraged.

The best survivors spend almost no time, especially in emergencies, getting upset about what has been lost or feeling distressed about things going badly. Survivors avoid feeling like victims and focus on helping
everyone survive.

The survivor way of orientating to a crisis is to feel fully and totally responsible for making things work out well. The better your self-confidence, the more you can face up to a crisis believing that you can handle it without knowing exactly what you will do. When you remain highly conscious, play with what is happening, and allow yourself to do something unpredictable that has a chance of working, and you usually discover or invent a way to deal effectively with it.

So: Read the New Reality, Stay Calm, Attempt Laughter and Playfulness, Be Open to Do Anything To Survive, Build your Life Confidence in advance, Commit to the Process of Survival.

Good luck – and we hope you never need to use the advice!

9-11 World Trade Centre

10 years on, what have we learned?

As time marches on and we edge ever closer to the fateful 10-year anniversary of the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, I am reminded of the act of witnessing it, as I am sure many other people are. Where and when I was, what I thought and felt, what I did.

Even without watching the nightly wall-to-wall programming of commemorative programmes (some of which I confess I find unpleasantly ghoulish) it is impossible to ignore how the event presses in on one’s consciousness. I have been tempted to try and glide past the memorialising because I have done all my thinking about that awful morning, I know what I think, and remembering the awful scenes and its aftermath often reduces me to great sadness. But then, as I do my best to ignore it, I feel guilty for not respecting the memory of those who died or were injured or bereaved, and also for avoiding active consideration of the geo-political implications of what happened, so I end up beating myself up.

In order to square this circle I do what any writer would do. I give up ignoring it, and write.

I recall I was watching TV in bed, resolutely awake as I often am, at around eleven or midnight (I forget the exact time difference). Newsflashes started breaking, and I found a news channel, woke my wife from her slumbers, and then, like so many millions of others, we watched with growing horror and realisation of the scale of the attack. I think I guessed immediately that the first plane to hit a tower was the work of terrorists. Something just twigged. Soon enough, of course, the second plane and subsequent news made it clear that this was an assault of unprecedented viciousness and effective co-ordination.

I turned to my wife and said “This means war.” I mused. And after a while I added: “But it won’t solve anything. Until we find out why these people hate us so much, this will just go on and on.”

She asked me who it meant war with. I answered: “We’ll find someone.”

Looking back, I think it is revealing that I instinctively used the word “We”.

It is easy to forget now, in the aftermath of the vitriolic debate about the wisdom of “what the West did next”, how much of the world felt at one with America at that moment. Whether or not we approved of America’s exercise of its diplomatic or military might, and Lord knows many of us had not, for a generation or more, there was a profound sense that this great wrong was simply that – unfathomably, appallingly, unutterably, cruelly wrong. And that therefore, and without equivocation or analysis, we stood united with the victims, and with those who would extract justice for their deaths.

The subsequent squandering of that goodwill by America may, in fact, be the ultimate tragedy of what has happened since.

America had certainly been lumbering around the world stage since World War II with all the subtlety of an overweight and rather unintelligent schoolyard bully. Overthrowing and murdering democratically-elected leaders either directly or by proxy – Allende in Chile, Lumumba in the Congo – tacitly or actively supporting brutal regimes or wars – 200,000 dead in Guatemala, 3 million dead in Pakistan’s attempted suppression of Bangladesh,75,000 dead in El Salvador – and, of course, its highly questionable involvement in Vietnam. Amongst others. And in the Middle East, America was implicated in various coups d’etat, police actions, aggressive growing of its military presence, and so on. The list of clumsy and often murderous American actions is tragically long, and if I fleshed it out here this article would be about little else.

And yet, for many, even those who had felt the heavy-handed might of American influence and not always benignly, there was an abiding opinion that, for all its faults, America was basically on the side of the good guys. For example, it almost single-handledly paid for the United Nations infrastructure, and its aid programmes, year after year. Its people donated more to overseas charity, per head of population, and in gross terms, than any other nation on earth. Its own overseas aid programmes were mammoth. Many of us were old enough to recall (or to have been told, first hand) how American money had essentially re-built Europe after World War II. And Japan. And Americans themselves – while they might occasionally have been a little brash or unsubtle for countries lucky enough to host their holiday-makers – were recognisably good natured, polite, free-spending, and generous with their praise, too.

America was looked on as a child which was occasionally naughty or untutored, but which was always striving to do better, and as such, should be encouraged. A great and glorious and ever-evolving experiment in free-market economics tied to a healthy, forceful democracy, never likely to be perfect, but my goodness it was prepared to give it a go.

In the years since 9-11, the general opinion of America has changed out of all recognition. And Americans are to blame.

There are many reasons why the stock of the good old USA has fallen so far and so fast, not least the way the rest of the world is appalled at the current American inability to find a way out of an economic mess which is largely of its own making, and the refusal of its political class to sit down and nut out a bi-partisan approach to problem solving. Both the White House and those on the Hill (and don’t get me started on the state of the GOP generally) look and sound like they are in the grip of a bunch of egotistical village idiots high on crack cocaine … talking aggressively and confidently about nothing that has any passing contact with the reality of the world.

But most of all, the current mistrust and downright dislike of America is down to one thing.

Conflating the search for Al Qaeda and the assassins of 9-11 into an excuse to finally get rid of Sadaam Hussein and his ugly regime in Iraq and to secure America’s strategic access to the region’s oil was a terrible, perhaps unforgivable mistake. Blind Freddie can see that it has left a legacy of bitterness and instability in the area that will not be overcome in my lifetime, and not, I fear in the lifetime of my precious daughter, nor even her children if they arrive.

There are many, and they are by no means all Middle Eastern, Muslim, or liberal politically, who can simply never forgive Bush and Cheney – especially – but also Tony Blair, John Howard and others – for a conflict that rapidly and predictably led to umpteen entirely avoidable civilian casualties. 100,000? 200,000? Half a million? More? No one will ever be entirely sure. It seems like the upper estimates are the more accurate. (If you doubt my assertion that the bloody, never-ending quagmire in Iraq was predictable, just “google” Dick Cheney’s remarks on why Bush Snr didn’t continue on and depose Hussein when he had the chance. They are instructive.)

And yet, faced with ample evidence and growing certainty that a terrible error had been made, the American political establishment steadfastly refused, year after year, (and still refuses), to allow any official suggestion that the war was ill-advised, ill-planned, badly prosecuted and very possibly illegal. No mea culpa was allowed to pass its lips.

It gave every impression that the on-going civilian disaster in Iraq was just a mild disappointment on the road to a greater good, despite mounting evidence that Iraq was not (and won’t be) pacified, that the chaos would spread to neighbouring nations (as it has, and will continue to do so), and that its new Government, despite democratic trappings, would likely end up just as corrupt, brutal and inefficient as the last.

The rest of the world could see this very well, (most saw it before the first shot was fired), and were appalled by America’s stupidity, cupidity, insensitivity and intransigence.

And blinded by that instinctive knee-jerk patriotism which can in some circumstances be so useful and laudable, but which when the American government is behaving badly is so unhelpful and damaging, and captured by the almost religious fervour and respect in which those who “serve” are held in the American consciousness, the American people seemed only mildly discomforted by what was going on in Iraq.

Yes, of course there were notable and honourable exceptions. And, of course, the intelligentsia and the chattering classes engaged with the debate.

But the vast mass of Americans seemed to care less that their military, (and it was, almost entirely, American troops), were slaughtering thousands, whether deliberately or accidentally, (as if it really matters), and were compounding the madness by foolishly creating  a power vacuum into which assorted madmen rushed waving AK-47s, and  football stadiums full of entirely innocent civilians were dying every year. In Vietnam, this produced a near revolution inside America. Nowadays, the wave of bloody death visited on families going about their ordinary lives seems to have become so commonplace – or so well hidden – that it creates barely a ripple on the body politic. Until one starts discussing the cost, in dollar terms, of the military adventure, or the body bags of American casualties coming home with such tragic regularity, and then people really do seem to get riled up.

I do not propose to discuss Afghanistan as well here because I believe the conflict in that sad and much-battered country is entirely different in nature, although it can appear similar if one only looks at the surface detail. The war in Afghanistan was a genuine international effort, welcomed by many of its people, with specific aims (even if they have since proven intractably difficult to achieve), and morally supportable. The Taliban were and are the latest manifestation of brutal fascism on our planet, and their influence would undoubtedly have spread (into the former Soviet Union, and into Pakistan and Iran) if they had not been displaced, along with their medieval rejection of learning, medicine, individual rights, and hatred of women. Because they have not essentially changed their nature, or their agenda, the war to sustain quasi-freedom in some parts of Afghanistan is still, in my opinion, justified. (Although we need to start working out with much greater urgency how the hell to end it.)

So what do I think, ten years on from 9-11? I think, if America is to somehow regain its international standing, at least with its friends, if not its enemies, then sooner or later someone with great leadership qualities and backed by a surge of public moral support is going to have to stand up and say, without prevarication, “We acknowledge that – despite the courage of our troops, despite the fact that many of us thought we were doing the right thing – Iraq was not only not our finest hour, it may have been our ugliest. We fatally miscalculated: we over-reached ourselves. We didn’t care enough about the people of Iraq. We were misled by those who should have known better, and we failed to think hard enough. Never again – never again – will we behave in such a cavalier and dangerous manner. Forgive us, world. We know we messed up, big time, and we have learned. Just watch us, we won’t do it again.”

Because that’s why some people hate America, and why so many people who love America nevertheless despair of its future, despite their love.

You just never seem to say sorry.

And remember: until we work out while these people hate us so much, this will just go on and on.

God bless America.