When millions of Americans pause on Sept. 11 to mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that left nearly 3,000 people dead in 2001, Leslie Haskin, 57, won’t need to watch television broadcasts to remember.
For the past 20 years, says Haskin, she has been forced to remember the attack each day by memories that seem to have a life of their own.
“Every day something forces that memory back to the surface and I have to deal with it, so it’s [been] 20 years of yesterday for me,” the youngest daughter of a Baptist minister told The Christian Post in a recent interview.
The former high-powered insurance executive was inside her office on the 36th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City when Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda crashed a hijacked airplane into it before crashing another into the South Tower shortly after.
As stunned Americans would watch the towers burn before they collapsed in a colossal crash into the surrounding life below, the horror Haskin experienced on the inside caused her to be committed to a psychiatric hospital shortly after the event with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Her life unraveled so badly she became homeless and separated from her son.
“I think living the event, coming out of the building was horrific. It was beyond what you can even imagine. It’s nothing like what you see on TV, maybe a hundred times, a thousand times worse. But even as bad as that was, what was worse was reliving the fear and the uncertainty for months and even years after that,” said Haskin, who also lost 22 friends in the attack.
“To this day, I can’t even look at roadkill. I’m drawn into it so deeply I see it as [human] body parts when I’m driving down the road, and that will force my mind to remember or think about which one of my friends died in that way,” she explained. “Trauma does not make sense. There is no rhyme or reason to it. I can’t look at someone’s hands for too long because then I will see their hand disconnected from their person. By the time I got home, I was still holding someone’s hand; their body was not attached. So my brain has embedded that picture.”
And as America and the world struggle to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic that has left over 4.6 million people dead globally, Haskin, who chronicled her 9/11 experience in her 2008 book, Between Heaven and Ground Zero: One Woman's Struggle for Survival and Faith in the Ashes of 9/11, says she sees parallels in the trauma experienced by survivors in the aftermath of 9/11 and the trauma unfolding in the wake of the pandemic.
“I think for me and other survivors, this pandemic is reminiscent of the same uncertainty and panic that we experienced immediately after 9/11,” she said. “This pandemic brings that kind of forces us to have those same uncertainties and face our mortality all over again. That’s not something that we should do in the normal course of our lives. It limits us. And this pandemic has forced us back into that corner and said, ‘OK, life is short. Life is fleeting. It’s not certain. You might not make it tomorrow.’ And you have no control over that all over again.”
Some people, says Haskin, might not recognize how the trauma of the pandemic has been influencing their behavior, but it is anyway.
Vaccinations and trauma
One of the reasons some people are refusing to get vaccinated, she argues, is due to trauma that has built up collectively on the American psyche since 9/11.
“For the people who are watching, who watched that event across the world, it traumatized them as well, in a different sense, but trauma nonetheless because it said to them, ‘at any moment your world could change and you could be dead.’ That’s the message the world received and people heard it loud and clear,” said Haskin, who published her latest book, When YOUR Towers Fall: A Survivor's Guide to Life After Loss, shortly after the World Health Organization declared the world was experiencing a pandemic in March 2020.
She then pointed to the trauma of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which killed more than 1,800 people, along with other major events during the pandemic like the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
“The world experienced one of the most traumatic heartbreaking events that I can remember when we watched a grown black man call for his mother as he was being killed. For nine minutes the world received the message that you could be killed at any moment, so the nature of PTSD it’s like a snowball. If it’s not resolved, the trauma just gets bigger until it believes that there is some unseen force trying the kill them, and I think the last bit of trauma that we suffered is this pandemic,” she said.
“The people are getting a message, because we’re hearing huge numbers, hundreds of thousands of people dying today from COVID. It could be you. Don’t do this or you’re going to die, reinforcing that fear.
"And rather than saying ‘Hey, get the vaccine, it could save your life.’ What we’re hearing is, either way, life could change and this could kill you. So people are unsure which way to go because they’re trying to protect themselves from an unseen force that’s out to get them. This is about trauma. It’s not merely about to get a vaccine or not. It’s about people so traumatized that they don’t know which way to turn. Which way keeps them safe,” she explained.
Haskin believes that more trauma experts are needed to help people navigate the psychological strain of the pandemic and the Church needs to be more vocal about the issue.
“The sad thing about it is the Church, rather than be more vocal, has been more silent through all of it,” she said.
In addition to trauma experts who can help people make sense of the trauma they are experiencing amid the pandemic, Haskin shared how her faith in God has been helping her to live since 9/11.
“It has been a growing relationship experience for me. My career goals were about my ability and my work ethic and reaching my goals. … What has changed over the years is because of my relationship with Jesus Christ; it defines who I am. It’s the best part of me and it has given me freedom. Freedom from the work-reward way of thinking, so I’ve been able to divorce myself from the outcomes,” she said.
“The way that I live now is not goal-oriented. It’s not about I’m going to reach this goalpost. It’s more about being in the moment that I’m in, in the place that God has set me. For this day, I’m going to do all that I can to deliver a message that whatever life is bringing, whatever is going on, God is bigger than that. It doesn’t matter what the end result is, God is still bigger than that end result. And that end result has nothing to do with his ability or his inability,” she said.
That outlook, she says, is now helping her to navigate the challenges of the pandemic. So as she was forced to socially-distance from her church family, Haskin took the opportunity to improve her personal relationship with God.
“It brought me close to God, I think because it took away all of those social barriers. And I’m calling them barriers now, but before the pandemic, I thought these were just fellowshipping. It’s just we’re going to stay after service and fellowship together.
“That’s important. It’s nice to have, but I think somewhere along the generational line, we have made fellowshipping with one another more important than fellowshipping with God. And we’ve assigned God an hour before bedtime or 30 minutes in the morning for devotion and that’s our fellowship with God and we think, ‘oh that’s good.’ But what the pandemic did for me is it took away all of that extra fellowship.
“That’ what the pandemic did for me. It reinforced the urgency and the reality that we are not in control of what’s coming or what’s around the corner, God is. And our best approach is to partner with Him in what He’s doing and say Lord, how can I partner with you in this?” she said.
“The best part about this, the pandemic and 9/11, is that God is still saying to us, use Me, use My strength to get through this. And it doesn’t return us to any normalcy because there was never any normalcy in the first place. What we’ve called normal is a culture and a society that we’ve built. God is trying to rip that from us and saying normal is what My plan is. So we don’t really want to go back to pre-9/11 days or pre-pandemic days. We want to embrace whatever it is that He has for us in this season,” Haskin added.
Homelessness and the church in the pandemic
Earlier this year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge said the number of homeless people in America had increased by 2% since more than the approximately 580,000 counted a year earlier.
Haskin, who recalled how vulnerable she felt when she was homeless, said the Church can help with more than just prayers.
“I think it’s about a commitment to that person and not just the prayer. There’s an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child and that same village supports the family. I’m all in favor of community living and people living together and supporting each other,” said Haskin, who explained she was homeless for about two years “while I got my head in a space where I could even be productive enough to work.”
“My son and I were separated for a while which was probably one of the most painful things that we’ve gone through — being separated and being homeless at the same time. But I have someone that was committed to me, my wellness and making sure that I felt safe during the time that I was most vulnerable, and that’s what homeless is. If we stop calling it homeless and start calling it most vulnerable, then I think we would know how to respond to it better,” she said. “When we don’t have a place of safety to call our own, we are most vulnerable.
“In animals, when they’re a pack and one is [vulnerable] the rest of the pack will encircle them while they’re feeling vulnerable until they feel safe and strong again. And I think if we can apply the same type of pack behavior to one another rather than saying, ‘I’ve got mine, you get yours’ or ‘I’m going to pray for you that God helps you.’ Or being afraid to lean into that person for fear that they’re going to ask for money or something. Lean in and say, ‘I’ve got you covered.’
“Maybe it’s not being able to provide a home for that person, maybe it’s just providing meals every day, just providing that covering for one another as the Church until that person is less vulnerable I think is the way to go,” she said.