“You can’t go back to the way you were before.”
That understated phrase summed up how dozens of counter-terrorism professionals described the toll – physical, psychological and emotional – that working for years in the life and death race against terrorists takes on daily life in the post-9/11 era, according to a study recently published on the CIA's website.
The study, “Counterterrorism Professionals Reflect on Their Work,” paints a picture of the counterterrorism [CT] professional who, while feeling intensely rewarded by the importance of their work, can become wholly consumed by it, and become paranoid and cynical about the world around them – unable to enjoy “normal” lives in the rare cases they can pry themselves from the job.
“[My wife] pulled me back from the brink of becoming obsessed, and not in a good way, with the terrorists [his team was tracking],” an unidentified CT worker said in the study. “There was a whole world out there that was lost to me, for a while, because all I could think about was [the terrorists]. She used some very unflattering words to describe what I was like, told me I was a complete a*****e, but she was right. It was my wakeup call.”
“There is a distinct price” of doing the work and an unavoidable “loss of innocence,” others said.
Last month the CIA published the study, conducted by clinical psychologist Ursula Wilder for the Brookings Institution, in its public “Studies in Intelligence” collection. Wilder said she interviewed 57 CT professionals, from spies to diplomats, analysts to soldiers, emergency workers to journalists, and found that no matter what the specific job is, “one pays a price for daily, direct engagement with evil.”
Those she interviewed talk about being completely lost in their work and neglecting even personal upkeep. Some, many of them intelligence analysts, discussed intense guilt they felt about terrorist attacks they were unable to stop and others became unusually paranoid about the next one around the corner.
“[A CT professional] mentioned being at a sporting event and not being able to ‘get into it’ – and being frightened and unsettled by both intrusive thoughts of how bombs in the crowd would be an effective terror strike and also by his general alienation from the fun and horseplay of the young family members around him,” the study says. “One summed this up by saying: ‘So much came to seem trivial to me, but I realized life is enjoyed in the precious trivial moments, which for a while were lost on me.’”
One of the groups that has been most profoundly affected are what Wilder calls “field professionals” – spies, military and law enforcement personnel, emergency personnel and NGO workers, among others, who work on the ground.
“Field work can be fun – irrespective of the grim contents of terrorism. It can bring a sense of adventure, of experimentation and spontaneous diversion with the unexpected – and, from time to time, crackpot humor,” the study says. “The negatives of field work were equally salient, occasionally reflected in the ‘thousand-yard stares’ of those who have seen the horror, touched the carnage, heard the cries of victims and families, and have smelled the stench of terrorist strikes, none of which can ever be expunged.”
Some field professionals said field work can become “’addictive,’ but not in a good way."
“For some haunted professionals it has become the only place they feel truly at home, because they crave the excitement or because every place else seems alien and tame,” Wilder says.
For all the negatives, however, Wilder reported the dozens of CT personnel agreed that their work was extremely rewarding because, as one put it, “I felt like I had a bit part in an international passion play that the whole world was watching.”
They also “came to better appreciate the precious and fragile nature of life and of life’s small pleasures because of the terrible, destructive nature of terrorism,” the study says.
For some, facing evil head on led to a new understanding of themselves.
“When you do this type of work, you have to work out for yourself why people can be so evil and also so good,” one said. “We are all human right? So you need to think through your personal philosophy about responsibility, right and wrong. There are no easy answers, but everyone in [CT work] is forced eventually to [address these issues] and hard though it was, I am glad I was forced to. I’m a deeper person, maybe a better one.”
Wilder conducted the study while serving as an Intelligence Community Senior Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution. A CIA disclaimer notes that the article represents the views of the author and is not endorsed by the U.S. government.