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SMU News & Media Relations
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Feb. 10, 2003


Are Americans desensitized to public tragedies? What's behind the public's more muted emotional response to the Columbia tragedy?

Frederick Schmidt, associate professor of Christian spirituality at SMU's Perkins School of Theology, says around-the-clock media coverage is not to blame for some jaded reactions. The root cause is that Americans are in denial about their own mortality.

"As a society, there is an avoidance of death," Schmidt says. "9-11 was very difficult for many people because they could not avoid it."

But avoidance as a way of coping appears to have increased since Sept. 11, Schmidt says.

"With 9-11, the shuttle tragedy and the country on the brink of war with Iraq, people have been emotionally holding their breath," he says. "This leaves us in a tough spot spiritually."

A different kind of sadness

Grief in response to in-the-line-of-duty deaths differs from reaction to "hostile acts of evil," says Rita Whillock, chair of the Division of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs.

"After the Challenger disaster, NASA did such a good job convincing the public that space exploration was not really routine. It's dangerous," Whillock said. "I think that, while as a nation we were terribly sad about the Columbia tragedy, we took the view that we knew it was really risky."

Anxiety increasing

Concerns about terrorism and political unrest, economic problems and the shaky job market have caused an increase in anxiety and self absorption, says Karen Settle, SMU's director of counseling and testing.

Members of SMU's community have responded by keeping a closer eye on students and their emotional state.

"We have had more professors call us to refer students than before," Settle says. "In last two years, 11 percent of students were referred by faculty. This fall it was 25 percent."