What is a "defining moment?" The phrase has been used in the media to describe the September 11 attacks, along with references to other historical events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. In an analysis of reactions to the Kennedy assassination, Sheatsley and Feldman (1964) suggest that certain characteristics of the event increased its impact on ordinary citizens. Among these characteristics are: 1) the suddenness with which the assassination occurred, along with the rapid spread of the news across the country; 2) a tendency to personify events, ., to empathize with the President's family and to feel the loss personally; 3) typical grief reactions, such as sorrow, shame, anger, and physical symptoms; 4) an "overload" of tragic news (. some respondents reported that they could not bear to watch TV any longer); and 5) a sense that lessons should be learned, including less hate, more patriotism, greater unity, and harsher treatment of subversives. It is not difficult to apply this list of characteristics to the events of September 11. Indeed, a comparison of public reactions to the terrorist attacks and the Kennedy assassination indicates very similar responses (Smith, Rasinski, and Toce, 2001). The above list might thus be considered one definition of a "defining moment," at least in terms of tragic or disastrous events.
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