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America the Traumatized: How 13 Events of the Decade Made Us the PTSD Nation

The Millennial Decade screwed with our heads and destroyed our national identity. Are we in for a cataclysmic century?
 
 
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It's been one helluva decade, even though we've reached the end without knowing what to call it. Some have tried " the aughts," others the "double-Os." I'm content to simply call it over. To mark its location in the great march of history, I've taken to calling it the millennial decade, after the great numerological transition it heralded. Yet for describing its character, nothing comes closer than the Decade of Trauma -- American trauma, that is.

Here in the home of the brave, we've endured a decade that shattered nearly every notion of what it meant to be an American, whether you live on the left or the right. And so we shout. Or hide. Or startle too easily.

In America today, it seems we all have a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder, as evidenced by our increasingly vitriolic political environment, where reality is denied and histrionics run riot. Anger, we're told, is the natural reaction to trauma; in people with PTSD, the anger is out of control. By that measure, the millennial decade has brought us 10 years of PTSD politics -- with no end in sight.

From the Tea Party madness, the unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to vote for any piece of legislation drafted by Democrats, the misuse of the filibuster in the Senate to all but break the institution, and the outsized rage on the left toward the Obama administration for simply behaving as politicians do, our national politics have moved beyond the bounds of extreme partisanship into the realm of mental illness.

This breaking of the national psyche was bound to happen; it's been decades in the making. American exceptionalism -- the idea that we are somehow better and more blessed than any other people on the face of the earth by dint of our own hard work, ingenuity, innate goodness and superior democracy -- was bound to fail as our nation, like every other before it, found itself caught in the grinding wheels of history.

Rooted in denial, the doctrine of American exceptionalism edits out of the American story the sins against humanity that created our nation: the genocide of the people who were here before the Europeans came, and the building of the nation on the backs of involuntary laborers who were tortured, abused and even killed for their trouble. Once you ditch that, it becomes easier to look past the other unpleasant realities of our history, be it our neo-colonialism throughout the world, which helped to build our economy, or the enduring practices of racism and sexism. But denial almost invariably leads to trauma, when on one day, or in one decade, the decay that denial fostered summons home the demons set loose through willful ignorance to do their fright dance before one's very eyes.

The 2000 election, 9/11, Enron and WorldCom, Afghanistan, Iraq on a lie, Abu Ghraib, the USA Patriot Act, Guantánamo, Katrina and near economic collapse: each of these -- and many, many others -- challenged our sense of national identity, giving the lie to who we thought we were, and compromising a sense of safety, however delusional, that we once enjoyed. No longer were Americans exempt from the perils that face other nations.

Even the decade's great culminating moment, the election of Barack Obama, beautiful though it was, rocked the nation, provoking revulsion on the right and an unsustainable ecstasy on the left -- extremes of emotion that do not speak well to the emotional stability of a people.

The decades that led us here were fraught with their own traumas. The '60s were convulsive; the '70s unnerving. The '80s and '90s brought a backlash against the changes wrought by the two previous decades. People of my generation saw, as children, three of our greatest national leaders gunned down. We saw dogs and fire hoses turned on people peaceably assembled to petition the government for redress. Women took to the streets, demanding a reordering of society, and ultimately, a reconfiguration of the family. We watched our nation at war in close-up video while young people filled the streets in protests. Gay people made themselves visible in vigils and rallies shown on the nightly news and in adorably cute sitcoms. We viewed it all in wood-paneled family rooms, our Swanson dinners before us on TV trays.