America the Traumatized: How 13 Events of the Decade Made Us the PTSD Nation
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Very few in the political opposition actually believed the claims made by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell in early 2003, but almost no one dared to defy them. In March, the United States invaded Iraq, with the permission of congressional majorities in both political parties. Only a few would dare, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on America's "homeland," to risk looking like wimps.
Suffering neglect at the hands of one's caretaker, psychology textbooks tell us, can sometimes result in psychological trauma. If you view our elected officials as caretakers of a sort, we were indeed neglected.
Our own dissociation from the passage of the USA Patriot Act speaks to our collective trauma; even those of us who were hell-bent against it failed to organize a fight. As our constitutional rights were put through the shredder, we threw up our hands.
It wasn't until the country went to war that the left organized massive protests. But the media's failure to fully report on the widespread anti-war sentiment served to further demoralize many. The only ones not looking away, it seemed, were the Bush administration and the organs of the permanent government, such as the FBI and the National Security Agency.
Play It Again, Uncle Sam
April 2004 brought us the horrifying images of prisoner torture--some of it highly sexualized -- by U.S. soldiers and contractors of detainees held at the U.S. prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and the destruction of any real claim to America's moral superiority among nations. Photographs leaked to the news media included one of a pyramid of naked male prisoners and one of a naked male prisoner with a leash around his neck, held by a small, female soldier, Private Lynndie England. One of the most infamous photos depicted a prisoner outfitted in a hood and made to stand on a box with wires attached to his extremities, part of a psychological torture scheme to make him believe he was about to be electrocuted.
America's sins were now exposed to the world, and to her own people, compounded by the fact that our leaders lied to us with assurances that the U.S. did not torture its detainees.
We were now completely unmoored from the safe harbor of our belief in our fundamental goodness as a nation, with no one trustworthy in charge of anything that mattered. We were utterly abandoned.
In the midst of another presidential election, we grappled with this truth. With the 9/11 attacks still fresh in our minds, we remained a traumatized people, now broken and stripped of our identity.
In its bid to retain power, the Bush administration played what the media termed the politics of fear or the politics of terror, but in truth it was the politics of trauma. The 9/11 attacks were invoked repeatedly, most notably at the Republican National Convention, held in a locked-down New York City, where an entire evening was devoted to a 9/11 tribute designed to manipulate convention-goers and TV viewers into seeing the current president as heroic in the face of attacks whose probability he had been warned of, a warning he did nothing to address at the time he received it.
At the time, I chafed at the media's description of Bush's campaign tactics, writing:
The politics of fear is based around ideas such as these: that homosexuals are out to recruit your children, that God will punish the nation for its sins, that the family is broken when women have power, that membership in the United Nations demands the surrender of our nation's sovereignty. In short, the politics of fear exploits the trepidation innate in humans when facing change of any kind, and tweaks it to a twitchy pitch in times of great social change.
The politics of trauma is another beast entirely, based as it is, not on fear of the unknown, but the exploitation of something atrocious that has already occurred, the fear that it will happen again, and the psychological toxins produced by experiencing the atrocity.
Put another way, our 9/11 trauma was invoked as a means of disempowering us. And it worked -- well enough, anyway.