America the Traumatized: How 13 Events of the Decade Made Us the PTSD Nation
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Just as the media looked away when hundreds of protesters were rounded up in New York that week and illegally detained in a makeshift jail on the Chelsea Pier, they also lost their nerve after the election returns rolled in, leaving behind their own reports of shenanigans at the polls and in the counting-rooms of Ohio, where another election may have been stolen. Had Ohio been called for Democratic candidate John Kerry, he would have won the election.
Even Democrats wanted no part of an inquiry into the long lines at polling places in Ohio that served African-American neighborhoods, or the eviction of the media from a county building where votes were being counted. Only Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., dared to conduct an inquiry, which was promptly ignored.
Such was the defeat of the American people that we allowed this to happen with barely a passing glance. This is the way traumatized people behave at the hands of an abuser -- by playing dead, dissociating, or slipping into denial at the injustice that has been done to them.
By the year's end, reports began to surface of torture at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But George W. Bush and his meglomaniacal Vice President Dick Cheney would have another four years to prostrate a nation that was already on its knees.
Hurricane Katrina and the Lie of Racial Comity
One tenet of American exceptionalism is that it claims to worship the heterogeneous nature of our society, and the belief that anyone can make it in our nation if he or she just tries hard enough. Along the way, after the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, we told ourselves that we were on the path to redemption for a past rife with racism.
After Hurricane Katrina barreled up a man-made waterway in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, yet another myth -- one fundamental to our own self-concept -- was battered. Despite warnings that the levies protecting one of America's oldest cities were about to give way, the president looked away. The federal government failed spectacularly to respond to a city under water, a city inhabited largely by African Americans.
The ugliness of our nation's racialized past is never far from the surface in New Orleans, an ancient trading post that was a major port of entry for African slaves, who were sold at its markets. The rhythms of New Orleans are distinctly African, and it is the birthplace of America's highest form of indigenous music -- jazz. The religion of the place is laced with voodoo, a syncretization of West African and European Christian beliefs. For these reasons -- all reminders of the involuntary labor that built this nation -- more than a few wouldn't mind seeing New Orleans fall into the Gulf of Mexico.
Within days after Katrina hit, it became apparent that something was terribly wrong. There was no food or water in the Morial Convention Center, where as many as 20,000 had gathered for refuge at the direction of city officials. Television captured the desperation: children begging for help, mothers begging for food for their children. If national television crews could find their way there, we wondered, then why couldn't federal emergency responders?
You know the rest of the story. I retell just enough to remind you of what it felt like to watch that: helpless. It's hard to imagine a sensation more disempowering than helplessness. And powerlessness, you'll recall, is the central experience of trauma.
We'll never know how many people died on the Gulf Coast as a result of Hurricane Katrina: many bodies are believed to have washed out to sea. In February 2006, documented deaths were tallied at 1,300, with another 2,300 reported missing.