The politics of trauma 

Forget "the politics of fear"; call it the PTSD offensive
by Adele M. Stan


One might think that the latest videogram from Osama bin Laden would serve to remind the American public of President Bush's failings, but if public opinion polls are any indication (and this year, who knows if they actually are?), chances are that Osama's cryptic warning will serve only to advance the president's cause for re-election. At least that's how it seems in my home state, where every time the alert level is raised, the president's numbers spike.

In New Jersey, the pollsters tell us, the number one issue this election year is neither the economy nor health care; it's terrorism. Until this week, the presidential race was tied there--in a state that hasn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988. That’s why President Bush last week chose Jersey as the setting for his slam against John Kerry, which was billed as “a major homeland security address.”

As the president put it, “The people of New Jersey were among the first to understand how the world changed. On September the 11th, from places like Hoboken and Jersey City, you could look across the Hudson River and see the twin towers burning.” The imprint of that vision was made painfully clear to me on an otherwise lovely Saturday afternoon in September 2004.

It began over a plate of smoked fish as my friend's family broke the Yom Kippur fast. There, a retired man with a heart condition (not to mention bad manners and bad politics) and a righteous woman in the throes of a hot flash (that would be yours truly) nearly came to blows when an election-year argument turned suddenly personal. "She's full of liberal bull--t," said the offending cousin-by-marriage to the other men at the table, as if I wasn't there.

"Talk to me like that again, and I'll f--kin' deck ya," I replied.

"Oh, yeah?" he said, standing up, prompting Kenny, brother of my friend, Karen, to put himself between us and break the thing up.

Karen and I grew up together in this Jersey enclave, and I try not to miss her parents' annual gathering of the extended family at the High Holy days, in no small part for its tradition of vigorous but good-hearted political argument. But this year was different. This year, politics was no fun.

Earlier in the evening, I found myself walking away from another cousin, a genuine sweetheart of a guy, when he declared the Patriot Act to be one of the best things that ever happened. "I can't engage on this," I said, leaving him standing on the front lawn watching a herd of little boys chase each other and a football. Michael found me sulking in the back yard, puffing on a cigarette. It was about his kids, he explained. The Patriot Act made him feel that they were somehow safer from the schemes of terrorists. Meanwhile, Karen was chatting elsewhere about the debate party she and her daughter were hosting on behalf of the Democratic National Committee.

I was contemplating the for-show check-points I walk by every day on Capitol Hill, the harassment by the executive branch that my employer, a labor union, was enduring, and pondering why my garbage seemed to be getting picked up much earlier in the day than anyone else's on my block. (Hey, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean John Ashcroft's not going through your garbage.)

The politics of fear was having its effect, I surmised; we were all a bit worn down in one way or another. On further examination, however, I determined that the politics of fear are a thing of the past. We have entered the era of the politics of trauma.

Another beast entirely (next page)
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