The politics of trauma 

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

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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

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.

In Northern New Jersey, I'll grant you, the trauma is perhaps more acute than it is, say, in Des Moines. With half of the state being a suburb of Manhattan, the many who were spared the loss of loved ones themselves on September 11, 2001, all seem to know someone who lost someone on the day the towers came down. (Multiply by 10 or 20 or 100 the 700 New Jerseyans who perished in the attack, and you'll arrive at an approximation of the number of lives directly affected by those losses.)

It would be wrong, however, to assume that the trauma resulting from the 9-11 attacks begins and ends in the communities that hosted the fallen--Manhattan and its surroundings; Arlington, Virginia, and its environs, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Indeed, evidence of a traumatized nation is everywhere, not least of all in our politics; "outbursts of anger or irritability," "difficulty concentrating," and "becoming overly startled when someone surprises you," are all listed on WebMD, America's foremost medical authority, as symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The incoherent rage that has supplanted political discourse, the inability to focus on such legitimate and crucial issues as the economy or foreign policy or health care, and the shock, shock (!) felt with any shift from the anticipated script (Kerry Wins Debate) could be said to add up to a kind of national PTSD.

And why not? It wasn't just the horror of the attacks that left us traumatized as a nation; it is the hole it pierced in our vision of ourselves as nation not just indivisible, but invincible, as well. No distant memory, 9-11 speaks to the moment, just a breath ago, when America became a land of mere mortals, proven vulnerable to despair drawn by heinous acts committed by men from a culture to which ours was obviously, in our own estimation, far superior. They accomplished their gruesome goals not through strength of numbers or technological prowess, but by exploiting weaknesses in our own systems--weaknesses supported by the arrogance of a nation set on believing that it couldn't happen here.

Again and again and again

Another of the symptoms of PTSD is the constant reliving of the traumatic event in flashbacks. For the people of the United States, the flashbacks have been packaged, tied up with ribbons, and delivered by gift horses ranging from the legitimate TV news media (who played, with incessant repetition on the day of the attacks and for weeks thereafter, the video of the planes hitting the World Trade Center and footage of the towers falling), and political operatives who hope to harness the incoherent rage, inability to concentrate and the jumpiness of the electorate to provoke a knee-jerk reaction against the president's opponent, who is sold as the likely cause of inevitable future such mayhem should he win the White House.

The Republican National Convention was shaped around the same message, and I can attest to its effectiveness, finding not only New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg crying on the convention floor during the 9-11 segment of the first night's presentation, but myself, as well. I knew I was being manipulated, but my grief being real and fresh, it was easily provoked, even by charlatans.

By the last night of the convention, in response to the assertion that the only reason the attacks occurred was hatred for America's freedom and "way of life," the Garden's denizens shed no tears, chanting, instead,"U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A" with chilling, unthinking ferocity.

The cure

First, the language in which our trauma is packaged by the GOP must be challenged, right down to the morphing of the term, "war on terrorism," into the nonsensical but resonant "War on Terror". The word "terrorism" speaks to the means by which the trauma was inflicted; the word "terror" speaks to the resulting emotion and condition, and invokes it with every utterance. It should be pointed out that a War on Terror is a self-defeating concept, war being, as any honest soldier will admit, a terrifying endeavor.

As the object of the politics of trauma, it is imperative that John Kerry send his surrogates out to address the reality of the trauma and his opponent's brazen exploitation of it. Once again, the Democrats have let their opponents frame the debate, and then engage only within that frame. It's time to stop arguing that you're not soft on terrorists, or to rest the whole of your rejoinder on what the president has or hasn't done. Get family members of 9-11 victims to publicly express their disgust with the pouring of salt in the nation’s wounds.

Unless Kerry steps outside the frame to call his opponent on what he's actually doing--exploiting the suffering of the people--the risk remains high that the politics of trauma will win the day for George W. Bush. Win it this way once, and the politics of trauma will become the everyday politics of a generation.

Adele M. Stan, blogstress of AddieStan.com, has written for Mother Jones, Salon.com, and The New Republic. She is a communications specialist for the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO. The views expressed here are her own.

The politics of trauma
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