Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Our Traumatized Nation: A Culture of Fear

The following essay was published in the Concord Monitor 2/18/15
Wire protecting the perimeter:Danang Vietnam 1966
CC Jean Stimmell
Psychological insights into our culture of fear, love affair 
with guns –& a modest proposal toward a way forward

The Monitor recently featured a superb essay by Jonathan Baird on how we as Americans have become enmeshed in a culture of fear, spurred on by a “24/7 media spin cycle that thrives on sensationalism.” He points out how this fear mongering has been toxic to our collective sense of who we are as a people.

Fear in our culture, in its current form, has been gathering strength since President Nixon and Reagan ran for office on “law and order” platforms that exaggerated or, even in some cases, manufactured fearful scenarios, while characterizing their opponents as “weak” on the issue, in order to generate public support.

When the 9/11/01 attacks struck, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy: What did I tell you, the world is a terribly dangerous place!

The Twin Towers collapse also smashed our naïve belief that we are an exceptional people, immune to such tragedy: it was only supposed to happen to other countries – not us! 

Then, rather than being given space to grieve and heal, we were subjected to an endless loop of rewinds  – continuing to this day – of the twin towers exploding and then collapsing with the attendant chaos and counting the dead.

The end result was extremely traumatic and not just to individuals. In fact, one can make a good case that we were traumatized as a nation. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) tells us that Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may result from “exposure to actual or threatened death” followed by “experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event.”

Undisputedly, America exhibits symptoms of PTSD post 9/11, as defined in the DSM-5: “recurrent and intrusive memories of the event…persistent and exaggerated negative belief about the world (e.g., “The world is completely dangerous)…persistent negative emotional state (e.g., fear horror, anger)…angry outbursts (with little or not provocation) typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression…reckless or self-destructive behavior…hypervigilance,” paranoia, and the need to be in control.

Psychologically, as a result of the traumatized state of our nation, we feel an increased need to be in control and protect ourselves; this in turn, has lead to more and more citizens arming themselves with guns.

Baird points out how counter productive this is: Despite the fact that the U.S. “has by far the largest number of privately owned firearms in the developed world, we have more gun-related killings than any other developed country.” He provides scientific evidence that “a substantial number of murders, suicides and unintentional firearm fatalities can be prevented with reasonable gun policies.

This rising epidemic of gun ownership and increasing gun violence, Baird says, should be considers a public health emergency. The problem is that a gun used against another person, is extremely lethal compared to other forms of aggression.

A person can kill another with a gun in a blink of eye. That is more problematic than most people realize because we aren’t the rational beings we think we are.  If placed under sufficient stress – which varies person to person – we will react irrationally, falling prey to primitive, instinctual forces.

If I am triggered by an immediate and obvious threat (like a burglar in my home) or by a perceived threat (an ominous looking dark shadow outside my door at night), my body automatically mobilizes. At this point, my thinking is no longer driven by my rational neocortex but by my primitive midbrain (as in “Me good, you bad!).

When an person’s primal brain is triggered and gains control, it may take up to ten seconds for his conscious self to be aware of what he is doing. For that first ten seconds, his primal self  “may act, usually violently, on his or her impulses to the point that they may attack until they themselves have been incapacitated or the source of their rage has been destroyed.”1

In that ten seconds, in a fit of rage, an individual with a handgun has ample time to kill his beloved partner. However, if he only has his fists or a knife, his rational brain will most likely regain control before the result becomes life threatening.

Therapy with an emphasis on anger management can help prevent future occurrences. Interestingly, people with PTSD can be prone to rage when triggered by a sudden reminder of their original trauma, causing them to relive it through flashbacks or intrusive thoughts.

That brings us back to the argument I made at the beginning of this essay: that it is not only possible for individuals to suffer PTSD but countries as well; and, in fact, we as a nation were traumatized by 9/11. After an individual is traumatized, it is important that calmer heads prevail and treatment started to promote healing. So too it is with nations.

We all remember how our nation responded to 9/11. Certainly, a robust response was justified, but not an endless round of wars which continues to consume an absurd amount of our national treasury, while promoting fevers of panic about terrorism that has the effect of further traumatizing us.

This staggering increase in our security apparatus on a collective level parallels the increase in gun purchases at the individual level. The end result is a frightening loss in our freedom as we become increasingly controlled, surveilled, and militarized.

A majority of Americans disapprove of the seemingly endless wars we have been fighting at astronomical cost, along with the increasing restrictions on our personal freedom at home, but acquiesce because they think we have no choice.  The good news is that we do have a choice.

There is an alternative and it works. We haven’t heard much about it from our mainstream media and politicians who prosper short-term by fear-mongering and crying wolf. The only caveat is having the courage and willpower to carry it out because it flies in the face of business as usual.

The case study I wish to present took place in Norway in 2011: in the worst lone-wolf terrorist act in in modern history, a gunman murdered over 70 people, most of them teenagers attending a youth camp.

Mathew Harwood has written a terrific piece about what happened in the aftermath: Norwegians, individually and en masse, chose not to panic or let their world be altered by…[the gunman’s] horrific acts. They did not build a greater counter-terror security structure; they did not change their laws or create special terror legislation; they did not try…[the perpetrator] in some special way; they did not even close their parliament and ring it with fortifications. They were determined not to let…[terrorism] deprive them of the openness they valued. They exhibited neither hysteria nor bloodlust. It was, in our world, the bravest of collective acts, stunning in its restraint.” 2

On an individual level as well as the collective level, we must stand up in a similar manner for our precious open democracy by confronting the fear mongers who seek to inflame us for their own ends. Standing united, we must all take a deep breath, regain rational control from our primal brain, and let the healing begin.

Tagline: Jean is not against having guns and hunting as the accompanying photo shows. And he is not a pacifist. He spent 1-1/2 years in Vietnam in the navy, on the rivers and along the coast. He is a semi-retired psychotherapist and blogs at:

1 DiGiuseppe & Tafrate., 2006.

Post a Comment