I’ve been thinking about this for some time. As a writer and someone deeply passionate about human rights, I am uncomfortable with books and articles, commentaries or screes that describe one political party as mentally deficient or psychotic, sociopathic or insane. Having been close to the Rwandan and Yugoslav genocides, as well as studying closely the origins nationalistic movements, like Nazism, or Soviet-style oligarchism, such “diagnosis” come dangerously close to the calamatous dehumanizing of European Jews, the Japanese in Second World War America, Tutsis in Rwanda, , Bosnia, Kosovo, the Sudan or East Timur.
But certainly this country has changed, not simply in the polarized rhetoric of politics, but in almost every aspect of American society. What has changed it, I believe, transcends Right or Left. It is something I am very intimately aware of, an affliction of the very soul of the nation, and it is not necessarily the fault of any one party. What I am describing is a national Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, like war survivors, accident and assault victims suffer.
PTSD is indeed an affliction. It physically restructures the brain, leaving sufferers changed for all time. Paramount is the victims inability, or lessened ability to properly process crisis and danger. Sounds, smells, confusion, a myriad of things can awaken vivid recollections, uncontrollable panic, fight or flight responses, mania and bottomless depression. It renders the world which existed before unrecognizable, shifting the perspective of a realistic world view entirely out of focus, until it feels threatening and dangerous. Everything is besieging them or is out of control. The desire for security becomes obsessive. The connections to others is questioned and strained. Violence, as part of the fight or flight response, becomes a prime option, where once it was a much less desirable one.
Sound familiar? The level of damage inflicted by trauma is completely dependent upon the individual. Some may seem to show little or no traume, while others may be devastated. For those who show, or appear to show no apparent trauma, it may and often will manifest itself years or decades later, but there is always some effect, some damage, some skewing of perspective and outlook, some change in the hue or fiber of the soul. National trauma is no different.
Can we believe that September 11, the shocking brutality of war and terrorism vaulted by media and internet and replayed in our psyches has no effect on us as a nation. Can we believe that massaging and wallowing in fear, security and worry does not skew our perspectives on reality. We have turned inward, Left, Right and middle, native and immigrant, regardless of religion and ideology. We have become paranoid and fearful, describing the world -the whole world- as a dangerous place, despite that global terrorism is on the wane, and violent crime has hardly been lower in our history. We take desperate refuge in religion for salvation for our fear and confusion, rather than embracing it as a guide for treating our neighbors. Those who disagree with us are wicked and evil, and who can rightly compromise with the evil? We are miserly to the point of perversion with money and things, consuming more and more-fast food, cheap products, porn, drugs, and drugging ourselves into a stupor with inane and mindless entertainment.
Self-reflection and correction is met with an almost violent reaction, an internal conflict of the conscience, not unlike PTSD sufferers who know somewhere in their heart that something isn’t right, but who refuse to acknowledge or confront it honestly. And sometimes they lack the capacity to do it alone, which is where loved ones and neighbors become their truest blessings, provided those relationships are not polluted or damaged. This is indeed a small planet in that respect.
These are all signs of a national PTSD. It is an indication that this nation has fundamentally changed in a way that is unrecognizable from the nation that was before. It has not changed for the better. And that is not due to fascist Republicans or Socialist Democrats. We are not the caring and unified nation we once were, or which we at least endeavored to be. We have become cold and cruel and selfish and dangerously cynical, and that is the path that will lead us ultimately to destruction.