Trauma, and the Fate of Nations

Dr. Robert Lindsay Pyles

The fate of nations and individuals are often shaped by devastating trauma. Such events are frequently experienced by both, with an overwhelming and long-lasting sense of humiliation and helplessness


                           Trauma, and the Fate of Nations

                                         Bob Pyles   

The fate of nations and individuals are often shaped by devastating trauma.  Such events are frequently experienced by both, with an overwhelming and long-lasting sense of humiliation and helplessness. Both the experience of the events and the subsequent attempts to cope become integrated in the national and personal character.

      On December 7th, 1941, with no declaration of war, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, devastating the U.S. Pacific fleet. In his address to the people of the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt denounced the “sneak” attack as “a day which will live in infamy”.

       For the Japanese, the twin goals of their action were to destroy American military capability in the Pacific, but mainly, through the sudden and overwhelming force of the assault, to break the will of the American people.  The result was hardly what the Japanese had intended. Even Fleet Commander Nagumo, realizing they had missed the American aircraft carriers, commented, “I fear that all we have accomplished is to awaken a sleeping giant, and fill him with a terrible resolve”.

       In the history of any nation, there are a relatively few watershed events which define a people and a national character. For the United States, in addition to Pearl Harbor, those would be the Revolution in 1776 and the subsequent establishment of the Constitution, the Civil War (1861-1865), which produced a greater loss of life than all other U.S. wars combined, and Pearl Harbor.

       And then there was September 11th, 2001.

       The horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., bear superficial similarities to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both came without warning and with extreme violence, both resulted in massive loss of life, and both stunned the nation. But there the comparison stops.

        The Japanese attack was intended to coincide with a formal declaration of war. The Japanese government felt some constraint to operate within the rules of warfare recognized by civilized nations. The assault was strictly aimed at military personnel and equipment. The goal was professionally political and strategic. Oddly, as shocking as it was, it didn’t feel personal; nor did it feel motivated by hatred.

         The terrorist attacks, by contrast, occurred with unmitigated and deliberate savagery against a completely civilian population. Rather than being similar to Pearl Harbor, these attacks belong on the list with Bosnia, the Holocaust, and Cambodia. These are crimes of “ethnic cleansing”. The motivation is racial hatred. The goal is genocide-or to paralyze a people.

       In the aftermath of the attacks, as people recovered from the initial shock, the most common bewildered questions were, “why do they hate us so much?”, and, “how could anyone kill so many innocent people?”.  These are vital questions on which political leaders, psychoanalysts, and others must work together to answer.

      What psychological forces must operate to create a mind set in which individuals or groups become capable of forsaking their basic humanity and perpetrating mass slaughter? There is no question that much of the answer must lie in the understanding of group dynamics. In 1921, in his ground-breaking work, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego”, Sigmund Freud wrote about the necessary factors for the cohesiveness of a group. In his view, it required a central organizing idea or belief system, a charismatic leader, or both.  Freud and many others have pointed out that membership in a group, particularly one that requires relatively unquestioning allegiance, depends upon a suspension of critical judgment on the part of the adherents.  The individual sense of personal identity becomes fused with that of the group.

          Thus membership in a group with a strong central belief system requires setting aside the ordinary ability of the ego to assess what might be thought of as rational reality. In psychoanalytic terms, this amounts to a regression to the more primitive ego mechanisms-splitting, projection, denial, and distortion.  In this kind of group, which Bion would have called a “basic needs group”,  paranoia and isolationism become paramount. The primary function of the group becomes the need to distinguish between “me, and not-me”; that is, those who are like me (my group), and those who are not like me (everyone else). The character functioning of the group becomes intensely narcissistic.     

          Religious, or faith-based groups, represent a particular aspect of group dynamics. Ordinarily, these are not problematic, because while each religion has its own belief system, the group has not lost its connection and sense of identification with the rest of humanity. The five major religions of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam all have specific doctrines of peace and tolerance of other religions.  

           Fundamentalist religious groups, such as Al-Qaeda,  are another matter altogether. Ironically, their belief systems have much more in common with each other, than with the parent religion of which they are a part. They invariably seek to return to a glorious past, and see the present as corrupt and obscene. (This current effort seems to have at its root a wish to turn the clock back a thousand years, to the great days of Muslim hegemony.) They have the sense that their cultural or national group has been betrayed and humiliated, and they seek to reclaim their honor by humiliating others.  They feel economically and politically impotent.
          In World War II, six million Jews, and possibly 50 million others died. In Bosnia, perhaps 50,000. It can happen again. And again.  This is the most clear and present danger. An unchecked feeling of personal or group defectiveness, essentially a narcissistic regression, leads directly to the rationalized slaughter of the “other”.

          These groups are marked by the most primitive of ego mechanisms. Hatred and suspicion of others, intolerance, exclusiveness, isolation, and blind adherence to their own belief system as the one true faith, are their hallmarks. The gate of independent reasoning is closed. In the individual, we would call this psychotic, a profoundly narcissistic character organization, but there are no comparable terms in group dynamics. There is a grandiose sense of fusion with God, a certainty that the will of God is being carried out.  As we have seen throughout human history, killing for political reasons can be bad enough, but killing for the will of God carries with it unlimited savagery.

          This brings us to the most essential element that underlies massacre—the need to dehumanize the other. I first encountered this phenomenon when I was a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy during Viet Nam. Serving as a psychiatrist, it was part of my duty to treat Marines just two days out of the combat line. Many of these young men, mostly teen-agers, or in their early twenties, had seen frequent combat, and had often seen their friends and comrades die or be mangled in horrible ways.  They described a nightmare situation-jungle, an unseen enemy, death constantly lurking.  Anyone, an elderly villager, a nine year old boy, could and would, carry a hidden grenade.

          To cope, many of these young soldiers came to see all Vietnamese as`` “gooks”, “slants”, “dinks”. And, as such, they became easier to kill. These boys could not kill a Vietnamese teen-ager who might be like themselves, or their younger brother. But they could kill a “gook”. Or lay down a curtain of fire on a village and ask questions later. It didn’t happen often. But it happened. And sometimes they felt guilt—and sometimes they didn’t.

         A diagnosis of a major aspect of the problem should also suggest an approach to a solution. Such a belief system as the terrorists advocate is based on splitting, the distinction  between the grandiose self and the denigrated self. This can only flourish to the extent that the people of Islam are kept in isolation and ignorance. If this is true,  
then inclusion, dialogue, and mutual exchange must be the long-term goal. This would be policy based on the most sound of political, psychological, and social goals.  It is instructive to see what it is that our self-professed enemies, the fundamentalist leadership, most fear, and that is clearly the inclusion and influence of other cultures. This would mean the end to the isolation of their people, and the end of fundamentalism. As the Prophet predicted, Islam would be united into the world community.

        Unfortunately, short-term solutions are much more clouded. It is likely that the last thing that the hard-core fundamentalists would welcome is open dialogue. And who would doubt that Bin Laden’s of the world and his followers would kill us all if they had the means. Therefore, counterforce until more moderate governments can be assembled seems inevitable. Nonetheless, mutual cultural education, economic aid, and interchange with the Muslim people and those of all faiths must remain our most potent weapon.

                                   Targets of Terrorism          

         People everywhere have mixed feelings. There is a steely resolve to do whatever is necessary to bring terrorism to heel, and to punish those individuals and countries responsible for this modern version of a Biblical scourge. But there is also widespread anxiety.  The most ordinary things seem dangerous, taking a trip, opening the mail, etc. This raises the question – how can the roots of terrorism, the effect on the victim or victim group, be understood psychologically?

           The goal of terrorism is to strike at one of the most basic elements of the human psyche, the sense of safety. Terrorism seeks to create the impression that there is no safe place, nowhere to hide. Disaster may strike from anywhere. People, places, or things which were once taken for granted, can now become instruments of destruction. A letter can kill. The renter down the hall becomes a murderous hi-jacker.  A commercial plane becomes a deadly missile.

        Television and the media have greatly augmented the effect of  terrorist activities. Who will ever be able to erase from their consciousness the sight of airliners hitting the World Trade Center Towers, or the Towers, crumbling, one after another, like children’s toys. Or the daily newspaper reports of the latest anthrax scare. Our own freedoms have become the terrorists most potent weapons.

        In the first instance, the death of thousands strikes violently and without warning. The images are replayed a thousand times. In the second, death is silent and insidious, and may come unseen, anywhere and anytime. Do I dare to fly? Is the train safer? But there’s no security check on the train! Is that white substance baby powder, or could it be anthrax?  How do we know they don’t have access to nuclear devices or small pox?  Like a panic attack, the fear of a possible terrorist attack becomes a far more potent weapon than the few actual attacks. Once this state of mind is achieved in a populace, the terrorists’ work is done. All it takes are a few unpredictable incidents here or there to keep it going.
        Hollywood seems intuitively to have long understood the essence of fear as described by Freud in his 1919 paper, “The Uncanny”. Freud used the  word “heimlich”, which in German means “homelike”, or “pertaining to the hearth”, the essence of safety and warm security. But a slight alteration in the word, “unheimlich”, turns it into the opposite, and it comes to mean something that is strange or frightening. As he puts it,”uncanny is that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar”. Freud goes on to point out what is the most fear inducing, what truly inspires terror, is not what is totally alien and different, but that which seems familiar, but strangely altered.

       Movies like “The Invasion of the Body-snatchers”, in which trusted friends and relatives turn out to be blood-hungry invaders from space make effective use of this primal fear. Or “Psycho”, where the sweet adolescent boy is in fact a murderous schizophrenic, and a relaxing shower becomes a death-trap. An early example is “Dracula”, a monster in human form, who drains the life of all who cross his path.

          The power of terrorism rests in its ability to undermine our beliefs that we can determine what is safe and what is not. Terrorists seek to convince us that we can no longer rely on what we thought was real.  Everything is designed to shake our faith in the reality assumptions by which we live our lives.

           Terrorists in general, but these in particular, make it clear that, although they seem human, and look human, they are bound by no human convention. There are no laws or rules that they are not eager to violate. Even the most basic of human instincts, that of self-preservation, has no meaning. Bin-Laden commented that while Bush sought life, he sought death. What could be a more fundamental denial of all that we hold dear?  

             The universal human wish to protect the innocent and helpless, like women and children, does not hold. There is no act so merciless that they will not commit it. Random murder is the norm. Mass destruction is the goal.

           This tactic is deliberate, though not necessarily conscious, and the goal is to paralyze the enemy by a fear so profound and primitive, that resistance will be impossible.

            So what can be done to combat such a different and subversive enemy? Part of the problem is our own denial. We don’t want to accept that people can behave with such mindless hatred. We invent euphemisms to cover up what we don’t want to see.  Such attacks become “work-place violence” or “man-caused disasters”.

          But we must face up to the reality, difficult as it is. We need to recognize that this is essentially a fascist enemy, dressed in different clothes, more than a religious one, as old as mankind itself. The beginning of any fascist movement has relatively few fanatically devoted followers. Such a movement is a danger not only to the U.S. and Israel, but to the whole civilized world, because the very tenets of civilization are being attacked. The need to establish a global antiterrorism network, with both military and intelligence capabilities, is paramount.

            What can we do to protect our personal psychological well-being? Just as our sense of reality can be used against us, it is also our main ally. The sense of reality is the precise target of terrorism. The terrorists are few in number. They are human and vulnerable. We have massive advantages in numbers and resources, and they know that. Security and health measures are, and have been, rapidly put into place. We have gotten a wake-up call, and we are responding.

            Our global and personal character is being tested. Our children are looking to us for guidance and direction. We would do well to remember the words of President Roosevelt, after Pearl Harbor, as he rallied our nation and the world to the cause: ”The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

            It would be ironic and fitting that if the ultimate effect of September 11th would result in the greater understanding between Islam and the rest of the world. The achievement of this mutual understanding and openness, would spell the death of terrorism and hatred, and would result in the triumph of the human spirit, in both people and nations.  









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