Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Stephen Farrell: Survivor's Guilt, Survivor's Anger

New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell was rescued from the Taliban early this morning. He and his translator, Sultan Munadi, had been taken captive in Afghanistan four days before. The raid by British soldiers that rescued Mr. Farrell resulted in the death of both Mr. Munadi, one of the British soldiers and at least two others (news reports conflict about how many and who they were).

Most of us have heard the term "survivor's guilt." It's the guilty feeling that people have when someone else has died in an incident that could have killed them. It's the feeling of the person who called in sick to the World Trade Center on 9-11, or who skipped the exercise class at LA Fitness the night of the shootings, or who survived the accident that killed their friend. I think it's safe to say that Stephen Farrell is, at best, at high risk for feelings of survivor's guilt, both because of Mr. Munadi's death and because a soldier died trying to save Farrell's life.

There's a difficult twist to this episode as well, however. The British went in to rescue Farrell in part because he is a British citizen. His colleague, Munadi, died at least in part because the British initiated the raid, although it isn't clear who fired the shots that killed him. Certainly the British soldier died trying to resuce Farrell. This has the potential to leave some tricky mixed feelings.

On the one hand, Farrell has expressed great thankfulness for his rescue. He is glad to be alive and glad to be free. On the other hand, it has to have crossed his mind that, were it not for him, Munadi would probably not have been abducted and that, were it not for the British coming to rescue him, Munadi might still be alive.

Obviously none of that is Farrell's fault. It also doesn't mean the British military made the wrong call in going in. But it leaves Farrell feeling grateful to the same group that he is, on some level, angry at, and angry at someone who died trying to save him. We can all take a step back and say that all of this was the fault of the Taliban. Farrell probably can too. But the gut feelings following trauma are often not nearly that logical, and Farrell may not just experience survivor's guilt, he may experience survivor's anger, too.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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