Thursday, September 29, 2011

Did the Onion Cross the Line?

The Onion, if you're not familiar, is a "news" outlet that puts out a printed newspaper, a TV show and a website absolutely chock full of fake news. Typical headlines are things like, "Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What's Happened In Past Before Making Any Big Decisions" and "Syracuse Leaves Big East For Woman Named 'Misti'." The Onion, in my humble opinion, varies between mildly amusing and downright hilarious, and occasionally it hits the nail on the head with its headlines in ways that make you say, "What's sad is, that's almost true."

From time to time, the Onion gets in trouble because someone doesn't realize they're kidding. There is, in fact, an entire blog devoted to people taking the Onion literally on Facebook, often with hilarious results. Many years ago, when the Onion published a story saying that Congress was threatening to leave Washington unless they got a new Capitol building with sky boxes, it got picked up by the official media in China and reported as factual evidence of the failures of capitalism.

Today there was another such Onion incident. The Onion ran an article on its website with the headline, "Congress Takes Group of Schoolchildren Hostage." The tagline was, "'We need $12 trillion or all these kids die.'" This was accompanied by a doctored photo of John Boehner with a gun to the head of a little girl.

The Onion then began sending tweets, the first of which read, "BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building." This got retweeted enough times and alarmed enough people that the phones at the Capitol Police Department started ringing off the hook. They actually began an investigation, because by this point, although they knew the story was false, they couldn't figure out where it had started.

So the question is, is this just another case of people not getting an Onion joke, or did the Onion actually do something wrong here? I think it's the latter, but apparently for a different reason than most commentators out there.

My take is this: the Onion is funny because they manage to run stories that relate to reality in some way but are just off the wall enough that if you're paying attention you know they can't be true. In this instance, the notion that Congress is "holding the country hostage" is not a new one, but no one really thinking about it would believe that John Boehner actually was threatening little children with a firearm. You may or may not like the politics of this story, and you may or may not think it was funny, but it was clearly intended as a joke. Most of the comments out there about this mess suggest that such a story by itself, or with the picture, crosses the line of decency. I actually think that is not the problem

The problem is that, when the Onion started tweeting, they did something crucially different than what they did in the original story. That first tweet had absolutely nothing in it that would even hint that it was supposed to be a joke. There wasn't anything about how Congress, as a whole, was taking hostages. That's the part we knew was false. All it said was that there was gunfire and screams at the Capitol. That was purely believable, and because of that it wasn't funny.

You might argue that anyone who knows anything about the Onion should have known it wasn't true anyway, and you would have a point. However, not everyone knows the Onion, and once people started retweeting and the original author was lost in the stream, people seeing this tweet had no way to know that it wasn't real. The Onion lost control of the joke. In hindsight, at least, that seems pretty predictable.

The Onion's sin here wasn't making fun of violence at the Capitol. It was joking in a way that did not insure that everyone would at least have a chance to be in on the joke. I hope the folks over at the Onion learned a lesson, because I'd hate to feel like I can't read it anymore. It's pretty funny.

This post was updated on September 30 at 11:09 PM.
Friday, September 23, 2011

Try Explaining This One to Your Kids

There was a car bombing in Monroe, Michigan on Tuesday.

How many of you just went back and read that again to make sure you had read it correctly? I sure did when I saw the headline. Monroe, Michigan, population 20,700 and change, had a car bombing. A local lawyer, aged 42, and his sons, 11 and 13, were driving to football practice around 5:30 when a pipe bomb placed under the passenger seat went off, injuring all three of them. The boys are still in the hospital. The dad has been released.

At moments like this, I usually flip automatically into what I like to call "Law and Order" mode. Who are the most likely suspects? I'm thinking someone on the other side of a case. Turns out this guy handled divorces, so that makes it even juicier. Someone got screwed in a divorce, decides to kill the lawyer. We haven't even finished the opening credits, and the Quarterback has solved the case.

Of course, if this were a "Law and Order" episode, the very fact that the case was solved so quickly would indicate with certainty that we've got the wrong guy. There's a whole 40 minutes of TV to fill, after all, so it's either that or some big constitutional issue in how I conducted the investigation.

But I digress, which is easy to do, because this story just doesn't seem real. This is not something that happens in real life. I've written often about how trauma messes up our ideas of what is likely vs. what is possible. But this wasn't even on my possible list. There are places in the world where this happens. Southeast Michigan is not one of them.

The Catholic school that the boys attend held a prayer service for them yesterday. There are also excerpts from a letter from the Principal to parents, and it looks like he did a pretty good job. But this raises the question, how exactly would you explain this to one of the boys' classmates in such a way that was honest but didn't scare them? This is not one of the many types of horrible events that I have a fairly stock way of explaining to kids -- and remember, that's allegedly one of my areas of expertise.

So let's go with general rules of thumb:

Tell the truth, the whole truth, but not all the details unless asked: Your friend is in the hospital. He got very hurt in an accident, but it looks like he's going to be OK.

If they're going to hear it anyway, let them hear it from you: There was an explosion in the car he and his dad and brother were riding in. The police think someone put an explosive device under one of the seats.

Separate what is known from what is not known, and that people are working on it: The police are investigating and they've even called investigators from the federal government. They don't know who did this or why, but they have some good leads and they're trying their best to find out.

Normalize the feeling, educate about the probabilities: This is a pretty scary thing. And one of the reasons it's so scary and such a big deal is because it's incredibly unusual. I've never heard of something like this happening. So even though it really scares me, I also know it's really unlikely to happen again.

Is this going to be enough to make them feel completely safe? No. It probably doesn't make you feel completely safe either. But you have to start somewhere, and then just live with the fact that it's going to feel scary for a while, and it will get better.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

No Time to Think: Nevada Air Show Crash

Yesterday, a small plane participating in the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, crashed into the box seats of spectators. Three people were killed on the scene, including the pilot. More than 50 were injured, many of them critically.

The still pictures of this crash are the sort that make me think, "That would be a really amazing shot if I didn't contemplate what's happening in it." The one displayed here, which is from the Associated Press (click here or on the picture to see a larger version), is particularly jarring for a number of reasons. First is the realization that it must have been taken literally the moment of the crash. This is not the aftermath, this is the event. Given how horrifying this must have been to watch, I admire the photographer, Ward Howes, for how clear and steady it is. If he was holding his camera, he wasn't shaking. If it was on a tripod, he managed not to knock into it in the excitement.

The other thing that I notice in this picture, and which I found somewhat disturbing, is that people are just standing there. From this angle, it does not appear that anyone at all is running away. How is that possible? If a plane were headed straight for you, wouldn't you run?

There are two major reasons that no one is running in this picture. The first has to do with visual perspective. It is very hard to judge where an object traveling in your general direction at high speed is going to land. Some people are much better at this than others, as evidenced by the fact that, at a baseball game, a foul ball hit pretty much anywhere into my side of the stands will make me duck, while other people don't even move unless it's coming within two rows of them.

If you look up and see the plane headed in your general direction, you may want to run. However, unless you're really good at figuring out where the plane will land, it's hard to know which way to run, or even if you should run at all. Clearly you'd rather be a mile away, but that's not an option. And while running ten feet to either side might save your life, it might also mean running directly into the path of the plane.

The second reason has to do with our natural reactions to an immediate threat. While most of us are familiar with the "fight or flight" response, you may not know that "freeze" is also a natural, involuntary reaction to danger. Evolutionarily this makes some sense. If you can get a predator not to notice you, your chances of survival are actually much greater than if you try to fight it or run from it.

People who experience this natural "freeze" reaction often feel horrible after the event. They say things like, "I just stood there. Why didn't I try to help? Why didn't I try to get away?" The answer is, they could no more avoid freezing than they could avoid their heart rate going up. It was not in their conscious control.

If you watch the video of this crash, you can see that no one had much time to move. By the time it registered with the spectators that the crash was occurring, it was pretty much over. Couple that with trying to figure out where it was going to land and the freeze response, as well as the fact that the crash was somewhat further away than you might think looking at this picture, and you get a photograph that captures what all of us feel in considering this tragedy -- stunned horror and complete helplessness.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How I Spent My 9-11

I've lived in this neighborhood
For twenty-seven years
I know where to get good bagels
And exotic beers
The favorite sidewalk cafes
Where locals like to eat
But I never paid attention to
The firehouse on this street

My house is about half a mile from our main township fire station. I'm particularly glad about this given that, because of zoning regulations, our area does not have fire hydrants, it's somewhat reassuring to know that the tanker truck is right nearby. The one time we had to call an ambulance the firefighters got here really, really fast.

Last week, driving by, I noticed the station had put up its 9-11 memorial banner. It's a white banner with a red, white and blue lapel ribbon and the words, "We remember 9-11-01." My son, who is 6 and has no knowledge of the attacks, asked about it.

I explained that 10 years ago there was a terrible tragedy in New York where many firefighters were killed. All the firefighters all around the country were scared and sad, and all the people in the country were scared and sad too. The sign says that the firefighters here are remembering, because the 10th anniversary of that day is coming up.

Neighbors lit votive candles
Laid flowers at the door
Baked casseroles and homemade breads
But wished they could do more
And the guys inside were grateful
But preferred to grieve alone
Though trained to save the lives of others
They could not save their own

I decided bringing something to the firefighters today would be a good and appropriate way to commemorate the anniversary and involve the kids. We had a massive Tollhouse Cookie fest this morning and made probably six dozen or more cookies. Every surface of the kitchen and every surface of my son was coated in flour and dough. The whole family helped, which was a nice bit of togetherness and unity.

This afternoon, my son and I took a huge plate of cookies over to the firehouse (important tip -- the total capacity of a single Chinette dinner plate is close to, but not quite, 6 dozen cookies if you stack them really carefully and then wrap in foil). There are two firefighters on duty at all times there, one in the other station in town, and nine total.

I'm not sure what I expected. Half of me was afraid this would be the 47th plate of cookies they got today. Another piece was afraid they'd look at me like I was crazy. Neither was true. The two guys on duty were quite appreciative and very touched. They kept saying "you didn't have to do this. You really didn't." But both of them acknowledged this was a really hard day. They said they were trying to keep busy and not turn on the TV.

The guys let my son wear one of their helmets and get his picture taken in front of the engine with him standing on the front bumper and the two firefighters below. They let him sit in the driver's seat. He was in heaven. We said goodbye and thank you, they said come by anytime.

I'm glad we went. And it was heartbreaking. I don't think it could possibly have been otherwise.

Maybe next year the pain
Won't be as sharp
As it is today
Though it will never
Completely go away
We will talk in terms of
'Before' and 'after' the attack
And wish that more than anything
We could bring those brave men back

Reality sliced cleanly through
That slender thread of hope
The digging just went on and on
Some snapped
Most of us still cope
The photos of the missing men
Are missing from the glass
Of the red door where
We say a prayer
Whenever we walk past

Note: The lyrics interspersed in today's post are from the song "Firehouse" by Christine Lavin, off her album "I Was in Love With a Difficult Man." It was written for the men of Ladder 25 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Every singer-songwriter wrote a song about 9-11. This one, in my humble opinion, is the best for many reasons, but mostly because it so well captures the common experience of 9-11 in all of its many facets, as well as the experience of the first responders who lost their brothers and sisters that day.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Why 9-11?

So, are you feeling like dog poop yet? Sick of the coverage? Want to talk about something -- anything else? Welcome to the 10th anniversary of 9-11, and to being a human who has experienced trauma. If you didn't read what I had to say yesterday about getting through this in a healthy way, I highly suggest it -- that one was more important than what I've got to say today.

What is it about 9-11 that holds such power over us? More Americans have died, after all, in Iraq and Afghanistan than did during that one day. There have been other big, national events -- Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing -- that got our attention when they happened but don't seem to affect us quite the same way. Why?

First of all, I think there is an argument to be made that each of these events affected our society significantly. Certainly the Kennedy assassination did. While I won't put all of the '60s on that event, it was a catalyst. Each generation seems to have their "big thing," and 9-11 was ours.

But something does separate the September 11th attacks in our consciousness. If it wasn't worse, it was different. It is different.

PTSD is unusual in its diagnoses because, unlike most disorders, the cause is part of the diagnosis. You can be diagnosed with depression, for example, without having something obvious causing your depression. But in PTSD, there are particular criteria the trauma has to meet.

First, the person must have witnessed an event that they sincerely believed had the possibility to threaten the life or physical integrity of or cause serious injury to themselves or others. September 11th? Check.

Second, the person must have responded, at the time, with feelings of intense fear, horror or helplessness. September 11th? Check.

Of course, the Kennedy assassination, for those who saw it or saw the footage, met those same criteria. But there is one key difference.

On September 11, 2001, we as a country all witnessed an event that killed over 3,000 people. But more than that, we experienced an event that we sincerely believed had the possibility of killing us. We didn't just have intense horror or helplessness. We had intense fear. We don't like to admit it, and maybe it seems a little silly looking back, but the simple fact that someone was out there targeting Americans simply for being Americans, coupled with the idea that regular folks went off to regular jobs and never came back, was and is really scary.

My daughter was 3 years old on 9-11. She didn't know what was going on, but slowly, over the following weeks, she asked questions about the things she noticed -- flags in windows, singing the "Bless America" song (as she called it). We answered the questions she asked and nothing more. But she knew it was bad. After one such conversation where I had to reassure her of her own safety as I tucked her in, I remember coming out of her room and saying, "The good news is, our daughter now feels perfectly safe. Now who's going to tuck me in and make me feel safe?"

The real truth is, no one is. We can't go back to thinking it can't happen. All we can do is acknowledge that it's there and it's scary, and remind ourselves that it's still really, really, really unlikely that any one of us will become a victim of a terrorist attack. If we can channel our inner toddler, maybe that will be enough.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Turn Into the Wind: Dealing With the 9-11 Anniversary and its Hype

All week I've been writing about how American society matches the symptom profile for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This morning, I took the first of those pieces to my writer's group, a small circle of women writers who share and respond to each other's work every Friday mornings. I knew it was not my best work, and I wanted feedback.

As usual, the group was very helpful, but one of their reactions caught me by surprise. Members felt that my writing was distressing (not in terms of quality, but in terms of topic), and that I needed to give information on how to deal with that distress. So I'm taking a detour from the exploration of PTSD in a post 9-11 society to help all you Quarterbackers out there as we head into the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

Perhaps the most important thing you should know is that, if you're feeling blah this week, or sad, or anxious, or irritable, or having trouble sleeping, or anything else that makes you feel "off," even if you do not consciously connect those feelings to this anniversary, you're normal. Anniversaries are very powerful, and quite often people who don't even realize that it is an anniversary have negative reactions nonetheless. This isn't helped by the terrorism alert for New York and Washington. What might be somewhat distressing anyway only feels magnified given the time of year.

You also aren't crazy if you are sick and tired of the anniversary coverage (although chances are you aren't reading this, so I may be wasting my breath). The extra coverage is draining because it prevents us from getting away from the intense memories and the feelings they evoke.

Whichever of these two groups you most identify with, you're normal. Don't waste one minute worrying that your reaction is too much or not enough or inappropriate, any more than you would criticize yourself for feeling pain when you stub your toe. You couldn't control those feelings if you wanted to, so don't bother trying.

But what can you do? If the coverage or the date or the blogging about our messed-up society is bothering you, what is the solution? You may not like the answer, because here's what it isn't. Turning off the TV, avoiding reading my blog, doing something completely non-9-11 related on Sunday and generally trying to get your mind off it may feel good for the moment, but it is a quick fix for a longer term problem. That's because problem isn't the reminders of the attack, it's how upsetting they are to you. Avoiding the reminders won't solve the underlying issue, it will just push it back underground.

What I suggest is completely counter-intuitive. When you find yourself having negative feelings -- sadness, fear, hurt, anger, guilt, shame or whatever -- don't try to turn away from them. Turn towards them. Identify what you are feeling and what caused it. Label them consciously. Don't try to explain it rationally, because emotions are not rational -- they're, well, emotional. Whatever you're feeling just is, so you might as well feel it.

The reason this is a good idea is that, when you turn and face your negative emotions, they stop feeling so overwhelming. Feelings, by themselves, do not hurt us. What we tell ourselves about those feelings and the events that trigger them can. No one likes to feel sad or afraid, but you can tolerate it. Your negative emotion loses its power when you acknowledge it and face it head on.

Does this mean you should glue yourself to the TV and watch as much coverage as you can this weekend? No. Just as avoiding reminders isn't healthy, seeking them out to excess isn't, either. Watch, read and hear what interests and moves you or is meaningful to you. Consider for yourself what type of commemoration, if any, you believe is appropriate for you to participate in. Just monitor yourself and be careful when you find yourself saying things like, "I can't watch that," "I want to get my mind off it," or "I won't be able to handle that." Those are signs you're avoiding, and you're not turning into the wind.

For me, this Sunday is about reclaiming September 11th as a day of grief and fear -- yes, I'm reclaiming fear -- and as a day of unity, service and collective support. I am allowing myself to feel the sadness and, as hard as it is, some of the horror of that day. And I'm patting myself on the back for doing it, because it isn't easy. I hope you'll join me.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

America's PTSD Part 3: Society on Edge

We're continuing to look at the ways American society is manifesting behaviors indicative of PTSD in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. Today's topic is the third cluster of symptoms, "Hyper-Arousal." People with PTSD are, in many ways, in a permanent state of fight or flight. They are overly alert and on guard. So are we.

People with PTSD have at least two of the following symptoms:

Difficulty falling or staying asleep. It's somewhat difficult to judge how much of America's current sleep deprivation has happened since 9-11.  It is certainly well documented that on average we don't get enough sleep. What's more, we don't value sleep as a society. Few people work in places where the boss will tell you not to come in if you're tired. In fact, we don't consider exhaustion do be a legitimate reason to take a sick day -- that's faking. More and more, our institutions function on the assumption that we are awake at all hours. Congress works into the wee hours of the morning. The funniest television is on past 11. The announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden was made late at night even though it had happened hours before -- couldn't it have waited until the morning? We assume no one is sleeping, and we may be right.

Irritability or outbursts of anger. I talked at some length about how angry we are as a society in yesterday's post. Everything is a place to draw the line, make a stand and stand our ground. You're either with us or against us, with us or with the terrorists. Comparisons between politicians, political parties, grassroots organizations and the Nazis are so common we're not even surprised anymore when someone makes them.

Difficulty concentrating. Let's face it. The American public has the attention span of a flea, with apologies to all the hardworking fleas out there. The "news cycle" is getting shorter and shorter and it is easier and easier to push a big story out of it. We can't stick with a substantive news story for more than a day. A mass shooting or a celebrity wedding, sure, but not hunger, poverty, public policy or the wars. We're on to the next.

Hyper-vigilance. Consider this. The risk of a terrorist attack on American soil was no different on September 12, 2001 than it was on September 10, 2001. Does that even seem possible to you? It barely does to me. What changed on September 11 was not the risk, but our knowledge of the risk. And since then, we're constantly looking for the next one.

You can make a reasonable argument that we should be more vigilant than we were before. We were naive, and now we know. We're smarter than we were. The thing is, we're not only vigilant in smart ways. We are constantly trying to prevent whatever plot was the last one, successful or not. We take off our shoes, put up with backscatter screening and don't carry liquids on planes because those steps might have prevented a previous attempt, not because we have any reason to think anyone's going to try them in the future.

We profile Arabs and Muslims horrifically. A report that came out in the last couple of days indicates that the Mall of America has been reporting people, two thirds of them non-white, for such suspicious and sinister behavior as forgetting their cell phone at the food court or pacing outside the bathroom while they wait for a companion. This isn't just a lesson learned, it's hyper-arousal.

What's more, we seem to also be defending against entirely imagined threats. The fact, for example, that Sarah Palin said that Paul Revere was telling the British they weren't going to be taking away our arms was not just wrong, it was weird. There's a segment of society that has been obsessed with the idea that the government, or more specifically the Obama administration, is trying to take their firearms. We're more than two years into Obama's term, and not one gun control measure has been proposed. We're afraid of being unable to defend ourselves and sure that that's what "they" want, but it's not based in reality.

Exaggerated startle response. Last year, a major international terrorism scare was triggered by someone shipping watches that were taped together. A plane was grounded because a man was putting on tefillin, the leather boxes with straps that Orthodox Jewish men wear when they pray. We're a little bit jumpy.

A couple of years ago, I was flying from Washington, DC to Detroit with my family. There are four of us, so it often winds up that the two kids sit with one parent and the other sits alone. On this occasion, I was alone. The man sitting next to me put his bags in the overhead compartment and sat down. I wasn't paying much attention. Then he spoke to me, in good but accented English: "My name is Ahmed. I am a dentist from Toledo. You are safe." How jumpy must the average member of the traveling public be around Arab men on planes that Ahmed felt he needed to say that before I even registered him at all?

So, we've established that we're all acting in very PTSD-congruent ways. But why did 9-11 do this to us in a way that the Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing or the Challenger disaster did not? I'll be looking at that tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Our Numbed Society: America's PTSD Part 2

Yesterday I shared the idea that America, as a society, is manifesting symptoms of PTSD. There are three sets of these symptoms, and today we'll be looking at symptoms of numbing. People with PTSD go to great lengths to avoid and/or numb themselves to feelings and experiences related to the trauma.

Specifically, to be diagnosed with PTSD, there must be at least three of the following symptoms present:

Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma. Traumatized people often come across as angry. It's not that they don't have a right to be angry at the people who traumatized them. But they're often just angry all the time at everyone. Anger is a very effective defense mechanism against other, more uncomfortable feelings.

If there's one thing Americans are, it's angry. You need look no further than Capitol Hill. We don't just disagree, we think the other side is a threat and evil. We are locked and loaded. And we're rude.

So, what feelings are we avoiding? Fear. If you think back to how you felt on September 11, you weren't mad. You were horrified, and you were scared. Pretty quickly, you were sad. If someone had asked you if you were mad at the people who did this you would have said yes, but anger was not the primary emotion.

The thing is that fear doesn't feel good. It feels weak. So does sadness. Anger feels strong. So we stick with anger -- at each other, at other countries, at whomever. Do you remember that feeling of togetherness we all had right after the attacks? Have you wondered why we can't seem to get it back? Because we came together in fear and in grief, and as much as we might like togetherness, we don't want to go back and feel those things again.

Efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma. There was a contingent of people who got mad at President Obama for visiting Ground Zero after bin Laden was killed. They said he was politicizing September 11th (and I would argue that ship sailed a long time ago, but let's put that aside).  But Obama didn't go there to give a speech or do a victory lap. He went to lay a wreath. He went to acknowledge grief. That's a no-no.

Inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma. There are certainly things about 9-11 that none of us will ever forget, but here's a test question: Following the September 11th attacks, what was the stated motivation of Al Qaeda for attacking the U.S.? If you said something like, "They hate us for our freedoms," you're not alone -- that is our dominant societal narrative. It was started by President Bush the same week as the attacks. And, if I may be so bold, it's wrong. At the time of the attacks, Al Qaeda wanted the U.S. to withdraw its troops from bases in Saudi Arabia, which it considers sacred ground. We forgot the motivation for the attack almost as soon as it happened.

Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities. This is a tough one. "Significant activities" for individuals are easier to define. However, I'm struggling to remember the last time it seemed like everyone was having a joint experience -- like the last episode of M*A*S*H, or even the Superbowl. Is it me, or is it just harder for us to all decide that something, other than a disaster or trauma, is important these days?

Feeling of detachment or estrangement from others. We know who our allies are in official terms. But what foreign country do we as Americans truly respect as partners these days? I can think of no one. We have become a very lonely country in a lot of significant ways. You can blame politics or policies for this, but it's also the manifestation of a gut feeling that no one really understands us.

Restricted range of affect (e.g., unable to have loving feelings). As discussed above, our primary societal emotion is anger. We don't feel joint happiness or pride anymore. We don't "put aside politics" for any common purpose. We want Congress to compromise, as long as they don't compromise on the things we want. We have lost the ability to have mixed emotions, and changing one's mind about something is weak. This is what a restricted range of emotions looks like -- anger and black and white thinking with no nuance.

Sense of foreshortened future. There is a conventional wisdom in America that the United States is no longer a superpower, or that we won't be one for much longer. Polls show we believe America is headed in the wrong direction. Every new law or policy (passed or just proposed) on both sides of the aisle is met with doomsday scenarios about how it will mean the end of America as we know it. It's one thing to say you don't like an idea, and quite another to think we can't survive it. We don't, as a country, feel very confident about our future.

Tomorrow I'll look at the third cluster of symptoms -- hyper-arousal. Later in the week, we'll examine why 9-11 impacted us this way when other things didn't, and at what kind of "treatment" we might recommend for our traumatized society.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Does America Have PTSD?

This Sunday marks 10 years since the September 11th attacks. Everyone, it seems, is doing some kind of memorial or retrospective to mark this solemn anniversary. Some are focused on remembering those who died, others on service to the community and still others on looking at how America has changed over the last decade. This last theme intrigues me. We know that trauma changes people as individuals. Can trauma change a whole country?

I have a friend who is a mental health professional who suggests that it can and it did. In a blog post several months ago, she proposed that American society is showing many signs of post-traumatic stress.

Now, let's not take this too literally. American society does not have a single brain that can contract a mental illness. But Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a very symptom-based disorder. You know someone has it by how they act. In my friend's opinion, American society isn't behaving in a very adaptive manner. Over the next several days in this space, I'll be laying out a detailed look at the ways in which our current society is showing signs of trauma.

Symptoms of PTSD fall into three categories: Intrusive Recollection, Numbing and Hyper-Arousal. Today I'd like to look at the first of these, the so-called "Criterion B Symptoms" (named after the letter in the description in the diagnostic manual) of intrusive recollection. People with PTSD have at least one of these symptoms, and many have more:

Recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts, or perceptions. On the day after Osama bin Laden was caught, news outlets ran all kinds of 9-11 retrospectives. Some of them were horrifically graphic and would never have made it past the editors under other circumstances. Telephone recordings of dying people and video footage of people jumping out of windows was played without even the basic "viewer discretion is advised" warning. Not only do we remember, but we do not have mastery over our memories enough to modify how and when we process them.

Recurrent distressing dreams of the event.
Obviously it's somewhat difficult for an entire society to have distressing dreams. There is some argument to be made, though, that works of art, literature and movies represent the "dreams" of society. If that is the case, the tremendous popularity of the Harry Potter series is telling. With each installment in the series, the foreboding message that there is a great evil "out there" that can strike anyone at any time and that we don't really know who can be trusted gets stronger. In each book, we look to Harry to master the terrifying unknown because we can't.

Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring Perhaps the best example of this is the media coverage of the infamous "balloon boy" incident last year. A kid supposedly trapped in a balloon got national breaking news coverage. Even if it were true (which we know now it wasn't), how do we explain that? I think we learned, on 9-11, what it was like to scramble news coverage and all have our attention focused in one place, and we have become very bad at figuring out when that's actually necessary. Everything that is generally newsworthy is Big News. When something we think may be important happens, we go into 9-11 mode.

Intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event. For much of our society, Muslims as a group have come to symbolize 9-11. When people get so upset about the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque," they are getting upset about something that reminds them of the trauma. Even for those who don't blame all Muslims, the anger against those who do may also be a symptom. One group is furious at Muslims for supposedly desecrating the memory of those who died, while the other is furious at the first group for supposedly desecrating the memory by being hateful.

Physiologic reactivity upon exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event
Can a whole society have a physical reaction? Society can certainly change its physical set-up. What in individuals manifests as a rapid heartbeat or excessive sweating, in society shows up as barriers, scanners, metal detectors and, more importantly, over-focus of security measures on people based on their ethnicity. Something reminds us of the attacks -- someone's religion or skin color -- and as a society we physically try to defend ourselves, even though we have no real evidence that religion or skin color is very predictive.

We need only one of these symptoms, but we have more than that. September 11 was 10 years ago, but in a very real way, as trauma victims often do, we are still reliving the attacks.

Tomorrow: America's symptoms of numbing

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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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