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.


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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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