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January 2002
COMMUNITY RESPONSE TO TERROR
By Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D.

On September 11, the United States became the victim of a violent crime. We got mugged. We were the subjects of a driveby. We were going along, doing our thing, doing what Winnecott called "in the process of being," and we got attacked.

Our response to that event is a macrocosm of the microcosmic event that happens when John Doe gets attacked. Our response as individuals reflects how well we know or are connected to John. The closer we are to the victim, the more the attack affects us. John's wife, children, parents, and siblings will all be much more deeply affected than people who may have known him indirectly or those who did not know him at all.

People who were closer to Ground Zero will be more affected than people who were more removed from it, both physically and emotionally. Those of us who may have lost people close to us in the World Trade Center attack will have been more affected than those who did not. Those of us who have more of a connection to New York, either by having lived there, having visited there, having relatives living there, or having some emotional affinity to the image or the meaning that we imbue to that city will have deeper and stronger reactions to the attack than those who do not. By virtue of that connection, we feel that we have also in some way been attacked.

In addition, not only were New York and the World Trade Center attacked, the United States was attacked. Our country was attacked. We identify with our country, its borders, its image. This is the stuff of nationalism that has us cheering for one team over another at the Olympics, that has us feeling a sense of comfort in seeing an American flag when we are overseas, that may stir our hearts in hearing the national anthem. It is home. It is us. It is me. By identification and extension, we all tend to feel that I was attacked on September 11, that it happened to me personally.

For all of us, our sense of safety and security has been exposed to be an illusion. We are all vulnerable. Bad things don't just happen to "other people" or "over there." They can happen here, to us, to me, in my back yard, in my hood, in my home. I am not safe. I am not protected. The "people in charge" are not keeping me safe from harm.

Who am I safe with? From where will the next attack come? Are you going to hurt me, kill me, steal my family from me? Who can I trust? How can I regain that lost sense of safety and security? I can't stand that sense of vulnerability and helplessness, so I am impelled to do something so I can regain my sense of power, control, and efficacy in the world. How to respond?

Find a target that can embody the essence of danger; an eye for an eye, kill them, eradicate the threat. Then I will be safe again. This is the essence of the terror of terrorism. There is no way to completely protect ourselves. The harm can come from anywhere, at any time. There is no safety. There is no safe place. We don't know who are the safe people. So, in order to protect ourselves, we are prone to doubt and distrust everyone we don't know, anyone who looks or acts different. We are not bad people; just scared people. We find ways to feel safer by creating definitions of us and them, however overgeneralized and inaccurate those definitions may be. We draw boundaries around us to protect us from them. We make value generalizations and judgments by which we are idealized and they are demonized.

With terrorism, the attack also comes out of the blue, like an earthquake, with no warning. Unlike the hurricane or tornado that we can prepare for, the earthquake of terrorism arrives suddenly, erupts intermittently, and lingers indefinitely. Again like an earthquake, we experience aftershocks of terror as incidences of Anthrax exposure arise and kill someone here or there and as threats to bridges or other structures or facilities emerge. The difference between natural disasters and human initiated violence like terrorism, however, is that the damage, the violence, the harm comes from other people. It can and will reappear sometime again, yet how can we protect ourselves and feel safe when we are social beings and live in a world of people?

Just as any victim of a violent crime would be, we are now, as individuals and as a nation, trying to resume our previous lives, to get back to normal, to return to the process of going on being. The question for us, as a community and as individuals, is how we can survive the attack without becoming paranoid, remembering that just because you are paranoid doesn't mean that someone isn't out to get you. How we can live with our insecurities and our accurately perceived vulnerability, being appropriately conscious, without becoming rigid, defensive, withdrawing, isolationistic, or controlling? How can we as a nation and as a community avoid reverting to prior dysfunctional defense mechanisms, such as omnipotence, denial, displacement, xenophobia, scapegoating, and acting out? How can we stand up to the perpetrator, the attacker, recognizing and acknowledging who is and who is not the attacker, and say, "No! What you did is not acceptable, will not be tolerated, and you must be held accountable for your actions."

Yet, how can we do this in a family of nations? When a child acts out and hurts someone or breaks something, the child will continue to do so until and unless the authority figures in the family stand up, stand against those actions, and impose consequences. Within a nation, that is one of the functions of government. However, there is no world parent to take that stand and hold that position. The United Nations was created to provide that voice and serve that function, but it does not have sufficient power to exercise that authority and fulfill that role.

Without that parental function, we are a family of parentified nation-children, trying to get along on our own. We look to the nation's parent figures, our government, to step in and serve the role of surrogate world parents. Experience, association, and identification, as individuals and as a nation has restimulated our own childlike feelings of vulnerability, abandonment, and insecurity. Like the orphaned children, we must all draw together and parent each other, drawing strength and support when and where we can in an effort to survive and to develop. Our challenge lies in where we place the compass point of that growth. Hopefully, we can navigate away from The Lord of the Flies and towards something more constructive, life affirming, and life supporting for the people as individuals and also for the family of nations as a whole.

Copyright, Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D., 2001.
Reprinted from LACPA News, December/January, 2001.

Dr. Shubs is a psychotherapist in practice in Beverly Hills. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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