Posted on Monday 11 September 2006

Early memories are hard to piece together – more like snapshots than movies. I was four. People were outside, hitting pans. I was frightened. Mom said, "The war is over!" I remained scared. I didn’t know wars got over. I guess I just thought they just were.

I was nine. The newsreel was about General McArthur being fired by President Truman. I had a toy soldier of General McArthur with sunglasses. In the theater, people boo’d. Me too. I didn’t know you could fire a General.

I was eleven, at a new school. I’d made a first friend named Max. One Monday, he wasn’t there. He’d fallen to his death from a cliff at a church picnic. I still don’t know about that…

or about the unhappy kid that sat next to me in chapel at military school in the tenth grade who hung himself one weekend…

It was my first year in medical school, 1963. Last month, Kennedy had been assassinated. I was home for Christmas. A friend was also home [in uniform]. He said David, another lifelong friend, had been killed in Viet Nam. I didn’t know about Viet Nam.

I was in my office. A patient came in and said, "Have you heard?" We turned on a television set in the library. One Trade Tower in New York was burning. I watched all morning with other silent people. I didn’t know there was an al Qaeda. I didn’t really know such things could happen.

I am a Psychiatrist, a Psychoanalyst. The rest of that week, patient after patient spent sessions not seeming to know what to talk about. I didn’t much know what to say either. Gradually, I realized that there was a particular group of people that was different from the rest. They talked about feeling ashamed, alienated from what they were seeing in people around them, seeing on their television sets. They were all people whose mental illness sprang from traumatic experience in childhood – that form of post traumatic stress disorder that works its havoc from the shadows of a life. They knew that such things could happen. They’d spent their lives waiting for such things to happen – even if they didn’t know that’s what they were doing. They were ashamed that they couldn’t feel the outrage, the anguish, the camaraderie the rest of us experienced. A couple of them were even conscious of thinking, "Now! Do you see what I mean."

That’s sort of what post traumatic stress disorder is, living in a conscious or unconscious state of hypervigilence, waiting for the unthinkable to happen. But it’s more than waiting, it’s fearing, it’s preparing, and mostly it’s preventing. I call it "preventing the past," because, of course, it’s trying to do something impossible – keep something that has already happened from happening. It’s a quiet terror. In an odd way, disaster is comforting for the afflicted. It confirms the background horror that discolors their everyday lives.

I said below that I think we have post traumatic stress disorder as a nation, particularly our leaders. I actually believe that this thought of mine is correct. Post traumatic stress disorder destroys the statistical nature of the universe. The non-traumatized can usually judge the likelihood of possible events. Some are either too naive, or too able to use denial, to do that, but most of us have that ability. We know intuitively which alley not to walk down. For traumatized people, a remote possibility is a certainty – there is neither absolute nor relative safety. All alleys are dangerous.

I think back to the movie Faranheit 911 and the film clip of President Bush when he got the news – paralyzed. Michael Moore meant to show him to be an ineffective leader. It wasn’t that. I’d seen that look that day in the library in the eyes of my partners and their patients looking at the television set. I’d felt it. It’s what people look like when something has happened that the mind can’t absorb, that’s going to change the the way their world looks forever.

I don’t like President Bush. I really don’t like Vice President Cheney. But in this area, I feel something like sympathy, not for what they’ve done, but for what they feel. When they say 911, the War on Terror, and the War in Iraq are connected, I think they believe it. When they say, the world is safer with Saddam Hussein out of power, I get their drift. I even get President Bush saying, "But you’ve got to understand. Saddam Hussein is a bad man!" on 60 minutes. It’s no way to run a foreign policy. It’s a sickness, but I get why they say it and believe it.

You can’t go to war with Terror. You can fight Terrorists, but you can’t master the internal emotion by fighting a war outside. Our leaders are afflicted and need to be replaced with people whose intuition is informed but intact, not shattered by being in charge when the unthinkable happened. I developed a case of malignant acrophobia as an adult, related, in large measure, to the friend falling off of a cliff and the kid who hung himself [mentioned above]. I got over most of it by becoming conscious of those events, and how they still affect me. I’m still mighty cautious, and not "normal" about heights. But I’m not crippled by it like before.

So don’t avoid thinking about 911 today, thinking about it in your own life. Don’t get lost in blogging about that stupid movie, the Path to 911, or our regular raling at Bush and Cheney. We all need to keep the real imprint of that day on our psyche alive, so it won’t lurk in the shadows and torment how we live, and how we want to be governed…

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