[Last update: 9 February 2003]

Statement from the Mental Health Professional/Psychotherapists for Social Responsibilty

As mental health professionals we volunteered and were widely called upon immediately after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We supported rescue workers at Ground Zero, helped traumatized survivors and bereaved families We saw up close the quality of trauma and grief in response to an attack unprecedented in American society, and we continued working with those deeply affected in many communities over the next year and a half. Our experience in responding to community disasters and in understanding and relieving psychological trauma now leads us to believe we have a duty to warn about a crisis in public mental health arising from the drive for a massive unilateral war on Iraq. Following a traumatic event, the prescribed first step in restoring a community or an individual is the re-establishment of safety and the provision of responsible help.

Provision of trustworthy and coherent information that allows people to assess and understand potential threats is essential in the re-establishment of safety. Instead, the public has been faced with confusing and self-contradictory information. Reassurance that the government is considering and implementing all possible solutions to protect us from further attack-surveillance of our ports, our nuclear and weapon sites, power plants, and the institution of public health measures--is also vital. Instead, unfocused policies and evasion of responsibility have increased the sense of danger and anxiety about attack at home. These effects were intensified because the decision to wage war was made in a climate where all serious discussion of the consequences was suppressed. Thus the fear stimulated by the prospect of terrorist attacks against us, and concern about the triggering of war throughout the Middle East, could not be recognized and solutions could not be thought about . Nor could concern about the massacre of innocents in Iraq find a place in our thoughts. When an administration does not address such concerns or allow public discussion, people must choose between denial and blind faith in their leaders or the terrifying perception that their security is in the hands of those who are not responsible.

The attack on September 11th confronted our country with the reality of a new global situation in which, despite overwhelming military and economic power, we were vulnerable to attack. We could no longer deny our interdependence in a world with no borders. As mental health professionals, we note that the administration has offered solutions based on the notion that we can restore our invulnerability and supreme power in the world thus offering an illusion of total control through violence. Some Americans have accepted the substitution of an available target of attack - Iraq-for the much more difficult strategy of protecting our people from terror.

We are familiar with immediate, aggressive reactions to a traumatic sense that our protective shell has been violated. Reactive aggression is a natural response to a traumatic attack. Overcoming trauma, however, involves moving beyond the wish to strike out, and moving on to accepting and grieving loss and injury. Facing painful truths and sorrows, finding new dignity in the effort to help others or mourn together was the response we saw on many New Yorkers' faces as they walked the streets after 9/11 looking at the hundreds of picture of the missing, allowing themselves to absorb the destruction of our city and so many of its people. They were not seen calling for more death and destruction to be rained on other people, but felt the full shock of violence. Even many who supported the pursuit of Al Quaeda in Afghanistan, were able to feel their common humanity with others who might suffer such terrible attack, to feel aversion to the murder of innocent people. They knew that further violence would not bring back the dead.

We know that acceptance of these difficulties and our grief about them can be replaced by a vain hope that we can conquer vulnerability through revenge, violence, and the assertion of an imaginary invulnerability. The hope of triumphing through violence provides excitement, organizes chaotic emotions and fills us up temporarily with purpose. But it does not provide security. We believe that the government's triumphant promises ignore this need to create safety and accept our losses. Instead, the government's plans for war, its efforts to bully the international community, offer false reassurance. At the same time, the underlying traumatic response to attack can continue to be exploited by unilateral aggressive strategies that draw on the wish to deny vulnerability and dependency. In effect, our population can be held hostage by a cycle of violence in which our fears are used to justify retaliation which in turn will provoke more violence and deeper traumatization.

As our government turns away from lawful, restrained action based on accepting our interdependence with a very complex world it stimulates increasing dependence on unrealistic, grandiose solutions that mask the underlying fear. We are expected to believe contradictory assertions, for example that the people of Iraq, magically unscathed, will be joyfully greeting the liberating armies of the United States in the streets of Baghdad after they have been subjected to the massive saturation bombing the military has just named "Shock and Awe." The fantasy of total control, of a technologically flawless, surgically precise war continues to promise invulnerability and safety while denying the complexity of reality and the failure of our leaders to face its hard truths.

Our citizens are further encouraged to identify with the image of a strong leader who can rescue them from intolerable vulnerability and offer his personality as a vehicle to re-establish equilibrium. Such illusory confidence, when it works temporarily in any of us, could be compared to the psychic situation of children of neglectful parents who find their only protection in the gang leader. When there is no grown-up to rely on, the "protection" offered by the gang leader offers the opportunity to identify with the leader's naked power. Our general sense of neglect surely increases as this administration continues to deny its responsibility for the disabled, the ill or the impoverished while giving ever more benefits to the powerful, just as it does not assume responsibility for the risks of this war.

In the face of this "parental abandonment" it is understandable that we can feel tempted by identifications with the powerful who seem to come out unscathed, those who seem able to realize the adolescent fantasy that it is possible for us to have our way in the world and take no responsibility for creating a climate of lawless, uncontrolled violence.

We also note that a further incentive for identification with the ruthlessly powerful is the covert threat of shame and humiliation for those who admit to fear for their own safety or identify with those who could be harmed. People who try to deny traumatizing experiences also continue to fear shame and humiliation. . One of the most harmful ideas of our current administration is that respecting international law and order diminishes our power and safety, that abiding by consensual, democratic methods or working to increase the effectiveness of the UN means letting ourselves be "told what to do" by foreign powers. This reveals a fundamental failure to understand why cooperation and mutual respect are needed in any strategy of changing the attitude of the world's peoples to the United States.

The assumption here is that if we do not exercise sole power, if we cede any power to or recognize any rights of the other, we will become entirely powerless and subject to the other. This is a world of subjugate or be subjugated, do or be done to. Concern for the rights of others is seen as a failure to grasp hard reality rather than a legitimate concern for the consequences of creating an atmosphere of lawlessness in which people come to accept the use of terror, nuclear weapons, and saturation bombing of civilian populations as acceptable.

We suggest we need to start by grieving that we are no longer free from international terrorism. We must also mourn the awful truth that this nation dominates the world's resources and that as a result we have a profound choice between assuming responsibility for our effect on the world or pursuing the gain of the few and wreaking destruction and incurring enmity. Our task may include recognizing with sorrow that we cannot reject all force but rather find a complex balance between exercise of power and restraint, based on honestly thinking through the consequences of our country's actions. We must find room for all the voices of our citizens to be heard as we engage in a search for new solutions that honor international treaties on nuclear non-proliferation and strengthen international lawfulness and collaboration. We must mourn together the loss of a the peaceful world America was once privileged to enjoy, and work together to find a way to create a more lasting peace based on justice and mutual responsibility.


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