During the 2005 Winter Meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association, a panel on "Terror and Societal Regression" was convened. A summary report on the panel, by Ira Brenner, appears in the current issue of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association.
[The JAPA is only available by subscription and the current issue is not yet on line.]
It has long been recognized that in the face of trauma, a person tends to regress. This essentially means that when highly stressed, we tend to fall back on more primitive mental functioning to face the trauma. Once the situation has resolved, reasonably intact people, in the absence of the most severe trauma, are able to slowly reconstitute over time and regain their prior level of functioning. When people have trouble doing so, they often seek Psychiatric/Psychological assistance.
This is similar to the point I have made so many times that our rational minds are thin, fragile, veneers over the deeper, unconscious, strata of our more primitive emotional minds.
To offer a generic, yet common, example: Consider a person who escapes with only minor injuries from a serious car accident. No one would be surprised that they would have some anxiety and hesitancy about getting behind the wheel again. However, if they are unable to drive 3 months or 6 months after the accident because they are terrified of getting into another accident, it should be clear that the initial, expectable regression has not resolved. The capable adult has regressed to the state of an anxious and frightened youngster unable to drive and has become psychologically stuck there.
In the same way, Societies, as highly complex structures, can regress from their optimal functioning in the face of a trauma. The American Psychoanalytic Association panel considered just this question, and while their focus was on various traumatized societies (Albania, after Hoxha, and Argentina, after the military coup of 1976 and the ensuing suppression of the left, were of special interest) there is obvious relevance for America, post 9/11.
After a national trauma, there are a number of signs of "large group" regression. (I will not here go into some of the characteristics of what constitutes a large group; it relates to elements that I have referred to in the past as our tribal nature; see also here.) The panel chair, Vamik Volkan, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and founder of the Center for the Study of the Mind and Human Interaction at the University of Virginia and Emeritus Training and Supervising Analyst of the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute, described 14 major symptoms of large-group regression:
1) Rallying around the leader.
2) Losing individuality.
3) Severe splitting. This can occur as a polarity between "us" and "them" or within society.
4) Massive, shared introjections and projections, such as societal paranoia. This phenomenon was seen in Enver Hoxha's Albania, where something like slave labor was used to build over seventy-five hundred bunkers in anticipation of an attack that never came.
5) A shared narcissistic preoccupation. An example is the grandiose historical view taken by Iraq that it is the cradle of civilization.
6) Magical thinking, blurring of reality, and new or modified societal patterns. The customary "kidnapping" of brides in South Ossetia is an instance of this last. What under normal conditions is a playful cultural norm whereby the girl is symbolically kidnapped and married has become under conditions of societal regression, far more aggressive; today's "brides" are kidnapped, tortured, and raped.
7) Inability to mourn or difficulty in mourning whereby a large group becomes a society of perennial mourners and the use of "linking objects" is recognized and institutionalized.... Volkan (1981) has described how perennial mourners ... keep the mourning process externalized and incomplete.
8) Reactivation of "chosen glories" pertaining to the history of a large group's past. This was seen in Baathist Iraq, where Saddam Hussein tried to identify himself with Saladin.... this history was incorporated into his battle cry to defeat the U.S., the new infidels.
9) Reactivation of a "chosen trauma" whereby a large group unconsciously "chooses" to make a shared mental representation of an event that caused it terrible losses, helplessness, humiliation, and victimization....Slobodan Milosevic exemplified this phenomenon in his reactivation of the shared memory of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, in which the Serbian hero, Prince Lazar, was killed.
10) Dehumanization. Exemplified by the Nazis, this is a two-step process. Step one is identifying undesirable humans; step two is turning them into nonhumans, as in the Hutus' degradation of the Tutsis, referred to as cafrads, or insects. Interestingly, the Tutsis were also called the "Jews" of Rwanda.
11) Border Psychology, in which borders become shared psychological skins.
12) The narcissism of minor differences.
13) Ruining of basic trust. This was seen in Nazi child-rearing practices and in the elementary schools of Enver Hoxha's Albania, where students were brainwashed into pledging their allegiance to the leader and were rewarded for spying on and betraying family members who expressed any doubt or opposition to the ruler.
14) Heightened importance of the leader's personality. When a large group is regressed, the personality organization of the leader becomes extremely influential, as he or she can tame or inflame the regression. Contrast Slobodan Milosevic's use of violence and terror with Nelson Mandela's use of nonviolent means.
It is easy to see many of these traits, most in nascent form, in American society, post-9/11. As a rule, this is more often identifiable on the far left. For example, those on the left who believe we are descending into fascism, that George Bush is "all bad" (an aspect of splitting), and have developed complicated paranoid conspiracy theories that rely on magical thinking (eg, that the Twin Towers were brought down by a controlled demolition.) There is some evidence of regression on the right as well, in the indiscriminate demonization of the left and of the Muslim World as irretrievably "bad".
Ralph Peters makes an important point today, in ISLAM-HATERS: AN ENEMY WITHIN:
And the world's only hope for long-term peace is for moderate Muslims - by far the majority around the globe - to recapture their own faith.
But a rotten core of American extremists is out to make it harder for them.
The most repugnant trend in the American shouting match that passes for a debate on the struggle with Islamist terrorism isn't the irresponsible nonsense on the left - destructive though that is. The really ugly "domestic insurgency" is among right-wing extremists bent on discrediting honorable conservatism.
How? By insisting that Islam can never reform, that the violent conquest and subjugation of unbelievers is the faith's primary agenda - and, when you read between the lines, that all Muslims are evil and subhuman.
I've received no end of e-mails and letters seeking to "enlighten" me about the insidious nature of Islam. Convinced that I'm naive because I defend American Muslims and refuse to "see" that Islam is 100 percent evil, the writers warn that I'm a foolish "dhimmi," blind to the conspiratorial nature of Islam.
Web sites list no end of extracts from historical documents and Islamic jurisprudence "proving" that holy war against Christians and Jews is the alpha and omega of the Muslim faith. The message between the lines: Muslims are Untermenschen.
While I doubt that Peters has read the current issue of the JAPA, it is perhaps some evidence of its applicability to note his use of the term from the Nazis, Untermenschen, to denote the dehumanized. He warns us against the facile tendency toward splitting that risks alienating us from those who should be our allies.
The value of Political Tact is that it decreases the risk of such splitting; the danger of Political Correctness is that by forcing such splitting underground, it festers until it bursts out when the stress increases. When the media try to "protect" their readers and viewers from the knowledge that the enemy is composed of radical Islamists, they make the tendency to silently group all Muslims in with the extremists, more likely. An acceptance of the use of some modest profiling (some increased attention to Muslim men as just one important factor out of many for use by screeners in airport security) would likely decrease the risk of more global profiling in the future.
At the same time, societies not only regress, but they can progress. The splitting of "Red State"/"Blue State" is not a fixed and indelible mark of conflict in our society. John Podhoretz points out that despite the politicization of the War, and despite the far left's efforts to undermine our conduct of the War, THE CENTER HOLDS:
The truth is that ever since 9/11, America's elected officials have, time and again, stared divisiveness in the eyes and instead chosen consensus. Sure, they scream and yell at each other. They call each other names. They seek partisan advantage at every turn, because they are partisans and because the better their parties do the more power they will have.
But in the end, they make the responsible choices, even when they're not happy about doing so. When confronted, say, with a vote on an immediate pullout from Iraq, even Democrats who've said they support such a pullout in theory won't vote for it in practice.
When it comes to funding Iraq's reconstruction and the war generally, Congress hasn't surrendered to defeatism even though Democrats in Congress often seem to be indulging in it in public.
The real voices of irresponsibility for the most part belong not to elected officials in Washington, but to the intellectuals, academics and opinion leaders among liberals and Leftists - and to the wild fulminations and open pocketbooks of the so-called anti-war "net-roots," who finally scored big by claiming the primary scalp of Connecticut's hawkish Democratic senator, Joe Lieberman.
The people in Washington who have made fighting the war on Islamic extremism more difficult haven't been elected officials, but dishonorable folk buried inside government who have successfully used pliable journalists to do their dirty work.
It was not elected officials who leaked word of the CIA prisons where al Qaeda's monsters were being held to a grossly derelict journalist at the Washington Post who damaged national security by so recklessly publishing those details in concert with her mindless editors.
It wasn't elected officials who told The New York Times about the National Security Agency's wiretap program - and the editor who chose to publish the story (despite being told of the program's importance by the president) was elected by no one.
Will Democratic elected officials really have a hard time agreeing with the president on the second vital matter he spoke of yesterday?
This shouldn't be even a close call for most elected officials, no matter their party. Some are claiming the president's remarks were politically motivated, timed to give his party the advantage going into the midterm elections. Let's stipulate that this accusation is true. If so, Democrats would be wise simply to line up behind the president, pass this legislation quickly and demonstrate their seriousness of purpose in fighting the War on Terror. In doing so, they'll neutralize any advantage the GOP might gain.
And once again, in spite of all the noise and jockeying for power, our elected officials will have done the right thing for America, as they have so many times since 9/11.
Watch who is most interested in splitting into "Us" and "Them." It is not splitting to point out that prematurely withdrawing from Iraq would be a surrender and would embolden the enemy. Likewise, it is not splitting to claim that we are making more terrorists than we are killing or capturing by our presence in Iraq. Either statement may or may not be correct, but neither statement suggests that those who disagree are not "Us".