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January 17, 2005

The Defensive Denial of Terror

A group of Democratic Senators and Congressmen meet and announce they are protesting the recent election because of voter fraud; the judiciary committee attacks Alberto Gonzales for supporting policies that allow making terrorists uncomfortable, while the MSM and multiple pundits call it torture; the Iraq war is a disaster because the terrorists who are fighting to reassert the absolute power of the Sunni Baath party haven't been brought to heel; you know the drill here.  It evokes images of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.  It is enough to make one wonder about one's sense of reality.  If you have recently discussed politics with someone who identifies with the liberal wing of the Democratic party, you have surely recognized that there is a dimension to these arguments (they are rarely discussions) that defies rational understanding. Fear not; there are reasons for this unreality and I will offer some illumination.

The obvious first point is that we are not agreeing on our underlying assumptions.  If al Qaeda is a threat and is willing to use WMD against the Western Democracies, and is only restrained by their lack of capability, then our invasion and regime change in Iraq is not only reasonable but necessary.  Many people have laid out the case in detail and I won't repeat their arguments here.  If, however, as Michael Moore has stated, the threat of terrorism is overstated and John Kerry is correct that it can be handled as a police matter, then the war is illegal and all sorts of explanations for the war can then be reasonably advanced, from the economic (oil) to the pseudo-psychological (so that W can finish the job his father couldn't). 

Since the case for the danger of al Qaeda, more appropriately the danger of Islamic fascism, has been argued, and convincingly argued, for the last several years, I can only repeat that if al Qaeda got their hands on a nuke, or a weaponized Smallpox virus, or could make large quantities of poison gas, they have said they would use them on us.  Furthermore, if nothing had been done, their success would have become more and more likely with each passing day, until the inevitable would occur.  In circumstances where the risk of doing nothing is hundreds of thousands of dead Americans, or American friends, to ignore this danger would be criminally irresponsible.  So, how can we understand how so many Americans, and even more Europeans, can deny and ignore this danger?

The beginning of an answer lies in recognizing that the ability to rationally interpret information is quite limited and easily disrupted.  If you have ever attempted to argue when you are angry, only to apologize later, then you can see how strong emotions can disrupt higher order thinking.  Terror can also cause rational thought to break down.  Worse yet, we rarely are able to recognize when this is happening.  Psychologically, trauma refers to any event that overwhelms the psyche's ability to metabolize the insult; that is, a trauma temporarily interferes with the psychological functioning of the victim.  The hallmark of the traumatic event is the actual experience of helplessness, or the feelings of helplessness evoked by the event. Terrorists know this intuitively.  The whole point of terror is to perpetrate an act so horrific that the audience literally can't think; they are paralyzed with fear and left speechless, with the threat off more gruesome attacks to come.   What words do we have to describe the spectacle of terrorists beheading a helpless man, or flying airplanes into office towers?  Our media decided that certain images are too horrific (traumatic) for our eyes; (less horrific images, like the abuses at Abu Graib are shown repeatedly because "only the images can emphasize the true horror of the event".) How much more horrible is a beheading or the mass murder of children? Civilized, rational beings have no way to understand how such frightening things are allowed to exist in the modern world.  The viewer is left feeling helpless and without language to describe the outrage.

Once traumatized, the personality must reconstitute.  One response to the helpless feelings is to turn the passive experience of being attacked into the active experience of striking back. A different response to trauma, especially repeated trauma, is to use various psychological methods to deny onebs terror (after all, no one can function when they are chronically terrified).  All psychological defenses involve some degree of denial of an objectionable piece of reality.  There are healthy defenses, like Sublimation, which allow one to translate one's fear or unacceptable anger, or shame, into something positive, perhaps a burning desire to succeed. (I'll show them! They said I could never become a Blogger, but look at me now!)  Unfortunately, this is a defense only available to someone who has a high level of sophistication; there are much easier ways to deny reality.  In fact, there are an abundance of unhealthy defenses.  Externalization allows one to impute the source of one's failure to another.  (I failed my test because the teacher didn't like me.  The United States and their corporations are doing everything they can to keep us down.)  Projection involves imputing your impulses to another.  (I am a peaceful man but the Americans want to kill all Muslims, therefore I have to kill all Americans.)  Rationalization is slightly more sophisticated; it explains the danger in less frightening and less helpless terms.  (The Iraqi freedom fighters become suicide bombers because the American occupation is so unjust and they feel hopeless; it is understandable that they would resort to such desperate measures.)  Often Rationalization has the additional benefit of giving the frightened party an "out"; if we can only force the President to give up on his benighted war and leave Iraq, the terror will end, and the Muslim world will like us again.  In this case the reality being ignored is the actual language and behavior of the Islamists and Baathists.  Finally, for today, there is the specialized form of Rationalization which college professors and other intellectuals specialize in, Intellectualization.  In this case, the Rationalization is enhanced with multi-syllabic words, and a sophisticated theory.  It still essentially is designed to deny unpleasant aspects of reality and offers the all-important "out", but it is more opaque. 

In my next post I hope to be able to show how these dysfunctional defenses can come together under stressful circumstances and lead to a Paranoid state, a most serious personal, and cultural, pathology.


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