Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. -William Butler Yeats
In my work over the last two decades attempting to grasp the nature of emotional trauma (RD Stolorow, Trauma and Human Existence, Routledge, 2007), I have concluded that its essence lies in the shattering of what I call the absolutisms of everyday life, the system of illusory beliefs that allow us to function in the world, experienced as stable and predictable. Such shattering is a massive loss of innocence exposing the inescapable contingency of existence on a universe that is random and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured.
Emotional trauma brings us face to face with our existential vulnerability and with death and loss as possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats. Often traumatized people try to restore the lost illusions shattered by trauma through some form of what I call resurrective ideology.
The tranquilizing illusions of our everyday world seem in our time to be severely threatened from all sides--by global economic collapse, by global diminution of natural resources, by global warming, by global nuclear proliferation, and by global terrorism. Here I wish to focus in particular on the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 as a devastating collective trauma that inflicted a rip in the fabric of the American psyche. In horrifyingly demonstrating that even America can be assaulted on its native soil, the attack of 9/11 shattered our collective illusions of safety, inviolability, and grandiose invincibility, illusions that had long been mainstays of the American historical identity. In the wake of such shattering, Americans became much more susceptible to resurrective ideologies that promised to restore the grandiose illusions that have been lost. It was in this context of collective trauma and resurrective ideology that Americans fell prey to the abuses of power of the Bush administration.
Following 9/11, Bush et al. did not merely go after Al Qaeda. They declared war on global terrorism and drew America into a grandiose, holy crusade that enabled Americans to feel delivered from trauma, chosen by God to rid the world of evil. Bush essentially said to us: "You have not been devastated and crushed. You are not exposed as excruciatingly vulnerable human beings, just as vulnerable to assault, destruction, death, and loss as are all other people around the world. You are still great and powerful, godlike, and together we will bring our way of life to every nation on earth."
Tragically, every effort to actualize such ideological illusions inflicts collective trauma on those whom we attack, and they respond with an intensification of their resurrective ideologies. It is this dialectic of traumatic collapse and ideological resurrection that fuels the lamentable, endlessly recurring cycle of atrocity and counter-atrocity that has been so characteristic of human history.
To learn from history we must be able to live in experiences of collective trauma rather than evade them. With regard to the trauma of 9/11, we must be able to grieve--grieve not only for the people who were killed but also for the illusions and innocence we have lost. Only then will we be able to resist the tempting resurrective illusions once again being offered by the Republican Party.
If we can help one another bear the darkness rather than evade it, perhaps one day we will be able to see the light.