11/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Portkeys to 9/11

Extending my ideas about emotional trauma (RD Stolorow, Trauma and Human Existence, Routledge, 2007) to our current socio-political situation, I have characterized 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 promise 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."

How have Bush and then McCain and Palin attempted to keep us in the grip of their resurrective ideologies? They have done so by making use of what I call portkeys to trauma. Portkey is a term I borrowed from Harry Potter to capture the impact of trauma on our experience of time. Harry was a severely traumatized little boy, nearly killed by his parents' murderer and left in the care of a family that mistreated him cruelly. He arose from the ashes of devastating trauma as a wizard in possession of wondrous magical powers, and yet never free from the original trauma, always under threat by his parents' murderer. As a wizard, he encountered portkeys -- objects that transported him instantly to other places, obliterating the duration ordinarily required for travel from one location to another.

I use the term portkey to refer to any experience that returns one to an experience of traumatization. Bush, McCain, and Palin have used portkeys to the collective trauma of 9/11 in an attempt to keep us terrified and under the spell of their resurrective ideologies. Bush's most infamous portkey, one that led us into war with Iraq, was the bogus threat of weapons of mass destruction. What better way to return us to the emotional devastation of 9/11 than with the specter of nuclear annihilation? More recently, the McCain campaign followed suit with their deplorable "tribute" to 9/11, in which we were forced to relive once again the horrifying collapse of the World Trade Center. And McCain assured us that he knew how to protect us and keep us safe. And more abominable still, there is Palin's ongoing smear against Obama, accusing him even now of "palling around with terrorists," as if he were in league with Osama Bin Laden himself, a dangerous portkey to 9/11 that has incited crowds to the brink of violence. Even the current economic collapse can reanimate the feelings of helplessness and terror spawned by 9/11, and McCain has attempted to exploit this portkey too by emptily claiming that, wizard-like, he alone knows how to fix the situation.

How can we resist the spell of resurrective ideology and its destructive consequences? We must be able to live in experiences of collective trauma, to live in the feelings of anxiety and existential threat, knowing that we all share them in common. And we must be able to grieve -- to grieve for the illusions and the innocence we have all lost.