Pieces on Earth

by: FireTag

December 22, 2012


The response to trauma is instinctual, even if our instinctual responses are wired individually. God evolved our species’ instincts to do something fast –flee, fight, or freeze — because the lethal nature of most of the dangers that killed humans throughout history is immediately perceptible and requires immediate response. Instincts don’t do as well when the threats don’t have those characteristics, which is why so many Westerners die from diets that their ancestors would have fought to obtain. I guess God evolved our cognitive centers of the brain precisely to enable us to override our instincts.

Trauma is also personal. It requires general empathy. However, it also requires specific personal triggers that identifies some vague threat — the roar of the predator in the night — as a specific threat to us or ours. And those triggers are also individually wired.

The 911 attacks on New York and Washington were traumatic to many Americans and many in other countries, but the trauma was hardly uniform. BBC coverage during the night afterward took a sober view that America would ultimately conclude that this should not produce a military response that would be counterproductive. By contrast, at the very same hour, such American liberal outlets as the Washington Post and the New York Times were running stories taking for granted that America was going to war, and instead debating whether the use of nuclear weapons would be justified in the retaliatory response.

Why do I remember that so well? Because there was a personal traumatic trigger for me in the attacks on the World Trade Center. At the end of the 1970’s I had a window office on the 90th Floor of 2 World Trade looking out at 1 World Trade. I saw pictures of the fireball from the second strike washing directly over my old office window, so it was all too easy to put myself in the shoes of the victims in the Trade Center that day. That made it personal.

Sandy Hook has traumatized America again. The trigger seems to be the commonality of parenthood (although I’ll question the adequacy of that explanation in a moment), and our individual instinctual responses are fully manifesting in desires to do something. After a horribly depressing Friday and Saturday following the murders on the news, I decided to spend Saturday evening watching the “Transformers” movie on cable. Although the Transformers toy craze came a bit after my daughter’s childhood, and she was more into Supergirl and She-Ra anyway, I understood the sentiment of the toy craze very well. Little children should always be able to believe that their Guardians are strong enough to smash the most threatening monsters, even if adults know, sadly, that that is not always so.

Yet, again, the trauma is individualized, and a key point of the empathic trigger, I believe, is that this attack happened to children of parents who believed they were safe from such threats: we know (intellectually) that children are murdered, but it doesn’t happen to people in middle or upper middle class communities — to people like us!

Ben Stein wrote a piece last week demonstrating that something more than the innocence of the children was involved in the trauma:

“The whole world is rightly overwrought and crazed with grief over the murder of twenty totally innocent and blameless souls last Friday in Newtown. It was and is a catastrophe for the ages.

“But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promises to kill every Jew in Israel and then in the whole world, including babies… and he had his defenders, even at the Democratic National Convention.

“And it was daily life in Nazi-occupied Europe from 1939 to 1941 to kill thousands of Jewish children every day. But powerful, intelligent men and women in this country defended Hitler, spoke up for him and for keeping America from even sending arms to Britain when England stood alone. What are we to make of that?

“No one even mentions, no one even knows about the horrendous Armenian genocide by the Turks in 1915, when well over a million of the most talented people on the planet were wantonly murdered — and the world has still not officially called it genocide — and Hitler explicitly said it was a model for him.

“Who today even talks of the purposeful mass starvation of millions of beautiful Ukrainian children by Stalin? The U.S. did not say one word about it as a government. The U.S. still will not confront Turkey seriously about the Armenian children.

“Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge killed roughly one third of all of its people, including children, from 1974 to about 1977 — and it was U.S. policy to avoid doing anything to stop them — because they were opposed to the North Vietnamese Communists and Communist Vietnam, which had just taken over South Vietnam — our ally. What can we say to that? We cheered the deposing of the President — Richard Nixon — who would have stopped the Khmer Rouge from taking power. There is plenty of Cambodian blood on our hands. There is plenty of blood of all kinds on our hands, especially of the most innocent and blameless among us… real babies, truly innocent.

“God help us. Man is made of such crooked stuff that it is impossible to set him straight, said a famous philosopher. God help us. “

Fouad Ajami amplified the point with a horror that was playing on the news at the same time we were mourning Sandy Hook:

“Similar stories are told by Syrians suffering at the hands of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. One such account was given in ‘Untold Atrocities’, a report released several months ago by the Save the Children charity. It opens with the tale of one Syrian child, Alaa, as told by Wael, a narrator who is 16 years old.

“’I knew a boy named Alaa. He was only 6 years old. He didn’t understand what was happening. I’d say that 6-year-old boy was tortured more than anyone else in the room. He wasn’t given food or water for three days, and he was so weak that he used to faint all the time. He was beaten regularly. I watched him die. He only survived for three days and then he simply died. He was terrified the whole time’.

“In the matter of Syria, the ordeal has lost its shock value. Early in this rebellion, the world stirred to the suffering of Hamza al-Khatib, a child who died under horrific torture, and whose disfigured body was returned to his family — a warning of what the regime had in store for those who dared to rise against the tyranny.

“There were the boys in the forlorn town of Deraa, south of Damascus. They had been picked up and tortured for scribbling graffiti on the walls of their city calling for the fall of the dictatorship. In the nature of such things, the regime hunkered down and bet that the outrage over the horrors would blow over, that no foreign cavalry would come to the rescue…

“The war in Syria never intruded on the U.S. presidential contest. Many months earlier, in August 2011, President Barack Obama had given up on the legend of Assad the reformer, and called on the Syrian ruler to abdicate. That declaration was the sum of U.S. policy. America had put itself on the side of good things in Syria, and no more needed to be done.”

This week, of course, we have the specter of Syrian government forces launching Scud missiles and dropping cluster bombs. They are trying to stop an offensive from various rebel groups, including some designated by the US government as terrorist groups, from seizing a major Syrian chemical weapons depot near Aleppo. The fear is that one or both sides will use those chemical weapons rather than lose a battle to the death to the other side. And Syria has no adult-seeking chemical weapons.

Of course, there are parts of every major American city where mothers and fathers do not wake up each day taking it for granted that nothing bad can happen to their children. Places where death and trauma are just as real as at Sandy Hook, but where the stories only make the back pages of the newspapers or a few minutes on the local newscast.

Where trauma is common, the shock value does die. We become anesthetized to the trauma. We have to, or we fall prey to post traumatic stress disorder ourselves. Can it only be a few weeks ago that the word “Sandy” called forth our empathy again, but that time it was about a terrible storm that overwhelmed the coasts of New Jersey, Staten Island, Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island, and — yes — Connecticut. The destroyed homes there are not rebuilt, and the shredded lives there are not yet healed. But our attention flickers to the next disaster, and the one after that, and then the one after that.

We don’t come wired with the empathetic bandwidth to deal with a trauma-inducing world by empathy alone. Our instincts are inadequate to deal with the problem of evil. We look to — and as Christians affirm (especially at this season) we have found — a Savior. And when faced with the overwhelming evidence of evil, we ask that Savior, “Why?”

But perhaps that is the wrong question, or at least a secondary question. Perhaps God looks back at us and says, “I created you all as my children. I intend that you grow up to fulfill all of the internal potential placed within you — to become as gods yourselves. You can understand why evil exists only as you figure out what you have to do about it. So, young gods (or young demons, if you prefer), what do you intend to do about evil?”

What is our response to that question?

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7 Responses to Pieces on Earth

  1. Mike S on December 22, 2012 at 11:04 AM

    In answer to your question: what do you intend to do about evil?, I will work on what I consider the root of the problem: Inequality.

    The core of the problem in most of the the situations you mention is greed. Regimes throughout the world cling to power and money and ideologies, and are willing to kill their own citizens to achieve these goals.

    In this country, we are also affected by this self-centeredness. Our housing market ballooned and collapsed because people thought they could make a quick buck. Our gun culture idolizes money and prestige – with songs and movies and images that support this.

    In the gun debate, people are also self-centered. We have more guns per capita than any other country in the world. We have 20 times the gun death rate than any of the other 25 richest countries. Yet we get people like the NRA suggesting that the answer is even MORE guns in our schools. This is also self-centered. No one rationally cares about the fact that in a household with a gun, you are 40 TIMES more likely to kill someone you know than an actual intruder. No one cares about these slaughters, because they want their assault rifles and large magazines.

    And even the politicians are self-centered. We have a whole wing of this country that wants to decrease our safety nets the help the half that needs help. We have a whole wing of this country devoted to lowering already historically low tax rates to they can keep more of “their” money.

    We have become a greedy and self-centered country. So I will fight that. I will talk about gun control. I will support candidates who look out for the least fortunate among us. I will look for people who I can assist. I will teach my children to do with less so others can have more.

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  2. FireTag on December 22, 2012 at 2:32 PM


    I largely agree with your last paragraph, although, IMO, it is far more likely that a political candidate talking about looking out for the least fortunate is really looking to feather his/her own nest than you seem to credit. Record, not rhetoric, is all I have to go on, and inequality has NOT been decreasing under the political stewardship of those who talk most about the need for equality.

    Certainly I commend your desire to teach your children to get by with less so that others can have more. A very good scripture from the Community of Christ version of the D&C says, “Repression of unnecessary wants is in harmony with the Law of Stewardship and becomes My people.”

    I am honestly torn about the issue of assault weapons. My grandfather used a rifle to drive off an armed robber who broke down the front door at three AM about 30 years ago, and that was in the middle of Detroit. He didn’t kill the intruder, but neither he nor my uncle showed up in the murder statistics either. Perhaps in comparing the murder rate by guns, we ought to include some measure for “murders prevented” by the presence of guns. After all, isn’t it generally true that even in households WITHOUT guns, you are a lot more likely to kill someone you know (including yourself) than an intruder?

    On the other hand, we have a family friend who is a former Secret Service agent who is very strongly of the opinion that assault rifles in the hands of criminals put police agencies at a severe tactical disadvantage, and I have to pay a LOT of attention to his opinion on this matter.

    I didn’t really want this post to be specifically about gun control, but Charles Krauthammer’s column in the Washington Post yesterday has, I think, a comprehensive discussion of a number of relevant issues to the gun control question.

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  3. LDS Anarchist on December 22, 2012 at 3:19 PM

    You start out good:

    In answer to your question: what do you intend to do about evil?, I will work on what I consider the root of the problem: Inequality.

    …Regimes throughout the world cling to power and money and ideologies, and are willing to kill their own citizens to achieve these goals.

    and then lead us down a rabbit hole:

    I will talk about gun control.

    The irony of these statements is stunning.

    People need to think more clearly about these principles. This quote is very telling:

    we have a family friend who is a former Secret Service agent who is very strongly of the opinion that assault rifles in the hands of criminals put police agencies at a severe tactical disadvantage

    If you still do not know what I’m driving at, see this video:


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  4. Mormon Heretic on December 23, 2012 at 12:03 AM

    Firetag, well written post, and thought provoking. Are you arguing (like John McCain), that we should get militarily involved in Syria as we did in Iraq? I think most of us feel that it was a mistake to get involved in Iraq, despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was toppled and killed. Hindsight seems to tell us that it was a mistake. Are you saying we should repeat our actions to get rid of Assaad at the expense of thousands of more deaths? Certainly Saddaam tortured many citizens, nearly used Americans as human shields, and other abuses. I’m not sure what God wants us to do here, but I do want us to act prudently. From what I can tell, Syria isn’t toppled as easily as Kadafi in Libya. It would be nice to get rid of Assaad, make no mistake. The question is how to do it wisely. I don’t think starting WW3 is a good course of action. Yes he’s a monster, but hasn’t Iraq taught us that we can’t solve all of the world’s problems?

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  5. FireTag on December 23, 2012 at 8:57 PM

    LDS Anarchist:

    I am not certain that I get your point correctly, and I don’t have access to youtube at the moment, so forgive me. I’d rather not put words in your mouth if I misunderstand, so please be a little more direct with me.


    “Should” or “should not” is not the relevant comparison for Syria, I believe. I’ve written a series of posts in our archives since the Arab Spring began in which I’ve been tracking how war has engulfed one nation after another in that region from one tiny spark in Tunisia, the way a carelessly discarded cigarette in a dry Western forest can spark a conflagration that spreads for miles and miles.

    No one is in control of what’s happening in the region because there are mutually reinforcing economic, social, and political trends that amplify the violence, and the war is STILL growing. One group after another gets presented with situations where the choice is no longer war or peace, but war or death. So one after another, people choose to try and live, and more fuel is fed into the fire.

    I have studiously tried to stay off the computer today because I plain needed the rest. But as of yesterday, Russia had announced that its troops ON THE GROUND in Syria training the Syrian army, had taken control of that army’s chemical weapons, at least at the Al Safira complex a few miles SE of Aleppo, to keep them from falling into the hands of rebels aligned with elements that would use them against the United States.

    It is already declared policy of the Obama administration that loss of control of such weapons is a red line (the first of many that we may face in the coming months) that would bring about US and allied intervention. So it isn’t a case of what Americans do or do not want. If and when we go into this war, it will be because it becomes obvious to the political system that the choice is fight or flee, and we will have nowhere to flee.

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  6. Douglas on December 26, 2012 at 10:33 PM

    #1 – and you’ll “combat” what YOU perceive as “inequality” and “selfishness” with TYRANNY. Both you and I are old enough to have outgrown the need for our mommies, why in the world do we want the “higher powers” (Romans 13:1) to function in that role?

    The words of the Second Amendment are unequivocal and recent Supreme Court decisions have affirmed same as an INDIVIDUAL right (and not even the rights of the Several states, though they certainly have never lost the right to maintain a state Militia): “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Our forefathers, having not only recently thrown off their prior Sovereign but also experienced subsequent unrest (re: Shay’s rebellion), saw the wisdom of assuring that it was the RIGHT of citizens to be armed. Quoting pithy and often fallacious statistics about gun safety (or more tragically, how it isn’t practiced as it should be) is irrelevant. It was this type of well-intended nanny-state drivel that brought us the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act, which was a most welcomed opportunity for the likes of Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. Current bleatings for “gun control” will NOT, I assure all, avert ONE single homicide via firearm, rather, if anything, they will impede the ability of the law-abiding but otherwise vulnerable (esp. women) to defend themselves.
    As for purported “selfishness” of those that work hard and wish to enjoy the fruits of their OWN labor rather than have it confiscated by the all-beneficent ‘Gubmint’ and doled out to those than did not work for it and often warrant a swift kick in the backside rather than a handout; I would say the ‘selfishness’ is on the part of the one’s doing the taking, not those being taken. Just as I affirm absolutely the ability of a law-abiding citizen to defend herself and her property from a thief and/or rapist, with deadly force if necessary, so I affirm the right of the taxpayers to demand accountability on the part of their Government for the tax monies AND to resist with all lawful means in the political process to having their pockets picked. Again, I weary of those who account to themselves righteousness by how generous they can be with other peoples monies.

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  7. FireTag on December 27, 2012 at 11:51 AM


    “Again, I weary of those who account to themselves righteousness by how generous they can be with other peoples monies.”

    Yes, there is an interesting question about the ethics of forcing others to pay the price for OUR sense of righteousness. Jesus did not say “Take up your cross and I’ll be along later.”

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