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?