Traumatized by violence


in Bombs and rockets, Politics, Psychology, Security

I think it has been plausibly demonstrated that people who witness the violent and traumatic death of other people may experience adverse psychological consequences as a result.

It’s hard to interpret the significance of that in the present era, or more so in the case of my own life. Ignoring early childhood, I don’t think I witnessed any violence which produced a deep psychological effect until 2001-09-11. People have subsequently told me that they don’t believe me, but this was my first day of university classes at the University of British Columbia. I don’t remember what woke me up, but I walked down to the end of the hall and saw World Trade Center CNN footage, went to the dining hall for breakfast and saw more of the same, and then went to my first ever university class where we discussed what happened, who might be responsible, and what American response might be justified.

In terms of personal experiences, there have been other cases where mass violence reported through mass media could have involved friends of mine.

I also once saw a man crushed to death in front of me by collapsing scaffolding, no more than 50 metres from where I stood.

Still, I think the phenomenon of the violence-induced trauma affecting many people alive today is a broader issue. I was born in 1983, and have never lived in a time when nuclear war wasn’t a plausible possibility. I have seen personal and media responses to dozens of acts of political violence, from professors discussing thwarted bomb plots in Toronto to dear friends mourning from mass shootings near their homes. One close friend of mine, whose wedding I attended, decided to propose because of how close their partner came to dying in the London bus/tube bombings of 2005/07/07.

Aside from that, I have been traumatized by potential violence. I have read dozens of books about the history of nuclear weapons, great power war, the risks of accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch, etc. I certainly cannot comment about whether the terror and helpless feelings associated with these possibilities have anything to do with the experiences of people who have seen violence first-hand and directly. I do think there is a better-than-even chance that nuclear weapons will be used in war again during my life, and some of these possibilities and their ramifications impress themselves on me every day.

Mass shootings have been traumatizing: Columbine when I was 16; the attack on a Norwegian summer camp when I was 28; the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting when I was 29; Orlando just weeks ago.

I don’t believe that humans were divinely created. We’re just long-term consequences of physics and chemistry. Not long ago in evolutionary time no single human was capable of killing a lot of other primates, even if the aggressor was strong and intent on murder. Perhaps more importantly from a psychological perspective, none of us had any idea about what was going on 1,000 km away, much less across the world.

My intention here is not to comment on political violence or to suggest how we ought to deal with it. If anything, my intent is to suggest that our biological makeup and history do not prepare us for a world with accurate rifles and nuclear weapons, and to raise the question of whether people educated about the world wars and other modern conflicts, and who have also been exposed across their lives to graphic and traumatizing coverage of acts of political violence, can reasonably expect to not be traumatized in a way that would be unfamiliar to most of our human ancestors across tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

And if we’re all traumatized, what do we do now?

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

alena June 30, 2016 at 10:10 pm

I think and have read that over all, the world is more peaceful now than ever before. There are fewer murders and people live longer even in the poorest countries. Yet, it seems more violent and disturbing. People seem anxious and stressed and few of us engage in friendly conversations in public places. The acts of terror around the world make us feel fragile and helpless, but I think that is one of the objectives of the perpetrators.
As a child I watched the invasion of Czechoslovakia, I lived and was evacuated from Pakistan during the war in 1971, I saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and witnessed tribal violence in Africa and yet I feel more nervous now. I have stopped watching the news and only read the Economist and other magazines and books. I feel much better. I engage with people and hope for the best for everyone.

anon July 4, 2016 at 7:59 am

Maybe less violent, but more driven by fear of violence.

. July 15, 2016 at 8:24 pm

Free Exchange
A history of violence
Evidence is growing that gun violence in America is a product of weak gun laws

WITH awful, numbing regularity Americans use high-powered, high-capacity firearms to carry out mass shootings. And with awful regularity, efforts to reform America’s gun laws in the wake of such tragedies fail. (Indeed, a recent paper published by the Harvard Business School found that a mass shooting leads to a 75% rise in measures easing gun control in states with Republican-controlled legislatures.) More than 30,000 people die in shootings in America each year; no other rich country suffers anywhere near that level of gun violence.

Research published in 2000 by Mark Duggan of the University of Chicago concluded that the homicide rate had been falling in tandem with the proportion of households where guns were kept. What’s more, the homicide rate was falling with a lag, suggesting that reduced gun ownership was causing the decline, and was not simply a side-effect of a falling crime rate.

Other studies have reached similar conclusions. An analysis published in 2014, for example, using detailed county-level data assembled by the National Research Council, a government-funded body, suggested that laws that allow people to carry weapons are associated with a substantial rise in the incidence of assaults with a firearm. It also found evidence that such laws might also lead to increases in other crimes, like rape and robbery. A recent survey of 130 studies concluded that strict gun-control laws do indeed reduce deaths caused by firearms.

Nonetheless, some events can come close to offering an informative counterfactual. The aftermath of a mass shooting in Australia provides one example. In 1996 a gunman killed 32 people with a semi-automatic weapon much like the one used in the Orlando shooting on June 12th. Australia’s lawmakers quickly passed strict and sweeping gun-control rules. Semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns were banned, and the government offered to buy weapons already in circulation from their owners (a programme of comparable scale in America would reclaim an estimated 90m guns).

Australia has suffered only two shooting sprees since then, claiming a total of seven lives. A decline in the rate of killings with guns, which was already under way before these rules came in, accelerated rapidly. Total gun deaths including suicides also fell. Before the change in the law the rate of deaths from firearms in Australia was about a quarter of that in America; afterwards, it fell to about a tenth of the American rate. In 2014 America suffered about 10.5 fatal shootings per 100,000 people; Australia recorded just 1.

It is not just the relationship between gun ownership and gun violence that is becoming clearer. Evidence is also building that even relatively modest gun-control measures reduce gun deaths. An analysis published in 2015 in the Annual Review of Public Health noted that state laws banning possession of a gun by individuals under a restraining order for domestic violence reduce the incidence of “intimate partner homicide” by 10%. The same analysis reports that firearm homicide rates rose by 25% in the five years after Missouri repealed its law requiring permits to purchase a gun, even as the national rate nationwide fell.

. July 16, 2016 at 9:48 pm
. July 18, 2016 at 5:15 pm

Pediatrics experts make recommendations to curb ‘virtual violence’ in children’s lives

The immersive and inescapable way children and teens are exposed to violence in their “media diet” on social media apps, video games and movies can make them more aggressive and fearful, the American Academy of Pediatrics says in a new policy statement.

The group released its updated advice, titled “Virtual violence,” in Monday’s online issue of the journal Pediatrics.

“We’ve switched from calling it screen aggression or screen violence to virtual violence to capture the more immersive ways children can experience media violence today,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the principal author.

. July 27, 2016 at 1:08 am

Mass Killings May Have Created Contagion, Feeding on Itself

. July 27, 2016 at 1:09 am

“Those of us in this field, it’s the first thing we think about when we read accounts of these recent mass murders: The detailed coverage of terrorist attacks may be giving people who are vulnerable or thinking along these line ideas about what to do and how to do it,” said Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia.

. August 10, 2016 at 6:32 pm

FOR a few generations, Americans seldom saw death up close. It was banished to hospitals or mimicked, harmlessly, on cinema and TV screens. But on July 5th death was beamed onto laptops and iPads from the forecourt of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, where Alton Sterling was fatally shot by a police officer as another pinned him down; and on July 6th it was broadcast from the passenger seat of a car in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, the police weapon that killed another black man, Philando Castile, still sticking through the window as the footage began.

The next day, if they had the stomach for it, Americans could watch Micah Johnson, a black army veteran intent on slaughtering white policemen, stalk and slay an officer in downtown Dallas, a stone’s throw from the site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Mr Johnson managed to murder five before a robot-delivered bomb ended his rampage and his life. These terrible images were more traumatic even than most deaths. The killing of policemen, and killings inflicted by them, bloodshed moreover tinged by racism, avowed or alleged: these seemed, for many, to presage the unravelling of society.

Moreover, watching these remote but shockingly intimate scenes—viewing that, for many, seems at once voyeuristic and a civic duty—conveys the impression that they are ever more common. In fact, says Peter Moskos of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the police fired their weapons much more frequently in the 1990s, and even more in the 1970s. The rise is not in the number of incidents but in the breadth and speed of their circulation. Even without court convictions, that exposure can spur changes in police practices and open windows into black experiences for white audiences. Like the general state of policing in America, the videos incite rage, but they also contain reasons for hope.

On the face of it, this wider picture looks grim, too. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre, 84% of black Americans think they are treated less fairly by police than whites are; only 50% of whites agree. There are similar gaps in perceptions of the fairness of courts, banks and workplaces. And in the durability, even existence, of the basic wrong: among blacks, 43% believe the country will never make the changes required for racial equality; only 11% of whites concur. Among whites, 38% think that goal has already been accomplished; only 8% of blacks are so sanguine. Blacks are twice as likely to think that racial issues are neglected. According to Gallup, the share of Americans who worry “a great deal” about race relations has doubled in two years.

. November 3, 2016 at 1:40 am

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