Trauma culture

From Oklahoma City to New York, we've turned violent human loss into epic narratives of suffering and patriotism. Does this help people heal or hurt them?

Published December 15, 2001 4:08PM (EST)

"Will the prominence of the Oklahoma City bombing be ensured by its location in the nation's official memory? ... Will a future terrorist act that inflicts more death consign Oklahoma City to a less prestigious location on the landscape of violence? Or might such an act increase its prestige as the first event in a continuing body of domestic terrorism?"

Those questions appear toward the end of Edward Linenthal's "The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory," and I think the only honest answer is that it's too soon to tell. Linenthal couldn't have known, when he wrote those words, that by the time his book arrived in bookstores in October, the Oklahoma City bombing would have already been eclipsed by the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Yet when you read "The Unfinished Bombing" it's striking just how many parallels there are in the reactions to these attacks and the similarities in their ripple effects.

Many of us found comfort after the Oklahoma City bombing in the knowledge that it turned out to be the work of a pair of lone kooks (no matter what Gore Vidal claims) and not perpetrated by an organized and well-funded cabal of middle-Eastern terrorists, as was initially speculated. Well, that comfort isn't available anymore, and Oklahoma City offers Americans the only precedent we have for what lies in the future for a city and its people after a terrorist attack.

It's only normal, after a catastrophic event, for people to turn to religion for comfort, or for some to see therapists, or for all of us to buoy ourselves up by adding the disaster to the long line of events that have brought out America's optimism and determination to get on with things; Oklahomans did all of this. Linenthal is not out to deride or deny religion or therapy or the American spirit. But good listener that he is, he finds that these sources of comfort have their limits, and that there are even ways in which they prolonged people's grief by ducking the full horror of the bombing or, worse, by changing the experience into something noble and comprehensible.

The heart of "The Unfinished Bombing" is a chapter called "Telling the Story: Three Narratives" in which Linenthal identifies three types of stories the survivors have told themselves while attempting to assimilate the event. The "progressive" narrative focuses on the sense of caring and kinship forged in the shared disaster. It shows a determination to build something positive from the tragedy. The "redemptive" narrative is the response of religious communities as they try to find meaning in an event that threatens to undermine the bedrock beliefs of their faith. The third narrative, the "toxic" narrative, finds neither progress nor redemption. "It is," Linenthal writes, "a story of an unfinished bombing, one that still reaches out to claim people through suicide, to shatter families through divorce, substance abuse, and the corrosive effects of profound and seemingly endless grief."

For the people whose family and friends were murdered in the bombing (It's part of Linenthal's scrupulousness that he uses that word "murdered," and tries to avoid the vagueness of "lost" or "died"), each of these stories has some validity. One woman whose husband, a secret service agent, was killed told Linenthal, "All of the narratives seem to live within my experience, some to greater or lesser degree, from Day 1 to now." This woman, whose name is Pam Whichler, has, at different times, been "absolutely determined" that her family would emerge stronger; felt abandoned by God despite saying that she "felt his presence in my mourning" and that "every day without a disaster is a day to be thankful for"; and become a more questioning believer, more cynical, less tolerant -- as well as a pack-a-day smoker.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 disaster, America is still clinging to the first two of these three narratives. The progressive narrative, in particular, Linenthal writes, "invites people to focus on possibility, opportunity, healing, rebuilding." Only the very cynical, he feels, could dismiss that narrative simply because it doesn't tell the whole story. Of the many examples bolstering the progressive narrative in Oklahoma City -- the people who donated time or money or services, for example -- the most unusual were the 67 massage therapists who went to the site of the Murrah Building to ease the strain on rescue workers. (It's chastising now to read rescue workers remembering how well they were treated in Oklahoma City in contrast with their experience at the 1993 World Trade Center bombing where, Linenthal writes, "vendors hiked the price of bottled water and some rescue workers had to sleep in automobiles.")

Some of the most heartrending stories here involve the rescue dogs, doing what they have been trained to do with no larger understanding of the event, but affected by it nonetheless. The Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Association tended to the dogs who suffered cuts and needed daily baths and saline treatments to wash out their eyes, and a group in Dallas sent the pooches therapeutic mattresses. Linenthal recounts that after unearthing only dead bodies for so long, the dogs became so despondent that their handlers would hide in the rubble so the dogs could feel the delight of finding a live person. If the rescue work had that effect on dogs, we can imagine the toll it took on human beings, even those who were not directly involved in the effort.

Linenthal's exploration of the redemptive narrative centers on what he calls the "crisis of meaning" engendered by the bombing. How you feel about the worship services Linenthal recounts may depend on your own degree of faith. The rabbi who says he "did not encourage people to ask 'why did God do this?'" seems to me to be ducking the key question the bombing raises. One pastor even told his congregation that Satan wanted them to question and blame God. (I can never stomach the "God does not cause evil things to happen" argument, which was popular, Linenthal tells us, in Oklahoma City following the bombing. He's either all-powerful or he isn't; you can't have it both ways.) I can't deny the frustration I feel reading about people who bring themselves to the precipice of a tough question only to shrink from it. But of course, part of religion's job is to offer comfort; perhaps those questions would be too messy to force dazed and grieving people to confront.

Few were as honest and as pained as Joe Williams, an FBI chaplain who told Linenthal, "My belief in the sovereignty of God is that he could have prevented it but he didn't and I don't know why," or the Baptist minister who owned up to what he saw as his human failing (but most of us would see a recognizable sign of humanity) when he said, "I know I'm supposed to pray for the people who did this, but I'm finding that very hard to do when I look at these little babies." One of the most remarkable is Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie was murdered in the bombing, and who realized that this was his moment to put up or shut up about being a Christian. For Welch, a Catholic, wrestling with what he called "the seemingly impossible demands of the Gospel" meant that, although he could not forgive McVeigh or Nichols, he opposed their execution.

Nevertheless it is the stories of those people -- survivors, family of victims, rescue workers -- who find themselves, for a moment or permanently, beyond the comforts of the progressive and redemptive narratives that are the most affecting here. One woman whose grandchildren were killed in the day-care center of the Murrah Building still keeps their bedroom intact. Six people involved in the recovery effort have committed suicide, and there have been more than 30 attempts among firemen and their family members. This is the most difficult of the narratives to come to grips with, not just because of the obvious psychological torment it entails, but because it profoundly challenges the self-image of those who hold it. If you are in the midst of a society or community (admirably) determined to go on with life, you may be tempted to see yourself as weak if you can't find that determination within. The first glimmer of this aftermath in New York was the suicide of Pat Flounders, the 51-year-old widow of a man killed at the World Trade Center.

The toxic narrative has bled over into what Linenthal calls the "traumatic vision," a sometimes heated debate over the question of just who were the victims of the bombing. People who did not lose anyone in the bombings feel understandably reluctant to describe themselves in those terms. It reminds them of how the proliferation of the concept of victimhood has cheapened the very notion of suffering. Which is not to say that all the residents of Oklahoma City weren't affected; they got depressed and lost sleep, just as residents of New York City did.

To live in a city during the aftermath of an event such as these is, for weeks and maybe months afterwards, to feel that death has become an inescapable aspect of everyday experience. You couldn't go anywhere in New York during September and October without seeing some reminder of the attack -- impromptu memorials in parks, subway stations, at firehouses; flyers with pictures of the missing; lists, in restaurant windows and in convenience stores of the members of the local engine company who were killed. (I was stopped cold in the Union Square subway station by a flag displayed outside the subway police station. It was painted by school kids; the stripes were their footprints and the stars their handprints. That simple, childish touch transformed a symbol into something of flesh.) It all took a toll. But only the most self-absorbed would think of themselves as victims in the same way as the dead, the wounded and their surviving relatives.

And yet the people in Oklahoma City had to deal with what Linenthal calls the "pathologization of mourning." This was the determination on the part of many of the mental health workers who descended en masse on the city -- some intending to further their careers by putting Oklahoma City on their résumés -- to insist that anyone upset by the event had been clinically traumatized. Linenthal sees little inclination to distinguish pathological "trauma" from "a normal human reaction to violent loss." One local psychologist detected an eagerness to create more victims simply through "the power of diagnostic names."

Of course, Linenthal writes, people grieved for mundane things -- "the loss of life rhythms: waving to the same person on their way to work, sharing work space and personal relationships with friends and colleagues" -- as well as for the symbolic loss of a city and the end of a time of American exceptionalism. People were told that their normal grief reactions were symptomatic of psychological illness, and they began to resent the mental health workers who, assuming the mantle of a secular priesthood, insisted only they were qualified to deal with such matters.

Probably the most insidious aspect of the "traumatic vision" was, Linenthal writes, its vision of people as "intrinsically weak, passive, seemingly helpless amid the onslaught of traumatic events." In that view, the stories of sacrifice and bravery and kindness, and especially the cooperation that makes up the story of the building of the Oklahoma City National Memorial, are stripped of their noble decency and transformed into forms of denial. The traumatic vision also stripped the bombing of other, larger social meanings. In the traumatic vision, someone who has experienced or suffered political violence becomes a victim, i.e. "ill." That, Linenthal argues, "removes the consequences of political action from the public world into the realm of intimate relations between a doctor and a patient. The focus is on the struggle within an individual mind, and the social dimension of violence is ignored."

Maybe because part of the badge of being a New Yorker is to think of yourself as tough and capable, we haven't heard a lot about the therapeutic response to the Sept. 11 attacks. (Or maybe because so many New Yorkers see shrinks to begin with, it was taken for granted.) And maybe preoccupation with the heroes of this tragedy is the city's chosen form of therapy. Who wouldn't describe the cops and firemen at ground zero (and not just the ones who died) as heroes? Likewise, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose mixture of compassion and reasoned calm seemed to pull the city together each time he spoke. (You had to be in New York to fully feel how he acted as a balm to this frightened and devastated city.) But "hero" is a word that, like "victim," is in danger of losing its meaning from overuse, however comforting the word is intended to be. There is nothing comforting about what it takes to be a hero in a circumstance like Sept. 11. I think of what those men and women had to do and it fills me with pain and dread.

Which is why nothing may threaten the meaning of the Oklahoma City bombing, or the World Trade Center attacks, more than what Linenthal calls "the national narrative of patriotic sacrifice." Linenthal is referring specifically to the words used by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and by President Bill Clinton when they described the Oklahoma City Memorial as hallowed ground or sacred ground (Clinton compared it to Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Selma). We have heard something similar in the memorials to the dead in New York and Washington.

When people have died a sudden, violent death there's an understandable impulse to replace the senselessness of the violence with some kind of meaning. But, as Linenthal writes, an act of mass murder is not a conscious sacrifice for a nation. You can speak of sacrifice when talking about the cops and firemen who went into the World Trade Center knowing there was a good chance they wouldn't come out. And you can speak of it when describing the people who chose to die on the plane that was crashed in Pennsylvania to prevent it from reaching its target. But the office workers who died at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, like the people who died at the Murrah Building, died for nothing, sacrificed not to their country or for freedom but to the fantasy lives of madmen.

Which is not to say that their deaths hold no emotional meaning for their family or friends or co-workers, or even for the residents of their city who grieve at the loss of life. But to talk about murder victims as patriots ready to make the ultimate sacrifice is to inadvertently give credence to the motives of their killers. Timothy McVeigh's vicious imagination could transform the workers at the Murrah Building into representatives of the government he hated. It only affirms his twisted logic to claim that they were patriots willing to die for their country when in fact they were simply civilians just going about their lives. (It also affirms Osama bin Laden's logic to say that the victims of Sept. 11 died because of U.S. foreign policy or, as that bloated charlatan Michael Moore claimed, for the right of Nike to sell sneakers.)

Those who went to work at the Murrah Building or at the World Trade Center didn't go in the spirit of soldiers going into battle, or even as citizens protesting the injustices of their government. They went to jobs they loved or hated or were bored by because it was what they did. "It takes some honesty," Paul Fussell once wrote, "even if that honesty arises from despair, to perceive that some events, being inhuman, have no human meaning." In our anxiousness to soothe ourselves we risk falsifying the memory of the dead and ignoring the real horror of their deaths. As Pam Whichler said, "I believe we heal better when we accept the truth. This was nothing more than a damn waste of lives. All the more worthy of our heartbreak, and the families, all the more worthy of our sympathy."

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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