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January 04, 2004

Trauma and images

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In today's NY Times Magazine, Jeffrey Rosen has an essay about trauma and images affecting perception, essentially causing people to willingly give up constitutional rights out of fear.

Speaking of the TV coverage of 9/11 "When presented with image of terrifying events, people tend to miscalculate their probability. A single memorable image - of the World Trade Center collapsing, for example - will crowd out less visually dramatic risks in the public mind. This explains why people overestimate the frequency of deaths from disasters like floods and fire and understimate the frequency of death from more mundane threats like diabetes and strokes.

He continues "How can we protect ourselves from our psychological vulnerablilites? First, we can turn off the TV. A study of psychological responses to 9/11 found that two months after the attacks, 17 percent of the American population outside New York City reported symptoms of post-traaumatic stress related to 9/11. High levels of stress were especially notable in those who watched a lot of television. This anxiety is only heightened by cable networks which have converted themselves into 24-hour purveyors of alarm.

But cable TV isn't the only institution of democracy that has an incentive to exaggerate risks. We've seen the temptations for politicians to pass along vague and unconfirmed threats of future violence in order to protect themselves from criticism in the event that another attack materializes."

Dakota insert: Or to use our fears to convince us that we should, and can give up all constitutional rights for the false promise of "safety", thus mindlessly putting ourselves at the mercy of those who do not have our best interests at heart.

Back to Jeffrey Rosen "Ultimately, our success in overcoming fear will depend on political leadership that challenges us to live with our uncertainties, rather than catering to them. Mayor Rudolph Guiliani understood that the greatest leaders of democracies in earlier wars did not pander to public fears; instead, they challenged citizens to transcend their self-involved anxieties, embracing ideal of liberty and justice larger than themselves. It is hard to imagine Franklin D.Roosevelt instituting a color-coded system of terrorist alerts.

The viscious cycle at this point should be clear. The public fixates on low-probablity but vivid risks because of images we absorb from television and from politicians. This cycle fuels the public's demand for draconian and poorly designed laws and technologies to eliminate the risks that are, by their nature, difficult to reduce. We have the ablility to rsist this dangerous cycle by choosing leaders who will insit on lawas ans technologies that strik a reasonalbel balande between freedom and security. What we need now is the will."

So here's the problem. We must understand the physiology of trauma in order to understand why people literally cannot use their full mental capacities when considering these issues. If so much of our population suffers from PTSD as a result of 9/11 broadcast images, they are operating out of their amygdalas, their ground hog brains. They can be lead like lambs to the slaughter. They do not have access to their frontal cortex, seat of cognition, thinking, consciousness. They are literally scared out of their minds. See studies done by Bessel van der Kolk and his colleagues for more information.

Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine is a striking illustration of "the fearful heart and soul of the United States.

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans re Afraid of the Wrong Things By Barry Glassner

Posted by Dakota at January 4, 2004 07:05 AM