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The Trauma Vortex

by BELEN FERNANDEZ

Based on the tallies currently being produced by Israeli towns located in the haphazard line of Qassam rocket fire, it appears that the bulk of Israel’s civilian casualties in its war on Gaza will once again be shock related.

This was the case in the July 2006 war on Lebanon, during which the Israeli Health Ministry reported that 4,262 wounded Israeli civilians were treated in hospitals; this total was broken down into 33 seriously wounded patients, 68 moderately wounded, and 1,388 lightly wounded, with the remaining 2,773 treated for “shock and anxiety.” The UN Commission of Inquiry on Lebanon, meanwhile, cited the Lebanese authorities’ claim of 4,409 wounded Lebanese civilians—the only attempt at classification of casualties being a chart listing 56 different “collective massacres” conducted by Israeli forces during the war, with identifying labels such as: “Air raids struck heavily on the funeral procession of the victims of the previous day[‘s] air raids.”

BBC News reported different figures in its August 2006 civilian casualty scorecard for the war, according to which there were 32 seriously wounded Israelis, 44 moderately wounded Israelis, 614 lightly wounded Israelis, 1,985 Israelis treated for shock, and 3,697 wounded Lebanese. Israeli casualties were thus still overwhelmingly shock related, while the Lebanese were still:

a lump sum. not affected by acute stress disorders.

The same trend will most likely hold for Gaza—and not only because it is difficult for hospitals to accommodate people with heightened norepinephrine levels when they cannot accommodate people with missing limbs.

I awoke this past Sunday morning to find that 1 Israeli in Sderot had been lightly wounded, 4 Israelis had been treated for shock, and 23 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza since midnight. After performing a Google search of the terms “Palestinians treated for shock”—which mainly produced articles about Israelis being treated for shock due to Palestinian behavior—I phoned a Palestinian friend in Lebanon in an attempt to determine why enemies of Israel did not enjoy the luxury of psychological conditions. The investigation was conducted in modified English, the idiomatic form on which Hassan and I relied for all of our communications:

ME: Do Arabs ever go to hospital for problem with head?
HASSAN: Arab he don’t have head.

This hypothesis would undoubtedly have been endorsed by ex-Israeli premier Golda Meir, who might have used it to back up her argument that Palestinians were not real people. Other possible excuses for the traditional embargo on Palestinian shock included the following:

The Palestinians were used to having bombs fall on their heads. It was the Palestinians’ own fault that bombs were falling on their heads. Shock had become the exclusive property of Israel’s international sympathy campaign, as had the words “hail,” “shower,” and “barrage.”

The Health section of Sunday’s online edition of the Jerusalem Post offered some insight into the unique phenomenon of Israeli shock. The main article was entitled “Escaping the trauma vortex,” which—although it sounded more like instructions for breaking down the Rafah border crossing—turned out to be the goal of Somatic Experiencing (SE), a self-healing philosophy that had recently been advertised in Sderot.

The article begins on a Friday morning at the “bomb-proofed Sderot Resiliency Center,” where visiting SE guru Gina Ross of Los Angeles is presiding in front of a rapt audience of health care professionals and social workers. According to the author of the article, the meeting has been auspiciously timed given the fragility currently felt by Israelis in the vicinity of the Gaza Strip, most of whom are nonetheless described as “sleeping in on the first day of the weekend.” A corresponding estimate of how many Gazans sleep in on Friday mornings is not provided.

The “upbeat” Ms. Ross describes the purpose of SE as replacing the “trauma vortex” with a “healing vortex.” The trauma vortex is the result of “an uncompleted biological response to threat, which leaves the system in an excessively high level of arousal, with thwarted movements of defense frozen in time”; the healing vortex occurs when victims learn how to “thaw the freeze and release the sensory motor expressions of trauma-based emotions.” Ross enthusiastically contends that the replacement process is sometimes possible in only a few sessions, even with years of buildup.

The SE method was developed by Dr. Peter Levine, who is described in the article as being the author of the book Taming the Tiger; it turns out that the book is in fact called Waking the Tiger, which is perhaps more appropriate in the Israeli context given apparent preferences for unleashing beasts rather than deterring them. In addition to a host of other titles, Ross is the Middle East senior trainer for Levine’s Foundation for Human Enrichment, as well as a self-proclaimed expert in overcoming “the insecurity and difficulties of exile”—her family having fled their home in Syria and later their home in Lebanon. Familiarity with exile might prove useful in the event that Gaza is one day deemed to be deserving of human enrichment, or somatic experience in general.

Ms. Ross has determined that Israelis, Palestinians, and Israeli-Arabs all suffer from collective trauma vortices—especially the second group, whose vortex “has been spiraling out of control for a while.” Thus, although the Gazans are permitted in this case to suffer psychologically, they are doomed to fail even at their own suffering, as it is not possible to implement a collective healing vortex while an army financed by the global superpower is overhead and underfoot.

The SE method does, however, provide innovative opportunities for such international notables as:

Barack Obama, who is in danger of developing a trauma vortex due to repeated reliance on the “flight” option in fight or flight situations—namely AIPAC addresses and opinions on the war on Gaza. MK Shai Hermesh, resident of a kibbutz close to the Gazan border, who—Tzipi Livni explained to a meeting of foreign diplomats in Sderot on 28 December—”has had to almost live in a shelter for weeks now.” Livni declared the situation “unbearable,” although this description most likely did not apply to the situation of Palestinian MPs held indefinitely in Israeli administrative detention.

Gina Ross’ assertion that “peace can only come from balanced collective nervous systems” might also prove revelatory for other members of the international community, such as those under the impression that peace can only come from preventing Israel’s disassembly of Palestine into noncontiguous enclaves. Instead of fretting over what percentage of remaining Palestinian territories should be permitted on the Israeli side of soaring cement walls, Middle East envoy Tony Blair might thus focus on more concrete issues like building emotional resilience into the roadmap for peace. Blair has already demonstrated a strong commitment to resilience, by choking back tears while discussing letters received from parents whose sons have died in Iraq but who nonetheless retain their conviction in the rightness of war.

(In keeping with the global distribution of power, Iraqis—like Gazans—have been judged unworthy of psychological victimhood, which is reserved for coalition troops, their families, and people who duct tape their windows to guard against WMD attack. Incidentally, the fourth item in the list of results returned by a Google search of the terms “Iraqis treated for shock” was a Haaretz article from 2007, entitled “Qassam fired from Gaza hits Sderot; man treated for shock.”)

Near the end of the Jerusalem Post article on escaping the trauma vortex, an Israeli SE practitioner at the Sderot meeting declares her intention to host an emotional first-aid workshop for citizens of Jerusalem experiencing secondary—i.e. vicarious—trauma.

Moving on to the second headline in the Health section of JPost.com, I was informed that: “Emotional hot lines see sharp rise in callers from the South,” most of whom were experiencing repercussions of the imbalance of the Gazan collective nervous system. According to the spokeswoman for the hotline run by Natal—Israel’s Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War—a number of parents were concerned that their children were not eating or drinking; such behavior would have been less of a concern in Gaza, given the lack of food and drink.

Natal’s advice to those battling the trauma vortex included:

moderately abstaining from news reports. finding “light entertainment to ease them through the stress.” (The word “entertainment” was underlined; when I clicked on it I was transported to a website in Spanish where I was invited to download popular tunes to my cellular phone.) encouraging small children to spend time in their bomb shelters even when there were not air raid sirens, such that the shelters would become associated with things other than fear of death.

A visit to the Natal website itself revealed that many of the hotline callers were from northern Israel and were “experiencing flashbacks from the Second Lebanon War.” Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, was also experiencing flashbacks to this particular war, and repeated that a ceasefire should never allow a return to the status quo ante, i.e. Gaza.

The Natal website describes the residents of southern Israel as “living in an abnormal reality” and provides them with coping tools, including a list of exercises entitled “Muscle Relaxation For Children.” In one of the exercises listed, parents are advised to have their children pretend that: “A little elephant is coming closer; in a moment it’s going to step on your stomach! Tighten your stomach; make your muscles as tight as you can. The elephant is gone; now your stomach can relax again.”

Alternate therapeutic activities are explored on SderotMedia.com, which features a video of a small boy in a black yarmulke intently decorating a Qassam rocket he has fashioned out of a plastic bottle, paper, and masking tape. A more complex juxtaposition of innocence and war can of course be found in the photos of Israeli children decorating missiles en route to Lebanon in 2006, but the director of the SderotMedia video does cover additional symbolic ground in the final scene, in which the decorated Qassam is placed in the middle of the floor with a baby in a purple sweater seated a short distance away. The baby eyes the Qassam for a few seconds, then crawls over to it and knocks the rocket over.

Further navigation of the website produced an article to accompany the video, entitled “Environmental Friendly Kassams.” In the article, the mother of the Qassam decorator explains that “the encounter with threat through creation” provides a sense of security to the children of Sderot (or at least to the 70-94% of them that SderotMedia diagnoses with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The author of the piece supplies more relevant background information, such as that the “Color Red” alert is as familiar a concept to these children as the word “Dad,” and that the kids “don’t really care if the IDF is the one who began with the response”—an example that the rest of the world might follow.

After viewing another video of Sderot—this one starring a woman in a nightgown trembling in her house—I returned one last time to the Health section of the Jerusalem Post’s website to find an article entitled “Psychologically Speaking: Feeling sad.” This piece explored other potential reasons aside from rocket hail that Israelis might feel down, such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), brought on by winter, and reverse seasonal affective disorder, brought on by summer.

Most Palestinians in Gaza at the moment presumably do not have enough spare time to be affected by seasonal changes, nor are the melatonin supplements recommended to combat SAD likely to be available on humanitarian aid trucks. Regular explosions, however, might offer Gazans access to some of the other suggested treatments, such as bright light therapy. The Israeli government, meanwhile, might consider ceasing the exploitation of its citizens’ genuine psychological torment in order to justify existential battles against its neighbors.

BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ is currently completing a book entitled Coffee with Hezbollah, which chronicles the 2-month hitchhiking journey through Lebanon that she and Amelia Opali?ska conducted in the aftermath of the July 2006 war. She can be reached at belengarciabernal@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work.

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