Weaponizing Trauma

The recent operation “Pillar of Defence” coincided with a widespread use of social media by the Israeli army. A military tweet sent by the army spokesperson’s account on November 18 reads: “‘Harmless’ rockets? Staggering number of kids in southern Israel have PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]”. And a few minutes later: “Photo: Israeli children and parents sleeping in a bomb shelter in Ashkelon yesterday”. Clearly, the use of social media during war is becoming more and more extensive, but one might ask: What lies behind the communicative strategy that accompanied operation “Pillar of Defence”? And what role did the politics of trauma play in it?

On one level, Pillar of Defence was a struggle over which events can be defined as “facts”. Using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the Israeli military provided information about the targeting of Palestinian militants and the destruction of houses, public buildings and infrastructures. To assume the aura of “facts”, they offer figures, images, videos, and statistics. Other more explicative messages tried to convince the audience that Israeli assaults were carried out in accordance with International Humanitarian Law: “VIDEO: Israel Air Force Calls Off Airstrike When Civilians Seen Near Target in Gaza”. A number of posts tried to persuade the international public about the “necessity” of Pillar of Defence: “Hamas has been firing rockets at  Israel for over a decade. Months & years ago, rockets from ?#Gaza were still a regular occurrence”.

But beyond the communicative shape it takes in the era of social media, this campaign tells us something about another chapter in the claim of morality formulated by the military perpetrators of violence. We have to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of these messages was that of adorning the supposed military right to kill with an aura of morality – while trying to “demoralise” the resistance of the colonised:   “Hamas’ strategy is simple: Use civilians as human shields. Fire rockets from residential areas. Store weapons in mosques. Hide in hospitals”.

The Israeli Army often claims to be one of “the most moral army in the world”. This false assumption has been widely criticised and debunked, but in order to keep this important work of demystification alive we have to continue to pay attention to the new forms mystification takes. During “Pillar of Defence”, this claim of morality has welded with the reference to trauma and PTSD: A new assemblage – intertwining moral legitimacy and politics of trauma – emerged.

One of the most striking elements during Pillar of Defence is the Army Spokesperson’s frequent reference to some unusual figures about trauma, like in this tweet: “75% of children in Sderot, Israeli town bombarded by rockets, suffer from PTSD. RT [Retweet] to show their reality”. A link opens a YouTube video produced by the Army in which young people look for a shelter while sirens sound. A military official states: “No democratic state would accept a situation in which its citizens experience suffering like this”, and the mayor of Sderot quotes alleged figures about children with PTSD. Thus, the south of Israel is presented as an area subject to traumatisation. And the tweets continue to flow; new “surgical killings” are announced.

It would be a mistake to consider this reference to PTSD as an element of complete newness in the political debate. The military has progressively accepted to deal with its soldiers through the lenses of PTSD. Israeli society at large is more and more recurring to the notions of distress and the discursive arsenal of the politics of trauma. A conspicuous scientific production has emerged in the last decades, one in which the grammar of distress, political violence and violence of politics have repeatedly merged at the public level. The operation Pillar of Defence highlighted this welding between scientific, public and military spheres on the ground of trauma. For instance, some articles in the mainstream Israeli media accompanied the Israeli army tweets by abundantly referring to this scientific production on PTSD in southern Israel. On November 20, the newspaper Ha’aretz published an article with a title very similar to those of the military tweets: “Israeli survey: Almost half of Sderot Preteens show   symptoms of PTSD”.

Fundamentally, within the framework of Pillar of Defence – an operation supported by the overwhelming majority of the Israeli population, as many Israeli opinion polls have shown – we witnessed a weaponisation of trauma. In fact, the clinical category of PTSD and its scientific aura became tools for the moralisation of killings. In a certain way, the alluvium of this specific chapter in the history of the Israeli politics of trauma is the following principle: Killings are moral and justifiable because they help to reduce and prevent PTSD.

The main question is not that of denying or asserting   the presence of trauma among Israelis living in the proximity of the Gaza Strip. Rather, it is important to understand how the reference to a scientific literature postulating the existence of widespread trauma is transformed into an instrument for legitimising the assumption that Palestinian lives can be sacrificed and assume a sort of macabre therapeutic function – reducing PTSD levels.

In many social contexts, trauma and PTSD are instruments for claiming different forms of rights. What is striking here is that in the case of Israel, these same instruments become discursive and practical tools for inflicting death and collective punishment. We cannot isolate PTSD from its colonial relationality, that is to say from its weaponisation against the Palestinians. Hence, the moral economies of violence – destruction and killing as “prevention of suffering” and “trauma” – unveil the forms that colonial discourses and practices can assume, and the different values attributed to the lives of colonial citizens and subjects.

Nicola Perugini is an anthropologist who teaches   at the Al Quds Bard Honors College in Jerusalem. His work focuses on colonialism, space and law. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera.


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Nicola Perugini teaches at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. He is the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.

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