Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not a recognized psychological disorder when the special forces veteran escaped from prison, carjacked a couple’s car, beat the man unconscious and repeatedly raped the woman. I was working for a criminal court judge at the time, the summer of my first year of law school, when several armed guards brought the shackled, manacled prisoner in to argue his case — PTSD made him do it and he should be released from prison on those grounds.
The prisoner was an imposing man, large, muscular and with a savage looking beard. I recall that one of his three or four armed guards walked ten paces behind him with a shotgun. There were also a few NYC policemen in the courtroom, and the armed court guard had his hand near his gun as the prisoner took his place at the defense table. I was glad the guy was in chains, he was right out of central casting for a scary looking, trained to kill dangerous maniac. He had a passing resemblance to a scowling Liam Neeson, playing against type.
The judge had a court-appointed lawyer ready for the hearing, but the prisoner angrily declined the help. He made his argument, pretty forcefully, laying out the traumatic SEAL training he’d undergone, including waterboarding, beatings and sensory deprivation he’d been forced to undergo in his counter-interrogation training, and claimed that since PTSD had not been a recognized condition at the time he was tried and sentenced, that he be allowed to present it now in his defense.
The judge considered this for a moment then said “so your claim is that when you were under stress, after escaping from the prison, it triggered your stressful training and you fell back into your learned behavior, you automatically did what you were trained to do?”
“The stress triggered my PTSD and I acted as I was trained to act,” said the prisoner.
“I’m still trying to figure out what in your training caused you to repeatedly rape the woman,” said the judge. The prisoner glared at him, his motion denied, and the armed guards carefully escorted him back to prison. If looks could kill, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a real thing, of course. It is a serious, sometimes deadly, condition that is probably the cause of most of the 22 veteran suicides in the US every day (thank you for your service). It makes sense, if you think about it, that being in a traumatic situation (your best friend having his head blown off next to you, for example) would cause nightmares, insomnia, depression, anxiety and all the rest. Imagine how much worse your PTSD would be if the trauma was prolonged, extended day after day after day.
We don’t think of it this way, being in the middle of it, all of us determined to believe we are handling everything just fine, but this pandemic, exacerbated by the weaponization of medical precautions (anti-masker meet anti-vaxxer), exacerbated by obvious lies being constantly promulgated as “grounds” to suppress the right to vote, while claiming there can be no limits on our inalienable American right to own any kind of gun we like, as American poverty and food insecurity reaches new depths our top 0.1% now owns as much as our bottom 90%, having gained an additional $1,300,000,000,000 during the pandemic… it’s been a dizzying, traumatic shit storm, with no sign of an ending. Even if we reach herd immunity (assuming 49% of Republican men who claim they won’t be vaccinated are actually lying) and the pandemic stops killing so many of us, eventually goes down to fifteen deaths, then none… this has been a deeply traumatic more than year-long ride.
Last month (on Valentine’s Day, actually) the NY Times published a piece called ‘What’s the Point?’ Young People’s Despair Deepens as Covid-19 Crisis Drags On. The sub-headline is Experts paint a grim picture of the struggle with lockdown isolation — a “mental health pandemic” that should be treated as seriously as containing the coronavirus. Nothing in the report is at all surprising, though it is also shocking.
Old folks like me may feel disoriented during these objectively odd, scary, isolated times, but we have a lifetime of experience, and long time social networks, to help us keep some kind of perspective as we stumble through the genuine bizarreness of this extended pandemic. Younger people are affected much more strongly, as we can see all over the world. I can’t imagine the damage this lockdown is doing to young children, teenagers, young adults. The understandable impulse to immediately return to “normal”, against the best medical advice, is endangering everybody right at the point that we are about to finally control this plague and get back to more normal social life.
What is the public response? There are still millions who insist the virus was caused by China, that it was deliberately inflicted and exploited to fraudulently end the glorious presidency of God’s chosen imperfect vessel, that the vaccine, developed at “Warp Speed” under that very president will somehow kill you, that an army of woke zombies is coming to take the assault rifles Jesus said we can all have. Beyond that, and more ominous still, a war of good (protecting children from pedophiles) against evil (sex traffickers of children who drink their blood) is raging, a wild fantasy promoted by some of our most extreme elected officials. This is all part of a response to trauma that creates additional trauma. We are living in a supremely dangerous time.
You can have the shit beat out of you, even be killed, simply for looking Chinese. The violence is not committed by geniuses, even very stable ones. The rioters in the Capitol trying to make sure Trump stayed in power (how, exactly?) were not deep thinkers, they were bold actors looking for the next in line for the presidency to hang by the neck until dead — since he was a coward and a traitor. They had a strong belief (never mind what it was based on) and they took action. Now, of course, powerful GOP officials like Ron Johnson from Wisconsin, and Lyin’ Ted from Texas, are spinning the story of the riot, not even bothering to explain why 600 peaceful sit-in protesters were arrested at the Capitol in 2018  but hundreds more, involved in a violent insurrection (in which 140 police officers were injured), were allowed to leave the scene of the riot unmolested.
To me, and call me a weakling, this all constitutes trauma, the kind of shit that can wake you at night with a sharp pang of the old PTSD. The trauma is ongoing, serious as cancer, corrosive as acid. Some days are better than others, mood-wise, and it is worth keeping in mind, I think, how traumatic the days we are living in now are, for everybody, Nazi and anti-Nazi, klansman and anti-klansman, moderate centrist and fiery radical alike.
Nearly 600 protesters, mostly women, were arrested on Thursday after they staged a non-violent action in the heart of a US Senate office building in Washington against Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy towards immigrants and separation of families at the border.