On an almost daily basis now, we are dropping bombs on civilian populations in Syria and Iraq, traumatizing Muslim populations by maiming and killing women and children. U.S. monitoring group AirWars has tallied almost 9,000 air strikes dropping 30,000 bombs in the last 500 days. We are not shown the terrorized populations by our news media. On Facebook, however, you can find heartbreaking news reels posted by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. A Muslim family man shouts in disbelief at the camera, aiming his outrage at Americans: “We are PEACEFUL!”
America knows trauma. We are currently trapped in a cycle of traumatic mass killings, which occur with frightening regularity in public places we’d grown up thinking were safe: elementary schools, movie theaters, college campuses, workplaces, Christmas parties. We even have an idea now what it is like to have terror rain down from the sky, randomly killing men, women and children. It happened in New York, and we’ve encoded it in our everyday language: 9-11.
But here is a most vexing question, the answer to which may determine whether we ever know peace again: Do Americans have empathy for the trauma of other human beings? When we hear about drone strikes on wedding parties that turn someone’s dream into a nightmare, can we imagine what that would be like? When we hear about war planes attacking hospitals run by Doctors Without Borders, can we imagine our own reaction if our local hospital suddenly turned into a war zone?
I think the answer is: It depends. When the evening news brought a Vietnamese girl into our living room, running naked and screaming with pain from the invisible fire of a Napalm attack, it was the kind of image that turned hearts and minds here at home against a war being waged in our name. When we saw the lifeless image of a Syrian toddler washed up on shore in Europe, we suddenly had an empathetic understanding of the refugee crisis in Europe. And so our news media shields us from images of the terror in the West Bank during Israel’s bombing campaign in 2014, and they shield us now from images of Syrian children lying bleeding in the streets.
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And when a zealous young Muslim couple with a child of their own bring this so-called “War on Terror” home to us, on full display in our living rooms, we somehow don’t make the connection that years of ‘shock and awe’ campaigns that have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead women and children and elderly parents in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and Syria could somehow result in attacks on civilian populations here at home. But war is terror, and desperation leads to madness.
If we ever want to live in a peaceful world again, Americans must begin to address the roots of our own violence. We are a nation built on trauma — genocide, slavery, civil war, nuclear bombs, Vietnam — and are captives of the dissociative cycles of behavior that trauma induces. We keep dropping bombs on civilians, somehow expecting a different result. If we want to be a peaceful nation, rather than one that continually picks fights it cannot win, we need to replace “shock and awe” with “truth and reconciliation.”
Zhiwa Woodbury is an ecopsychologist and dharma practitioner who lives in Boise and advocates for community solutions to the climate crisis. He will be moderating an interfaith panel on “Healing Cultural Trauma” 1 to 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Cathedral of the Rockies that the public is invited to attend.