By Akhtar Ali Syed
April 04, 2019
“What words adequately express the pain and suffering of 50 men, women and children lost, and so many injured? What words capture the anguish of our Muslim community being the target of hatred and violence? What words express the grief of a city that has already known so much pain? I thought there were none.”
THESE are four sentences from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s speech at the Christchurch memorial that was attended by over 20,000 people. We hardly saw a similar response to the Peshawar APS attack in 2014. Our lack of such a response even after losing thousands of lives in terrorist attacks over the years deserves to be examined. Why couldn’t the loss of lives move our society, leaders and intelligentsia the way it did in New Zealand? Why didn’t the Kiwis start finding justifications for the murderous act? Why didn’t New Zealand society lodge a charge sheet against the victims?
Please read the lines again. Ms Ardern is talking about the pain, suffering, anguish and grief suffered by the entire society, which she says are incommunicable in words. Do we feel the pain, suffering and grief over the loss of those who were not party to any life-costing conflict? We should have expressed it out loud. We didn’t — except for the usual condemnation by leaders.
Can We Say That Pakistanis Don’t Suffer From PTSD?
Is our response towards the loss of life actually ‘numbness’, a feature of ‘avoidance’, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder? The sufferers of PTSD don’t want to recall the trauma because it induces pain, suffering and anguish. To avoid all this, the sufferer develops cognitive and emotional numbness, helping him or her avoid flashbacks of the traumatic event. If such avoidance turns into a long-term strategy, then trauma starts manifesting itself in symptoms of intense sadness, anger etc. If it is even suggested that we as a society may be suffering from PTSD, it is denied. Us traumatised? What nonsense!
This is not only the reaction of laypeople. Even those considered experts on mental health often see numbness as resilience, a mantra constantly repeated by the media and reiterated by the political elite. Within half an hour of a suicide attack, life resumes at the same site — this is how ‘resilient’ and ‘brave’ we are.
Is it normal to not be affected by the killings of tens of thousands of people? Is it really possible for a living person not to feel sad, angry and traumatised at the murder of innocent people? Would it be okay if someone switches to an entertainment programme because the news channels were showing screaming ambulances, bleeding bodies and the crying relatives of victims? Surely not.
Studies on PTSD in war zones show big numbers (50 to 70 per cent in some instances) of people being affected. We know how military veterans are traumatised (40pc are believed to suffer from PTSD) just after witnessing the misery of people they never felt connected with. More disturbing are the findings of the same level of PTSD in those who have not experienced trauma directly, but have cultural and regional affinity with the victims of war-zone atrocities. If research shows such results, can we conclude that Pakistanis don’t suffer from PTSD?
One might say that we are talking about regions like Palestine, Syria and Iraq, which are not comparable with Pakistan in terms of the severity of atrocities and bloodshed. That may be a plausible point. However, it is not necessary for one to be a direct target. A witness of a traumatic incident can have PTSD. A person who has some affinity with the victims can develop symptoms of PTSD. A member of a vulnerable group (like non-Muslims in Pakistan) in a conflict-ridden region can suffer PTSD. It is not the frequency, but the anticipation of traumatic events which causes PTSD.
So, which social, religious or ethnic group feels safe in Pakistan? Do personnel of law-enforcement agencies, the armed forces, police, judiciary and political leaders feel safe? Those who are meant to establish secure conditions are more insecure.
Pass by any police station; it looks like a bunker. What are the police anticipating? Obviously a terrorist attack. Would it be possible for those sitting inside the police station to stay relaxed? What would the general public feel upon witnessing such security arrangements outside police stations? Safe or unsafe? This perception of safety and security determines the prevalence of PTSD in any society.
If we are more resilient, then what about New Zealanders who are going through feelings of pain, sadness and anguish? Their prime minister is admitting that we as a society are suffering from symptoms of PTSD. We did not even admit (until APS) that we are in a state of war, nor could we recognise that society is traumatised.
In fact, it seems that we are not suffering so much from post-trauma as perpetual trauma. The trauma is ongoing and our attempt to avoid its identification is relentless.
Akhtar Ali Syed is a psychologist based in Ireland.