The horror of gun assaults reverberating too often in the news produces its own peculiar brand of numbness, the retreat into which is certainly an understandable response to the continual onslaught of physical, mental or emotional danger. Given accelerating patterns of gun violence in America, this generation may be authoring an entirely new entry for the next edition of psychology’s Bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM 5, a malady that might warrant the name “pre-traumatic stress denial.”
Different than classic PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder – characterized by flashbacks, anxiety, depression and a tendency toward isolation – this new disorder’s symptoms include shamefully downcast or entirely blindered eyes, a habitual scrolling quickly past Facebook sympathy posts, and excessive repetition of the phrase “it could have been worse.” Certain types of elected official may display these symptoms even while maintaining a dutiful gravitas in public, a private terror over potential shrinkage of their campaign coffers hovering darkly overhead.
I seriously believe we’re in a death struggle with a public health crisis the likes of which few, if any, societies have ever confronted, let alone cured. More firearms now clutter cabinets, lurk in hidey holes, and ride with a swagger on human hips than there are people in this country’s households. How many of those guns are also possessed by disturbed, disaffected minds is difficult to tell. Leave it said only that gun access is frighteningly easy. Look at Newtown, Orlando, Las Vegas, San Bernardino, Tehama County: the haunting echo of tiny trigger clicks and the gore of gaping wounds in mortal flesh just mount and mount. What’s to be done? Demand that media outlets stop scrubbing crime scene visuals and instead show close-ups of the shattered dead to drive home that “victims” are real people just like us?
My colleagues Billie Weiss, a pioneer of gun violence research at UCLA and over a decade of work with the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles, and Ann Reiss Lane, a seasoned advocate and activist through her Women Against Gun Violence organization (and former Community Partners board member), have resisted numbness and spent their lives staving off denial by developing solutions and enlisting allies. They’re both tough as nails, yet ever-resilient in their hopes of improving the human condition. Neither wilts even as recurrent horrors compel most of us to withdraw further and further into passivity or despair. We could all stand to model these women’s ability to double down and advance with guts, courageous rage, strong voices and intelligence toward the twin enemies of ignorance and resignation – and to defeat the hardened interest group power that somehow transmogrifies the clear and present danger of unchecked gun ownership into a mockery of the Constitution’s vow of protecting every citizens’ life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
Facing reality means confronting a health crisis with treatment equal to the persistence of the disease. Long-spreading ease of access to guns is the infection; blocking access at the source, entirely, once and for all, represents one strong treatment. This pollution of civil safety – in which we persist in preserving some perceived privilege reserved for the relative few among whom gun ownership is concentrated – deserves refute. Sinking into my own limited, pessimistic imagining of the possibility for this happening, I feel my numbness growing, my pre-traumatic stress denial welling up to block me from letting empathy incite action.
Isn’t it time to tap the survivor, striver spirit, energy and pragmatism of the Anns, the Billies and other hopeful, artful activists who have stood up to the civic rampage that fuels our pre-traumatic stress denial? All PTSD’s – the classic form and the one I’ve dubbed here – render the organism in which they occur disorganized, paralyzed. When that happens, all politics, all sense, all governance, all society evaporates. We’re perched at the precipice of that very place, left to feel only the thin wind of empty words blow ghost-like through our brains. Will we sit alone, dissociated, and watch the killing go on? Or will we take a stand with Ann and Billie, organizing and mobilizing our besieged civic selves for real change, now?