Thursday, May 28, 2015

What Spurs Us To Action

Thursday, May 28, 2015

"One hundred Americans die every day from opiate overdoses. Forty thousand commit suicide every year. Yet terrorism is the threat that galvanizes us." - Stephen Kinzer

Stephen Kinzer wrote an opinion piece which originally appeared earlier this year. In that piece he made an astute observation about America: We do not prioritize resources according to the amount of death that various problems in our society cause us. Terrorism became the big hobgoblin to fear after September 11, 2001. I believe it is correct to state that the collective psyche of our nation was indeed dealt a severe blow that day. You could even say our citizenry was traumatized. The issue of security became a prominent one in our national discourse. But what else has happened since then?

Kinzer notes that many other issues claim far more lives on an annual basis. We lose forty thousand people to suicide each year. Put differently we lose an average of one hundred ten people to suicide each day. Described in an even smaller unit of time: We lose an average of four people every hour! Car accidents and gun deaths claim a much larger number of lives. And then there are health scourges such as heart disease and cancer. The amount of spending dedicated to our deadliest problems is not commensurate to the body count attributable to each problem. How did terrorism take on such an oversized role in our nation? I am not going to attempt to definitively answer that question. Instead I want to mention two aspects of America that I believe play a role.

First, we have a large military-industrial complex. The potential influence of this complex was noted by former President Dwight Eisenhower as he left office in January, 1961. A more thorough accounting of his speech can be found on the History Channel website here. When a few thousand lives were lost on that bright Tuesday morning in September 2001 the United States faced a penultimate moment. How would our nation respond to this catastrophic loss of life and subsequent suffering and dislocation that occurred in Manhattan? Our nation could have chosen a higher road and placed a greater emphasis on diplomacy as a means of addressing what led to this sad day of destruction. Our nation ultimately sent military forces into the states of Afghanistan and Iraq. We are still suffering the consequences of how former "President" George W. Bush misled the American people into supporting his poorly conceived response to that day. And yet terrorism is a great business opportunity for the military-industrial complex. People are more likely to invest in security and related resources when they are fearful of losing their lives, loved ones and property. Fear can be an extremely powerful motivator.

Secondly, I believe many Americans nurture a very distorted view of the world at large. Another article, also written by Kinzer, appeared in the Boston Globe last month and describes this distortion. Kinzer notes that "promoting the image of a world full of enemies creates a 'security psychosis' that misshapes our view of the world." But what could be the deeper basis for such a warped view of the world? Is there something in human nature that serves as a way of pre-disposing many humans to a fear and hatred of people who are different...of people who are the Other? Kinzer notes the thoughts of Freud on the matter. Freud is reputed to have said "it is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness." Whether you believe Freud's body of work generally offered an accurate representation of humanity I do believe he was onto something on this particular matter.

So why do our spending priorities not more accurately reflect the issues that claim the most American lives? I think it has something to do with trauma. And I do not necessarily mean the trauma we might experience in our own generation. I am alluding to the life histories of our families that unfold over the course of generations. In short I believe many Americans are quite violent, aggressive and dysfunctional because the trauma their own ancestors experienced is something that has gone insufficiently acknowledged, researched and released.

Unless you have some amount of Native American blood coursing through your veins you cannot make a claim that you are originally from this part of the world. It may seem I am playing a bit loosely with that term. What, afterall, constitutes being Native American? Where exactly must you be from to make a legitimate claim to honest use of this term? I grew up in the States but my mother did not; she is a native citizen of Germany. And my father's family came to the United States in the 1870s. So I think I definitely qualify as a relative newcomer to the United States.

Many people came to the lands that ultimately became the United States of America in search of viable opportunities to forge a better life. They left behind ancestral lands plagued by political instability and violence, poverty, hunger and lack of opportunity. Experiencing such hardships, especially over a protracted period of time, can be very scarring. I suspect it can be especially horrific if your family experiences oppression that unfolds over the course of generations. It seems to me that the aftermath of such chaos can provoke any number of coping mechanisms. And I think one of those mechanisms can be to reach for something you perceive to be solid, functional and wondrous as a means of replacing that which was not. So some Americans reach for what they perceive to be unchanging bulwarks that stand the test of time. They reach for the Bible. They honor the American flag. And they elect to read sanitized versions of American history.

My purpose in writing my reflections is not to invite any of my dear readers into a more extensive discourse. Perhaps I can do that in the future. Instead I hope my piece today will inspire some thoughtful reflection on what our true priorities should be.

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I invite you to accompany me as I document my own journey of healing. My blog is designed to offer inspiration and solace to others. If you find it of value I welcome you to share it with others. Aloha!