Violence and Trauma (6/99)

For peace organizations working in the Balkans, NATO’s bombing wasn’t the conflict resolution they had in mind. Rather, it was the perfect example of why nonviolent conflict resolution efforts need to be more strongly supported by the international community.

As the bombing began, Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, said, "The thing about Kosovo that people don’t understand is that in the last ten years there was a nonviolent resistance movement … that was one of the most active since the days of Gandhi. And only in part because US and Western governments didn’t support that nonviolent resistance movement did the people of Kosovo … join the Kosovo Liberation Army."

In October 1997, David Hartsough, director of San Francisco’s Peace Workers, and representatives of other international peace organizations observed hundreds of thousands of people marching in Kosovar cities. "The university students decided to start a massive nonviolent struggle, in which they would go day after day into the streets, demanding their right to go to the universities and unfortunately, the Serb tanks, machine guns, water cannons were there, and they continued in one of the most clearly courageous, nonviolent efforts I had ever seen," he says. "The tragedy is, not only did Milosevic not respond, but the international community didn’t respond either."

According to clinical psychiatrist Dr. Sandra Bloom, violence begets trauma, and the impact of unresolved trauma perpetuates a cycle of violence through family violence, state violence, and war. Bloom is the co-author of Bearing Witness: Violence and Collective Responsibility, and a past president of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.

"Racial, religious, ethnic, and gender-based hatred are examples of Ôtraumatogenic’ factors in a society – factors that create a multitude of situations that make traumatic events more likely to happen," she says. "Another is the long history of religious and philosophical support for … violence as a means to an end, whether the end is more land, more wealth or salvation."

The US self-help movement has increased people’s awareness of the impact of abuse and repressed trauma on human development. Bloom observes that there is a gap between the medical, psychiatric, and psychotherapeutic responses to child trauma and the political responses to adult behavior that has evolved from such unresolved trauma. The political response deals with protecting the rights of children and families from oppressive power; however, the criminal justice system and the military deal punitively with such issues rather than healing traumas.

The conditions found in domestic violence and war situations can exacerbate repressed trauma and be passed down unconsciously from one generation to the next. In 1992, the US Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect noted, "Adult violence against children leads to childhood terror, childhood terror leads to teen-age anger, and teen-age anger too often leads to adult rage, which is not only destructive towards others but is self-destructive." Bloom points out that one of the most consistently documented patterns in long-range research is the stability of aggressive behavior throughout an individual’s life.

"Healthy human development necessitates safety: physical, psychological, social, and Ômoral safety’," she says. "Our brains cannot even properly absorb and process information unless we are physically safe. Psychological safety is the ability to be safe with oneself … and includes the capacity to self-protect. In a morally safe environment, there is no Ôother’, no enemy that is fair game for aggression and violence."

Because children are still developing, they’re especially vulnerable to trauma. Exposure to recurring episodes of physiological hyperarousal and the loss of ability to express themselves – which accompanies trauma – compels children to use whatever coping skills are available to them, according to Bloom.

In order to survive, children may dissociate from their experience, feelings, memories, and moral beliefs. As young adults, they may learn that drugs and alcohol help them deal with overwhelming stress. Or, they may become addicted to trauma itself, needing the rush of excitement and paradoxical calming that can accompany risk-taking behavior. They may compulsively reenact their history, acting out violently or sexually by hurting themselves or others, or by failing to protect those who are dependent upon them.

Whether trauma has been experienced through domestic violence or war, "those who have identified with the perpetrator will seize power, and those who have identified with the victim will submit," says Bloom. "The result is the creation of Ôsick systems.’ Environments that make people sick … are those systems within which the real problems are denied and therefore conflicts cannot be resolved. The leadership of such systems is strictly authoritarian," she adds, "obedience and submission are the paramount goals, and the leaders place vital importance on the need to Ôbreak the other’s will’; not to work through conflict. But unresolved conflicts often result in actions that lead to shameful acts around which a web of secrecy must be woven. … [T]here is a degradation of truth accompanied by a simultaneous embracing of both self-deceit and deceitful conduct towards others."

Mental health professionals are recognizing the impact of intergenerational dysfunctional systems in many regional conflicts. In the 1980s, organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, the Red Cross, and others began introducing mental health programs "in the field," according to Kris Torgeson, a Doctors Without Borders press officer. In April, the group instituted an "emergency response" that includes a peer counseling program in Kukes, Albania, where many Kosovar refugees had fled.

Psychologist Christina Moore trained Albanians in group counseling skills. The program is expected to be a pilot for other refugee encampments; each trained member can work with groups up to 15, who in turn train others.

The psychological treatment of trauma victims and war refugees is as important as treating their physical wounds and meeting needs for clean water, food, and shelter. While it may be years before the effects of trauma are fully recognized and integrated into public policy and diplomatic missions, today’s efforts signal the beginning of a movement to reduce the intergenerational nature of violence and war.

Anna Manzo is a journalist and copy editor at the New Haven Register in Connecticut. Scott Harris, public affairs director at WPKN Radio in Bridgeport, contributed to this article.