Column: PTSD

History, especially American history, interests me. It is filled with adventures, tragedies and comedies. Every historian is a storyteller who brings his or her own perspective to the information. The best historians are those who keep the story interesting without pursuing personal agendas. Relatively few history books are interesting, accurate and honest, and the least accurate and most dishonest are often those purchased by public school boards. In trying to avoid offending anybody, they often provide a homogenized version of events that portrays what should have been, rather than what was.

Yesterday’s heroes are sanitized for today’s audience. We talk of the Founding Fathers as if they were faultless, even by the standards of their own era. An honest account of their lives proves otherwise. Five of the first seven presidents of the United States were unapologetic slaveholders. George Washington was considered first in war and first in peace, but he was also the first president to advocate for the return of runaway slaves to their “owners.” James Madison was a great statesman, but he bragged about the remarkable return on his investment in slaves when he considered how little he spent to keep them alive. Thomas Jefferson repeatedly undermined George Washington’s initiatives while falsely claiming to George that he supported those initiatives. James Monroe spent considerable time and effort on the destruction of Alexander Hamilton’s political life. Today’s politics and politicians are not so different from yesterday’s.

Today’s news is tomorrow’s history. Unfortunately, much of what passes for news is information intended to evoke strong emotional responses, rather than to inform.  Fortunately, there are so many diverse sources of news that distilling what is fact from what is fiction is usually not very challenging.  People will still adopt the news that fits best with their expectations or prejudices. News that supports long-held biases is more likely to be accepted as true than stories at odds with prejudices. 

In 1989, a white couple, Charles Stuart and his pregnant wife, Carol, were shot during an apparent robbery in Boston, Massachusetts.  The husband survived and claimed that he and his wife had been attacked by an African American mugger. His story had several questionable elements, but the fundamental story line was that a black man shot a white couple, killing a defenseless, pregnant woman in the process.  Much of what Charles Stuart said made little sense and was at times inconsistent, but he was given the benefit of the doubt because he was white, wounded, and widowed. His ever-shifting story was attributed to PTSD, posttraumatic stress disorder, a common source of confusion, anxiety, sleeplessness, and emotional swings after life-altering events.

The predominantly white police force adopted extraordinarily intrusive measures in searching for the alleged shooter in the neighboring black community. Racist rhetoric spewed from the mouths of Bostonians, great and small. The police were ordered to get more aggressive in their searches and interrogations, and the city was on the verge of a race war when the victim’s brother revealed that the entire episode was a lie.  Charles Stuart had shot his wife to death and inflicted a nonfatal gunshot wound on himself to make the murder look like a mugging. He contacted his brother to dispose of the murder weapon and the jewelry that had allegedly been stolen. The lie had been embraced by the powers that be because of the racial prejudice that permeated the city. Before the truth was discovered, politicians and pundits used the shooting as an example of out of control minority communities and insisted on more aggressive policing in poor, black neighborhoods. The lie was much more interesting than the truth.

In much of the violence reported in the U.S. and elsewhere, the underlying causes are ignored, forgotten or denied. A woman interviewed during a riot while mobs looted and burned stores behind her was asked how she felt about the lawlessness and destruction surrounding her. She told the reporter that this chaos had no real impact on her after the decades of abuse she and her family had been subjected to by the very same advocates of law and order who were “shocked” by the mayhem. The riot erupted after the shooting of an unarmed member of the community by the police. The woman being interviewed said that she hoped that the looting and burning of buildings would bring attention to the shooting, one of many in that city involving minority youths that routinely went unquestioned and uninvestigated. She told the reporter, “We are looking for justice. Be glad we are not looking for revenge.”

Each day brings scenes of carnage at home and abroad. News organizations will comment on alleged motives and motivations, but the bottom line is that people are killing each other. Governments and groups hoping to govern shower populations across the world with bullets and bombs. Little seems to be accomplished by this bloodbath, whether at a shopping mall by a lone gunman or in neighboring countries in the Middle East by governments with rockets and smart bombs. The only certain results of these killings are pain, hatred and fear. The surviving individuals, families, and communities feel the loss inflicted long after the reasons for or irrationality of the fatal events have been forgotten. 

Some of us are desensitized by watching the news, but many of us are traumatized. We feel vulnerable. We buy weapons that rarely get used in self-defense. We plan for attacks from or manipulation by unseen forces. The Illuminati, the Elders of Zion, caravans organized by George Soros, cannibalistic pedophiles, witches and warlocks and other such mythical groups are alleged to have infiltrated our civil and governmental organizations, poised to undermine society. Much of this nonsense produces little more than indigestion and sleeplessness, but when the paranoia and access to lethal weapons achieves a critical mass, we lose the chance to live an unremarkable but satisfying life. We stop making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for our children and start shopping for bullet proof vests. We all start exhibiting signs of PTSD. We stop focusing on healthcare, income equity, civil rights, educational access, decent housing and other such elements of a successful democracy and start stocking our underground bunkers for the self-fulfilling predictions of societal collapse.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.