Since the assault on our Capitol on January 6, I have watched many people on television describe what they experienced. Having worked for many years helping people navigate their trauma through the uses of their own words and images, I know two things to be true.
First, the Capitol victims are telling the truth. No question.
Second, these skilled communicators cannot disguise the trauma they felt on that day, nor can they easily shed its effects.
Violence often occurs in a context, an environment that provokes ferocity, a kind of closed system that simultaneously generates paranoia among everyone else, in turn breeding more paranoia.
Traumas, of course, reside on a continuum. Some are serious, such as losing a loved one. Others, such as worrying about debt, are less so. The most serious traumas are those that involve actual violence and the threat of violence. Both are debilitating. Physical violence often occurs quickly, while the emotional after-effects can last for years. Like many of us, I have experienced both kinds.
In 2000, I worked in Cape Town, South Africa. Even though 10 years had passed since Nelson Mandela was released from prison, terrorism was going strong — domestic and international — and it wasn’t always clear which groups were doing what, or which groups were assaulting similar targets.
People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) committed acts of arson and murder against synagogues, gay nightclubs and tourist spots, such as Planet Hollywood.
The environment was rife with sudden violence and enveloped in paranoia, as newspaper headlines were screamed by peddlers in the streets. When I arrived, an important judge was assassinated. One guy on the N1 highway was selling leather whips, which he carried like a bouquet of long-stemmed flowers.
From my first day in South Africa, everyone warned me about sudden violence. Teachers, landlords, store clerks, colleagues, and waiters spoke in hushed tones: Give yourself plenty of room at stoplights, so you can leave fast if someone tries to car-jack you. Always give a few rand to a car-watcher when you park. Don’t go to the Green Market or you’ll get mugged.
One morning, a trembling woman told me how her next-door neighbor had been terrorized and robbed just that night. Day by day, I became increasingly aware of my surroundings, hesitant to engage with life as I normally would have. When a friend and colleague invited me to dinner at his house, I had to accept.
He said it would be too hard for me to find his neighborhood (pre-GPS days), so I drove to a large hospital in the suburbs, where we met, so he could drive us to his house. Around midnight, after dinner, he returned me to the parking lot.
After he left, I was fumbling with my keys and looked up to see 6 to 8 men around the front half of my car. Nobody wore a uniform. Each held a rifle, some pointing right at me, some nosed downward.
I only remember that I rolled the window down and talked calmly to the man outside my window, who must have been the leader. I quickly glanced at the faces of the others and realized that they were more nervous than I was. (Even at that instant, I found this surprising, as I am no cowboy.) I learned that the leader was the night watchman who had enlisted other workers on the night shift. I also learned why they were so tense: I was driving a small, white sedan, the same make and model as the terrorist bombers drove.
I soon realized how easily violence could have detonated in my face, casting me back into the dark edges of paranoia.
A few days later, I was outside my parked car, retrieving a bag from the passenger seat. I sensed someone very close behind me. I turned just enough to see an extremely tall black man; I am six-four and he towered over me. I thought, “Oh Christ, not again,” then faced him. He spoke first, with impeccable British English, “Excuse me, sir. Might you direct me to the racquet and swim club?”
This broke my paranoia fever. I could no longer live that way. For the rest of my journey, I did what I wanted.
The Capitol survivors have experienced a deeper trauma than mine of long ago. They faced the screams, beatings, poundings, cuts and gunshots in an imminently safe environment, making the contrast itself a weapon.
Who knows how long it will take before their paranoia begins to thaw?
Even today, as I watch their testimonies, I envision other viewers watching these same accounts, grumbling, “You big babies; you’re not hurt. Get over it.”
If TV and movies are your only reference points for violence, then you don’t know the real thing, or how long fear can nibble away at your sense of security, of selfhood. Living every day in fear is the worst life imaginable. The Capitol mob has warned us of this truth.
Will we listen?