Entire nation becomes victim of Oklahoma blast TERROR STRIKES THE HEARTLAND

April 20, 1995|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

It has happened to Jerusalem, to Beirut, to Belfast and London. It happened again in Japan. And now it is happening here.

Experts on the mass psychology of terrorism warn that the whole country has been victimized by the Oklahoma city blast, and is headed for a painful bout of survivors' syndrome.

The experts call it "homicide bereavement" on a grand scale. For the Oklahoma City survivors and their loved ones, it differs from normal grief by being a more extreme terror, anger and loss of faith, said a Washington psychiatrist, Stefan Pasternack, who has treated terrorism victims in Israel, England and the United States.

For the rest of us, it is the same -- sometimes less overwhelming, sometimes more, depending on our experiences. And for nations, it often brings bouts of hostility to foreigners, crackdowns on freedom of movement and basic liberty, and political turmoil.

"We all will be anxious after this," said Bertram S. Brown, the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. "With the World Trade Center and now this, we no longer are an invulnerable country."

Mr. Brown has just returned from Japan, where he witnessed police making widespread searches and arrests with full public support in the wake of a terrorist poison gas attack in a Tokyo subway station and another nerve-gas attack yesterday. The same thing has happened for decades in Israel, and even, at times, in Britain, and Mr. Brown fears it will happen in this country too.

"When the anxiety gets high enough, we will have our civil liberties in danger," he said.

There will be changes in our public life, said Amitai Etzioni, a George Washington University sociology professor who specializes in the study of communities. We may accustom ourselves, as the British and Israelis have, to bomb-sniffing dogs in the lobbies of our public buildings, to excruciatingly diligent searches of our clothing and packages, to schoolroom lessons that teach our children to run for help when they see a paper bag on a bus bench with no one nearby. At home and in our government buildings, we will certainly be spending more for a sense of safety.

We can expect to hear calls for gun control on the one hand and greater public access to guns on the other, for a crackdown on fundamentalists from other nations and a return to fundamental morality in our own national life, said Rona M. Fields, an Alexandria, Va., psychologist and sociologist who has written five books on violence and society.

"In primitive societies, when they can't control fire and water and the rains, famines, people followed the medicine man who tries to bring some kind of control and order to things.

"In our society, some people do run to the churches and they become very vulnerable to the contemporary versions of the witch doctors who have a simple solution. Give me a gun. Get rid of others. The situation is self-perpetuating."

There will be fissures in individual psyches as well. For those who survived the Oklahoma City slaughter, or who lost loved ones to it, the reaction will be immediate and extreme: a wild oscillation between horror and numbness, according to Dr. Pasternack, the victims' psychiatrist.

"There is overwhelming anxiety, fear, anger and helplessness," he said. "There are flashbacks and nightmares, often very bloody nightmares, and anticipatory dread of other things happening. At the same time there is an immediate numbing. You don't want to recognize that this is happening, and all your emotions lock up.

Those effects can be just as great in people more removed from the tragedy -- those who learn of the death of someone they knew slightly, or even those who have no ties to the victims, said a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, Bessel van der Kolk, who also has treated survivors of terrorism.

"If you have experienced trauma in your life, an event like this can cause that old pain to resurface," Dr. van der Kolk said. "People who have no actual connection at all can experience the same nightmares, flashbacks and terrors the actual survivors do. The greater the past trauma, the greater the reaction."

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