by Rachel MacNairFebruary 28, 2019
We know about trauma symptoms. They go together in “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” There are also many more people who have some symptoms but fall short of having a diagnosable psychiatric illness. They can function well enough, but still suffer.
More recently we’ve come to realize that people who kill and torture others are also traumatized. It’s called Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS).
Many agents of repression may have symptoms—from their acts causing repression, or from previous combat experience. They could also have been victims of crimes or child abuse. Trauma symptoms include emotional numbing, a feeling of estrangement from others, and outbursts of rage, so people who are already traumatized may be recruited to commit further violence.
On one of the nights that it was my turn to sleep overnight at the prison, I had a terribly realistic dream in which I was suddenly imprisoned by guards in an actual prison... Some of the prisoners in our study, the ones who in retrospect had impressed me as most in distress, were now decked out in elaborately militaristic guard uniforms. They were my most angry and abusive captors, and I had the unmistakable sense that there was to be no escape or release from this awful place. I awoke drenched in sweat and shaken from the experience.
Frantz Fanon described a European police inspector who tortured Algerian rebels for information. He had lost his appetite, with sleep frequently disturbed by nightmares. The psychiatrist's case report indicates that outbursts led to domestic abuse:
At home he wants to hit everybody all the time. In fact, he does hit his children, even the baby of twenty months, with unaccustomed savagery. But what really frightened him was one evening when his wife had criticized him particularly for hitting his children too much... He threw himself upon her, beat her, and tied her to a chair, saying to himself “I'll teach her once and for all that I'm master in this house.” Fortunately his children began roaring and crying. He then realized the full gravity of his behavior, untied his wife and the next day decided to consult a doctor, “a nerve specialist.” (pp. 267–68)
The police inspector told the doctors that he had not been like this before, rarely punishing his children or fighting with his wife. This had only started “since the troubles.”
People with symptoms tend to avoid talking about it. They see that no one else is talking about having these symptoms. They don’t want to come off as crazy.
Therefore, for activists, offering a listening ear whenever they can and being aware of these symptoms could be tremendously helpful. Many suffering from symptoms are relieved to know they’re a normal reaction to situations, not unusual, and not crazy. It might better allow for some person-to-person relationships that underlie effective nonviolent action.
As we gain more experience, and more people are aware of how committing violence can traumatize the perpetrator, then the more we can find out how much knowing about this can be effective.
Here are some questions about what more we can find out with additional experience and study: