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Information-based Trauma

Published: June 21, 2008, Author: JayTaber

(Reading A New Dark Age by our colleague Phil Williams yesterday, I was reminded of our efforts in September 2001 to combat media-generated post-9/11 trauma. As man-made crises become compounded in our everyday lives, critical incident stress can easily trigger widespread panic. Countering the consequences of this irresponsible conduct by media and government propagandists then becomes the arena for what is called convergent responders—ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. In September 2002, Public Good Project’s Paul de Armond sent the following letter on the topic to the editor of Scientific American.)

“Combatting the Terror of Terrorism” (Scientific American, August 2002) proposes a highly medicalized clinical model for dealing with the informational pathology of terrorism. Public health approaches seek to prevent trauma, minimize risk, and reduce harm. Public health regards well-being as a public good that cannot be selectively dispensed and must be provided universally. Clinical approaches, on the other hand, make prevention an individual – as opposed to a public – responsibility and the treatment of illness an economic activity.

Some public health approaches to terrorism might include community-based education on the causes and prevention of information-based trauma, training national and local media to stop treating terrorist assaults as a form of sensational entertainment and putting in place public service announcements about how people can reduce the harm from Critical Incident Stress (CIS) to be broadcast immediately as these incidents unfold. None of these things will be done as long as mass-casualty terrorism is viewed as a medical, rather than a public health problem.

A public health approach would look to eliminate terrorism entirely, while a medical approach would seek only to treat its effects. Terrorism is a criminal act that – like the crimes of genocide, torture, biological weapons production, slavery or mass rape as a tactic of war – is impermissible anywhere in global civil society. As long as terrorism is considered an extension of statecraft and warfare, it will continue to be a preventable evil that we could stop but instead choose to continue.

(Jay Taber — recipient of the Defender of Democracy award — is an author, columnist, and research analyst at Public Good Project.)

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