July 6, 2006
The atrocities become an almost daily occurrence, a psychic barrage that deadens our collective sensitivities. The perpetual wound never heals, so the constant pain demands numbing.I’m referring not only to the news, but to what passes for entertainment. As if the news media aren’t enough to flagellate the senses with horrid images, then popular culture stupefies us with Technicolor, surround-sound brutality.If the commercial entertainment industry reflects national preoccupations, then we are a violent people titillated by depravity and morbidity. How else can you explain the dull shock, the “what next?!” mentality, from yet another scandalous outrage perpetrated by our troops in Iraq?Psychotic criminals in uniform have left a global stain on the Bush war machine, whose 90-day war, with a “mission accomplished” guarantee, has morphed into a long disaster. Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Hamandiya, Salahuddin province, and now the rape of an Iraqi girl and the murder of her family in Mahmudiya, have mired America in a pit of merciless degeneracy.We read the headlines but are fearful of the details. We blanch at the gruesome facts of a crime that pops up on our computer screens with the face of a young American soldier plagued by what the military rationalizes as an “antisocial personality disorder.” As if a psychic disorder is not a requirement for someone trained to seek glory from killing their fellow human beings.Distractions abound, so we shift our gaze quickly to other media hot spots the stock market, celebrities, gadgets, sex, crime, leisure. In this age of information there is an excess of instantaneous diversion. And if it doesn’t come from real events, then we surf channels until fictional drama conditions our shock with imaginative horror and artfully contrived perversions.The personal computer becomes TV with a keyboard, in which the touch of the fingers, the click of the mouse, prompts a set of surreal scenarios defined by words and images – all of them abstracted by our physical distance from them.Wandering through a miasma of news and entertainment, we forget what’s real and what isn’t, blending real blood with stage blood until the mix suits our ability to cope. Reality and fantasy become interchangeable in our skewed worldview.Abstraction is the psychological salve that buffers us from terrifying super-realism. It is the lens through which we are voyeurs to a world that knows no end of pain, no resolve for social injustice. We are ensnared by a continuum of grim factoids that greet us in the morning and follow us to bed at night.As U.S. troops torture, main, kill, and rape, war crosses a moral line drawn by the exigencies of survival and the predictable psychoses of soldiering. Our own moral line loses clarity, our moral compass spins. In the murk we lose the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. We vacillate in confused anxiety. We avoid the hard questions, the deep values.For escape, we turn on the computer or the TV; we go to the theater. The images on whatever screen we choose compound the complexities while riveting the mind with white-hot violence and a withering assault on our senses.Seeking solace in this maelstrom of grief, we insulate ourselves by withdrawing from society, from culture, from our families, our friends, and ultimately from ourselves. Withdrawal means safety.But there is no disconnection because the gross impulses are ubiquitous. They are the dues we pay for living today, for our complicity in a system that excites us with material riches, instant communication, easy mobility, and endless possibilities.Our national psychic numbing is the result of overwhelm from relentless cycles of insoluble problems that beat us into dull submission and grudging acceptance. We either cushion the blows with layers of psychic scars, or our minds crack open like walnuts to reveal the common mortal coil.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.