Finding resilience in recovery: toward a ‘post-traumatic politics’?

I was particularly struck by Dr. Susan Hirsch’s session on trauma in the peace building context, and it has reignited a burgeoning interest I have developed in trauma in the political context. Trauma is a universal and often life-changing experience. Many events or phenomena can be traumatising, often in different ways, and often to varying degrees. I would say that trauma has touched all of us, and if it hasn’t yet, it likely will. The prevalence of trauma in our lives, particularly in the lives of those who live in conflict zones – at home, regionally, or indeed internationally – is overwhelming, most notably because trauma can be experienced in countless different ways, at times of war and times of peace. This can lead a potential peacebuilder to the conclusion that trauma healing is a daunting task, perhaps a task so frustrating that it may be futile. However, while trauma healing and the work of transitional justice advocates in general is taxing, there is much to be said not in favour of trauma, but the resilience that individuals and societies can gain in the process of recovery.

To say that the aftereffects of trauma, including the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are devastating is a radical understatement. Much like violent conflict itself, trauma needs to find its resolution somehow if a healthy, fruitful continuation of life is to be realised. It is in this principle, I believe that trauma and peacebuilding find not only a fundamental nexus, but fundamental similarities. The work of Judith Herman, and her classic work concerning the analysis of trauma Trauma and Recovery, can be employed to offer insights into how we must encourage the same empathy and sensibility for victims of trauma as we must for societies emerging from violence of any kind. Herman’s analysis offers that there are three stages to recovery from trauma that I think are fundamental for any individual, or notably, any society to bear in mind when laying the foundations for peacebuilding and recovery from any violence – structural or visible. Hence, I employ a wider interpretation of Herman’s work that I sincerely hope can be applied, of course to individuals, but also to wider communities as they search for recovery from traumatic events of all scales and of all styles.

First, establishing a sense of safety and stability. This could concern counselling and psychotherapy, but could also include efforts at resettlement, establishing aid flows, or bringing physical security to a region – essentially whatever it takes to make an individual, a community or a state, feel as though the source of their trauma is at its least likely to re-emerge. Second, working actively against the trauma. This includes tackling the irrationality of triggers – perhaps overcoming a fear of gunshots for alarms for the individual, but for the society it may entail the lustration and eradication of a genocidal political system, the writing of a new constitution, or a 20-year poverty eradication plan. Third, the move toward recovery, and a post-traumatic life, or a post-traumatic society.

I use this hastily written manipulation of Herman’s work with a motive in mind. I wish to make trauma as an individual and societal phenomenon more broadly visible, so that we can move towards a healthy form of post-traumatic society. I strongly believe that intrinsic to the realisation of a healthy post-traumatic society is the development of a post-traumatic politics. Herman, in Trauma and Recovery makes a very interesting case that people who walk away from trauma treatment often do so with a new, broadened view of society. Survivors of trauma may no longer be traumatised, but they are more sensitive than anyone to the plight of those enduring trauma. Governments and other political agents must be careful to do the same. Political actors must be secure and reasoned enough in their approach to peacebuilding to move to recovery, siege mentality, insensitivity to the plight of vulnerable peoples, violent genocidal nationalism, and so on. Some may consider this macro-level, politicised analysis of trauma, a deeply personal individual condition, to be a rather broad stroke to paint, but we must remember that a human analysis of structural and systemic issues often does not go amiss. After all, as we as a course are reminded all too often: structures are not made by bricks, they are made by people.