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The Paranoia SwitchReview - The Paranoia Switch
How Terror Rewires Our Brains and Reshapes Our Behavior--and How We Can Reclaim Our Courage
by Martha Stout
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
Review by Roy Sugarman, Ph.D.
May 27th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 22)

The images were searing, namely, burned into our retina and from there to our trauma centers.  Most of us head something, and went to the TV.  It didn't matter what station we tuned into, the first tower was smoking, and while we watched, stunned, something flew into the second tower. The news that the Pentagon had been hit by something went by without much diversion: the images were too compelling.  When one tower dropped and then the other, the horror and disbelief replaced the trivia of "where were you when Kennedy was shot" in our brains.  Elvis, John Lennon, all these where-were-you-when would never impose much in the cocktail party chitchat from then on.  The trump card is always to be played the same way: "Where were you when 911 began?".

We know where George Bush was, he was in a classroom reading a story. This may seem trivial, but Stout sets out to find out why these events, horrid as they were, set off a paranoia mindset that should not be there.  Where and what Bush and other leaders did from then on were not meaningless, they closed the damage loop and did the terrorist job for them, or at least made sure these killers had the most impact they could.

The reasons for this do relate to the actions of Bush and other leaders, as despite the horror, the response to it in American and world minds need not have been so troublesome.

The analogy is drawn to Israel, constantly under such attack, even if the scale of the spectacle is not quite as dramatic.  Considering that Israelis have been facing such attacks from Arafat and the PLO, Black September, even from other sources such as self-named freedom fighters, for decades, at Lod, Athens and other airports, on planes, and recently in coffee  shops and their home neighborhoods and at bus stations, and just about anywhere else, studies demonstrate that Israelis have far lower levels of trauma-induced mental illness than do Americans. Stout looks to find out why.

Mao TseDong wrote about terrorism: "Kill one, scare 10 000" when referring to the impact of such attacks.  Israeli's are not separated by oceans from their enemies, nor are they attacked just once or twice in decades, nor can they respond en masse, and move their aircraft carriers into place. Israelis know they cannot venture out of their houses and feel safe, or relatively safe.

Simply put, the response of Americans as Stout presents it, was over the top, in terms of the constant fear of attack that then followed. 300 million plus Americans become traumatized and continue to be so.

Despite going into a series of janitorial assaults on Afghanistan, on Iraq, Americans do not feel safer; despite the novel Homeland Security and the attempts by Congress to scan every container coming in, Americans do not feel safe in their homes. Homeland security's constant warnings at public places have no "safe" level built into them: orange is forever, if not red or worse.

Stout cites the administration and its response as being contributory. Leaders become fear-mongerers, not calming, soothing and reassuring, but gathering whatever political capital they can harvest in order to terrify Americans into voting for them.  If you don't vote for me, our situation is so tenuous that the other political party will never stop us from being annihilated. Fear becomes a tactic one uses on one's own people to further political ends.  This is not comforting and breeds paranoia: if you are not devotedly a warrior, then you are against us and we will crumble.

Israelis on the other hand are fed confidence by the administration, and habituate to the constant danger, with a sense of fatalism and realism.

Terrorism depends, as Mao suggested, that the installation of unreasonable fear of imminent attack is vital, the key word here being unreasonable. Israelis who are not realistically threatened, clear their heads of the fear, and despite the relative non-violence of daily life, and the absence of imminent personal risk, Americans have not been able to clear their own minds of the worry. Habituation is a key in Stout's argument, allowing a realistic approach, rather than one of a shell-shocked group made paranoid by political hype. Physical space from the enemy is not the same as a mental cushion, which was eroded instantly by 9-11.

The recovery from trauma is relative to the sense of safety. High speed processing by the brain means that we respond to threat sub-consciously, and make up our limbic minds how we are to view what we brand as 'significance' of the threat.  Milliseconds later, we actually become aware that we see threat, and by them, the psychophysiological events underlying that immediate response are already present, the rest is janitorial.  From then on, our executive and limbic areas have to work together to feel a sense of subliminal safety that assures us we are not in imminent danger, and can continue with our mundane daily lives, the banality of safety is comforting, but if it is not there, then we are in a constant state of alert for imminent destruction. No system can do that.

Paranoia is the threat of something we do not yet apprehend: Stout speaks of the detention of Kat Stevens as a first warning that the county had lost its sense of equanimity, and could not longer calibrate its response to stress in the Hans Selye was of 'loss of selective response'. It was just silly.  Thinking something is a threat is not the same as feeling it: the administration has worked out that keeping us afraid, irrationally , is good political capital, by making us feel we are vulnerable, personally, all of us, as opposed to a real cognitive evaluation: we are at very low risk, as individuals: score one to Mao.

However, since, like neurons that fire simultaneously, we are wired together, you scare one of us, we all stay scared, a symphony of mutual emotion, devoid of cognition.

Stout refers to this as the limbic wars, citing the McCarthy years as an example, and expounding that there are six stages of a limbic war: Group Trauma, Fear Broker(s), Scapgoatism, Cultural Regression, Recognition and backlash, regret and forgetting.  The 'unhappy' unfolding of stages 3-6 has to be disrupted, if people can reject the fear brokers and their private agendas, then the paranoia switch is not thrown.  Limbic wars can be ended, and their perpetrators dethroned. But in the interim, rationality is sabotaged and fear dominates.  One of the weapons for instance is to hide the man behind the curtains, in the Wizard of Oz analogy where the frightening pictures of the wizard are thrown onto a screen by a man twiddling knobs behind a curtain.  Pictures of coffins coming home cannot be shown, if you show them, behind the curtains, you are paying attention to the man behind the curtains, and that exposes the administrations personal tinkering.  The infliction of a political ploy works better in secrecy than in public. Those who are not for us, are against us, and the headlines that followed, make it unethical to carry on believing in free speech, and challenge the crystal coffin effect, the promise of Mao in his coffin, still needed by people who gather to glimpse the leader in his mausoleum.

We however seem to be unable to see through the ploy. That is because the fear brokers maintain their hold, once we accept them. They scare us, they are no limited by facts and use alarming non-facts as if they were facts (WMD's?), detractors are accused of being against us, unpatriotic, they make sure they look good, behave like archetypal parents, shame us with their morality in contrast to ours, praise us in seeming contradiction when we observe their morality, project personal infallibility, are secretive, ensure others are secretive, and finally, use language that has a primitive pull.

All this in the face of a risk of personal injury that runs akin to being clobbered by falling space debris, less of a threat than slippery bathtubs and strange dogs. The chances are, as Stout puts it, slim, to none.

Simply put, American politicians, officials and journalists managed to impress on Americans that the omnipotent terrorist was a real and imminent threat, when in reality, he was, and always would be, non-existent. Most of us will remember a movie which was nominated for an award, telling of the paranoia of the Russians landing in America. This was cold war reflection, of a far less humorous time, now made humorous by the realization of the meaningless fear, the paranoia.  In a few years, will we see similar movies base on the current unreasonable hysteria?

Stout is tired of the limbic wars, the spell of terror, and wants America back the way it was, before the paranoia.

The book itself is a brave critique, innocuous as it is, but we have seen, we in the outside world, that Americans are sensitive to anything that suggests the response to 911 was less than rewarding for the country as a whole, and the world at large. Cleaning up the Afghans and the Iraqi's seems not to have accomplished what it wanted to, on the face of it, namely making Americans feel safe. Perhaps it wasn't the purpose, after all, as being safe apparently isn't good politics, in the short term: in the long term, America's politics still appears to be partly based on who is the best to protect from inside the glass coffin, vote for me or you will never be safe again.  Stout does not over-examine how people can feel safe again, but this book is a start.  It's an interesting evaluation of how to look at why one of the world's great nations is so powerless against its own fear. Twenty-two million Russians died in what is now know as the Great Patriotic War, and images of WWII abound with the picture of Churchill and his victory sign.  It is interesting to recall what Churchill said of Hitler's threats.  Given that anxiety depends on our perceptions, and the difference in perception between what we see as the threat, and what we see as our capacity to meet it, Churchill showed he was a real leader:  Hitler said he would wring England's neck as if it were "a chicken".  Churchill replied "Some chicken!………some neck!" to the roars of laughter and applause from his parliament. This is nation building, not paranoia mongering.

One cannot help wondering why America produces no such leaders, but rather, leaders who re-traumatize their own people in order to foster their own political agendas.

With American leadership prospects uncertain, where will the leader emerge to disrupt the cycle of the limbic wars, and prevent the flipping of the Paranoia Switch?

© 2008 Roy Sugarman

Roy Sugarman PhD, Brain Resource Limited

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Can't remember our URL? Access our reviews directly via 'metapsychology.net'


Metapsychology Online reviewers normally receive gratis review copies of the items they review.
Metapsychology Online receives a commission from Amazon.com for purchases through this site, which helps us send review copies to reviewers. Please support us by making your Amazon.com purchases through our Amazon links. We thank you for your support!


Join our e-mail list!: Metapsychology New Review Announcements: Sent out monthly, these announcements list our recent reviews. To subscribe, click here.

Interested in becoming a book reviewer for Metapsychology? Currently, we especially need thoughtful reviewers for books in fiction, self-help and popular psychology. To apply, write to our editor.

Metapsychology Online Reviews

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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716