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Professor Joel Christensen: Collective trauma and going to war

Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the School of Arts and Sciences Joel Christensen (CLAS) wrote an article about the relation between the 9/11 attacks and ancient warfare for The Conversation, a news organization with articles by academic experts for the general public. In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, Christensen expanded on the views expressed in the article while also commenting on how the American response to 9/11 unfolded.


In the article, Christensen describes the idea of “collective trauma,” defining it as the shared experience of and reactions to a traumatic event by a group of people. Through his studies of ancient Greek history, he was able to find how both societies “created cultural memories that helped them find reasons for rushing into war.” Christensen likens the Persian invasion of Athens in 480 B.C. to the 9/11 attacks: both attacks targeted cultural icons (the Athenian Parthenon and the twin towers), and both attacks led to a hasty military response. Similar to the American response to the events of Sep. 11, the Greek response to the destruction of the Parthenon justified “imperial expansion [and] violence,” according to Christensen. 


Christensen also laments the fact that the loss of life on Sep. 11 often overshadows the horror caused by the subsequent war on terror.” Although 2,977 Americans died on Sep. 11, more than 800 thousand Iraqis, Afghans, Syrians, Yemenis and Pakistanis died in the subsequent war. He was deeply upset by the number of civilians who were extrajudicially killed, but understands that Americans are “used to extralegal use of American military force.”


When speaking on this subject, Christensen also lamented the normalization of violence in our current political landscape. He recalled with displeasure the scene of then-presidential-candidate John McCain singing “bomb bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” as an example of how politicians have trivialized violence. Christensen also acknowledged the harmful rhetoric present in ancient politics, mentioning how “the statesman Cato the Elder used to shout ‘I think Carthage must be destroyed’ at every meeting of the Roman Senate.” When asked what makes an effective pro-war mantra like Cato the Elder’s, Christensen identified “insistence, persistence, and clarity of thought” as the three most important elements of such chants.


Christensen expressed how harmful he feels this rhetoric can be, explaining that “the more we say things, the more people are casualized to the idea even if it’s false.” The casualization of war in American politics has become mainstream, and Christensen believes that “We are no longer at a point where you can choose a political party that’s anti-war.”


Christensen then turned to the effect that 9/11 had on the American psyche and the lingering effects that it continues to have. He mentioned that “The 9/11 attacks shattered collective American confidence in its safety and sense of place in the world.” In an attempt to live with that trauma, monuments to the attacks began to crop up all over the nation as far away from the attacks as San Antonio. Christensen, as a witness of the attacks, found some memorials to be profoundly moving. 


But for millions of younger Americans, these memorials serve a much different purpose. Christensen acknowledges this fact, and said that these memorials are meant to “Create a sense of identity in lieu of a significant memory.” He also posits that these memorials can be propaganda-like for younger generations. For those who have no emotional connection to the attacks, these memorials cast Americans as heroes without flaw. The way that Americans venerate the wars that came after 9/11 furthers Christensen’s idea that “Repetition casualizes,” and has helped to advance the normalization of violence in our politics.


Thousands of Americans lost their lives on Sep. 11, but hundreds of thousands of innocents and combatants lost their lives in the subsequent military conflict. Christensen believes that America’s military response was guided by our nation’s collective trauma. To avoid a similarly terrifying response in the age to come, Christensen advocates for education. He wants younger generations to be educated on “how to make decisions that are not just just, but are in our own interest.”


Christensen is currently teaching multiple classes in the Classics Department at Brandeis, has recently published a book called “The Many-Minded Man: The ‘Odyssey,’ Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic” and has forthcoming books on the societal importance of the narrative.

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