There has been a lot of debate over the Islamic community center that has been proposed for downtown New York. Many who are calling it the proposed structure insensitive for a number of reasons. However, from the perspective of someone who has spent a lot of time providing therapy for traumatized individuals, this proposed community center could very well be the key to healing the nation’s collective psyche caused by the trauma of 9/11.
The objections over the cultural center stem from the facts that the cultural center will include a mosque and will be situated two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks. The reasoning is that because the terrorists were Muslim, and a mosque is a Muslim place of worship, placing a mosque near 9/11 is insensitive. When you look at this reasoning, however, one of the things that becomes apparent is just how vague this argument is. The objection is not aimed at Al Qaeda, or terrorists specifically, but the 23% of the world population that collectively calls itself “Muslim.” In addition, the complaint is not that it is being built on Ground Zero, but that it is being built near Ground Zero, specifically two blocks away. This area has not been specifically set aside to act as a memorial, it’s not visible from Ground Zero, and none of the other surrounding buildings have been dedicated to any sacrosanct purpose. Other buildings in the area include two strip clubs a sandwich shop, and a gay bar soon to be constructed, buildings that (except from the sandwich shop) are often seen as controversial, yet have seen no similar protests based on the sacredness of the grounds they are on. Finally, the problem is not that there is a mosque being built on a site of the 9/11 attacks, as there is a mosque that was built in the Pentagon building (which was also attacked) which did not meet with any criticism or protest. It seems to be the association with anything Islamic placed somewhere subjectively close to the World Trade Center site invokes an indiscretion of insensitivity. In this protest, Islam is singled out for its overly generalized association to the terrorists, and downtown Manhattan has been overly generalized as being associated with Ground Zero.
There is no specific threat from the center, the building is meant to serve Muslims (and non-Muslims) in the community, not specific groups prone to violence or anti-American speech or action. Even if someone were to attempt to organized and plan something nefarious, the site is so high profile that it would be one of the first places to be watched by American intelligence groups. In addition, it’s not actually on Ground Zero, or even next to it. The logic behind this objection does not make rational sense. This irrationality, however, seems to be a very specific type of irrationality, one commonly seen by therapists seen in traumatized individuals, and is where this reaction can be both understood on a deeper to help America as a whole.
There are many ways to understand trauma. In my work in providing therapy to traumatized individuals, I have found two conceptualizations that aid in the understanding and treatment of trauma. First of all, trauma occurs as the external traumatic events shatter the stability and safety in the way that a person understands the world around him. Secondly, there is a normal, natural healing process that allows people to recover from traumatic exposure, but a person can become stuck in a traumatic state if this natural process becomes disrupted or “blocked up.” When working with trauma, healing occurs when “blockages” are identified and cleared, allowing the person’s own natural healing response to kick in and reorder the chaos and recreate the sense of stability. The most common sources of these blockages come from the emotions people tend to avoid the most: Shame, guilt, anger, and fear. With shame and guilt, the blockage occurs because some part of the victim is trying to take responsibility for a violence outside of his control, and accept a blame that is not his. With anger, the victim knows who is to blame, but the anger becomes something he feels is inappropriate, that if he allowed himself to be angry, he would be doing something wrong. With fear, the victim has been exposed with something so fearful, the fear overwhelms his ability to face and process the experience, and so the person avoids the fear by avoiding any references that can invoke thoughts of the fear. If a person were traumatized by a large dog, for instance, not only would the person avoid that specific dog, they would avoid all dogs to avoid being reminded of the memory of the attack, and then avoid any representations of dogs, including images, videos, and can even a mere mention of the word “Dog.” Ultimately, any reference to a dog, no matter how vague, will threaten to bring back memories of that original dog attack. As a result, the person will try to protect himself from the memory of the attack by protecting himself from any reference to dogs through withdrawal, avoidance, or even desperate outbursts of anger.
The vagueness surrounding the associations leading to the concerns for the community center strongly resembles a trauma induced phobic response. The objection is not being made specifically towards terrorists, but to anything Muslim, which is guilty by association. The area is not specifically Ground Zero, and can’t even be seen from Ground Zero, but is merely being associated because it is within some unspecified zone. Like the avoidant reactions a dog victim has to associations to dogs, the opposition and claims of insensitivity are aimed towards generalized associations towards Muslims and Ground Zero.
Now all of this is not just a mental exercised, or a skewed rant to push some liberal agenda, but rather a way to show how the proposed community center will actually benefit the American Psyche. I don’t think there is anyone who would say that America has completely recovered from the events of 9/11, but very few people are asking why, after nine years, we haven’t progressed further in the healing process. Not many people are asking why the natural healing processes haven’t fully kicked in, nor are we are searching for any blockages in the system. But if we now look at this strong phobic reaction, we may have discovered not only that we have a phobia that has caused a blockage, but we have also been given an opportunity to further the American healing process by addressing the phobia.
Currently, the treatment of choice for phobia, the treatment most supported by scientific research for its effectiveness, is exposure. Exposure works by exposing the patient to benign references to the phobia. A person who has a phobia surrounding dogs, for instance, will be exposed to actual dogs that are trained well enough so that they won’t pose any danger to the patient. Exposure works because it teaches the patient that they can be exposed to references to the attacking dog without actually being attacked again, removing the blockage caused by the phobia. As the patient learns this, he can then begin to face the particulars of the original attack, and allow the natural healing process to begin again. In the case of the proposed community center, we have been given a way to provide the same therapeutic exposure process. The center is benign, but it contains associations to something America has come to strongly fear. By having this community center, we can, in effect, create an exposure situation to allow America to push itself past the fears associated with 9/11, and to further heal itself from the trauma caused by the terror attacks. This proposed community center, then, is not insensitive, but a pathway towards regaining normalcy and health, and should be encouraged.
In the end, it comes down to an ancient wisdom that states that in order to conquer a fear, one must be willing to face down that fear. Because of this, the community center’s opposition, in their attempt to protect the American Psyche from a traumatic reminder, is actually preventing that Psyche from fully healing from the trauma. Instead, allowing the Muslim community center to be built will allow America to face and conquer the terror forced upon it nine years ago.