Why Calling It Trauma Minimizes American Torture

On April 14th, Mayor Rahm Emanuel backed a proposal to established a 5.5 million dollar reparations fund for victims tortured by police which included electrocution, beatings, and suffocation to obtain confessions. From 1972 to late 1991, Police Commander Jon Burge and his midnight crew of rogue detectives tortured over 120 men who were largely African-American. After costing the City of Chicago over 100 million dollars in lawsuit settlements, Burge received only 4 1/2 years in prison while still being allowed to collect his tax payer funded police pension. From year to date, Burge has collected approximately $700,00.00 despite his illegal activities and conviction.

CClIL5yW8AQ8TrjAfter consulting with over a hundred international human rights advocates representing over eighty nations around the world, it has become clear that even those of us who are deeply compassionate advocates in America have been numbed to the circumstances that present themselves each day in the United States.

If we are to widen our panoramic view of the world, and step out of our relative cultural insularity, there will be a collective realization that Americans have truly entered and accepted (consciously or unconsciously) a torture culture.

The Black Lives Matter movement is responding to torture and genocide, and death penalty abolitionists are responding to torture and genocide. The immigration movement is responding to torture. Everyday citizens are responding to torture. People feel tortured. Not traumatized. Let’s call a spade a spade.

The notion of physical and psychological trauma are concepts that are evolving every day among medical, mental health, and the legal field. Research has grown tremendously to the point that we now know trauma extends to situations well beyond war and the conditions that veterans typically develop.

While predominantly white institutions credit Dr. Judith Herman and her book, Trauma and Recovery, for contextualizing trauma in other acute scenarios that occur within everyday civilian life, the work of Dr. Frantz Fanon predates Dr. Herman’s contribution to traumatized and tortured communities in his books,Wretched of the Earth, and Black Skin, White Masks.

Other important concepts such as secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue were born into a general school of thought when describing the level of burnout and high stress symptoms that doctors, clinicians, and human rights workers developed over time in their work. The collective effort to raise consciousness and awareness of this issue has been critical to the understanding of what can happen to service providers while working with client populations they serve.

Still, as we continue to wake up to the realities around us within the United States, this awakening process has largely been too slow under international human rights standards. The high rate of gun possession per capita in the U.S., use of the death penalty despite high rates of proven wrongful incarcerations and exonerations, America’s system of mass incarceration and deportation,the astronomical expansion of the prison system, inhumane practices of solitary confinement and deprivation, and the rising tide of police violence and killings within communities of color suggest that the use of the term “trauma,” simply minimizes and serves to desensitize what is really happening around us and more importantly to us.

Why Is Language Important?

Even highly trained trauma specialists who are conditioned to the culture in which we live have largely become desensitized, and often lack confidence enough to assert a reality for what it is. And it is not really their faults if they are required to function within systems that do not acknowledge, ignore, or minimize PTSD and Complex Trauma in the first place. The milieus in which they operate must be able to care and respond to trauma informed providers for them to gain footing in a collective reality that is occurring.

There is often also a persistent feeling of guilt among relatively privileged trauma informed care providers. This can often blind professionals from accurately seeing and identifying truths that may be different from their own.

When applying international human rights standards to issues such as violence against women, incarceration, detention, etc. the U.S. standard falls egregiously short in its medical semantics for domestic torture. In this regard, there is a sense of imperialism that is attached to the word, “torture,” as if it is something primitive and only happens within the boundaries of indigenous cultures, not westernized ones. Yet, it is a nation like the U.S. that is in the technological position to carry out torture practices whether in broad daylight and in plain view or clandestinely.

Enforcing the Convention Against Torture

Using the term, “torture,” in lieu of trauma also demands a more urgent response from those doing and committing the torturing and especially the masses of well-meaning people that have compassion but have collectively been taught to care less and minimize the problems their neighbors endure.

We have grown so culturally complacent with the horrors that are taking place, that labeling something as “torture,” would simply jolt us out of that complacency like a splash of ice water. We need to be jarred awake and perhaps calling everything trauma only makes us unresponsive.

The Convention Against Torture, in fact, is an international human rights instrument that enforces this notion and demands that we recognize the torture that occurs. From a legal perspective, if we look at the language, it rarely uses the term trauma.

We will only be equipped to adequately respond to various crises that are repeatedly happening and are seemingly unending when we wake up to the realities that are occurring, rather than using flowery language that serves to minimize or hide certain truths; that serves to numb us and desensitize us from the high degree of pain that people truly experience.

The American Dream Doesn’t Exist for the Poor


Once again, the poor are being asked to help balance the budget. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been a strong supporter of the proposed school closures to assist with government budgetary shortfalls. However, he has been met with resistance every step of the way by the Chicago Public Schools Teachers Union. The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled today to vote on the proposal that will close 53 elementary schools and one high school in predominately African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. Massive protests have erupted in the streets of Chicago in an effort for parents, teachers, and students to show solidarity in having their voices heard.

Chicago already has one of the highest murder rates for young people in the country. With all the slated school closures in lower-income neighborhoods, this will increase young students’ travel times to school as well as increase their risk of becoming a victim of gun violence. It will also present additional challenges and barriers for parents working in low-income service jobs to get their elementary age children to schools outside of their neighborhoods. Parents, who are already struggling, will have additional barriers placed on their ability to be active in school in addition to existing barriers such as lack of transportation, lack of money for public transportation, and long bus rides.

As a Child Protective Service Worker, one of the complaints that I often heard from teachers is that parent(s) weren’t involved, are often unreachable by phone, or are always late picking up their child. As a Social Worker, my job was not to judge the symptoms but rather than find out what barriers the parent(s) are facing in order to help them overcome those challenges. Chicago is supposed to be looking at how to reduce gun violence and adding more social workers to help with family support would be a step in the right direction. However, these school closures will have an equal or greater opposite effect, and it will be detrimental to the youth and families in these communities. The longer a child has to spend traveling to and from school, it dramatically increases his/her risk of pregnancy, prison, or death.

The American Dream is no longer the rule for the poor in this country. It’s an anomaly or a lottery for someone who is lucky enough to escape their income class. Instead of the “home for the free”, it’s the land of for profit prisons. It is my belief that a lot of social policies and increased burdens placed on the poor are intentionally instituted in an effort to increase instability and poverty in minority communities which leads to increased teen pregnancies, drug addiction, and violent crimes. Since slavery is no longer legal, there is a culture and a group of people who wants a slave class because it is profitable. This country was built on slavery and economic challenges of minorities because without income disparities we move closer to a society of equality.

Currently, corporations are making work agreements with for profit prisons, drug rehabilitation centers, and detention centers for free labor. The for profit prisons are getting paid by the government and corporations to abuse an inmate population that is predominantly minority with the added bonus of having no voice and no right to vote. There is no department of labor or laws to protect them from being abused and taking away their humanity. Slavery has successfully been privatized. Now, these prisons and those who profit from them want to use our communities to groom future inmates for their prisons.

In 2011, two judges were sentenced for selling and trading children to for profit prisons. Here is an excerpt from the Huffington Post:

Ciavarella, known for his harsh and autocratic courtroom demeanor, filled the beds of the private lockups with children as young as 10, many of them first-time offenders convicted of petty theft and other minor crimes. The judge remained defiant after his arrest, insisting the payments were legal and denying he incarcerated youths for money.

As long as for profits prisons exist, those who profit will lobby against protective factors such as education, family planning, wage increases, and more social workers because these factors have proven successful in preventing children from the prison pipeline. Public School closures in minority neighborhoods are not just happening in Chicago. It’s happening all over the country. For those who actually make it to their 18th birthday, the second wave of attacks to insure the poor can’t get ahead is making a college education unaffordable.

The third wave, if you are fortunate enough to obtain a degree, is the extremely high interest rates for students loans given to financial need students and the debt you will incur for the bulk of your adult life. The finally attack happens in the employment arena where Right to Work laws and criminal histories being used against you forever contribute to the high unemployment rates and discriminatory practices against minorities. The policies being implemented are not designed to create graduates. They are designed to produce inmates. The American Dream does not exist for the poor.

What happens in the school board meeting today will affect those children”s life for the rest of their lives. Let’s fast forward 20 years in the future to see what these children’s lives may look like.

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