The Two Shades of Gloom

By Bourke, Joanna | Newsweek International, December 24, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Two Shades of Gloom


Bourke, Joanna, Newsweek International


A mood of crisis hangs over the west, or perhaps it is more accurate to say two moods. In America and Europe, gloom rather than joy has accompanied the growth of wealth and affluence, but the gloom has more than one timber. Europeans express fear -- a response to an identifiable and objective threat like global warming, pollution and military conflict. Americans wallow in anxiety -- a more generalized, inchoate reaction to anticipated or subjective threats. While Europeans strive to identify specific dangers they can rally against, American anxieties are more amorphous.

Why is this? Europeans still recall and tremble at the thought of the catastrophes between 1939 and 1945. Despite the American obsession with terrorism on its soil, Europeans are profoundly conscious of the fact that all subsequent major terror events have taken place in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and despair at their possible repetition. Moreover, a long history of political protest and communitarian politics, whether on the right or the left, has made Europeans more willing to allocate blame and responsibility toward the state and its apparatus for perceived threats. But across the Atlantic, middle-class Americans have been relatively sheltered from truly fearsome dangers. The threats that induce the most anxiety in Americans are to wealth and social status, to their individual place in society. And when society does find itself under attack, America's therapeutic culture of psychoanalysis is quick to respond, first and foremost, by preparing for the expected psychological trauma to individuals.

This divide plays out in the media, where the emotional legacy of disasters attracts greater attention than its physical effects. Two years after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, one fifth of children living 100 miles away were diagnosed as suffering from "bomb-related difficulty functioning." More recently, media attention on psychological trauma from the New Orleans floods outweighed reportage of the physical devastation. Rather than being interpreted as a political or moral event through which to ponder communal ties, tragedy is viewed through the lens of a "psychic wound," language rarely employed in Europe, even after attacks on the scale of the terrorist bombings in London and Madrid.

Even the rupture of 9/11 was rapidly subsumed under the language of anxiety. The terrorists demonstrated the ease with which the great symbol of technological prowess, the airplane, could kill and maim thousands of Americans, while petrifying millions more. The "new" warfare, which had provoked terror in the Middle East, Africa and former Soviet republics for decades, now threatened American society. …

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