Terrorist attacks such as the one that took place on October 9th in Halle are sho­cking events: They are unner­ving and gene­ral­ly chal­len­ge the sta­te of coexis­tence in a com­mu­ni­ty. Dealing with them is often rather dif­fi­cult, but pos­si­ble. What such events can trig­ger, but do not have to.

This win­ter, color­ful strea­mers fly abo­ve Humboldtstraße, cut-out tri­an­gu­lar scraps lined up from house to house or the nea­rest lan­tern. The local resi­dents wish to show that their dedi­ca­ti­on to diver­si­ty is much stron­ger than the right-wing extre­mist ter­ror which descen­ded upon Paulusviertel on October 9th out of nowhe­re. Indeed, many peop­le in Halle felt the need to voice their values in such ways for days and weeks after­wards – a reac­tion that is not only a poli­ti­cal state­ment, but also a tes­ta­ment to the neces­si­ty of mutual­ly shared pro­ces­sing of what had unfold­ed. But whe­re does this urge to take mat­ters into one’s own hands come from?

The ways in which peop­le deal with dis­tur­bing events can natu­ral­ly dif­fer. In this par­ti­cu­lar con­text, the­re are tho­se of Halle’s citi­zens which have expe­ri­en­ced the attack more or less up clo­se. Some of them find their way back into ever­y­day life qui­te quick­ly, whilst others can­not shed the quea­sy fee­ling insi­de of them for some time. For tho­se, howe­ver, that were direct­ly invol­ved, such as eye-wit­nes­ses and rela­ti­ves of the vic­tims, psy­cho­lo­gi­cal con­se­quen­ces of a much gra­ver natu­re may follow.

Photo: Laurin Weger
Precisely defining medical trauma

In the con­text con­cer­ned, trau­ma­tic is a term often used to descri­be the ways in which a respec­ti­ve event affec­ted vic­tims, but also to out­line the ways in which it impac­ted socie­ty as a who­le. However, the lat­ter is not always ent­i­re­ly cor­rect in a medi­cal sen­se. “According to the cri­te­ria of sci­en­ti­fic clas­si­fi­ca­ti­on sys­tems, a trau­ma can only be attes­ted for per­sons direct­ly invol­ved or con­nec­ted to the events,” exp­lains Dr. Utz Ullman, head of medi­cal psy­cho­lo­gy at the Bergmannstrost hos­pi­tal in Halle. While a gene­ral uncer­tain­ty was evi­dent among many of the peop­le of Halle in the wake of the attack, trau­ma would not be the ade­qua­te word to use for their con­di­ti­on. Prof. Dr. Bernd Leplow, pro­fes­sor of psy­cho­lo­gy at MLU does howe­ver reco­gni­ze that “such occur­ren­ces may be trau­ma­tic for socie­ties used to demo­cra­tic and con­sti­tu­tio­nal cir­cum­s­tan­ces in a cul­tu­ral sense.”

Dr. Utz Ullmann
Photo: Jonas Kyora

In a sci­en­ti­fic sen­se, a trau­ma is less of a psy­cho­lo­gi­cal con­di­ti­on, but more of an inci­dent. It is trig­ge­red when peop­le find them­sel­ves in abso­lute­ly unusu­al situa­tions. “The cen­tral moment of a trau­ma­tic situa­ti­on is the loss of con­trol, tied to a fee­ling of per­so­nal dread,” says Ullmann. “Oftentimes, this cau­ses a shock reac­tion,” he con­ti­nues. He points out the impor­t­ance of under­stan­ding that this is just “a nor­mal reac­tion to an unusu­al situa­ti­on.” Anxiety, memo­ry gaps and dis­ori­en­ta­ti­on may be cau­sed by such an excep­tio­nal sta­te. Only when the­se sym­ptoms con­ti­nue to last for lon­ger peri­ods of time and the per­son aff­lic­ted finds hims­elf unab­le to pro­per­ly pro­cess them, a patho­lo­gi­cal and abnor­mal sta­te can be attes­ted and pro­fes­sio­nal help is needed.

Taking action helps

Initially, auto­ma­tic hand­ling mecha­nisms for cri­ti­cal situa­tions are cal­led upon by per­sons direct­ly and indi­rect­ly invol­ved. In gene­ral, “suf­fi­ci­ent agen­cy to do anything is nee­ded to regain per­so­nal sta­bi­li­ty,” sta­tes Ullmann. Prof. Leplow also high­lights how important it is to chan­nel “nor­mal­ly free-flowing emo­ti­ons” into actions. “Otherwise, a stres­sor will remain acti­ve in the brain.” In psy­cho­lo­gy, a stres­sor is an impul­se pre­pa­ring peop­le to act. Leplow exp­lains that in trau­ma­tic situa­tions, the­re is a seve­re acti­va­ti­on of stres­sors that per­sist without any sub­se­quent action pro­ces­sing them. The ina­bi­li­ty to act is by its­elf a stressor.

According to Ullmann, exchan­ge with friends and fami­ly could help in such situa­tions. Some might resort to gar­de­ning or lis­tening to music. What might help best depends on the indi­vi­du­al per­so­na­li­ty, of cour­se. In case of a mas­si­ve bur­den such as after a ter­ror attack, it could hap­pen that “after­wards, one feels numb and unab­le to resort to coping mecha­nisms at all.” Help pro­vi­ded by pro­fes­sio­nal the­ra­pists “starts with very litt­le things,” exp­lains Ullman. “For examp­le, the pati­ent is asked which chair he likes to sit in, in order to put con­trol back into his hands step by step.” Moreover, most pati­ents are initi­al­ly iso­la­ted. They are to be pro­tec­ted, so they may rege­ne­ra­te and are not expo­sed to “secon­da­ry trau­ma” by events that take place in socie­ty, the press or on social media.

Rituals provide a sense of community
Prof. Dr. Leplow
Photo: Jonas Kyora

Nonetheless, he sta­tes that the public reac­tion to the ter­ror attack is under­stand­a­ble as well. The con­cert that took place at the mar­ket squa­re ten days later, the pro­ces­si­ons and ral­lies in front of the syn­ago­gue of Halle’s Jewish com­mu­ni­ty are thus to be seen as nor­mal reac­tions. “Even if the spe­ci­fic indi­vi­du­al the­ra­peu­tic dimen­si­on is more important to sin­gle vic­tims, ritu­als are cru­cial for the city as such,” asserts Ullmann. Leplow also thinks that ritu­als are an oppor­tu­ni­ty for peop­le to chan­nel their expe­ri­en­ces and thus coun­ter the stres­sor of having been unab­le to act. Those not touched by the­se expres­si­ons are not less nor­mal accord­ing to Ullmann: “They have enough coping resour­ces to deal with the events by themselves.”

What is howe­ver not qui­te without its pro­blems are the visits paid by nume­rous poli­ti­ci­ans fol­lowing the attack. While President Steinmeier and Interior Secretary Seehofer visi­ted the syn­ago­gue the day after the attack in a rela­tively calm man­ner and expres­sed their con­do­len­ces, the visit by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, four weeks later cau­sed qui­te the fuss: Police heli­co­p­ters cir­cled the north of the city, Ludwig Wucherer Straße and Paulusviertel once again beca­me a high secu­ri­ty zone. While expres­si­ons of con­do­len­ces and visits of such a kind can be of some use to the city, “indi­vi­du­al vic­tims might take this as a small-sca­le ree­nact­ment of a sta­te of emer­gen­cy,” Ullmann points out. Ultimately, one would always have to con­si­der the­se two sides of the coin.

As the year 2019 nea­red its end, not much of the attack was left in Halle’s ever­y­day life. A return to nor­ma­li­ty seems pos­si­ble for the city’s popu­la­ti­on. Prof. Leplow con­nects this in part to a well-func­tio­n­ing coping of the city. “Afterwards, we retur­ned to nor­ma­li­ty. I would say this was the right thing to do, for allowing the city’s balan­ce to be des­troy­ed would have only been a ser­vice to the cul­prit.” Dr. Ullmann also prai­ses the soli­da­ri­ty during the pro­cess of coping that he said was pal­p­a­ble: “It shows that one can still hope to find mutu­al sup­port in times of cri­sis, even when out­loo­ks on lives can be as dif­fe­rent as they are.”

  • Die deut­sche Version die­ses Artikels fin­det Ihr hier.

Text: Jonas Kyora
Translation: Cedric Kollien
Research: Anja Thomas, Pauline Franz, Jonas Kyora

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