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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