Just World Trauma And The Loss of Individual Responsibility

“To err is human” is a common expression, but we should not believe there is always room for error. In some cases there is no room for error. None.

My Dear Readers,

By now, many of us, thanks to today’s technology and the mass media, have been inundated by the senseless acts of violence occurring in North Charleston, South Carolina and Panama City, Florida. These areas are forever branded in our memories. These incidents have left many of us, regardless of our race or location in the world shaking our heads in bewilderment.

In North Charleston, there is video evidence of a black police officer committing a crime of providing false report writing and covering up the murder of a black man by a white police officer.  In the Panama City incident, there is video evidence of three male college students from a prestigious HBCU (historically black college or university) gang raping an unconscious woman on a beach in broad daylight in the presence of hundreds of people.

The videos of both incidents are shocking, and for some members of the African-American community, are unbelievable.  Perhaps watching a video of a police officer calmly shooting a black man in the back as he ran away is just as shocking and unbelievable to the white majority as well.  Either way, it cannot be disputed or denied.

In my work as a clinical traumatologist, I am interested in the underlying reasons that may form the basis for such behavior, and I believe there is something we can learn from these events.

In the field of clinical traumatology, one of the sub traumas that can impact an individual is “just world trauma.” In this form of trauma, people have a need to believe in a just world, one in which they get what they deserve and deserve what they get.

The just world theory corresponds to the principle of “goodness,” that is, that the goodness of an individual is a primary factor that determines his or her fate in life.  Trauma shatters the just world hypothesis because the traumatic response occurs as a result of what is perceived to be an “out of the ordinary” event that is experienced as a direct threat to the individual’s survival and self-preservation.

Just World Trauma impacts more people than those who are directly involved in specific events such as those in North Charleston, Baltimore, or Panama City.  Trauma also impacts the family, friends and peers of the individuals involved.

In a way, we are all impacted by just world trauma. When Mr. Scott attended a family party a few days before, his family and friends were unaware that this would be one of the last memories they would have with him.  Neither did the parents of the woman who was attacked in Panama City imagine such a horrible crime would happen to their daughter.

Neither the victims nor their families did anything to deserve the traumas that they now must endure. How does one make sense of this injustice in a “just world?”

We must also consider the actions of the South Carolina police officer who witnessed his colleague dropping an object next to the body and not including this observation in his official report.  Several questions arise as one attempts to make sense of this police officer’s actions and behavior:

  • Why would he intentionally write a false report?
  • Why would he deny observing the planted taser next to the body of Mr. Scott?
  • Finally as a person who took an oath, why would he forsake his oath and in doing so, betray the community’s trust?

Regarding the three men of which two have been charged (the third has not been found) many questions remain to be asked.  The two men charged attended a prestigious university.  They had bright futures.

  • Why would these men engage in a behavior in which they know to be morally wrong, and not within the value system of the communities from which they come from?
  • Why would these men engage in gang rape in broad daylight in front of hundreds of people?
  • Why would these young men engage in behavior that would result in criminal charges, and ultimately result in incarceration and lifetime registration as sexual offenders?

Finally, we must not ignore the actions of the hundreds of people walking around the incident observing in which three different men sexually assaulted the unidentified woman. These people did nothing to intervene, protect the woman or call the police.

In responding to these events, two concepts come to mind as I look at the actions of the second police officer in North Charleston and those of the individuals who were involved in the sexual assault.  The first is ABC, which refers to the basic human need for acceptance, belonging, and commitment to a “group identity”.  The second is the phenomenon of “groupthink.”

The incident North Charleston was not simply about race. It is also about police culture and the beliefs ingrained therein.  One proud police officer I know, now retired, told me:

  • “We (the police) are brothers. We look after our own.”
  • “If I ever got shot, I would bleed the color blue.”
  • “I want to be buried in my uniform. My brothers will escort me to my grave.”

Simply stated, both officers are members of a fraternal order—in this case, it is the police department.  They often view themselves as being surrounded by a hostile population that they are obligated by their sworn vow to protect, and often, their fellow officer, their “brother,” is the only thing standing between them and that danger. As a result, one does not “rat’ on a fellow officer, a brother.

Regarding the sexual assault in Panama City, there is a psychological phenomenon called “Groupthink” that occurs the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision making outcome that is shared by all the members without discussion or critical dissent.  Consequently, it can be the desire for acceptance from a group that can discourage creativity or the sense of individual responsibility.

An example of such behavior is a comment on the video made by one of the assailants prior to the sexual assault:

“She isn’t going to know.”

As his assault begins, the other men become willing participants.

The concept of groupthink parallels the ABC model.  The common theme is one of internalized pressure being brought on by group behavior.  This can be seem with the actions of the second police officer in North Charleston as well as with these young men in Panama City.  In both situations, the people involved reject individual responsibility in the interest of gaining acceptance, belonging, and commitment to a group identity.

Concluding Words

Understanding why these actions may have occurred does not negate accountability.  For making the choice of rejecting individual responsibility, all individuals involved must respond to the consequences brought on by the decisions they chose.

What remains disturbing are the behaviors of hundreds of individuals who, instead of intervening, protecting the victim, or notifying the police, chose to continue partying.  Although these individuals did not participate in the sexual assault, their failure to act extends into the realm of “groupthink” and is an abrogation of their responsibility to residing in a just society.

A proactive response to “just world trauma” is to reject the concept of groupthink, and in doing so we can seek to transform its foundation (ABC) into a different ABC: building a psychological foundation that supports empowerment through advocacy, balance and calmness.

It is through this new foundation that the individual can respond to the pressures of the external world.  It is through the resulting empowerment from within that the psychological self can lead the individual in the journey of achieving goals and objectives in life.

The lives of these individuals, the victims, their families, the police officer and the assailants have been forever impacted.  Standing at the crossroads, we as individuals will continue to be faced with the choice of following the group, or to empower ourselves by taking responsibility for our own actions and the communities in which we live.

A wise person learns from his/her mistakes, makes corrections and finds the right path; the foolish one will continue without direction, never finding the road even when it is in front of his/her face.

-Ten Flashes of Light of the Journey of Life

Until the next crossroads…the journey continues.

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