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Exile and the prophetic: Phantom pain and the cycle of atrocity

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“Phantom pain” is a phenomenon that some amputee victims of the Boston Marathon bombing are experiencing.  Medically – psychologically – phantom-pain feels as if it is coming from a body part that is no longer there. 

Is such pain real?  The patients feel it.  Doctors can’t explain it.

I wonder if those who are not direct victims of terror feel that phantom pain, too. When violence strikes others, we feel loss.  Our sense of security is diminished.  All isn’t right with our world.

We shouldn’t cross the line of feigned indignity, as if those of us who aren’t physically scarred have the same experience of those who are.  That would be entering the Presidential Comforter-in-Chief realm. 

“We will be there even after the cameras leave and after the attention turns elsewhere,” President Obama said yesterday as he comforted those who lost loved ones in the plant explosion in West, Texas.  President Obama said the same in Boston last week and in Aurora last July:  “We’re going to walk with the people whose lives have been upended, those who have lost loved ones. We’re going to walk with them every step of the way on the hard road ahead because that’s what we do as Americans.”

When the phantom pain phenomenon is transferred so routinely to the broader public the true victims become shrouded in remembrance-speak.  Remembrance-speak can become self-involved and self-congratulatory.  We lose our ability to relate to the real victims anymore.

This applies to historical events like the Holocaust and September 11th and those who claim to speak in the memory of the dead.  As years go by, evoking these tragedies become closer and closer to remembrance-speak.   It becomes a rote rendering that fewer and fewer people relate to. As the distance from the reality of suffering increases, those who invoke the Holocaust and September 11th beat the drums for war. Iraq, now Iran and North Korea, is there any end?

When the line between the reality and the purposeful imagining of pain is crossed, claiming phantom pain becomes the functional equivalent of war. 

Our memorializing culture demands a permanent war footing. This, as the drones of today and tomorrow further distance the powerful from the direct physical experience of pain they cause. 

As we memorialize, everything is at a distance.  Mourning becomes stylized.  Until it comes home.

Then, the fix-it mentality is there to overcome the phantom pain.  As if the phantom pain which comes from loss isn’t really loss at all.  In a few days or months or years, the victim, at least the ones that survives, will be better than ever.  That is how remembrance-speak, even about the real victims, handles it.

Who better to counsel the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing than military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan?

One video reported in the New York Times shows a meeting between Celeste Corcoran, who lost both her legs below her knees in the Boston Marathon bombing, and Sgt. Gabe Martinez, a Marine who lost his lower legs in combat.  To Corcoran’s statement that she “can’t do anything right now,” Martinez responds:  “Right now, yes.  But I’m telling you with all my heart, you are going to be more independent than you ever were.”

This video is found on a fund-raising page for Corcoran which prompts further questions.  Since we are promising to be with the victims of each tragedy – “That’s what we do as Americans” – why force the indignity of fund-raising on the wounded and their families?

Victims of violence are comforted by military veterans from wars of choice.  It’s a tragic irony that the need we have for medical advances has been created by our own warrior culture.  Now it is offered as healing to another round of victims.

Is this an act of generosity or a willful refusal to analyze the cycle of atrocity we enable?

Unasked is who comforts the victims of our reign of violence.  Few surviving victims of war in Iraq and Afghanistan can avail themselves of the advances in prosthetics we have developed.

Our ability to fix everything is an illusion.  To say to those who have lost limbs that “you are going to be more independent than you ever were” is an illusion. 

Illusions such as these can become a way of life.  They have become our remembrance-speak way of life.

Is this so we can sleep-walk through the carnage?

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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5 Responses

  1. American on April 28, 2013, 5:03 pm

    FYI as an aside for those who don’t know.

    ”Is such pain real? The patients feel it. Doctors can’t explain it.”

    Yea they can now. ..the pain is from the ‘severed nerves’….that continue to send distress signals about their missing extensions and disconnect injury to the brain….like a severed electrical cord that shoots out sparks ..those sparks toward what no longer exist are associated by the brain with the injured nerve looking for it’s missing connection….the brain ‘remembers,’ the nerve ‘remembers’ what is no longer there.
    Those whose nerves are severed but not amputed will have this same radiant like pain until the nerves are reconnected and heal. There is a drug for epileptics called neurontin that I believe has been given to amputees instead of pain killing narcotics that shuts down the nerve signals to the brain effectively stopping the pain.

  2. American on April 28, 2013, 5:12 pm

    People do ‘adapt’ …….but the thing is for the Boston victim and the vet is both were so unnecessary, wasteful….. yep the actual bombers are responsible but so are the forces and politicans and agendas that brought on the bombers…and they are never punished.

  3. DICKERSON3870 on April 28, 2013, 6:35 pm

    RE: “When the line between the reality and the purposeful imagining of pain is crossed, claiming phantom pain becomes the functional equivalent of war.” ~ Mar Ellis

    MY COMMENT: War without end, amen amen!

    The President looked in the camera
    and these were the words that he said
    “we have sources of intelligence”
    but it’s clear that they’re not in his
    He said that he’s praying for guidance
    to help him to do what is right
    Well he may be hearing voices, but I
    doubt that it is G_d
    that keeps on a telling him ‘fight,
    George fight’

    We’ve been told we should watch what
    we do and we say
    Only traitors would dare to dissent
    but I’ve no plans to shut up or join
    the refrain
    for war without end amen, amen ~ Sue Jeffers, 2003


    War Without End Amen Amen, by Sue Jeffers [AUDIO, 04:01] –

  4. kalithea on April 29, 2013, 12:53 am

    Americans are raised on a culture of violence, revenge, hubris/ethnocentricity, and material pursuit. Everything Americans do is defined by this limited experience. Their compassion is limited by the current enemy flavor and their unwillingness to be confronted with the brutal consequences of their reckless and ignorant behavior in addition to their short attention span. Reality is softened through the sanitized lens and distorted by ethnocentric perception.

    The only way to break free of the cycle of violence is to experience compassion for “the other”. Time and time again the universe or God has provided opportunities for awareness when tragedy whether natural or man-made strikes Americans and repeatedly they reject spiritual evolution by continuing to cling to the limited experience described above and so the cycle is once again triggered.

  5. kalithea on April 30, 2013, 2:38 pm

    Americans think they live in a vacuum. They believe that their actions are exclusively exempt of consequences. They consider consequences as solely driven by the hate of others, while they refuse to see that they are the ones generating those consequences with actions that are just as hateful and irrational. Only Americans think they can slaughter others with impunity. They answer to no one for the hundreds of thousands they kill every five to 10 years. Americans imagine they have some kind of moral authority that places them above the law, when in fact their actions demonstrate they have no moral authority at all.

    In addition, Americans presume that everyone wants and envies their lifestyle. They try to impose their “values” on others by force while making absolutely no effort whatsoever to understand those they invade and have absolutely no respect for. They totally disregard the complex social structures and demographics of the countries they invade which also affect the final outcome in a very negative way and create different and often impossible challenges and destruction in the lives of these invaded people.

    There are no words to describe the pain, horror and chaos that America’s wars and constant meddling in the internal struggles of other countries cause. And because Americans set themselves up as the ultimate authority, they answer to no one and the rest of the world must put up with the mess they make and bear witness to the tragedy they create powerless to put a stop to their actions.

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