International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

President's Message

Posted 1 October 2003 in StressPoints by John Briere

This is my last presidential column in a year that went by quickly and yet seemed to never end. The year was about finances, committees, plans with other traumatic stress societies, the Baltimore conference, weekly calls with the executive director, monthly calls with the Executive Committee, and a thousand other issues, small and large, that seemed to pop up from nowhere. Ultimately, of course, it was about the terrorist attacks on America. Just as September 11 changed the world, it changed ISTSS. And it changed you and me.

Hopefully, ISTSS presidents are chosen for their ability to direct the society as much as for their publication record. You made an exception in my case, electing someone who was less an administrator than a theorist, more a talker than a fixer. As a result, I leaned heavily on a very able Executive Committee and an equally helpful executive director. Together, I think, we did all right. Our finances are improving, and exciting things are in our future.

Although our society is doing well, I am worried for our world. The next year may call on us in ways that we never have been called upon before. It will affect the members of ISTSS in a special way because our job, at its root, is to deal with other people's pain. We may be attacked again. And we, ourselves, may attack.

Those responsible for September 11 want us to fight. They want us to validate their methods by forcing us to join them on the same battleground, using the same weapons they use. They don't care about the collateral damage, the death and anguish that result from how they pursue their cause.

Unfortunately, some of our leaders seem willing to pick up that gauntlet, to respond by killing people who have never threatened us-people who are, instead, unlucky enough to live in places where a small minority have committed terrible acts. In many cases, they are barely informed about the issues that make them targets. If we go down that path, if we engage in war against an entire country because terrorists reside there or because its leader is a vicious man, we run the risk of emulating our enemies-not to mention destabilizing a tenuous geopolitical balance. No political agenda or election year dynamic can support such an action.

You may want ISTSS to be nonpolitical. The problem is that the occupation of helping others is political. It often means not only healing injury, but also taking a stand against violence. Our primary contribution at times like these may be to guide our leaders toward international consensus and nonviolent solutions, to teach the lessons that trauma specialists know so well: violence begets violence. It almost never solves it.

Next year's president is Onno van der Hart. I hand over to him whatever it is that presidents of ISTSS carry, with stories of wonderful people, with promises of support, and with more than a little worry. But whatever comes of next year, I know he will be as grateful as I have been for the chance to work with all of you.