“The Trauma of Syria" Transcript
Guest: Anne Barnard
Anne Barnard: In Syria, the abuser is remaining in power and is now coming back around for the people he forgot to arrest in the first place.
Michael Epstein: Welcome to another episode of Mind of State. I’m Michael Epstein.
Betty Teng: And I’m Betty Teng. And together, we are your hosts for Mind of State, a podcast that aims to make psychological sense of what can feel like political nonsense. Hi, Michael.
Michael: Hey, Betty.
Betty: Michael, I’m proud, honored, and delighted to introduce this week’s guest who is one of my oldest and dearest friends. Anne Bernard is the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Affairs with expertise in Syria and conflict in the Middle East, among other topics. She is a New York Times reporter and veteran Middle East correspondent who most recently led coverage of the Syrian War for six years as Beirut bureau chief. She has reported on conflicts in communities around the world, including from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Libya, Gaza, Russia, Haiti, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and, of course, the United States. Boy that was a mouthful. Welcome to Mind of State, Anne.
Anne: Thank you so much.
Betty: Anne, we actually started this conversation off-mic when you had listened to a couple of Mind of State’s first episodes and started to consider, in a manner of speaking, the mind of Syria, which you’ve covered for the past few years. That made sense to us as Syria is a state which impacts so many other states politically and psychologically as well. So you’ve covered this civil war in Syria for almost seven of its soon to be eight year long conflict, mostly from a remote position in Beirut, Lebanon. Can you say why that was and what the challenges of covering a civil war remotely were for you?
Anne: Well, Syria, on the one hand, is one of the most documented, maybe the most documented, conflict in history in ways that we can explain later. But it also poses unique challenges because it is both a police state and a conflict zone. And reporters often deal with one or the other, but it’s not that often that we’re in the middle of both at the same time. So at the beginning of the conflict, it was hard to operate in Syria because the government was very controlling of journalists’ movements and who they would allow into the country. Later, when rebels had some territory, some reporters would go in there and that was extremely risky due to the massive bombing by the government of rebel held areas and also, especially later, the threat of kidnapping. So one team would go in there and I was part of the team that would go in whenever possible to the government held areas. But again, you couldn’t always go. You couldn’t always get a visa. So a lot of what we did to supplement that was working with sources that we know from elsewhere, but keeping in touch with them online and some sources that we eventually met online through them. And the war became very much documented by Syrians themselves, from all sides and perspectives on the conflict, who would video and upload and contact people outside the country and tell their own story to us.
Betty: So social media played a huge factor or was a big tool in reporting on this story for you guys outside of Syria?
Anne: Exactly. It was a tool of direct communication with people. And also people would be broadcasting things that we would then try to verify.
Betty: And so in that regard, what was it like to have access, not just when you were in country, but all the time? Because one of the functions of social media and the Internet is that you’re accessible to information constantly. And verifying information must be pretty challenging. But it seems like nothing was, it could be endless, just like we have endless access to information online.
Anne: Exactly. So in addition to the traumatic events that we would witness in person when inside Syria or when you meet with someone and they describe the harrowing things they’ve been through, we also had pretty much 24 hour flow of images, messages when we’re at our safe home in Beirut, at my home or in my office. I was in constant touch with people that were being bombed, were in very dangerous situations, were taking big risks to talk to me. So we think of war correspondents as people who go to the war and then they come back. But we were always there in a way, and also always struggling with a bit of guilt, of being in touch with these people when we were in a safer place.
Michael: Virtual correspondent.
Betty: So it’s sort of a 21st century war correspondence that you guys went through. I mean, we often talk about even now with the 24/7 news cycle that we’re sipping water from a firehose. You’re sipping toxic information and material from a firehose. And so you’re looking at this conflict in Syria over years. And at a certain point, the numbers are 500 thousand rebels killed and 100 thousand imprisoned without knowledge of where they are, family members looking for them so millions of family members searching for loved ones, people imprisoned in a gulag like system.
Anne: Half the country’s population displaced, five million outside the country, something like nine million or more inside the country and I wouldn’t say 500 thousand rebels killed, but the estimate is total 500 thousand Syrians.
Betty: So these numbers are massive. I mean, like you talk about hundreds of thousands of people either killed, millions displaced, half of the population of Syria. And you’re covering this and it must seem overwhelming.
Anne: It is overwhelming and I really should add everything that we’ve gone through as journalists, humanitarian workers, those trying to engage with the conflict, it’s actually nothing compared to what Syrians themselves are going through. It’s their family members and themselves that are being tortured, bombed. And on top of that, they themselves are constantly sharing information on their cell phones. So they too multiply the exposure by sharing this information and reacting to it in addition to what they’ve experienced personally.
Betty: And so in that regard, the trauma is exponential and refracted and mirrored in many different ways. And there is a mass perpetrator in Assad, you might call him. And a international situation in terms of the U.N. Security Council is mobilized by Russia’s conflict with the United States. United States is exhausted by its conflict in Iraq so does not want to intervene, maybe for good reasons. So you’re covering this massive, massive conflict. And are things changing over the six years, seven years that you were watching it?
Anne: The only thing that changed was the depth and the volume of the human disaster, really, because it became, it started as a popular uprising, mostly peaceful, there was a huge crackdown, some people took up arms. Then what we saw changing was the level of violence. There were terrible atrocities by all sides of the conflict, but when we’re talking about the state and the mind of this state, it is a state that has the greatest responsibility under international law. It operates all the machinery of violence that is at the disposal of the state. And it uses all of it. So we were shocked by the first time there was an artillery attack on a neighborhood that had supported the rebels. Then we were shocked to see helicopters bombing neighborhoods. Then we were shocked to see warplanes bombing neighborhoods and Scud missiles and naval bombs being dropped and chemical weapons. So just the, each person has a deep, unbelievable story and then you multiply that by millions. So it did become overloading just, you know, to the public as well as to people trying to assimilate that and explain it to the public. How do you get across the magnitude of this and the human individual scale of it at the same time? That was our challenge.
Betty: And that there is a trauma that is happening that is, as you put it, hard to digest. You know, the massive numbers, the overwhelming information of this, the magnitude of this, and then in the individual stories of the stories that I’ve read of yours are excruciating to read like a 14 year old boy crying outside of a hospital because he just found out his mother had been shelled, I think, or died in the hospital and has lost his father the week before. Something.
Anne: Yeah, that was in Aleppo.
Betty: How do you decide who to focus on and do this daily and then orchestrate a team and then think? How do you think in this?
Anne: Yeah, getting time to think and step back is always hard in daily journalism and even more so when the material is so beyond human scale. I think some of it is serendipity. You know, when you come across a story that not only is very compelling, the person is willing to talk to you, and they’re able to go through the verification process of–
Betty: And they’re risking their lives to talk to you, right?
Anne: In many cases, yes. Or they’re nervous about people that are still back in Syria, family members. Those people that are able to be in the story and have an amazing story and their story plugs into some larger issue, that’s what really makes us commit to a certain story. But of course, they had, we had, many just daily news stories where we would just quote whoever we could reach who was a witness to that situation and move on. So we’ve probably talked to thousands of individual Syrians over the course of the conflict.
Betty: And in terms of this, you know, micro story like an individual story and how it, how you bring this out, how you choose it, how it might connect to an issue that’s going forward, did you experience, I mean I can’t imagine you wouldn’t, a frustration that you had where these stories aren’t moving the international political scene?
Anne: Yes, I think we all as journalists understand that our primary role is to document and to tell stories and have them be heard. And that by itself is meaningful and matters. At the same time, I think what we all hope for is that that information will matter to decision making and that if there are atrocities going on, you know, we’ve all been trained and sort of brought up to imagine that we expose atrocities and abuses of power in order not just to air them, but to prompt action against them. Now, of course, as you mentioned, Syria was a complicated situation and there was some major debate in the government about how and whether other countries could take part. But it ended up being a proxy war. Other countries all got involved including the U.S. and that involvement only seemed to make things worse in the end. And at the same time, the world seemed impotent. You know, we have this ideal of an international system that is supposed to, you know, we all say never again. There is a mantra never again. And, you know, we’re not comparing this directly to the Holocaust in scale, but this is a massive atrocity perpetrated by a state and it just happens with impunity. And that state wins and other states look at that and say, oh wow, that’s a good system to have. That’s a good way to respond to civil unrest.
Michael: That’s the end game right now. And, you know, I think people missed how important Libya was to the beginning of this and what Putin learned and what Putin took out of Gaddafi’s and Obama’s failure in Libya and then Obama’s failure subsequently in Syria. And I’m curious, so many of the people I saw online with videos desperate, desperate for action from the West, presumably people then that would reach out to you. What do you think people in the West, readers of The New York Times, misunderstood or missed or didn’t connect with? I mean, because there seems to be a moral failing on the West’s part here. They saw it as other, outside of them. So I’m curious to hear from you what you think as someone who was on the ground, what we misunderstood about the beginning of the civil war and then how it evolved and what lessons we have.
Anne: Well, I always say that the problem with the U.S. response was that Obama talked loudly and carried a small stick, the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt’s advice. So he spoke as if he was going to support this uprising and Syrians believe that and therefore took larger risks. And I think one thing that was missing in maybe the understanding was that words from the president are taken seriously and that, as much as there’s a lot of resentment towards the United States in the Middle East, people still believed in certain ideas that the United States, at least rhetorically and inconsistently, but on some level, supports ideals of self-determination, civil rights, freedom, democracy, all these things and sincere on the parts of Syrians. And that’s a big reason why they took a risk to speak with us, because they thought that by getting their message to the world through us that something would change. I’m not saying that they all wanted a massive U.S. intervention, not all of them did at all. But somehow, abstractly, they thought the world won’t let this go on when all we’re asking for is dignity and citizenship and a little more freedom and self-determination in our lives.
Betty: And it makes me think of, you know, when I’m thinking about the mind of Syria and the mind of the world toward Syria in terms of this speak loudly and carry a small stick and emerging from the conflict in Iraq, which was so messy and maybe ill-conceived.
Betty: Maybe, right. But, you know, I’m thinking as a trauma therapist and somebody who’s involved in thinking about trauma in all sorts of ways is if there’s a certain disassociation, which is a numbness, a unwillingness to go there. I mean, on many different levels, an unwillingness to face these atrocities, an unwillingness to meet this challenge because of exhaustion, because of previous traumas, because of, now we don’t know if a state has that capacity to disassociate because it’s a collective of people and they’re thinking in different ways, we hope. But there’s some echo of this for me or some tracer of this for me. And I don’t know if you said you feel that way as well from what you’ve observed.
Anne: Well, it’s interesting when you were just talking about dissociation. I think about our disassociation from allies and engagement around the world. You know, that is something that the state is doing. You know, we have to go back to what Michael said about the other. To me, this is the absolute heart of the situation. You know, there’s always been some racism and Islamophobia in peoples in America and the West in their perception of the Middle East that it’s over there, violence is just what they do, it’s not our problem. And then after 9/11, it was like, this is a threat to us. This is, you know, we’re afraid of these people. We don’t think they are regular people. And I really think that this played out, and as I said in one of my essays, it’s as if people are so afraid of the threat of Islamist terrorism, which, you know, of course, is not that common in the West, that they’re willing to see almost any amount of atrocities against Muslims and people of color and people in the Middle East as long as it’s done in the name of fighting terrorism. And that’s exactly the card that Assad played–
Michael: And was allowed to play. I mean, that’s the horror. The irony for me of both Iraq and Syria, and I do think Libya is the forgotten third piece of this, is that Bush’s response to 9/11 was a profound moral failing and an illegal act, but Obama’s failure to act in Syria was equally as bad a moral failing, if not worse, in some ways. Like, so as if Obama learned the worst possible lesson from the war in Iraq, which is to do nothing in the face of these profound human tragedies. And we then sort of catched all of that as other. We just, sort of, and we’re indifferent to any of the suffering, the suffering we caused because of our actions in Anbar, say.
Anne: And we did a lot to change the norms around warfare–
Anne: You know, the drone wars and civilian casualties and Guantanamo and all these things.
Michael: Right. I was having a debate with Jonathan about the drone warfare, which Trump has now just accelerated even more so than Obama had. And how fundamentally immoral it is.
Anne: But I want to say also that that piece about overestimating or, what’s the word, over-inflating in one’s mind the threat of Islamic terrorism versus other threats in the world, that I think, there’s a lot of psychological explanations for how different biases that we have towards the thing that scares us the most or the thing that, I think the media also like covered ISIS’s atrocities more than the government’s atrocities. Although, and as horrible as ISIS atrocities were, the scale of them does not compare to the magnitude of the scale of atrocities committed by the government in that it doesn’t only affect Syria, that affects the climate in the world. And it’s a moment of growing global authoritarianism.
Betty: And your use of the word disassociation and breaking it up usefully, disassociate, like let me break away, and that speaks to the isolationism that we are experiencing under Trump here in the United States. But also it’s impacting the West in Europe and they’re attempting to disassociate from this massive conflict in Syria. But it is, as you’ve put it in your article on how Syria changed the world, and I don’t think we, I mean, honestly speaking for myself, made that direct connection that the Syrian conflict has tipped a lot of dominoes in Western Europe. And it gets mirrored here. And so can you connect some of those dots for us?
Anne: A lot of people have just blanked out the details of Syria and who can blame them, really? But in their minds now, Syria is just all about ISIS. It’s a battle between ISIS and the government, which was never true and isn’t true now. It’s much more complicated than that. And so when they think about refugees coming to Syria, they mix it all together as if those refugees are the perpetrators of violence, as if they’re ISIS, as if they’re so other that we can’t possibly understand them, whereas the reality is so far from the truth. Those people are fleeing both ISIS and the government. Those people are people like you and me. I mean, I can tell you that because I’ve spent the last years with them and, of course, one of my main missions as a journalist, from when we first knew each other, was, you know, when I used to be interested in the Soviet Union and then Russia, is that there is no other. If we don’t understand a place or a people, we need to go there, learn their language, talk to them, speak with them, understand them. And what you find is a lot that you can relate to.
And in Syria especially, it’s a middle income, it used to be a middle income country, high levels of education, high levels of culture. It’s been a civilization for 5000 years. These cities existed in biblical times. You know, it is a wellspring of culture for the whole world. And to act like this is some kind of dangerous hoard of people coming when, by the way, how many Syrian refugees came to Europe, maybe a million? I think actually, well, anyway there’s maybe a million at the most, and there are one and a half to two million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which is a country of four million people. So the level of freak out about these refugees is really out of proportion. And it has to do with that otherizing and that inflation of the Islamic threat.
Michael: The irony, though, is that on the left, the people who rightly recognize them as people who are in crisis and in need of refuge, literally place to be, don’t understand why in the first place that they’re refugees. There is a lack of connection to the way in which we all are responsible for their plight. And, you know, it just gets back to what we were talking about a second ago, I mean, I look at the inaction in Syria as potentially destabilizing NATO.
Anne: Absolutely. I mean, you know, and the reaction to the wave of refugees has led to, I’m not saying it’s the only factor–
Michael: It’s a huge one.
Anne: –but it’s driven the rise of the right in Europe.
Anne: It has driven Brexit. It has, to some degree, driven the rise of Trump, which is bizarre because the amount of Syrian refugees that were let in here, even under Obama, was miniscule. But it really has and you see actual connections between far right people online, you know, supporting Assad. They sort of see him as a white knight, you know, against these brown people–
Michael: And the anti-war people who think it’s why, listen, it’s why I think Barack Obama may go down as one of the worst presidents of the modern era. It’s–
Anne: And the moral injury that comes from this for Syrians is enormous–
Michael: Which we should talk about.
Anne: People around the world see this and, but especially for Syrians, the sense that the world talked about universal human rights and they took the world at its word and they took incredible risks. They did incredible things. They made lots of mistakes too. But they put their money where their mouth was. And the world gave them less than nothing.
Michael: Right. Indifference would have been better than what we did.
Betty: To speak to your comment on NATO, Michael, The U.N. Security Council is deadlocked and the Geneva Convention–
Michael: but it’s only in Russia that they’re deadlocked. It’s Putin.
Betty: But it speaks to the ineffectual nature of the U.N. Security Council now. And so that is an institution that’s now being questioned as whether it’s effective or not. The Geneva Convention, which we had established after World War Two, something that we held up as a rule of law to hopefully regulate these civil conflicts, these atrocities, which, as you put it, Anne, never again. But this is also being called into question in terms of effectiveness, because Assad is getting to do whatever he is doing unfettered. And as you said, the magnitude and the numbers are increasing. And it’s happening as we speak and this other-ism of these images of ISIS, which isn’t even well assigned, but I think in terms of the images of ISIS, I think what was such a focus for those videos of people beheading journalists or captive Westerners or whomever they subjugated, that is such a gripping image. And I think it captured more than just one generation, like, of adults. I mean, I have a friend whose young boy, their classes here in New York were told, illustrate in a drawing your fears. He illustrated ISIS beheading a person. And this was, you know, I think the boy was 12 or 11 at the time. So this, it’s permeating into our kids. And–
Anne: And remember, those images started in Iraq with al-Qaida, predecessors of ISIS. So this–
Anne: –is really more than one generation.
Betty: Right. And so the viral nature of these atrocious images that sometimes get disassociated from meaning and then assigned like free radicals–
Anne: People, in their minds, think that’s what Syrians do.
Anne: That that’s why Syria is scarier. That’s what Iraqis do, instead of understanding that those are the people who are victimizing Iraqis and Syrians.
Betty: And this speaks of the power of fear. Fear shuts down thinking, it freezes the mind, and then we react. It becomes, as one of our interviewees taught us, the word heuristic. It becomes reactive. And our first interview, Sheldon Solomon, spoke about when people are reminded of their mortality or reminded of their deaths, which I would imagine that this image, unassociated to meaning of these ISIS terrorists, become a bit of a baton that gets passed around and assigned willy nilly to conflicts of others. And then the other becomes the fear boogeyman. And I wonder if that is something that you see as valid.
Anne: Absolutely. I think, and moreover, those groups do that on purpose. They know the psychological effect that those images have. It magnifies their power in people’s minds. It prompts overreactions. 9/11 was designed to prompt an overreaction and the United States fell right into that, played into their hands completely. And we’re still doing it.
Betty: It was a massive success on so many levels.
Anne: Yes. And I think it’s not a coincidence that it was aimed at New York. And so even liberals felt personally in danger and didn’t speak up at the very beginning when all these mistakes began. And so ISIS did that on purpose–
Michael: That’s the whole point of terrorism, you have no power.
Anne: And Assad was able to exploit it.
Michael: You have no power. And so you strike. I mean, look, 9/11, thousands of people died. There were terrorist attacks in Paris. I mean, there’s just enough reality–
Anne: This is not to downplay the horror and criminality of those attacks in any way. It’s just, it’s in our power to choose how we react. This is a psychological concept, right, like you can decide how you react to something.
Betty: Well, it’s sort of like after the conflict or after the crisis, the trauma sets in. And that’s something you have to work through. But as you’re working through, you want to bring meaning into it and you want to assign words to the chaos because it’s chaotic. Terrorism is chaotic. It’s a chaotic driver. They’re not even, they’re nihilistic. It’s not even about ideological bases. It’s to create the most disorganization possible. And this organization, in a psychological sense, is insanity. You know, not being able to regulate oneself. And it seems, like in a certain sense, Syria is deeply dysregulated. And when a country is dysregulated and there’s this chaotic churning of trauma, I mean, crisis really, a trauma you can define as something that’s postcrisis. That’s the time that–
Anne: Instead of post-traumatic stress, I call it chronic traumatic stress.
Betty: Right. Complex trauma.
Anne: Because the state of adrenaline never stops and it isn’t stopping. And even more so, you know, to continue the psychological metaphor, you’re supposed to after abuse by trauma, from abuse you’re supposed to be safe from the abuser and then you start dealing with it. So in Syria, the metaphorical abuser or literal abuser is remaining in power and still has all the tools and is now coming back around for the people he forgot to arrest in the first place. So the society, those people that are still in Syria, are, we talk about repression, now we’re talking about literal and psychological repression because people will not be able to work through, publicly, their fears, let alone have a truth and reconciliation or transitional justice process. They will not be allowed to even speak of it publicly.
Michael: What in your mind is the future then for those people or for Syria? What’s your sense?
Anne: A dark period. Because that trauma doesn’t go away. It is just literally and psychologically repressed. And Syria has been through this cycle before with the uprising in 1982 in the city of Hama, which did become violent, is a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. But many random innocent Syrians were punished for that and the city was leveled. And people–
Michael: That was Assad’s father.
Anne: Yes. And now it’s happened on a much more enormous scale. And why would we not expect, you know, another round of this in a generation? Meanwhile, the whole country is impoverished. It’s sort of de facto occupied by Russia and Iran. People I talked to, even on the government side, are very upset. People who were even involved in the government’s war effort, they feel like it was for nothing. They feel like, you know, all these people died and the victory is hollow. The country is destroyed. The leaders are exposed as incompetent and uncaring–
Michael: And criminals.
Anne: And criminals. And so what to do?
Michael: And that’s the problem, which is that it is a vassal state of Putin’s Russia and of Iran and the mullahs in Iran. And that’s also true of Iraq. I mean, at least, Iran’s influence in Iraq is–
Anne: So Iraq is an interesting example, because it is actually, there is still some political flow in Iraq. There is some give and take. There is a political process. You know, I’m not saying it’s in a great situation, but Baghdad is much more safe and livable and alive than it was a few years ago now. That’s–
Anne: –it’s weird to say it’s a bright spot.
Michael: Well, certainly the fever of their civil war broke, but when ISIS went through Anbar, went through Haqlaniyah, and Barwana, and Hit, and all of those cities, I don’t know if it ever conquered Haditha, but, you know, it was the old Sunni generals really, from Saddam, who really took up the arms. And that civil war and the, we could talk about the psychological toll of reclaiming Iraq a second time from that. I mean, the–
Anne: Well, and not only that, the trauma cycle is continuing because now the security forces are torturing and doing extra judicial executions. And, you know, we’ve seen this cycle before.
Michael: There was that New Yorker piece, I don’t know if you saw a while back about a couple months ago, about that whole, you know, people just being randomly assigned death inside the courts. It was Kafka on a scale that even Kafka probably–
Anne: And that’s also what’s going on in Syria in the courts, that people have trials that last one minute and they’re assigned to execution.
Michael: Right. So as a journalist, do you personally, I can sense the sense of emotion. Obviously, you care a great deal about the people that you report and you want, presumably, people to listen I assume, right. Is it hard to not shift over into advocacy from pure reporting where you would, like, almost want to take America by the shirt collar and just slap it and say, stop, pay attention? I mean, how do you personally deal with knowing all of this, experiencing it, seeing it, and then at the same time coming back here to Brooklyn and seeing the dissociation and the indifference?
Betty; Well, and also, Anne, you’ve spoken about the, I think you talk a little bit about the losses in your local team that this is actually impacted your actual colleagues and the people that you relied on.
Anne: I mean, I could talk for a whole hour about your question, Michael and Betty. I mean, so I have many roles in, you know, one is to bring information. One is to convey that information with the humanity and empathy that I bring to it. And at the same time, not to lose journalistic rigor and strategic context. So I’m proud of what we’ve done, me and my team, to do that, to place these things in a context, to try to give words and thoughts to it without forgetting to convey the horror, trying to marry those two things. But to do that does bring a high cost on me and my team, because to keep all those things in mind, the things that the mind wants to just blank out chronically over years and years. It takes a toll.
And then there’s a literal toll, because, as I was telling you before, my team is all people from the region except for Ben Hubbard, who’s my colleague, speaks great Arabic and is American. But we have our main Lebanese colleague, Hwaida Saad, who is a survivor of the Lebanese civil war and sort of relived it all through this and was one of the most amazing, still is, one of the most amazingly connected journalists on Syria. And we had a parade of wonderful Syrian reporting assistants who came through our bureau and worked for us, some of them for many years. And all of those people are bringing their own personal traumas and that’s what makes them great at what they do. And we all had to make a commitment not to go into advocacy because that’s not our role. Sometimes telling the story is advocacy, and that’s the way we do our advocacy. But all those people have been through something. And all of the people that we have been in touch with, I mean, I can’t tell you how many of our sources have died or disappeared or been imprisoned or been tortured, been displaced–
Michael: For being sources?
Anne: Maybe some of them, yes. But we tried to prevent that. I mean, we tried to take precautions so that we won’t get them in trouble. But no, I just mean from being Syrians. So I’ll just talk about my team. One of them came to me after having been in prison for a year and a half and tortured and then he was driven out of Lebanon because the authorities were not totally sympathetic to people like him who were past activists. He was a civilian activist who went to some demonstrations and brought medical supplies to people injured in the demonstrations. That is considered terrorism in Syria by the government. And he made a commitment to moving to journalism. And he really did that. He really spoke to people on all sides and empathized with them and brought their story. And he went through a lot of stress. He broke down crying when he was translating Assad’s victory speech after his, you know, rigged election victory in the middle of all this.
And that’s when he realized he just had to try to leave. And he went to Europe. And now he has returned to advocacy. He’s a videographer for MSF, Doctors Without Borders, and he goes around the world and videos other refugees in other situations like his. And that’s part of MSF’s communications about their work. So I have another colleague who hasn’t seen his family in six years. They’re still in Syria. He was in Turkey, now he’s in Berlin. And, you know, I don’t want to go into other people’s personal stories, but let’s just say I don’t know a single journalist who has covered this for this amount of time, who hasn’t struggled with their own reactions to the trauma, whether that’s through physical or mental symptoms or both. And it’s really difficult.
Michael: Do you think you’re going to stop being a journalist at some point about this story and shift over into some other voice? Is journalism an adequate voice for you at this point, or is there something else needed, do you think?
Anne: At this point, I need to write a book about Syria, because there is so much, just like you said, it’s impossible to hold all this in mind and imagine trying to put it into 1,200 word stories. You know, there’s so much that we haven’t explained. So many people’s stories and so many connections between the geopolitical and the personal. And it really did touch me personally, this story. I just feel like I’m not done talking about it, but, you know, I came back in August to New York and it has taken some time just to process and just to heal and recover a bit before I could even begin to take another step. But I do have a big project coming out, not a book scale, but a big newspaper investigation about one aspect of this conflict that I find maybe the most important.
Betty: In terms of looking at this and pointing to the facts and proving and, sort of, debunking the fake news or the information wars by documenting. I mean, this seems to be the effort of what everybody in Syria can do in this recalcitrant situation, which is to interpret it psychologically, putting words around a chaos and to ground the facts in facts and in words. And in that regard, it’s a double edged sword for you, Anne. You have to look at the terror and find some way to corral your mind not to be horrified by some of these horrific stories and situations of torture and bring out the details so that people can see the horror so that we all can react to it and move. And so it’s how do you thread that needle?
Anne: I feel like my team and I are like a funnel, you know, and we take in this huge amount of horror and we try to analyze it and we try to make it into a straw that’s digestible and that does require us to take in a lot. We actually had a rule in our bureau, which I should have established earlier, but I said we shouldn’t all watch every video. If someone sends you a video, just watch it and write a description of what’s in it and send us the description and the link. And if we have a need to watch it, we watch it. But otherwise, I order you guys not to watch it unless it’s, let’s take turns watching these videos.
Anne: Because the volume is too much and it’s affecting us. It’s affecting our health. And data is now showing that video materials can have the same kinds of trauma effects as in-person experiences sometimes.
Michael: Did you ever become numb to it? I mean, did you ever stop connecting or caring?
Anne: Not really. I mean, some people do, I mean, that’s one way of coping. I became sometimes very depressed, very enraged.
Michael: Do you have survivor’s guilt?
Anne: Of course. I had survivor’s guilt while it was happening because I’d be in my home office at night and I’d be talking to some woman. You know how when your kids are a certain age, they think they might die in their sleep and they want your reassurance or they think there might be kidnappers outside or something and they want to know that they’re safe. And so I’m tucking in my little kid and I’m telling her I’m here, she’s safe. And the woman on the other end of the phone is telling her kids the same thing, but she knows she’s lying because they could be bombed overnight. And I just did that day after day and night after night. And the pictures of children’s bodies ripped apart in ways that you just can’t imagine are the same size.
Michael: I’m curious about this, because it’s that indifference that is the essential ingredient, like Assad couldn’t do any of this, right, without our indifference. None of this happens without our indifference.
Anne: Imagine the betrayal for the Syrians who trained themselves to become videographers, who risked their lives, who died in great numbers, bringing the story to others. We sometimes get sources tell us we are not going to give information anymore, because why. I just came back from Germany where I met with a lot of Syrians that I’ve known from lots of different walks of life who ended up there. And they all went into, like, a deep depression as soon as they were, sort of, safe there. And they were like doing drugs, drinking, like, you know, partying. I mean, they’re all people who have done extraordinary things to survive or to be part of efforts to keep civil society alive, or some of them were fighters or some of them were against the fighters. But the point is, they’ve done extraordinary things, took huge risks for a big ideal and lost. And now nobody cares. And they’re still only 27 or 28. And so but what’s inspiring is how they’re still trying to do things. Some of them are looking for ways to keep on helping Syria. Some of them are like, I have to put Syria aside for the moment, I have to work on myself because I survived. It’s my duty to do something with my life. And they’re really doing that. So that’s incredible.
Betty: I mean, this mirrors the work that I see in the room, which is a different kind of trauma, but sexual assault, survivors of sexual assaults, survivors of childhood molestation, survivors of domestic violence who, I mean, Assad could be seen as a writ large domestic violence perpetrator and the Syrian nationals as being the abused partner, where this cycle of violence continues and continues and continues, and the perpetrator is constantly present. And there must be a way to live because you have to and that there is resilience and that there is a means in the mind to protect itself, sometimes through numbness, sometimes through disassociation, sometimes through whatever means necessary to forget it or to act. And that would be the way forward individually for individual people. As for the way forward for the world, you know, in terms of the impact of the refugee crisis, of what immigration means now, which has impacted the United States, it’s the thing that Trump rises and falls on.
Anne: And he tries to say that there’s, like, lots of terrorists coming from Central America or whatever.
Betty: Right, exactly. I mean, like he’s capitalizing on the fear and, which may be his own fear and it may be that there is a projection on to or a putting off on to Syria and the, quote, terrorists or the conflicting brown people, let them duke it out and we’d stay out of it. However, if we don’t recognize that this is happening and think about it and do what we can to slow this thing down and reflect, then it’s going to proceed unfettered. It’s going, there’s going to be another either Obama or Trump. And that Russia is allowed to, it’s a proxy war, as you put it. That there is a conflict going on or collusion, whatever is going on between the United States and Russia, which is under the surface right now. And that there seems to be something that’s subconscious or, I’m not sure that it’s unconscious because it’s maybe preconscious, and I wonder what you think about that, Anne.
Anne: That what is subconscious or preconscious?
Betty: That this conflict, that the United States isn’t involved in this and that Russia, you know, is not, you know, hands on in the ways that it is and that this conflict has nothing to do with us in the United States?
Anne: Well, I think it’s pretty deep denial because it will get closer and closer the longer that we deny it. And when I used to hear Syrians tell me that, I thought maybe they were being a little rhetorical or histrionic. They said if this is allowed to happen here, it will happen in the West. And that doesn’t sound as over the top to me now as it used to. There is a wonderful Syrian human rights lawyer, Mazen Darwish, who, he’s actually one of the people who are now trying to take Syrian officials to court in Europe, and he survived many years in prison, he was tortured. He said years ago that this would send a mass of refugees to Europe, that this would affect the political situation in Europe, and that this would erode the norms of democracy that were fought for after World War Two. And someone from the European Parliament recently called him back and said, when you said that back then, I thought you were crazy, but I see that you were right. And people didn’t react when all these people were tortured in Syria. People reacted a little bit when Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist, was brutally killed essentially by his own government, and that’s a U.S. ally. That’s a tightly embraced U.S. ally. And still, it turns out there’s no consequences or not many consequences for the Saudis. But so how far will it go? We have authoritarianism in Hungary. We have Trump talking about journalists the same way Assad does, to be quite frank.
Betty: The Nazi party is on the rise in Germany.
Michael: It is, I think what people misunderstood that the 20th century conflict ultimately was not between capitalism and communism, was between liberalism and authoritarianism. And that’s what we’re seeing now. How do you organize your government and where do your rights come from and do your rights come from the government? Did your government grant you rights? We reject that notion. We grew up out of the Enlightenment that said you have natural rights, doesn’t matter what country you come from, right. And the fullest expression of that was the International Declaration of Human Rights.
Anne: And this is the problem with the U.N. system, that it’s based on state sovereignty.
Anne: So the state can do basically whatever it wants to you. Now, the Universal Declaration–
Michael: You sound like John Bolton.
Anne: –of Human Rights was supposed to balance that or leaven that. And of course, if you took the principle of sovereignty completely away, you get the freaking invasion of Iraq. So how do we balance all this as a world, not just as a country? What about climate change? How do we act together as a world on climate change when we can’t even stick to things that we already agreed on 70 years ago?
Betty: Yeah, and I think the thing about fear is significant here because fear shuts down reason. You know, these enlightenment principles are being assaulted by fears that are not being assigned to meaning, but it doesn’t matter. That these narratives are, you know, Trump supporters don’t care that Trump is not purveying facts. It’s a narrative that they need and that works for them.
Anne: And so, there’s a scholar on Syria who has a classic work, it was actually about Assad’s father, but it’s the same system. It’s called Ambiguities of Domination. And her concept is that it goes beyond gaslighting. This is a situation where the authoritarian leader imposes his truth, which everybody knows is a lie. And he knows that you know it’s a lie and he knows that you have to perform for him as if you believe it’s true, even when you know it’s a lie, which is even more of an expression of power than brainwashing you. If you just brainwash you, fine. But like, you are actually forcing people to act as if, in Lisa Wedeen’s words, and I don’t want to take the metaphor too far, but some of the stuff we are hearing from the White House is along those lines nowadays. The big difference that we still have in the United States, I really should add to that, if it’s going to be sayable on the radio, the big difference between that and Trump is that Trump cannot kill you or jail you if you don’t go along with the lie. And we want to make sure it stays that way.
Betty: Right. But he can declare a national emergency.
Anne: He’s revoking press passes.
Michael: He can try, though. I mean, I have to say, you know, he’s an awful leader. Horrendous. But there are still institutions that, I mean, newspapers that I read daily. And, look, even the Senate is rebuking him for his declaration of a fake national emergency. There were midterm elections. I mean, you know, Hitler never had a midterm election after 1933, Stalin never had a midterm election, Assad, none of these people have meaningful democracy. And Nancy Pelosi is a meaningful check, theoretically, on his power. I just don’t want to, like, the parallels, Trump is somebody who idealizes and romanticizes authoritarianism, and he wishes he could be like Erdogan. And he, you know–
Betty: Or Kim Jong Un.
Michael: Yeah, whatever, for sure. But they’re not, America is still–
Anne: Let me bring this down to the personal again, because it goes directly to what you’re saying. My children grew up in Beirut surrounded by people, family friends, who had been through the Syrian conflict and they expressed a fear when we were moving back here that me and my husband, who are both journalists, could be put in jail if we end up writing something the president doesn’t like. They understood that in the Middle East we had a certain immunity as foreigners. And also we lived in Lebanon, which is mostly too chaotic to bother arresting people. But–
Michael: But beautiful.
Anne: –they understood that Syrian journalists were jailed for writing things that the president didn’t like. And they’re children, they don’t have a sense of American exceptionalism. As far as they knew, by moving back to America, their parents could be in danger. That’s something to think about.
Betty: And I think in terms of the impact, the intergenerational transmission of trauma here is significant. Whereas even if everything were in a fantasy way to roll to a stop right now, a generation of people and their children are going to be living with this and passing it on in many different ways for generations to come as Holocaust survivors and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors can attest to. Trauma is not something that is just happens in the now and ends.
Anne: And especially there isn’t going to be a Nuremberg at this rate, right.
Michael: Yeah. I mean, look, I know people who reported in Iraq, people who were in the Second Battle of Fallujah as journalists–
Anne: I was.
Michael: Right, right. And that was chaos doesn’t begin to describe. I was trying to think of the town that we just freed, quote unquote, in Iraq from ISIS–
Michael: Mosul. The battle of Mosul last year or the year before was beyond indescribable.
Anne: You talk about gaslighting. My husband was just at the Sulaimani conference where Haider al-Abadi, the ex-president, said to Jane Arraf, who’s one of the most experienced people covering Iraq, that in Mosul only eight women and children were killed in the whole thing. And Jane was like, are you kidding? I personally saw more than eight bodies of women and children in one hour in Mosul, and he argued with her about it back and forth in front of an audience. It was so crazy.
Michael: And why? What’s the, does he believe that?
Anne: God knows.
Michael: So what about you? What do you carry with you? How do you manage?
Anne: Well, I’m trying to figure that out. I’ve been covering the aftermath of 9/11 and conflicts in the Middle East for 10 or 11 of the last 15 years. And I have loved doing it. It’s the work of my life. That said, and I’m very open about this because I think it’s really important for journalists to be open about it, I had to take three months off for medical leave in the summer of 2017 because of traumatic stress.
Michael: How did it manifest itself for you?
Anne: You know, I started to just have this feeling of weirdness and like I wanted to do my work, but I couldn’t do it all the time. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t put narratives in order, like my brain didn’t work. And some of it was conscious, some of it was unconscious. And at the same time, I was doing a lot of mission driven work. And when it came to gathering the information, interviewing, I could still do that. It was very much related to everything we’ve been talking about. And I felt really, I felt fine when I was doing that.
Michael: But when the responsibility of distilling it and–
Betty: Well, that’s a neuroscience impact of trauma on the brain. Like, higher order functions get compromised because you’re flooded in a sort of colloquial way of putting it. The brain is too overwhelmed and basically shorting out. And so–
Anne: In hindsight, that makes perfect sense. That’s what it felt like. Like I was shorting out. And it happened after a very intense six months of covering the siege of Aleppo, that’s when I was describing those sort of nightly conversations with people stuck. And I went to Aleppo during that time on the government side and that was both a police state situation and getting shelled and seeing victims of shelling. And then there was a quiet period, which is exactly when this started to manifest itself. And then, all of a sudden, right when I was struggling with this, there was the Sarin attack on Khan Shaykhun in Idlib. And like I said, we had tried to minimize our exposure. We had learned lessons. But in that case, we had to watch over and over again multiple videos of children suffocating to death, in the process of suffocating to death, to evaluate the evidence, to look at the timeline, to look at the geolocation.
And after that, I really felt affected. And I had a sort of a shortness of breath and faintness, like, not that day, but like a couple days later and for the first time in my career, I had to call up and say, I can’t finish something on deadline. It wasn’t news. It was an analysis piece. But even the news piece had been harder for me to do than usual. And then a couple months later, I just realized this isn’t working. I need to ask for time off. And that also happened on another assignment. I had to scroll through my entire photo roll because I was looking for past pictures and scrolling through six years of photographs of the conflict, things I saw in person, things I saw online, people I talked to, people who are dead now, mixed with my family life, including the parts of my family life that I had missed because of all this work and travel. And then my children growing up and looking just like those other children and the Middle East being my children’s home, as far as they knew. And I had another one of those times where I sort of couldn’t breathe and the room was closing in on me. So anyway, having the time off was really great. And thank God that I have a full time job so that workers comp for work related–
Anne: –could come in. What about freelancers? You know, they don’t have that. And so I wouldn’t say that I’m done working through that at all. And we as journalists have to normalize working on this. And we have. In the field, the peer support is excellent. Everybody’s been through a version of this.
Michael: Can I ask you how your rhythms have changed, your daily rhythms? You know, what time you wake up, has it altered?
Anne: Well, I’ve always been kind of a night owl, so those like late night things would be kind of normal for me. But one thing that happened to me when I was in the thick of it was that I would finish talking, Syrians stay up late anyway, and also sometimes they didn’t have Internet except late at night because they were using generators and they were conserving them and they would only turn them on when they needed to put on lights or things like that. So I would finish with this very late at night and I couldn’t go to bed right away. My husband was asleep. My children were asleep.
Betty: You were exhausted, but you couldn’t go to sleep.
Anne: How could I go to sleep directly from that? So I would just stay up in these long hours of the night reading the newspaper, drinking a glass of wine, like I don’t know what I was doing.
Michael: At three o’clock in the morning.
Anne: Yes. Regularly, three o’clock in the morning. Now that I’m back, the one thing that was quite straightforward to fix when I came back, and also because I’m on a fellowship, so I don’t have to do daily news reporting, and I’m also not in a seven hour time difference from headquarters where they are still working at six p.m. and it’s one a.m. for you, but you still have to work. So taking away all of that means that I got back to a much more normal sleep schedule and a much more normal schedule of, like, daily life and interacting with my family.
Betty: Well insomnia is one of the main symptoms of PTSD because you’re overstimulated and your brain just literally cannot rest or shut off. But is there any institutional help given regularly in terms of therapy or trauma therapists on staff at a newspaper?
Anne: New York Times has more support than some institutions have in that there is an expert on journalism and trauma who’s a psychiatrist in Canada, Dr. Anthony Feinstein, who is on call to have conversations with correspondents whenever they need to.
Betty: There’s not a regular check in period. They call when they feel like they need to, journalists, on their busy schedules.
Anne: Sometimes they’ll call you after a particularly stressful assignment and say you should call Dr. Feinstein just to check in. But I would say the industry as a whole needs to work on having these things be much more routine so that no boss or no journalist needs to take it upon themselves to say this person needs help now or that person needs help now. It just, it would be nice to have, there is a protocol at ABC Australia, which was developed by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia Journalism School, which makes it part of the routine to have certain check ins just among peers and managers before you get to the level of a psychiatrist, because you can mitigate a lot of things in advance–
Anne: –both in the way that you manage people and in the way that you normalize interacting around these issues. You don’t want to force anybody to disclose things they don’t want to disclose. But just making it a normal part of the conversation pre, during, and post assignment. And that, I think it’s something that institutions are just working on, you know–
Michael: It’s got to be flying against the stream of what the romance of being a war correspond, I mean, the people I know who are war correspondents, you know, take pride almost in, you know, the battle hardened, the–
Anne: Yes and no. I mean, it’s changing.
Michael: It’s changing for sure.
Anne: It’s definitely changing now that so many of us have been covering the forever wars for like 10 or 15 years. And it’s just, it’s the 21st century. People are much more open about things like therapy and health and mental health. And among peers, there’s a lot more discussion of this now. There are still some people, it’s a matter of personal style in some cases, some people, of course, we all react with black humor and we, a lot of us drink and smoke and do all these things, but not everybody. But also, I think there’s just an evolution in how we talk about these things. There’s also much more women involved now, I’d say the majority of bureau chiefs in the Middle East during my time were women. And not to stereotype, but I hope–
Anne: –it’s easier to talk about these things and maybe the trauma, instead of just manifesting itself in being so hard and numb that you kind of don’t care or you act like you don’t care, it’s being dealt with a little more openly. But not only women. I’m talking about everybody. And I think it’s just industries like journalism and human rights and humanitarian, and it’s not just journalism. It’s not just New York Times, it’s everybody. It’s an evolving understanding of how we interact with, it’s no longer the colonial model where somebody pops into the war and then goes home. You know, people are living in these places. Many times the journalists are members of the societies where it’s happening.
Betty: And then you’re also–
Anne: So they’re not going to leave. This is your steady state. And so how do we manage that? And then you add in the video and audio and online aspect. How do you manage the fact that this is now just the air you’re breathing and not like a special occasion?
Betty: And to reflect on the fact that in my field of trauma treatment, we have to check in with our supervisors and our teams weekly because to share the burden of these overwhelming stories is a necessary protector against secondary trauma. And that if, and research has shown, which is why they place advocates in ERs when you have a sexual assault survivor, a domestic violence survivor come in. And New York state has funded these advocates. They’re volunteers, but there’s support and money needed to train them. It’s based on this research if somebody comes in having suffered an assault, which is a different kind of trauma, but a trauma nevertheless, that if they can talk to somebody right away, the long term effects of the trauma are mitigated. And so, and there’s no, so like the less somatic occurrences, less chronic pain, less insomnia, less all. A lot of somatization of these overwhelming events happens unconsciously because the brain can’t process, it dissociates and presses it down.
Anne: There’s another interesting point about people that incur this kind of secondary trauma in the course of their work, and there’s data that shows that if they feel supported by their institution, especially since the institution sent them on the mission that led to the incurring of the trauma, if they feel supported by that institution, not just in terms of trauma, but in terms of the way they’re treated, their compensation, their sense of satisfaction in the work, they have better, fewer, adverse trauma outcomes and can recover faster from trauma. So that’s something I think all institutions should look at because that’s an opportunity.
Michael: Well, listen, Anne, I have to say thank you very much, because the thing that we always swim upstream from is a lot of the indifference to this. And so hearing your stories and your point of view is–
Michael: Yeah. For sure.
Anne: Thank you.
Betty: Well, we have reached the end of another session. Thank you so much for joining us. Mind of State is a production of Mind of State Media LLC and Hangar Studios NYC. Our crackerjack producer is Carolyn Kwash. Our engineer is Rick Serbini. Mind of State’s original music is composed by Joel Goodman, courtesy of Oovra Music. I’m Betty Teng.
Michael: And I’m Michael Epstein. You can connect with us on Twitter at Mind of State Pod, on our Facebook page, and at our website, MindofState.com. You can also subscribe to our show at Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next week.