CORVALLIS, Ore. - The United States has greatly increased its physical security against foreign and domestic terrorism since 9-11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, but the country is ill-prepared psychologically to deal with mass trauma suffered by victims and their families, according to a leading expert on international social welfare.
This lack of attention paid to the psychological welfare of devastation was evident in another recent event - the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
"Our response has largely been to throw cash at the problem and compensate the victims of families," said Mark W. Lusk, director of International Education and Outreach at Oregon State University, who has worked on projects in more than 50 countries. "It's the American way of doing business. But it doesn't address the vast psychological needs that remain for months, even years."
Lusk argues that the United States needs a systematic social-service initiative that addresses the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that often plague survivors, as well as the families and friends of victims. The implications of untreated stress, he says, can be profound: long-term depression, chronic mental illness, phobias and the inability to form close relations.
Terrorism and natural disasters can be particularly devastating to children.
"Children are far more vulnerable to psychological damage because to them, their whole world has collapsed," Lusk said. "They don't have the frame of reference to look at incidents and understand the context in which they happened. Children who have witnessed the destruction of a city and lost a brother, sister, parent, home or pet are stressed time bombs if that stress is not treated.
"It's unrecognized as an epidemic."
Lusk, who has published in the Homeland Defense Journal, went to Israel after the 9-11 attacks to study how the Israelis deal with the aftermath of terror, from sniper attacks to suicide bombings. What he found was an organized approach triggered by the government, yet carried out by non-profit organizations trained specifically to deal with post-traumatic stress syndrome and other psychological disorders.
"Once the security and immediate physical demands of an attack have been addressed, these trained social workers immediately respond with crisis counseling," Lusk said. "And if you are a witness, a survivor or a family member of a victim of terror, you are eligible for long-term psychological care. It is a right of citizenship."
While visiting facilities in Tel Aviv, Lusk saw the Israelis mobilize their treatment program after a suicide bomber killed two dozen civilians in an open-air market.
"They recognize the impact that terror can have on the mind as well as the body," Lusk said, "and that commitment reinforces their sense of nationhood. We haven't yet addressed those needs in the U.S. The mentality seems to be that terror is so infrequent that we don't need a structured system. But when 3,000 people get killed and no structure exists, you have a major problem."
Lusk has seen first-hand the tensions of living in areas where armed conflict is a way of life. The son of a Foreign Service officer father, he grew up overseas - often in countries run by dictators. Lusk attended elementary school in terrorist-torn Paraguay, went to high school in Columbia during a civil war, lived in Guatemala with his father who had armed guards with him as he traveled the country and did his doctoral dissertation in Peru during the conflict between Shining Path and the Peruvian government.
He also spent time in El Salvador, where he worked for the State Department and drove in a bulletproof SUV that had steel plating to help protect against bombs.
"Very early in life, I became aware of the vulnerability we all have to extremism," Lusk said.
Lusk came to Oregon State in the spring of 2005 from the University of Georgia, where he worked on a number of international education initiatives, including anti-terrorism education in the wake of the bombing at the Atlanta Olympic Games.
During the last few years, Lusk, who calls himself a medical social worker, has tried to spread the word about the need for the United States to improve its "psycho-security." Those efforts, he says, must start at the community level.
"Whether it's Athens, Georgia, or Portland, Oregon, we need to think about how we will respond to the next terrorist attack or natural disaster in a psychological sense," Lusk said. "Physically, we stock water, store batteries for our radio, hoard food. But there's nothing out there to help us cope.
"Privatized health care is just not set up to deal with this," he added. "Three visits may help you work through a divorce; it won't be enough if you lose your whole family. And caregivers have to be trained to deal with the potential for mass casualties.
"As they say in Israel, 'God forbid it should happen, but we were prepared for it.'"
About OSU International Education and Outreach: IEO, a part of International Programs at Oregon State University, is responsible for administering overseas programs for OSU students as well as serving as a liaison to faculty engaged in international research activities. It offers a range of international programs, including study abroad, exchanges, international internships and the International Degree program.