Nonviolent Change Journal







About The Journal

Current Issue
  Editor's Comments
  Upcoming Events
  Ongoing Activities
  World Developments
  What We Are About
  Media Notes

Past Issues

Editorial Team


Selected Links

Vol. XVII, No.1 Fall, 2002



Terrorist or Freedom Fighter? The Impact of Trauma and Injustice

Lessons From John Bull's Troubled Island

Rebuilding A Damaged Palestine

Not All Is Lost

Sri Lanka Stops War To Talk Peace

Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?
The Impact of Trauma and Injustice

by Darling G. Villena-Mata, Ph.D.

More than ever, since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, it is important for people to understand the importance of the effects of societal trauma on its recipients and the effects that can create roles ranging from social justice activists working within the society's legal systems to freedom fighters to terrorists. Societal induced traumas cannot be ignored. Their effects will eventually catch up and bite us all, dramatically and for some, with surprise. Granted that there are complex causes for the September 11 events, such as historical, global, political, economic, and religious elements. These elements will be analyzed, pondered, and suggested for the eradication or the reduction of terrorism in our midst. Yet one vital element is often overlooked during these discussions and often ignored as a viable aspect for resolving conflict: societal trauma and its effects. This overlooked factor adds to the genesis of future terrorism.

September 11 can be the continuation of the cycles of trauma and violence or it can be utilized as a transcendent experience. We are being beckoned to stay in the vortex of trauma or to be challenged to spiral out of its grips into the realm of healing. Do we have the courage, faith, and desire to think 'out of the box'? Societal healing requires us to not only address those who are victimized at this very space and time, but to include those who perceived themselves as past and continual intergenerational victims of their perceived oppressors. Whether we see ourselves or other groups as the victims, rescuers, or victimizers, societal healing requires us to address all of the above.

Those who are familiar with the abuse cycle, know of the victim, victimizer, and rescuer mode. If people are left in the abuse cycle, the victim can become the victimizer; the rescuer can feel victimized by the eternal struggle to help the victim; while the victimizer feels that s/he is truly the victim defending her/himself. The abuse cycle perpetuates the cycle of violence for all concern.

Depending on who is holding the view, a group can be seen as a terrorist organization or as freedom fighters civilian soldiers hearing the cries of social injustices. Having met and engaged in discussions with representatives
from No. Ireland (1998, 1999) and before that Croatia, Bosnia, and underground resistance fighters from Serbia (1992), the discussion of revenge as a form of loyalty and witnessing arose. Normally in a dysfunctional system, the people seek roles which will assist them in staying safe and finding ways to appease their perceived abusers. Yet there are also times that the perceived abuser will assign roles to its circle of people. Aside from the 'scapegoat, the other roles can be 'hero', 'wallflower', 'mascot' or 'let me entertain you', 'lost' or 'forgotten one' and 'enabler'.

At the micro or familial level, the role of scapegoats are the most interesting of all the roles. Scapegoats have the capacity to do great damage or great good. Scapegoats can often demonstrate behaviors and attitudes to elicit attention and to demand action from people and groups whom they believe have the power to change their plight. Often they imbibe themselves with drugs and alcohol, engage in high risk behaviors, participate in local crimes, and other actions. As a group, they can form local gangs.

If no safety is secured and if there is no avenue to receive human acknowledgment nor ways to appease their perceived abusers, then the person who takes on the role of scapegoat in the dysfunctional dynamic might view death not as a bad choice, but even a preferred one to what he or she must witness when alive. If death is honored and seen as a manner to possibly break the secret and hurt the abuser as well as to 'awaken other abused people' then death-oriented activities are embraceable.

But not all scapegoats turn to violence toward society at large. They can become civil rights activists seeking justice and retribution. They can work within the societal system to change conditions for their groups and for others. Positive movements have been created, such as the civil rights movements in various countries.

Keep in mind, recipients of societal trauma, be they individuals or as groups can negatively affect society or societies at large if there is no recovery and healing for the individuals and in the scapegoat's environment. Their meaning and identity of their existence can eventually center on the abuse and trauma. Addressing trauma and the perceived unmet justice becomes the raison d'etre or reason for living.

Those in scapegoat and other roles are also vulnerable to being indoctrinated by others, who wish to capitalize on their search for justice and personal self-worth. How scapegoats and other roles address these meanings can be of benefit to all members of society or it can be living hell for all concerned.

If there is no access to political involvement and if there is a perception that their voices are not being heard, those people who are in the roles of scapegoats may resort to violence at a larger scale. They may become terrorists in the eyes of the perceived abuser group's eyes. Yet, in their own eyes and those of the similarly aggrieved, they may be seen as 'freedom fighters' and heroes fighting for a cause which has not been justly addressed. Revenge is born. Illegal justice is born. An "eye for an eye" is born and often transformed to a "group for an eye," in order to get the attention of the abuser group to stop and take notice. The question might be asked by onlookers not familiar with the history and dynamics of the involved parties: Who is the abuser? Who is the abused? Who are the innocents? The answers depend on the onlookers and their perceptions of reality, which are based on their personal and group experiences with the perceived 'oppressor' group and with the kinds of trauma coping skills and non-trauma skills they have at their disposal. A blurring of who is the abused and who is the abuser increases as they become enmeshed and identified with trauma and its tentacles.

I am reminded of another similarity between the roles created by micro and macro abuse. It is not uncommon for a child who has been incested by one parent to be angry at the non-abusing parent. The blame and anger against the non-abuser parent can at times be stronger than towards the actual abuser because that parent did nothing to stop the abuse. They neglected to protect the abused eventhough in the eyes of the child, they had the power to intervene on behalf of the abused child. In the eyes of the abused, both parents are culpable.

Therefore, at the macro level, it would not be unusual for the abused group or abused members of the group to be angry or to blame not just those people in power within the 'perceived abuser group' but also the other members of that abuser group. It would also not be unusual for a perceived abused group to be angry and hold accountable other countries that are friendly to the perceived abuser government or country. Where were these powerful other countries in stopping the societal traumas? Where are they now? Whether this reasoning is correct or not, it does not matter to those who are abused. For in their world of 'fight, flight, or freeze', time is an enemy and there is no time to sort out the innocents. There is no time to search and de-categorize among those who tacitly support abusive governments with those who actively are trying to change the system and stop the perceived abuse Who are those citizens who do nothing, or who are ignorant, or who are happy to reap the benefits at the expense of people who are not in their particular group (be that class, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, another country, etc.)? What matters to the 'scapegoats' are breaking the silence; of letting the world know that the happy looking family/group/society is truly in misery and in pain. In a sense, the scapegoat no longer sees him or herself as truly alive. Rather, the scapegoats, like others who walk with trauma, are the walking wounded, not caring about the joys of life. They just want to stop of pain, including the witnessing effect (or secondary trauma effect).

Additionally, if a 'positive' identity of the terrorist, freedom fighter, scapegoat (depending on your point of view) can be obtained while concurrently increasing economic assistance and increasing social prestige for their surviving loved ones and to their group, then killing, including suicides and homicides may be perceived as viable options. This is particularly appealing to people who find themselves otherwise 'unimportant' in their eyes and/or by their group or are still in the identity developmental stage. If the cause is seen as just and if the terrorism is seen by the holder as fighting for freedom, than those acts are then perceived as war acts. If there is a group encouragement, overt or subtle that death is a way for the person to be acknowledged when he or she could not receive it in life, death then becomes a way to leave a legacy of him or herself behind to the group, to the family, to the cause, but most importantly to him or herself. Those who are in power or leadership positions can easily manipulate followers, especially if ongoing trauma and lack of safety exist. This manipulation can happen in any country, be it overtly or covertly.

If people are in a fight, flight, freeze mode ("fff"), it is easier for them to be manipulated. Higher reasoning (neocortex) gives way to the limbic system (of short term goals and gratification rather than long term ones). If people have not experienced peace within their generation or two or more, then creating peace is beyond their concept and felt experiences. If war cultures are intergenerational in duration, then higher cortisol output, adrenalin addiction, and negative effects on the central nervous systems can be expected in the individuals. Sleep disorders affect restorative sleep and therefore the ability to find peace within. Agitation to the central nervous system (CNS) leads to higher states of anger, frustration, and violence. The emotions are affected for the worse. Eating and food habits are disrupted, giving way to selections of food that feed the "fight, flight, freeze" mode and not the non-crisis state of health. If external limitations on employment and obtaining basic needs (e.g., food, water, shelter, safety) are the reality, then the "fff" is further reinforced. A "we vs. them" is easily embraced and fanned. For in a world of "fff", there can be no middle ground for people to choose and see the spectrum of humanity in their own and other people's groups - especially, if their internal environment is shouting at them to run or flee to the safety of categorization.

Unless all the current and possible future stakeholders are included in being assigned new roles for the non-war transitional environment and then for the Peace environment, the outbreaks of skirmishes, sabotage, and struggle to maintain the current status quo will occur. Stakeholders must include those who fight in the streets, such as the children and youth, the soldiers/warriors and their "wannabees" (want to be soldiers/warriors), those who gain recognition and status who otherwise would not have if it had not been for the war culture; and others affected by the war conditions, such as small business owners, religious leaders and community informal leaders, as well as the typical thoughts of including the governmental leaders, "management", and "middle management" of government. Furthermore, police need to be trained for non-war duties. Addressing post-trauma and concurrent trauma for those who wield weapons are particularly important as well as for the civilian populations.

Yet all of this discussion of stakeholders becomes a useless one if societal trauma is not appropriately addressed and if we do not understand the foundations and rationale behind the roles of freedom fighters, activists,
terrorists, scapegoats, and heroes. In all countries during time of wars and oppressions, people have sacrificed themselves to their causes or for their countries's national security as laid out by their governments and media. With traumatized cultures becoming intergenerational in nature, the causes for war and discontent are particularly important to examine, so as to find more appropriate approaches to the stoppage of conflict and to create healthier
societies in their place.

In our ongoing search to seek peace and conflict dissolution, the effects of societal traumas need to be an essential part of that discussion. Will we have true freedom fighters or terrorists? The roles, which traumatic environments can create, must be examined as well as how we as a society can create healthy avenues for voices to be heard and be included in the policymaking and executions of such policies. Otherwise, the alternative will be more of the same that we see today.

Reference materials upon request.

Darling Graciela Villena-Mata, Ph.D. is a consultant and trainer in the areas of societal trauma, conflict resolution, and intercultural exchanges. She is based in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. You may reach her at

Return to Top of Page

These articles and opinions of the authors do not constitute the endorsement of Nonviolent Change nor its publisher, Organization Development Institute, or any of its staff.

©2002, 2003, 2004,2005. All rights reserve. The Nonviolent Change Journal is published by the Research/ActionTeam on Nonviolent Large Systems Change - an interorganizational and international project of The Organization Development Institute.

Permissions: Reposting and reprints are encouraged, as long as proper source acknowledgement is given. As a courtesy, please let us know that you are reprinting or electronically reposting. It helps us know of the interest level. Thank you.