The Perfect Storm: Our Wounded Soldiers and the Flood of Public Outrage

walter-reed-general-hospitalWe have now learned that the outpatient conditions faced by some of our wounded returning soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are truly shocking—rodent and roach infested rooms, mold and leaky plumbing, no heat and water, inadequate and unqualified staffing, and seemingly interminable bureaucratic delays in their treatment. But equally stunning is the fact that several high-level officials have actually lost their jobs as a result of this news—despite initial efforts to downplay and discount the reported negligence. After all, considering the Bush administration’s lengthy record of action and inaction worthy of public outrage and condemnation, we might wonder why this particular instance of wrongdoing and mismanagement has drawn such a strong, unified, and seemingly effective response from the American people. From a psychological perspective, one reason is clear: the discoveries at Walter Reed represent a near “perfect storm,” triggering all five core concerns—about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness—that often govern the way we understand the world around us.

Vulnerability. There are few things more important to us than the safety and well-being of those we care about. Accounts of soldiers’ serious and life-threatening injuries are therefore terribly distressing even when we picture them receiving state-of-the-art medical care. To learn instead that they still remain in jeopardy after returning home—due to the bureaucratic neglect and appalling living conditions at Walter Reed—disturbs us even more deeply.

Injustice. When we witness wrongdoing, we are often quick to anger and eager to see justice restored. It is therefore unsurprising that we find ourselves collectively outraged by the inadequate outpatient care given to wounded soldiers who have sacrificed in service to our country. Efforts to downplay or cover up the tragic circumstances at Walter Reed only add to our sense of profound injustice.

Distrust. We make many important decisions based upon who we think can be trusted and who we think cannot; significant betrayals of trust therefore shatter key foundations in our lives. Our troops embrace a simple pact: they will stand in harm’s way and, should they fall, they will not be abandoned during their time of greatest need. Substandard conditions at Walter Reed demonstrate the military administration’s failure to honor this pledge—not only to our wounded soldiers, but to the American people as well.

Superiority. Individually and collectively, we take pride in what makes us feel special and we strive to defend these badges of honor from assault. In this context, American soldiers are larger-than-life heroes who represent the character and courage we believe exemplifies the United States as a whole. That the wounded would be treated so poorly at Walter Reed—through no fault or shortcomings of their own—therefore undermines our deeply cherished view of our country’s greatness.

Helplessness. Finally, we strongly resist the idea that we have no control over what happens to us; helplessness is a plight we desperately wish to avoid. Images of soldiers’ life-changing and life-threatening battlefield injuries bring these concerns to the forefront. What happens when we are unable to care for ourselves? At the very least, we hope that others will take up our cause and work to ensure our well-being. The pervasive failures in the treatment of outpatients at Walter Reed are jarring reminders that such confidence can be sadly misplaced.

The triggering of our collective core concerns in response to reports about Walter Reed Army Medical Center unleashed a powerful force for change: broad public outrage. As a result, today we can reasonably anticipate concerted efforts to correct this deplorable situation. This is very good news. But there is also a much larger lesson not to be overlooked here. There are many other pressing issues—inadequate access to healthcare, growing economic insecurity, and civil rights infringements to name just a few—where we can and should apply the psychological lenses of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. In doing so, we may again find significant untapped public support for a progressive agenda.

As an addendum, it bears emphasizing that appeals to our core concerns can also be used destructively. I examine this dark side of the coin in an online video entitled Dangerous Ideas: How Conservatives Exploit Our Five Core Concerns. It can be viewed HERE.


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