Learning From the Tears of Oklahoma City

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Six months after the Oklahoma City bombing, 182 adult survivors agreed to fill out the psychological equivalent of an organ donor card, donating their traumas to science so that psychologists, counselors and other head-shrinkers might use the U.S.’s biggest domestic tragedy in ages to someone’sadvantage. Almost four years later, the results are in, published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association — and as one might imagine, not many got out unscarred. Out of the 182 studied, 45 percent suffered illnesses that needed psychiatric care, including chronic depression and drug and alcohol problems. One out of every three had post-traumatic stress syndrome, replete with the sense-triggered flashbacks, angry outbursts and nightmares that were last widely seen among Vietnam veterans.

Most at risk to develop serious psychological problems after the attack were those who were seriously injured or who had a family member injured or killed –- and those who refused to think about the incident. And that may be what science gets out of the Oklahoma City tragedy: an idea of whom to help first. For grief researchers, the beaches of Normandy were a laboratory; so were the jungles of Vietnam. The only American war is at home now, and sporadic. Oklahoma City is a horrible way to learn, but for tragedy there are no in-house experiments, just outside opportunities. When something similarly horrendous happens — and of course it will, someday — the carnage caused by Tim McVeigh will have had the opportunity to do some good.