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Melting Down But Still In Charge

This column was written by Garance Franke-Ruta.

Dick Cheney may have appeared calm and collected during his interview with Brit Hume on Fox News Wednesday night, but reports from those closest to the vice president paint a picture of a man who has spent the past week in extreme emotional straits. The New York Times quotes Ben Love, a West Texas rancher staying on the Armstrong ranch, saying Cheney was "just crushed" when he saw him at dinner after the shooting. He wasn't much better the next day. "I could tell he was still upset," Kenedy County Chief Deputy Sheriff Gilbert San Miguel told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, describing Cheney's mental state during his 8 a.m. Sunday police interview. "He was very, very upset." Bush called the shooting "a deeply traumatic moment" for Cheney, reports The Washington Post, and described the vice president as "profoundly affected" by it. Meanwhile, a "source close to Cheney" told CBS News yesterday that the vice president is in a "state of meltdown."

Cheney-bashers may be inclined to sneer at these reports as self-serving attempts to cast a careless sportsman as a victim while the real victim of his recklessness remains in intensive care in Christus Spohn Hospital in Texas. They shouldn't. Post-shooting trauma and psychological collapse on the part of shooters are real problems — and why, for the good of the country, Vice President Cheney should consider taking a medical leave of absence from his position.

If Cheney were a police officer, he'd have to. The psychological sequelae of shooting another human-being in a non-combat situation are well-documented enough that if a police officer in cities like Washington, New York, or Los Angeles shoots someone, he is immediately placed on leave and required to enter counseling. "Police-trauma syndrome" and "post-shooting trauma" are well recognized syndromes.

"He needs time to spend with family and to cut out a lot of his big duties so he can regroup," says Allen Kates, the Arizona-based author of "Cop Shock: Surviving Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," and an expert on post-shooting psychological reactions. "When I saw the vice president on TV and I saw his demeanor, I'd never seen him like that. It's more than how sorry he is: I think he's experiencing some of these symptoms."

Symptoms shooters develop after the fact in situations like Cheney's would include tremendous guilt, an increased sense of vulnerability, anxiety (particularly around hunting in the future), intruding thoughts, flashbacks of the event in which he can see every little detail and feels like he's reliving the event in slow motion, an even greater-than-normal desire to be alone, sleep difficulties such as insomnia or waking up in a cold sweat, and emotional numbing. "He may start to experience feeling nothing, not just for Harry, but for himself and for his family. Nothing at all," explains Kates. "That's very common for someone who is in a shooting."

Kates says it's "very rare" for a shooter not to experience symptoms after the fact.

Cheney, a medically fragile 65-year-old who appears constitutionally unable to unburden himself publicly and was unwilling or unable to discuss the events before being subjected to intense G.O.P. and White House pressure to do so, might be at an unusually high risk of developing symptoms if he did not receive immediate and ongoing counseling as well.

"People that have physical illnesses have a greater likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress reactions," explains Mark Lerner, a clinical psychologist and president of The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, an organization that works with first responders.

Web sites that describe "police trauma syndrome" note that shooters can experience sound and time distortions during and after the critical incident, making it hard to describe accurately what happened, and sometimes even hallucinations after the fact, or a feeling of being haunted, though this is more common in situations where the shooter has been under threat himself or killed someone. Some develop "John Wayne syndrome" after the fact, taking excessive risks in a self-destructive way, while others are subject to self-doubt, compulsions, alcoholism, overeating, and gambling. Their job performance and family relationships can deteriorate, and they can fall prey to episodes of depression and helplessness, with occasional suicidal thoughts.

Non-police shooters oftentimes share similar symptoms that police, who are authorized to shoot, experience less often: "Mark of Cain" syndrome, in which shooters come to see themselves as tainted or otherwise permanently marked, especially if the shooting received widespread publicity.

Whatever Cheney experiences, his political persona is unlikely to shift, say the experts, though he also will very likely no longer be the same person in his private life.

But just as police officers are not entrusted with the tremendous responsibilities and risks of protecting the public during the first few weeks after a shooting, the vice president should be closely monitored and overseen by White House aides and the president, or encouraged to take some time off, so that he does not accidentally hurt anyone else during this difficult personal time, when his cognition and emotions are not fully under his control.

Cheney won't want to do it out of fear of appearing weak. But if his colleagues don't make sure he gets the help he needs to regain his balance and to stop his "meltdown," it is they who will be the truly weak ones.

Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor.

By Garance Franke-Ruta
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA, 02109. All rights reserved

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