Yuval Cherlow

The PTSD impact of fireworks: An ethical dilemma

How far should the public go to accommodate the needs of audience members who could be triggered by sounds, sights, and more?
Fireworks from the Mount Herzl ceremony seen over the Knesset in Jerusalem, marking the beginning of the celebrations of Israel's 67th Independence Day, on April 22, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
Fireworks from the Mount Herzl ceremony seen over the Knesset in Jerusalem, marking the beginning of the celebrations of Israel's 67th Independence Day, on April 22, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

In the run-up to Israel’s Independence Day, an important discussion was taking place within Israeli society over the inclusion of fireworks within public celebration ceremonies.

Driving the discussion was the understanding that the loud and booming nature of these fireworks shows is particularly jarring for the thousands of Israelis combat veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) and other mental and emotional conditions related to their service in past wars and military missions.

This discussion should be heralded for many reasons, but foremost because it brings to the forefront the issue of solidarity with the many victims of PTSD and similar disorders who live with their traumas each and every day, often even many years after leaving the battlefield behind. As a society that thrives on national identity and communal unity, it is imperative that we stand in support of these heroic veterans. Properly appreciating the extent of these emotional scars is often very difficult for those who did not experience similar traumas and therefore any effort that increases awareness should be lauded.

At the same time, this discussion presents us with some complex questions that deserve to be asked in the context of how we operate as a society and, in particular, to what extent are we required to take into account or be “inconvenienced” by the suffering of private individuals.

Post-battle trauma invoked by loud sounds exhibits differently in different veterans presenting us with questions over whether — just as an example — public performances should refrain from including bass drums out of fear that the deep tones would similarly invoke responses from veterans. Should all public events be designed to take into account the emotions or practical needs of audience members with specific challenges that could be triggered by certain sounds, sights, etc.?

The reality is that we each live with some sort of emotional “handicap” whereby something could trigger a negative reaction based on a past trauma and would want public events to be designed to avoid those triggers.

We are thus presented with a very legitimate challenge that is both practical and ethical that demands to be addressed with utmost sensitivity.

As with most ethical dilemmas, there are appropriate ways to approach the two sides of the issue.

For the specific case of the fireworks (which will apply to other issues as well,) the underlying opening question should be around the necessity of the practice. How important is it that there be fireworks in order to effectively celebrate Israel’s independence?

At the same time, the next question must be how detrimental to the individual’s mental wellbeing is their encounter with these booming noises? Do they cause real emotional harm or would the person be able to effectively overcome the trauma if he or she would so choose?

The question becomes one of proportionality. Is the negative impact on these individuals serious to the extent that it warrants this cancellation of fireworks shows?

Once we determine that the harm is indeed extensive, then we are best positioned to move forward with the decision.

A secondary level of analysis, which is no less important and worthy of discussion, is what can we do to “replace” the loss of the fireworks show. Are there alternatives to the “joy” and entertainment presented by the fireworks? And conversely, if the decision is made to go ahead with the shows, what measures are we putting in place to mitigate the harm and discomfort of the impacted veterans?

It is worth recognizing that we live in a technologically advancing world where the ability to “light up the skies” in dramatic fashion only been possible in years past with fireworks, is now achievable through other methods. Laser lights and drones are now able to replicate that sense of awe and beauty without the trauma-inducing sounds. While there is likely a very considerable cost involved, wherever possible these options should be explored.

Whatever the conclusions of this worthwhile analysis, it is critical that we remind ourselves of the values that we are promoting by even bringing this issue to the forefront — and we must admit that there are many societies that would not even be asking these questions.

The reality is that the pain and discomfort that come with loud fireworks shows is directly harming the very individuals whose sacrifices lie at the heart of what we celebrate on Yom HaAtzmaut.

Without them, any notion of independence and freedom would not exist and they deserve our greatest thanks and respect on this of all days.

About the Author
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the Director of the Tzohar Center for Jewish Ethics and a Founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.
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