After Shootings, Focus on Survivors
We don’t focus on the right thing after a mass shooting. Why is ultimately unknowable. Who is to blame is always the shooter. How to stop the next one has many answers. Those take time, planning, and thought. How to heal the affected community should be the focus.
As President Obama said after the unimaginable heartbreak of a second shooting at Fort Hood, “We are going to do everything we can to make sure that the community at Fort Hood has what it needs to deal with the current situation, but also any potential aftermath.”
Need to Feel Safe
The survivors, the dead, and the people connected to them should be the focus. As the president said, “When they’re at their home base they need to feel safe.”
Dr. Scott Poland is professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and an expert on threat assessment and school shootings. I interviewed him last year, and he said, “It would be extremely complicated for us to explain why,” people commit mass murders.
And it is almost impossible to say which individual will choose that path, according to a study from Johns Hopkins.
Almost immediately after the shooting, headlines said the suspect was being treated for anxiety and depression, that he was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder, that he was prescribed psychoactive medications. None of those things are directly correlated with violence.
It’s illogical the way the media and popular culture conflate mental illness and evil acts. Much as I understand the impulse to say “that’s insane” when speaking about anyone who would kill his schoolmates, colleagues, or fellow soldiers, it does not come from insanity. People with mental illness are no more likely to hurt the people around them than people without mental illness.
Poland has good advice for how to respond after these crimes. “What needs to happen is a psychological triage,” he said in a statement. “There are three circles of vulnerability. The first circle includes those who were in close physical proximity to the shootings. The second circle includes those who were in close social proximity to the shooting victims—people who were their close friends or family, for example. The third circle is comprised of people who have had a history of trauma or violence in their family.”
To him, it’s a problem to focus on the why instead of on what survivors need.
“We never seem to get much of an explanation as to why—and there is always a lot of second-guessing about what could have been done differently. But the most frustrating thing about that is that we need to focus on the mental health and psychological needs of the people who have been through the experience.”
According to an announcement from the Army, four people died at Fort Hood, including the suspected shooter. The Army has a policy to wait 24 hours after the family has been notified before releasing the names of the deceased.
I read a pitiful news story in which a reporter knocked on the shooter’s door, and was greeted by his widow. Could we not show the same restraint as the Army, and give her a little breathing room?