Friday, November 6, 2009

No Easy Answers: The Why's and Wherefores of Fort Hood and Orlando

He had compassion fatigue. He was a Muslim. He had money problems. He was depressed. He was disgruntled. He didn't want to deploy. He was a terrorist. He was harassed. He faced discrimination. He hated his boss. He was turned down for unemployment. He blamed the company. He blamed the army. He should have been stopped.

Today, as America reels from the second mass shooting in as many days, the blogosphere and the traditional media are lighting up with commentary on why the shooters in the Fort Hood and Orlando killings did what they did. If you google the stories, you find headline after headline with various speculation about motive, interspersed with the occasional article referring to the motives in each shooting as a "mystery."

Human beings don't like uncertainty, as I discussed yesterday. And the media doesn't like to report anything nuanced, and certainly not "we don't know." Where's the human interest in that? So we look for answers, and sometimes the answers we come up with sound good . . . until you think about them.

The shooter at Fort Hood is a psychiatrist. He had treated many people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now there is speculation that this experience caused him to be traumatized himself, and in turn caused yesterday's shootings. No sooner had that theory hit the airwaves then we had articles arguing the opposite -- that PTSD is not contagious, and we are just making excuses.

The truth is, PTSD is indeed contagious, in a documented phenomenon called "compassion fatigue" or sometimes secondary or vicarious traumatization. People who work with the traumatized are susceptible to symptoms of trauma themselves -- this is a documented phenomenon and there are documented ways to try to prevent it. But as much as compassion fatigue is a real thing, most people who have it don't shoot people. Saying that is the cause is much too simplistic.

The shooter is also Muslim, true. And yet, most people who are Muslim don't shoot people either. And if mass shootings are caused by being Muslim, how do we account for the Orlando shooter, who certainly wasn't, or the perpetrator in the Pittsburgh gym shootings, or at Virginia Tech, or Columbine? Why is the Fort Hood shooting "terrorism" and those are horrible violent crime?

In Orlando, the shooter almost certainly was a disgruntled former employee with money problems. This is all true. But how many thousands of people fit that description, and never hurt a fly? How many hurt themselves but not others? How do you know who is who and which is which. Unfortunately, you don't.

There is a lot of commentary today suggesting that we as a country are hesitant to admit the "truth" about Fort Hood, and I think they are right. But that truth isn't that the shooter was a Muslim terrorist. That truth is that we just don't know. We may someday, or we may not. And if we don't know, we can't know it won't happen again, and that scares us.

We want to think that if we exclude certain ethnicities or nationalities or religions from our lives, we will prevent the next shooting from happening to us. We want to believe that if we know the Fort Hood shooter was a terrorist, we can protect ourselves by staying away from terrorists. But in Orlando, we discovered that that isn't true either. And that scares us more, so we pretend there's no inconsistency there, no nuance. It seems we'd rather live with our bigotry in this country than with our fear of what is random.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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