Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Taking it Personally: Guilty Verdict in the Seattle Jewish Federation Shooting

On July 28, 2006, a man took held a teenage girl at gunpoint, forced his way into the Seattle Jewish Federation offices and started shooting.  One woman was killed and five others were injured.  The gunman, who had a history of mental illness, told a dispatcher he was tired of Jews, Israel and American foreign policy, and he was hoping to get on CNN.  Today, a jury rejected his insanity defense and found him guilty at his second trial (the first one ended in a hung jury).

This was not the first shooting at a place associated with Judaism in the United States, and it was not the last.  Over the last 15 years or so, security has been increasing steadily at synagogues, community centers and museums.  Here in Ann Arbor, you have to show picture ID to get into the Jewish Community Center.  Many synagogues have police presence during holiday services.

All of us who frequent Jewish community buildings know why the extra security is there.  At the same time, we don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.  We tell ourselves that it's to guard against something that, realistically, isn't going to happen anyway.  We know there are those "out there" who, because of ignorance or illness, think that shooting at Jews is a good thing to do.  We just don't think they are anywhere near us.

I remember distinctly how I felt when I heard about the shooting in Seattle.  My family lived in Seattle for four months about ten years ago, and we've visited several times, so I felt some connection.  More than that, however, I remember imagining very vividly what the scene must have looked like.  I placed the shooting in my mind at building that looked just like the local JCC.  I could very much picture what happened and where it happened, even though I'd never been there and the building in Seattle probably looks nothing like this.

This is what having a personal connection to a traumatic event does to us.  While everyone who heard about this event knew it was terrible, those of us with ties to the Jewish community had much easier access to the details of what made it awful.  Anyone can, if they try, put themselves in a traumatic scene in their mind's eye.  We just got there much more easily.

I was therefore somewhat surprised when I read about the verdict in this case.  I wasn't surprised that the jury found the gunman guilty, although I don't have enough of the details to have an opinion about whether he was legally insane or not.  What surprised me was that, before I read about the verdict, I had totally forgotten about this incident.  Part of what allows me to go to my Temple on a regular basis is the ability to not vividly imagine an actual shooting when I do, and so my mind has given itself permission to file this away until needed.

Nevertheless, when I heard about the verdict, I immediately saw that same scene that I had imagined 3 years ago in my mind.  For me, that is what represents the trauma of this shooting.  Oddly, I have a vivid visual memory of something that I never saw.  In a few days or weeks, the Seattle shooting will be filed away again.  Soon enough, I and many other people, will convince ourselves that we are guarding against something that, realistically, isn't going to happen anyway.  Until the next time.

Note: The picture above is of Pam Waechter, the director of the Seattle Jewish Federation's annual campaign, who was killed in the shooting.  Ms. Waechter was a Jew by choice, having been raised Lutheran.  As Richard Silverstein wrote at the time,

It is terribly ironic that a woman who elects to convert to Judaism in order to share the joy and fate of the Jewish people should pay the ultimate price for that commitment.
May her memory be a blessing.


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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 www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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