Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Hutaree Go for the Brass Ring

On Sunday, I wrote about the Hutaree, a Christian extremist militia that had been raided by the FBI.  At the time I wrote, we already knew that this group, which is headquartered in my "neck of the woods" was allegedly crazy and violent, and I wrote about how "out there" had become "right here."  Yesterday's court appearances added yet another layer.  It turns out they were, allegedly, plotting to kill a police officer, then wait for the funeral and use IEDs against the funeral procession.

This takes this story to a whole different level.  Those of you who read the Quarterback regularly know that death in the line of duty is one of the "big five."  These are the incidents that get a whole separate class to learn about when you're going through CISM training.  These are the ones you want your very best responders.  (The other four, in case you were wondering, are suicide of a colleague, mass disaster, multiple critical incidents in rapid succession and long delay between incident and response.) 

Death in the line of duty is an emotionally messy situation for cops and their families.  It brings up all kinds of issues around blame and anger, personal identification with the victim, fear for your own safety, and many more, all in an organizational culture that does not encourage people to talk to each other or to professionals about their feelings.  Add to this the already high suicide rate among law enforcement and the fact that all of these people are armed, and it's pretty complicated.

But this situation doesn't just contemplate a line of duty death.  It then, had it been successful, adds the attack on the funeral procession.  That means, effectively, that these folks were plotting serial line of duty deaths for police officers and their loved ones.  Imagine how messy that could have been.

For me, there's another complicating factor.  While I don't spend a whole lot of time in law enforcement funeral processions, you may recall that just a few weeks ago my daughter and I stopped near our house to pay respects to one coming through our township.  Because that was so recent, the picture I create in my mind when I imagine IEDs at a law enforcement funeral procession is of that morning, that street near my house, and me and my daughter.  Now, it's personal.

I don't generally think of myself as the center of the universe.  I also don't imagine it is anyone's idea of a good way to become famous to be covered in my blog.  But I have to note that, if you did want to make sure I covered you, plotting an attack on a police officer followed by an attack on the funeral procession in southeast Michigan would pretty much guarantee it.  So, in that sense, congratulations to the Hutaree.  You grabbed the Quarterback's brass ring.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Michigan Hutaree FBI Raids

FBI agents conducted raids in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan this weekend, arresting several members of a Christian militia group called the Hutaree.  The details of what exactly the raids had to do with and how many people have actually been arrested are somewhat sketchy, but the Detroit News is reporting that it relates to threats made against Muslim organizations.  The group is based in Adrian, MI, about 50 miles from my house.

The existence of militia groups in Michigan is not by any means a secret.  The "Michigan Militia" got some attention nationally in the 1990's when it was erroneously linked to Timothy McVeigh following the Oklahoma City bombings.  Soon after I moved to southeast Michigan someone joked that I had moved into the heart of militia country -- Ann Arbor.  While Ann Arbor isn't, rural southeast Michigan might be.  It's one of those things we know about and don't spend a lot of time worrying about.  There are towns not far from here that I find downright scary, and a handful of those my friends who are people of color will not drive through.  Hate groups and militias are not synonymous, but they do intersect.

I had never, however, heard of the Hutaree until late last week, when our local news outlet reported about a local township calling upon militia members to help with missing person searches.  In that article, the Hutaree were put right next to the Michigan Militia, seemingly as the next county over's equivalent organization.  Today the press coverage is very different, with the head of the Michigan Militia disavowing connection between the two groups and calling the Hutaree a "cult."

Why does this matter?  Probably it doesn't.  There are people out there who resort to violence to support their political and religious views, and we knew that already.  What has changed is simply the emphasis.  Now these people "out there" are pretty much right here.  If I were a purely rational being, this would change nothing in my outlook on the world.  But humans are not purely rational.  When we imagine "out there" we actually mean "out there in lots of places that aren't here."  So news like this actually shifts our world view and raises our mental estimation of the likelihood of these people affecting our own lives.

There's a house not too far from mine which, if you look at a satelite picture, looks for all the world like an armed compound.  I happen to know it's a local farmer with some junked trucks, but I didn't always.  We used to joke that the area was the militia headquarters for our little neighborhood.  It was funny before.  Today, it doesn't feel so funny anymore.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Does it Matter Whose Fault it Is?

This week, a lot of threats, epithets, and mild vandalism has been hurled in the general direction of Democratic members of Congress.  Most of this has either been directly related to anti-healthcare-bill protests or presumed to be linked to them.  Among those who condemn this state of affairs, there seem to be two schools of thought.  One holds that these actions represent the worst of the worst of the fringe on the right, and those responsible are simply doing what they do.  The other holds that the rhetoric by more mainstream pundits and politicians who oppose the bill has been sufficiently over the top that it has given approval to or incited this behavior.

The question of whose fault this is is largely being treated as a political question, but does it have a practical application?  If someone gets hurt or, God forbid, killed, does it matter to the survivors whether they were encouraged or incited or just acting on their own?  I actually think it does, but perhaps not for the reasons you would expect.

Let's imagine, for the sake of argument, that someone shoots up a congressional office in protest of the bill.  No one is injured (by a miracle) but there are a lot of very scared, very traumatized staffers.  There is a certain amount of processing that all of them will need to go through to make their peace with what happened.  They will have to get to a point where they are willing to go back to work and not cower under their desks in fear.  That will be true no matter whether they perceive the shooter as a lone crazy person or as the inevitable outcome of a larger attitude and type of rhetoric.

What it will take to get them there, however, will be different.  If the shooter is a lone crazy person, then they need to come to terms with the fact, which we all know but don't think about, that there are crazy people out there and one of them can come to get you at any moment.  They'll have to restore their sense that such events are, in the scheme of things, unlikely, in order for them to return to something like real functioning.

If the blame lies in pundits and politicians inciting people to violence, however, the game changes.  Now they must come to terms with the fact that there are people who are motivated to do something like this by rhetoric which is still going on.  Even if the incident makes everyone stop being inflammatory, the people who were so incendiary in the first place are still around, and their words are still out there.  They will actually have no idea at all how many of those people are still waiting in the wings.  Indeed, having survived an attack they may, perhaps correctly, believe they are more likely to be targeted by other such people.  And the blame they direct towards those responsible will get in the way of them accepting the fact that this happened in the first place.

I think most reasonable people hope that things calm down, at least as far as racist, homophobic, or violent actions go.  I hope we can all agree that none of that is good.  Throwing around blame for it may score political points, but unless it serves to get people to stop inciting the masses, drawing attention to it may, in the long run, just make everything worse.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Do We Tell the Kids?

After my last post about preparing my staff for bad budget news, Frequent Quarterbacker Jim wrote,
My father-in-law is in the hospital right now, probably not overly serious... but you never know. After reading this post, I plan to tell my son about it, and risk the initial worry that he might have.
Aside from it being gratifying that a) someone other than my mother is reading this and b) something I wrote might have been helpful to someone, Jim also brings up a really important issue that, frankly, most of us instinctively get wrong.  When something awful is looming on the horizon, what do we tell the kids?

The ways to get this wrong are pretty much endless, but I will share a few key examples.

Method #1:  TMI
Several years ago, a handful of schools in Ann Arbor "locked down."  There was a man barricaded in his house with a gun near an elementary school.  The police told that school to lock down, they called the administration, and someone made the decision to lock down every school on that side of the city.  Most teachers did a masterful job of being honest with kids without scaring them, saying things like,
The police are working on something in the neighborhood, and until they are done they want to make sure everyone is safe by keeping us all inside.
One teacher, however, decided the best way to allay the fears of her young students was to emphasize how far away from their school the incident was.  This is not a bad idea, except that in emphasizing that she forgot to deemphasize some other things.  She told her class, "There's just some crazy guy with a gun, but he's far away from here."  Not surprisingly, they were not reassured.

Method #2:  It could always be worse
When I was still a teacher, a student at the elementary school where I worked disappeared over a weekend and was found murdered on Monday night.  Many kids were, understandably, afraid to leave the house and come to school the next day.  One little girl had a pretty bad case of school-phobia to begin with, and this didn't help.  Her father managed to get her into the building, but she didn't want him to leave without her -- either he had to stay or she was going with him.  He started out saying all the right things.
You're very safe here.  I would not leave you here if I wasn't sure it was safe.  The adults here will protect you and make sure you're ok.  I trust them.  You should trust them too.
So far so good.  Unfortunately, he didn't stop there.  He continued,
After all, you're much safer here than I am when I leave here.  I could get hit by a car, I could get shot . . .
Now the student was completely hysterical.  She had gone from being worried about herself to being worried about her dad.

Method #3:  What they don't know won't hurt them
By far the most common way to get this wrong is to assume that, if something will upset a child, they are better off not knowing it.  I have heard of instances in which a teacher died unexpectedly and the staff was notified but none of the students were -- not even the teacher's own class.  This might seem like a simple solution to school staff, but it absolutely destroys the relationships between adults and children.  Kids will find out at some point, and when they do they'll be mad that they weren't told and they'll be upset at the loss of their teacher but not feel like they have permission to talk to adults at school -- after all, the adults obviously didn't want to talk to them about it.

So, how do you strike the balance?  How do you know how much information to share and how much to keep to yourself?  It of course depends on the situation and the age of the child.  But there are two key indicators you can use as guidelines:  yourself and the child.

Using yourself as an indicator means checking in with yourself and your own level of fear and upset about a situation.  If you are substantially worried, the kids will pick up on it.  In the absence of information, they will fill in the blanks, and what they imagine will be worse than reality.  That's a good indication that you need to initiate a conversation with them sooner rather than later.  This is especially true if there is a good possibility that things will get to a point where they can't be ignored.  In Jim's case, if he or his wife are worried about Grandpa and/or there is any likelihood that Grandpa could die, they need to have a conversation.

Using the child as an indicator means sharing a small, succinct, but complete set of information with the child and then opening the discussion up for their thoughts and questions.  In Jim's case, this might mean saying, "I wanted you to know that Grandpa is in the hospital.  He's sick, but we are pretty sure the doctors will be able to make him better."  Enough said.  Now the child can ask why he's sick, or what happens if they can't make him better, or where the hospital is, or when "Sesame Street" is on.  This is his conversation, and wherever he needs to go with it is just fine.

Kids don't come with an owner's manual, and knowing how to talk to kids skillfully about upsetting situations takes some learning.  The payoff, in terms of confident kids and trusting relationships with adults, is more than worth it.  I'm sure Jim knows that already, and I wish his father-in-law a speedy recovery.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mom's on the Roof and We Can't Get Her Down

Tomorrow night, the Superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, where I am a school Principal, will make budget recommendations for next year to the Board of Education.  Next year's budget is about $20 million in the red, and so the recommendations will involve substantial cuts.  In a school district, where 85-90% of the budget is spent on people, $20 million is a lot of jobs.

There's an old joke my family likes to tell that goes something like this:

A man is on vacation and his brother is taking care of his cat.  The man calls his brother to check in and asks, "How is the cat?"  The brother says, "The cat's dead."  The man is distraught.  He says, "You can't just tell me like that.  You have to ease me into it.  The first day, you tell me the cat's on the roof and you can't get her down.  The second day, you tell me the cat fell and she's in a coma.  Then on the third day you can tell me the cat died."  The brother apologizes profusely.  Then the man says, "It's ok.  Don't worry about it.  How's mom?"  The brother responds, "Mom's on the roof and we can't get her down."

It's only a joke, and perhaps (depending upon your sense of humor) not that funny of one.  At the same time, however, it illustrates an important point, and one I've been trying to keep in mind as our district goes through this painful process:  Whenever possible, people should have warning of bad news.  That doesn't mean we need to artificially prolong the sharing of news, as the man in the joke would have us do.  But it does mean that, when we can see that something bad is possibly looming, it's a kind gesture to let those affected know.

This is the same principle that lies behind doing inoculation training for critical incidents.  Inoculation training is simply giving people some exposure to what a crisis might be like, what they might experience, and what they can expect.  The principle is that people will be more resistant to stress and more resilient from it if, when the crisis happens, this is not the first time they've considered its possibility.  That's why train engineers are prepared for crashes, and that's why our district is using grant money to have me walk every school's staff through how a crisis in their school would unfold.

Which brings us back to the budget.  We have known since November that big cuts were on the horizon.  I have tried hard to talk candidly with my staff about what those cuts might entail, particularly with our less senior staff whose jobs might be on the line.  We have taken a "we're all in this together" approach to talking about it, even though we know that we won't all bear the burden equally.  I've tried to answer as many "what if" questions as I know the answers to, and I've tried to acknowledge the stress that the uncertainty is causing for everyone.

Tomorrow night, when the Superintendent makes his recommendations, there may well be bad news for a lot of people.  I hope I am correct in saying that there will not be anything that is a brand new surprise to my staff, however.  That doesn't make everything OK, but with any luck it will make it just a little bit easier.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pain and Suffering

Two seemingly unrelated stories made headlines today.  The first was that the Georgia Supreme Court struck down laws limiting jury awards for pain and suffering in malpractice lawsuits.  The second was that New York City settled a lawsuit involving roughly 100,000 strip searches of people who were charged with nonviolent misdemeanors.  The total settlement is $33 million.

The reasons for these headlines are different.  They happened in different states with different plaintiffs and different legal arguments.  Both, however, bring home a key point that sometimes gets missed amidst political rhetoric, and that is simply this:  pain and suffering is a real thing.

When we think about pain and suffering awards in lawsuits, we often think about what seem like frivolous or outlandish cases.  The term "pain and suffering" conjures up visions of people faking whiplash from car accidents or suing over burns from drive-through coffee.  It's easy to lose sight of what this type of award is supposed to be for, that is, to compensate people with money for the non-monetary damage that someone's wrong actions have done to them.

The New York case, although it does not specifically reference "pain and suffering" as far as I can see, illustrates these damages in a way most of us can probably understand.  The settlement is punitive -- that is, the city is paying as a punishment for doing strip searches when they shouldn't have (and in most of the cases in violation of a 2002 agreement not to).  Those who were searched will receive between $1800 and $2900 each, with two exceptions. 

Two women will receive $20,000 as part of the settlement.  These women, who were also arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors, were forced to undergo gynecological exams as part of their strip search.  The difference in the amounts given to most of the plaintiffs vs. these two women are not small, and they are not accidental.

Everyone who undergoes a mass strip search is humiliated.  Most of us are nervous getting naked in front of our physicians, let alone strangers.  The added indignity of having to lift or separate various body parts only makes it worse.  For some people, the humiliation is milder than for others.  Some may feel traumatized by the experience.

Undergoing a forced gynecological exam adds a whole other layer of trauma to the experience, however.  This goes beyond "they shouldn't have done that" and beyond humiliation, and into the territory of assault.  Many women find going to the gynecologist distasteful under the best of circumstances.  We swallow our pride and our nervousness and go because we know it's what's best for our health.  Being forced to do it as part of a search, however, is a particular kind of awful that I think men might guess at but only women truly know.  It's hard enough to give up enough control of your body to have an exam at the doctor's office.  Having someone take that control is traumatizing.

Which brings us back around to my earlier point:  pain and suffering is a real thing.  The city is not just being punished for what they did to these two women, they are being made to compensate them for the real, non-monetary effects of the trauma.  I don't know what post-traumatic stress symptoms these women had, but I can't imagine they didn't have any.  While you may not be able to put a price tag on that in terms of lost wages or doctor's bills, it was real.  That's why the law allows for awards for pain and suffering in the first place.  It's not possible to make people whole after something like this.  We can't untraumatize them.  But we, as a society, have decided that they deserve to get something nice to compensate for the awful.  Twenty thousand dollars, under the circumstances, seems reasonable to me.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Crisis Responder's Dilemma

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a man in Nigeria.  This is not news -- my spam folder is often filled with requests from various people purporting to be related to Nigerian government officials asking for assistance getting money out of the country.  Yours probably is too.  These solicitations are uniformly bogus, but this one was a little different.  This one was supposedly from a representative of an educational consulting firm in Lagos asking me to come do training in crisis response for educators at an upcoming conference.  As I do with the money emails, I ignored it.

The next day I received another e-mail, at a different address.  The content was roughly the same.  This time, I took the time to confirm that no one from Lagos had actually accessed my website, and I googled the company and found nothing.  I ignored it again.

A couple of days later, I received a voice mail from this man.  The phone number was indeed Nigerian, he sounded Nigerian, and I was somewhat puzzled by his persistence.  I started to wonder how I would know if this request was legitimate?  I e-mailed the gentleman and asked for a link to the company website.  I received a response saying that the company was relatively new but they would send me their company profile.

On Friday, I received a glitzy pdf file of a brochure for an educational consulting company in Lagos.  The pictures are beautiful, the address appears to be a real place, and the lingo is generically authentic-sounding.  There is a website listed, but if you go to that website you will find it does not exist -- there's a "squatter" website, the kind that people put up when they think they might be able to sell the name to someone else someday.

If you combine the Nigerian connection, the nonexistent website, the delay in getting me their profile, and the fact that they are willing to hire me and fly me half way around the world without much discussion, this offer is almost certainly a scam.  I'm not sure what the angle is, but I don't really want to find out.  When you add in the recent violence in Nigeria, I am not going to be going to Lagos.

This situation may be more unusual and more entertaining than most, but it illustrates a difficult issue.  There are times when folks who do crisis response are needed in places that they would not choose to go otherwise.  Teams are deploying to Haiti right now who would never go to Haiti under other circumstances, even before the earthquake.  People who are traumatized are not always in the most luxurious of circumstances, and they do not time their traumas to suit a nice, 9-5 schedule.

Like paramedics, firefighters, and other first responders, those of us who do early crisis intervention have to decide if we have the skills to help without endangering ourselves, physically or mentally.  Sometimes these choices are obvious -- the situation is obviously safe or obviously not.  Once in a while, however, there's a judgment call to be made.  We'll never know if we made the right one.  We just do the best we can.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Bees

Two women in Phoenix, Arizona were out for a walk yesterday evening, when they were attacked by a large swarm of bees.  Authorities estimate they were each stung approximately 1,000 times before firefighters managed to rescue them and a passerby who tried to help them.  All three were hospitalized, and both women are in critical condition.  Neighbors say that some kids were throwing rocks at a bee hive nearby just before the incident.

This is another one of those dangers that you just don't entertain as a possibility.  I don't know about you, but the thought of being covered by stinging bees makes me physically ill -- just the thought of it.  I can't even imagine what it would be like to actually have it happen.  I don't care for bees, I've been stung a time or two, and I try to avoid them.  I teach my children to leave them alone and they'll leave you alone.  And I don't spend a great deal of time considering the possibility of them coming to get me.

This situation fits the definition of a "critical incident" precisely.  It is an event which, because of its suddenness and violence, has the potential to overwhelm one's usual coping skills.  This actually is true in both the emotional and the physical domains.  Witnesses describe the women lying on the ground unable to move from the pain, and one can only imagine the nightmares something like this has the potential to cause.

Nevertheless, these women are actually very poor candidates for Critical Incident Stress Management, at least right now.  CISM follows Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and physical needs come first.  Injured people still sick enough to be in the hospital are by definition not secure in having their physical needs met, and you really can't move on to anything else under those circumstances.  There have been some very critical studies done of CISM that indicate it might be harmful, but these often involve researchers not trained in CISM and traumatized people who are hospitalized -- two big no-nos.

When their physical health is stable, these women may find that the emotional response to this is getting in their way, and if so CISM might well be in order.  They may also find that, while this wasn't a pleasant experience, they are able to rebound from it fairly well on their own.  There really isn't a good way to tell.  One thing is probably certain, however.  They'll never look at a bee quite the same again.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Suicide High Above Cayuga's Waters

In the last month, three students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York have killed themselves by jumping off bridges into the gorges that mark the campus.  Two died on consecutive days last week.  The total number of suicides at Cornell this year now stands at six, with four additional deaths from other causes, on a campus of roughly 20,000 students.  If that sounds high to you, it is.  The suicide rate nationally for college students is roughly 7.5 per 100,000 per year, which would give a school the size of Cornell a predicted rate of 1.5 suicides per year.  They're at six, and it's still March.

So, what is going on at Cornell?  First of all, as the college points out, their average number of suicides per year is still about 1.4, so if whatever is going on is Cornell-specific, it is specific to this year.  One might posit reasons why Cornell students might be at higher risk than other students.  Cornell is a relatively high pressure school.  Ithaca is way off the beaten path, which may isolate some students from natural support systems.  And the system of gorges and bridges represent a particularly convenient and lethal way to attempt suicide, so those who attempt it might be more likely to complete it.  On the other hand, none of those things is new, and before this year Cornell hadn't had a suicide in four or five years.  So what is going on?

Those who study suicide will tell you that suicide is, in some sense, contagious.  People whose relatives complete a suicide are more likely to attempt one themselves, and people who have friends, or even just close peers, who complete a suicide are also more likely to try.  The reasons for this are complex.  It's not as simple as someone learning that someone close to them has killed themselves and "getting the idea."  In some cases, people who have already contemplated suicide think "if they can do it I can too."  They identify with the person who died and how they were feeling, and the example they set by killing themselves tilts others decision making in that direction.  In other cases, the reaction to the suicide of a loved one is so complex and severe that it promotes suicidal actions from others.  There is also some component of this phenomenon caused by the fact that someone who completes a suicide makes others aware that that particular method works, so people who might otherwise have tried something less lethal are more likely to complete their suicide.

There are absolutely things that institutions can do in an effort to be caring that can make things worse.  The most common is to over-honor and over-memorialized the person who died.  Particularly in adolescence and young adults, whose brains are not fully developed and hence don't think things through very well, watching a peer get the full attention of the school or community in death may encourage them to kill themselves in a misguided attempt to get that attention for themselves.

Given the complexity of the problem, the response of Cornell this week has been pretty impressive.  They have put in place two initiatives that have grabbed headlines, perhaps even more than the suicides themselves.  The first is that they have placed staff at the bridges over the various gorges on campus, and placed suicide hotline information on the bridges.  This is a relatively small and short-term fix, but in a community that has demonstrated that it is at increased risk, taking away the method of choice for suicide is not a bad idea.

If that were all Cornell were doing, it would be inadequate.  However, they are also having staff members knock on the door of every single student in the residence halls, check on their welfare and engage them in conversation.  This may seem like a small thing, but it is a really good idea.  It prevents anyone on campus from being completely isolated, and it breaks the silence that often surrounds suicide and depression in our society.  It invites every single student, individually, to talk about how they are doing.

I once heard a fellow CISM person describe people contemplating suicide as fish drowning in a bowl of water.  Everything they need is right there, but they can't make use of it.  If that is true, Cornell is doing two things:  making it hard for the fish to jump out of the water, and providing individual assistance in figuring out how to use the water they're in.  I sure hope it works.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Freak Accidents

Robert Jones of Woodstock, Georgia was a 38 year-old pharmaceutical salesman.  He was in Hilton Head, South Carolina yesterday on business.  Around 6 PM, he was out for a run on the beach, listening to his iPod, when an experimental aircraft making an emergency landing struck and killed him.  He leaves a wife and two children.  The people on the plane were unharmed.

It appears that the plane started leaking oil and the propeller fell off.  The oil got onto the windshield, so the pilot couldn't see.  The pilot of the aircraft was still on the beach when the Associated Press interviewed him, but he didn't want to talk. He said,
I've got a lot of issues going on right now. I've got a plane that's all torn up. And I've got a young man that I killed.
Who can blame him?  Someone should have been running interference between him and the press in the first place.

"I've got a young man that I killed."  I don't know about you, but something strikes me as problematic about that statement.  Imagine listening to a 911 call where the caller says, "I've got a young man that I killed."  What comes to mind is a murderer confessing to a shooting, or perhaps a death that occurred in self-defense.  What does not come to mind is an accident. 

And that's what this was -- an accident. The pilot did not get up yesterday morning thinking, "I think I'll kill a jogger today."  He did not get up saying, "To heck with safety, I'll do what I want."  He was trying to save his own life and the life of his passenger when he landed that plane.  He didn't aim for Mr. Jones.  He hit him by accident.

However, the pilot did hit Mr. Jones, creating a classic example of the type of danger we simply don't bother to worry about.  I doubt that Robert Jones got up yesterday morning and thought, "I'll go for a run on the beach after work, but I'd better watch out for crashing airplanes."  The way he died was so unlikely that it probably never occurred to him.  I never occurred to me before I read about it.

The pilot will have to live with the knowledge that a craft he was in charge of took another person's life.  He will need to make peace with a freak accident where, in some sense, he was the freak.  Jones' family will have to make peace with him being killed in such a bizarre manner.  And the joggers on Hilton Head Beach will need to make peace with their jogging spot, and the fact that, yesterday or not, it's still a pretty safe place to be.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Georgian TV Tries Out "War of the Worlds"

You've all heard the story.  On October 30, 1938, CBS Radio aired an adaptation of H.G.Wells' classic "The War of the Worlds," narrated and directed by Orson Welles.  It caused widespread panic, because listeners thought it was real.  The first chunk of the show was in the format of news bulletins and there were no commercials, and people freaked out.

I bring this up because Imedi TV in the country of Georgia broadcast a "simulation" of a Russian invasion of Georgia last night.  They used actual clips of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev and footage shot during the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008.  They, too, used simulated "news bulletins" to further the story.  They didn't announce it was fictional beforehand, and nothing at all on the screen let viewers know it wasn't real.  They noted it was simulated at the end of the broadcast.  People freaked out.

It's probably fairly tempting to think that there is no harm done here.  I mean, yes, they scared people, but now that people know it wasn't real everything's fine, right?  Wrong.  Fake trauma can be truly traumatic.  People can and are traumatized by the belief that they are in serious danger.  If you think you're about to die and then don't, you are (at least most people would agree) better off than if you think you are going to die and then do.  But you aren't necessarily OK. 

People who have experienced situations where they truly believed they were in danger exhibit all the same symptoms as people who actually have been in danger.  They have trouble sleeping, intrusive thoughts about the incident, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite, irritability, and on and on.  They have increased fear of whatever the situation was that scared them (e.g. getting in the car if they thought they had a close call in the car).  What's more, because whatever scared them turned out to be fake, they are less likely to use the resources that help people in such situations, like talking to a friend or even writing their feelings in a journal.

So, given the history of "War of the Worlds," which I can't imagine they didn't know about, and the possible ill effects of scaring the pants off of people, why would Imedi TV do this?  Of course I don't know for sure.  The station is referred to as being "pro-government," which I guess is as opposed to "pro-Russian."  One can imagine the government doing this intentionally to stir up fear of a Russian invasion, and cause people to look to the government to protect them.  One can also imagine someone just being really stupid in making a programming decision.  Whatever it was, this shouldn't have happened.  It wasn't harmless.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Paying Our Respects

On Tuesday, Jackson, Michigan, police officer James Bonneau, 26, was shot and killed by a drunken suspect whom he was approaching to discuss a domestic disturbance earlier in the day.  The suspect was killed in the shootout.  Bonneau is a native of Canton, Michigan, about 55 miles east of Jackson, and was buried today in his hometown.

To get from Jackson to Canton, most folks wind up driving down Ford Road in Superior Township, Michigan, which is the main road nearest to my house.  That's how it happened that about 7:45 this morning, my daughter and I turned onto Ford Road on the way to school and came face to face with the longest line of emergency vehicles, all with their lights flashing, that either of us had ever seen.  My daughter gasped, thinking that something really awful must have happened to require such a huge response.  It took me a moment, but I soon remembered an alert I had received from the Sheriff's Department warning of traffic disruptions later in the morning, and I figured that this was a caravan of first responders driving to Officer Bonneau's funeral.

The portion of Ford Road we were on is technically a "divided highway."  That means that, by law, we did not have to pull over to the side for emergency vehicles traveling in the other direction.  But continuing to drive did not seem like the right thing to do, so I pulled over and said, "I think we'll pay our respects."  I explained that an officer had died in the line of duty, and she gasped again.  It has been more than a year since Michigan lost one of its finest.

The entire procession probably took three or four minutes.  That may not seem like a lot, but consider how many cars can pass a given point in that span of time.  This was a very long procession.  I started reading off the Police Departments from the sides of the cars:  Jackson, Concord, Jackson County Sherriff, Spring Arbor, Grass Lake . . . There were two tour buses interspersed among the police cars, presumably carrying mourners who were not bringing a squad car.  I told my daughter, "These guys put their life out there on the line every day, really for us.  I just think we can wait a minute or two."

We watched a little bit longer, and then I turned off the ignition and both of us got out of the car to stand at the side of the road so our gesture of respect could be more visible to the people in the procession.  I wished I was wearing a hat so I could take it off.  I thought I saw one officer look out the window of his cruiser and nod in our direction.  The procession ended with two cars and an engine from the Jackson fire department. 

The procession we saw was not anywhere near all of the departments who sent representatives to Officer Bonneau's service today.  In addition to departments from throughout Michigan, departments from Ohio were also present to show solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Jackson and to honor one of their own.

Today was a hard day to be a Jackson cop.  It was a hard day to be a Michigan cop, and maybe, particularly if you were representing your department at the service, a hard day to be any kind of cop at all.  I hope that, for at least one or two of the mourners, the sight of a woman and an 11 year-old girl standing by the side of the road lent some measure of support.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Jihad Jane is No Surprise

A 46 year-old American woman living in the Philadelphia suburbs was arrested in October on charges that she conspired over the Internet to kill an unnamed Swedish artist.  Most folks speculate that her target was Lars Vilks, the cartoonist who drew offensive pictures of the Prophet Muhammed for a Dutch newspaper.  The woman, who called herself "Jihad Jane," had no known Muslim connections, was born and raised in the United States, and, as news reports have been repeating over and over (sometimes multiple times in the same article), she's blonde.  She apparently posted a Youtube video a while back saying she wanted to help alleviate the suffering of Muslimms, and she was contacted by people in Ireland to recruit her for the job.

Today's news has been full of stories about the suspect's past.  She was married and divorced twice by the age of 24.  She has two prior brushes with the law and an apparent suicide attempt.  While the media gasps about the fact that she does not fit the profile of a terrorist, I can't help but notice that she doesn't exactly fit the profile of Mother Teresa, either.  This woman had problems.

To me, this is a good example of the media spinning a story to make it as sensational as possible, rather than simply relating the facts and letting us make our own decisions.  Why, for example, does a story that has a full face picture of the suspect, describes where she lives, gives her Irish-American name and says she had no known links to Islam also need to tell us that she doesn't fit the profile of a terrorist, or that she "raises fears about home grown terrorists," or even, for that matter, that she's blonde?  Is there a risk that we might miss that she doesn't look Middle Eastern (or her hair color)?  The only possible purpose is to focus our attention on what the reporter (or editor) thinks we should be afraid of.  And it seems to me that either we read the facts and look at the picture and are afraid, or we're not.  We don't need a guided tour.

Richard Clarke, late of the Clinton administration, was quoted by ABC saying something I find absolutely priceless about this case:
It was easy for the FBI to find her, but there are other people who are much more covert. . . . There will likely be more attacks. Hopefully, they will be small, and hopefully, we can catch them early.
So, let me get this straight.  This case illustrates the fact that there are American-born terrorists who are trying to get us that we don't know about.  The fact that she acted incredibly stupidly and was easy to catch definitely means there are other less reckless people out there.  It's like mosquitoes -- the males buzz but the silent females bite, so it's when you don't hear a buzz that you have to be worried.

If we boil down this case to its bare bones, we get the following:

There are people out there, some in the name of religion and some with other interests, who want to kill people.  It is possible that some of them were born in the United States and live here.  It is possible that your next door neighbor will turn out to be a whack job, and if so they might be recruited by some scary people to do scary things.  Most of the time we catch these people before they do much, but not always, and when we don't it's really bad.

Could someone tell me what part of this penetrating analysis is actually new news?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bachelor Number 1

Back in 1978, a woman named Cheryl Bradshaw was on the TV game show "The Dating Game."  For those of you who are younger than I, this show entailed a "bachelorette" interviewing three eligible bachelors whom she could not see.  At the end, she picked one to go out with.  Cheryl Bradshaw picked bachelor number 1, although reports indicate she didn't go out with him.  It turns out that he already had a felony conviction for raping an 8 year-old girl (something, one presumes, that Bradshaw didn't think to ask about on the show).  The year after his appearance, he embarked on a career as a serial killer, murdering four women and a girl.  The closing arguments in the penalty phase of his trial were today.

The "Dating Game" angle to this story came to light because one of the other bachelors came forward to share his recollections of bachelor number 1.  He refers to him as "creepy" and says there was something about him, even then, that made him want to get away.  It's hard to know how much of that reaction was real 32 years ago and how much is a projection based on current knowledge.  It's also hard to know whether the other bachelor is motivated purely by what he perceives as newsworthy information or by self-promotion.

The person I'd really like to hear from, however, is Cheryl Bradshaw.  News reports indicate that she refused to go out with the bachelor she picked, and I'm guessing she's pretty glad about that now.  She had a brush with death 32 years ago without knowing it. 

We all make choices every day that affect the outcome of our lives.  It's not at all unusual to look back at past romantic interests and wonder what might have been different had you made a different choice.  I have a cousin who, in her college days, turned down a fellow student named Barry Obama for a date.  Imagine the possibilities.

In fact, it's impossible to know what might have been.  Had my cousin made a different choice, she might be first lady today.  She might also have gone out with him once and decided he wasn't for her.  Or he could have, with a different choice of mate, gone in a totally different direction with his career, never entering politics at all.

The same uncertainty exists for Bradshaw.  If she had gone out with bachelor number 1, she might be dead.  She might have entered a life of crime herself.  She might have left it at one date and it would have made no difference.  He might have mended his ways.  We will never know, and there isn't a whole lot of point in speculating. 

I can only imagine, however, that learning what this man went on to do has given her a little bit of pause, and I think we can all forgive her for thinking about what might have been, no matter how pointless it may be.  Her connection to this man has to at least give her a passing shiver.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Protesting the Fallen

The United States Supreme Court agreed today to hear an appeal of a $5 million verdict against a number of members and clergy from Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS.  The case stems from the church's sponsorship of demonstrations at the funerals of servicemen and -women who have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Their church teaches that God is punishing the United States for tolerating homosexuality, and that these casualties, the deaths on 9/11, and a number of other things are the result of this tolerance.  This particular case was brought after the group picketed the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder with such signs as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."  The family sued for for emotional distress and invasion of privacy and won.

I should say at the outset that I find the teachings of Westboro Baptist Church completely repugnant, and I in no way wish to appear to defend what they did.  Whether or not their actions were protected by the Bill of Rights, they were incredibly offensive.  I also don't want to in any way appear to say that having these people show up at your loved one's funeral is a good thing, or even a neutral thing.

What I wonder, though, is how much emotional distress this protest actually caused.  I think we can probably agree it is not zero.  People processing a traumatic loss find comfort in some things and difficulty in others, and this definitely caused difficulty.  There is no question that the funeral would have been a better, more private, more tasteful event had the protesters not been there.

At the same time, however, this family was in a tremendous amount of emotional distress to begin with.  They were angry, they were in shock, they were undoubtedly a mess.  I have no doubt that the protesters completely enraged them, and I don't blame them one bit.  The question is, how much did the protesters make their emotional states worse, versus how much did they simply provide a really obvious and convenient target for those emotions?

I am sorry Lance Cpl. Snyder died.  I am sorry that these horrible people decided to picket his funeral -- they shouldn't have.  In the end, however, Snyder would be dead whether they showed up or not.  That would be awful, whether they showed up or not.  And that part isn't their fault.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

All Trauma is Personal

On February 17 at about 8 AM, a small plane carrying three employees of Tesla Motors crashed on takeoff from Palo Alto Airport into a residential neighborhood in East Palo Alto, California.  All three people on board were killed, but miraculously no one on the ground was injured.  The ensuing fire damaged buildings and scorched the pavement of the street.

Frequent Quarterbacker Mike Miller, a longtime friend of mine, suggested shortly thereafter that I blog about the crash.  I will admit that I wasn't particularly intrigued.  I didn't have an "angle."  Planes crash.  Some privileged techies crashing into a much less privileged neighborhood did not make me want to blog about their survivors, harsh as that might seem. 

For Mike, on the other hand, this was a very interesting story.  Mike's father was a pilot for United Airlines for many years, and at one time he, too, aspired to be an airline pilot.  He flew small planes and loved aviation, even after his career plans shifted and he became an attorney.  I flew with him only once, the medication I took to avoid motion sickness putting me to sleep in the back seat of his plane as my stomach churned nonetheless.

Mike also lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where this was a big story.  To him, there was a lot to consider about this story, from the trauma it posed for the families to what it meant for other pilots like himself.  He had a personal connection to this incident in a way I never would.

Today's San Jose Mercury News has a story about the East Palo Alto neighborhood where the plane crashed last month.  The residents don't feel very safe right now, and one can hardly blame them.  The sky pretty literally fell on them, and they have no reassurance that it won't happen again.  The sound of every plane engine is a reminder of what happened and a trigger for their trauma reactions.  They look up with trepidation and wonder when the next plane will come down.  In a city rocked by gang violence, it is a plane crash that has residents thinking of moving out.

Usually I get my news stories from Google, the New York Times or suggestions from friends.  The article about this neighborhood did not cross my radar from any of these sources.  I was on the Mercury News website today looking to see if Mike Miller's obituary had been posted yet.  He died on Monday at the age of 39 after a truly spirited battle with melanoma.  He never got to read about the story he suggested, the story that was so personal to him, in this space.  Oddly enough, reading the article was a trigger for me, not because of the crash itself but because of Mike.  His memory is a blessing.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Other Victim of the Pentagon Shooter

As you probably know, a man with a history of mental illness, a strong belief in conspiracy theories and a serious animosity towards the United States government approached two police officers at the Pentagon Metro station last night and opened fire.  The officers returned fire, mortally wounding him.  They suffered relatively minor injuries.  Whether your classify this as random violence, a failure of the mental health system, or terrorism, it's clear that this was a relatively minor incident as these things go, and while the death of the shooter is a tragedy for his family this obviously could have been much worse.

You might not have heard, in the stories about this incident, about Dan Namisi.  Mr. Namisi is a native of Uganda and a resident of Virginia who happened to be nearby when the shooting started.  He hit the ground as fast as he could, which aside from being a natural reflex is also a relatively good way to avoid being shot in a situation like this.  Officers responding to the shots immediately approached him, handcuffed and searched him and placed him in a police car.  He was held for three hours.

Mr. Namisi tells the Associated Press that he thinks he aroused suspicions because, when he dropped to the ground, he cut his hand.  He was near the shooting and appeared to be injured, and he therefore appeared to be involved.  I will say that I think Mr. Namisi is more charitable in his interpretation of what made him a suspect than I am, but really the main issue is that he was right there when the incident occurred.  It took the police a while to make sure they had figured out what had happened.

Mr. Namisi says he is traumatized.  It's easy to let that remark go by if you're not reading carefully.  After all, who wouldn't be traumatized by having to hit the pavement due to a shooting right next to you?  But he isn't referring to the shooting.  He's referring to the experience of being taken into custody by the police.

In fact, I suspect that the trauma here is actually both things.  Being suspected of something really terrible that you really didn't do, particularly if you come from a country where the justice system is not known for its fairness or good treatment of suspects, is traumatizing by itself.  Being a witness to a shooting where you fear that your own life is in danger is traumatizing by itself.  Having both things back to back is probably worse than the sum of its parts. 

All the physical and emotional responses to trauma were already going for Mr. Namisi when the police handcuffed him.  That means that his body and mind were that much less able to cope with the new trauma when it happened.  Not only did he not have an opportunity to come down from the surge of stress hormones that occurred when the first shots were fired, he got a second surge on top of it.  At a minimum, he's got to be exhausted.

I am in no position to judge whether the police were reasonable in suspecting Mr. Namisi and holding him as long as they did.  I don't know how many, if any, other bystanders experienced the same thing, or what circumstances went into the police officers' decisions.  I do know that Dan Namisi had a really bad evening yesterday, and I hope someone took a moment to thank him for his time and apologize for the inconvenience.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Killer Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein

The FDA announced a recall today of products containing hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) manufactured by Basic Food Flavors, Inc. due to possible salmonella contamination.  There have been no reports of injury or illness, but contamination at the plant has understandably caused concern.

If you are like me, you have some questions at this point.  The most obvious is probably, "What on earth is hydrolyzed vegetable protein?"  You may also wonder what it's in, and in particular what products contain HVP from this manufacturer.  It is these questions that pose an interesting crisis communication issue for the FDA.

As it turns out, HVP is a food additive used in processed foods as a flavor enhancer.  Therefore, the answer to the question of what foods contain it is basically everything, or at least most processed foods may contain it.  As for which products contain HVP from this manufacturer, the answer may disturb you:  nobody's sure.  Once it is manufactured, it is sold to distributors, wholesalers and manufacturers who then either use it or resell it again.  It's not that we can't find out what it's in, it's just that right now we don't know.

The FDA, then, was faced with a dilemma that is fairly common during the throes of a crisis.  They have some information but not complete information.  They have a difficult choice to make -- they can wait until they have complete information before issuing the recall, they can issue a recall based on the information they have and call it complete and only later acknowledge that it wasn't, or they can issue the recall with incomplete information, acknowledge that it's incomplete up front, and update it as they go.

You would be amazed how many organizations, when faced with this situation, pick one of the first two choices.  They either sit on the information they have because they're not ready to release it, or they act as though they are certain of things they are not certain of.  Later, when the whole story comes out, they are surprised when people are angry or distrusting. 

A good example of this is when there is a violent incident at a school.  Schools often don't talk to the press or to parents at all because they aren't sure, for example, how many casualties there are.  Alternately, they state with authority that there are a certain number of victims, and later have to admit that they were wrong.  Parents feel they mishandled the crisis, but in reality they may just have mishandled the information.

The FDA, in my humble opinion, has made the correct choice.  If you visit the recall page, you will see the following statement:

This list includes products subject to recall in the United States since February 2010 related to hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) paste and powder distributed by Basic Food Flavors, Inc. This list will be updated with publicly available information as received. The information is current as of the date indicated. Once included, recalls will remain listed. If we learn that any information is not accurate, we will revise the list as soon as possible. When available, this database also includes photos of recalled products that have been voluntarily submitted by recalling firms to the FDA to assist the public in identifying those products that are subject to recall.

In other words, "this is what we know so far.  It's not everything, and we'll update the information as soon as we can."

Organizations are often worried that statements like this show weakness because they show what they don't know.  I disagree.  Sharing what you do know and acknowledging what you don't is actually a very effective tool for building trust in a crisis situation.  People hearing or reading something like this feel reassured that the organization is sharing as much as it can and trying to be as accurate as possible, and that they will be told whatever is known whenever it is known.  For an organization to engender that kind of trust, whether it's about a shooting or a food additive, is a tremendous strength.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Take Our Children to Work Day at JFK Air Traffic Control

An air traffic controller and a supervisor at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport have been suspended after an incident in which the controller allowed his elementary-aged son to clear planes for take-off.  The incident occurred in mid-February, but is just coming to light now because the audio recording was posted online.  The FAA has also barred unofficial visits from family and friends in control towers until they can review their policies.

I think most of us get on an intuitive level that letting your kid direct air traffic is not a great idea.  At the same time, most of us also get a kick out of seeing kids do adult things.  This would explain the reaction of the pilots this child was talking to, who seemed to think this was rather charming.  It also seems that this was a fairly low-risk situation.  The father was telling the child what to say, and he wasn't relaying highly technical or difficult instructions.  The Associated Press quotes Dave Pasco of the website LiveATC as saying,

I absolutely believe that this is being blown out of proportion.  This is just a completely controlled situation. A child was being told exactly what to say. . . . I think it's just fantastic that this guy cared enough to take his kid to work. How many parents take their kids to work these days?
So, which is it?  Was this air traffic controller a caring father who had some harmless, educational fun with his son when he took him to work, or is he an unprofessional risk taker who put his son's fun ahead of air traffic safety?  In my humble opinion, he's actually neither, or perhaps he's both.

When something horrible happens, you've often heard me say, people's minds go to blame.  We don't like the notion that things can be random, so we look to find a preventable reason why they happen and blame the person who let that reason happen.  Now, in this instance, nothing horrible happened.  In fact, it's likely that there wasn't much of an opportunity for anything horrible to happen that would have been caused by this child or controller.

There certainly is, however, plenty of opportunity for something to go horribly wrong in general on any given day at JFK.  It's a busy airport with lots of airplanes taking off and landing.  Odds are, someday, there will be a crash at JFK simply because odds are, if there are enough planes doing enough things for enough days, something will go wrong.  On the day that that happens, if it should coincide with the day an air traffic controller had his son at the radio, it seems fairly predictable that the inevitable blame will head towards the decision to let that happen.  It won't matter that it really had nothing to do with it, because it will look like it had everything to do with it.

The AP story about this incident draws a parallel to the crash of a helicopter and a small airplane over the Hudson River in New York.  In that incident, an air traffic controller was talking on the phone with his girlfriend just before the collision.  Was it that choice to talk on the phone that was the difference between an accident and an event-free day?  It could have been.  The fact is, we'll never actually know.  But the controller's poor choice certainly made an easy place to lay blame.

There are two things that people in positions of great responsibility should try to avoid.  The first and most important is doing something completely wrong, because whatever they are responsible for will get messed up and it is likely to affect a lot of people, sometimes fatally.  The second, which is certainly less important but, from a crisis preparation standpoint, still crucial, is doing something which, should something go wrong, will look like you did something completely wrong.  That's for your own good, and it's also for the healing and recovery of everyone else.  Tragedies are hard enough without having to wrap your mind around someone doing something incredibly foolish in the midst of it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The End of the Search for Chelsea King

Chelsea King will not be coming home from the jog she went on after school last Thursday.  Her body was found today in a shallow grave in Rancho Bernardo Community Park in San Diego where she went for her run.  A registered sex offender is under arrest, charged with her murder and linked to an assault on another jogger in the same park in December.

When things like this happen, you often hear people remark, "I just can't imagine what her parents must be going through."  This is undoubtedly the case.  Unless you've experienced something similar, it is unlikely that anything in your life is even vaguely related to the emotions that this family is experiencing right now. When we try to imagine what it would be like, we put ourselves directly into the worst of it -- knowing that your daughter has been raped and murdered.  But of course the family does not receive the news this way, and that is part of why we really can't imagine what it's like.

When Chelsea was later than usual coming home from her run, I imagine there was some stretch of time when no one noticed.  A minute or two late wouldn't get anyone's attention.  As time went on, and her family noticed she was late, the decision that something might be wrong probably came on gradually.  After all, if three minutes late isn't a big deal, is four?  What about five?  When do you decide it's a big deal?  Not worrying turns to worrying slowly, and there is an in-between time when folks are both worried and telling themselves they shouldn't be.

This same pattern repeats itself over and over.  There's worrying while knowing it's most likely she's fine, followed by knowing that she probably isn't fine (and the in-between time in the middle of those).  The hope that she's just injured somewhere fades into the fear that she's not, which fades into the knowledge that there's been an arrest but she might be alive, which fades into the realization that she probably isn't, which fades into the certainty.

One of the most common things people say after the traumatic death of a loved one is, "this doesn't feel real" or "this can't be true."  Part of this is because the sudden death of someone we care about is not on our mental menu for things that can happen on a normal day, so it seems like it can't possibly happen.  The other part, however, is that, at least in situations like this one, there have been so many transitions in the understanding of what is going on.  It's hardly surprising that, when it's over, it still feels like it's in that in-between place.

Chelsea King is not coming home.  Her parents know that now.  One can hardly blame them, however, if they have fleeting moments when their minds refuse to accept delivery on that particularly gruesome message.
Monday, March 1, 2010

Why We Should Leave the Osmonds Alone

Marie Osmond's 18 year old son died this weekend.  He apparently jumped from an apartment building in downtown Los Angeles, where he attended school.  He left a suicide note behind.  Various media reports indicate that he had been in rehab in the past, that he suffered from depression, and that his mother thought he was doing better before his death.  The autopsy was "inconclusive" pending toxicology results.  Marie Osmond is described as devastated.

People are asking all sorts of questions about this situation.  Why did he do it?  Did he tell anyone he was going to, and if so who and what did they do?  Was he intoxicated?  Were there warning signs?  What was in the suicide note? I have one simple answer to all of these questions:  None of your business.  I don't mean to be rude, but why on earth do we imagine we are entitled to this information?

When someone kills themselves, they always leave behind unanswered questions.  These are very difficult for family and friends, who always wonder what they missed or what they could have done differently.  Sometimes there are answers in the form of background information or the contents of a note, and sometimes not.  When there is information, the family often chooses to keep it private.  If you've ever worked with family or friends of someone who has killed themselves, you know that the themes all revolve around "woulda, coulda, shoulda."

The questions that the public is asking about Marie Osmond's son right now are questions I would not presume to ask my best friend if (God forbid) a family member completed a suicide.  If the family wants people to know, they will tell us.  Otherwise, all we are doing is drawing the family's attention repeatedly to the most painful aspects of this death -- the nagging questions of what could have been done differently and whether this could have been prevented.  We are truly rubbing salt in what has to be a large and open wound.

Marie Osmond is a public figure.  As such, some would argue that she gives up some measure of privacy.  Her son, however, was not a public figure.  You probably don't even know his name, or at least you didn't before this weekend.  He never agreed to surrender his privacy, and his mother didn't surrender it on his behalf.  Is this a news story?  Sure.  It's worth a brief notice that this happened, and fans can express their condolences.  Demanding additional information, however, isn't just nosy -- it's mean.

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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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