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.


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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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