Saturday, June 19, 2010

Family Shot in San Bernardino Restaurant

A man biked to a Del Taco restaurant in San Bernardino, California this afternoon armed with two handguns.  He walked inside, walked over to a table and opened fire on a family of four.  He then shot himself in the head.  The father of the family died at the scene, and an 8-year-old boy died shortly after arriving at the hospital.  A 5-year-old boy and his 29-year-old mother are in critical condition, as is the 56-year-old shooter (there are conflicting reports, with some indicating that he has also died).  Reports indicate he is the woman's stepfather.

This story is horrific, of course.  In the next day or two we'll be hearing more about the relationships among the shooter and the victims and about what his motive may have been. 

In this lull while we wait for more information, it's interesting to contemplate why we think that more information will be helpful. If we think about it for any length of time, it's obvious that, at least for most of us, there is no motive strong enough to justify this kind of premeditated violence, particularly against children.  No matter what we find out, this story is not going to stop being horrific, so why do we care?  Most would chalk it up to macabre fascination with other people's tragedies, but I think there is more than that. 

We generally think of family members as "safe."  They are not the people who, when we see them walking towards us on the street late at night, cause us to cross the street.  We may or may not like our families, but most of us are not afraid of them.  At the same time, we also know that there are people who, with good reason, are afraid of members of their family.  Abusive spouses and parents, disturbed children and other violent relatives are out there, and their families, quite reasonably, fear them.

For those of us who aren't afraid of any of our relatives, it's hard to fathom that someone close to us could try to kill us in broad daylight in public.  This incident must be different in some way, and we want to know how.  This is not just because of morbid curiosity.  We are looking for evidence that, while we don't fear our families, this family had a reason to fear the mother's stepfather.  If we can figure out the motive, we can reassure ourselves of two things:   First, that the same motive doesn't exist in our own families, and second that this was that "other" kind of family -- one of the ones where people knew they should be afraid.

Why do we need that reassurance?  Because the alternative makes us want to hide under our beds and never come out.  The alternative is that any family, anywhere, any time can go from peaceful to violent.  The alternative is that the people we consider "safe" are not safe, in which case we are not safe, even if we think we are.  No one can live a normal life believing that violence could erupt without warning at any moment.  We all know, somewhere in the back of our minds, that random violence does occur, but for the most part we live life as though it doesn't, and we don't want evidence to the contrary, thank you very much.

I don't know anything about this family -- not even their names.  In the days ahead we'll find out whether this attack was at all predictable.  Whether it was or not, however, will not change the fact that half of this family is dead, and the other half will have to live with that loss and this traumatic experience for the rest of their lives.


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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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