Friday, December 23, 2011

Suicide Among Our Finest

The story unfolded in the local media, posted on my Facebook page this afternoon. A major street was closed due to police activity. Police were investigating a possible suicide. A note had been found and the family called police. Officers on the scene were seen wiping their eyes. And finally, the news that the Chief of Police at Eastern Michigan University killed himself today.

This man was well known in the law enforcement community. In addition to the Eastern police force, he had been an officer in Ann Arbor for many years and quite recently did a brief stint at University of Michigan as their police chief. It's likely that most if not all of the responders to this scene knew him personally. My heart goes out to them.

The suicide rate among police officers is, depending upon whom you ask, either higher or lower than in the general population. A study in 2006 found that while the suicide rate for law enforcement was 52% higher than the general population, if you controlled for race, gender and age it was actually 26% lower than the general population. The discrepancy is caused by the fact that police officers are very disproportionately white males between 25 and 55, and that demographic has a suicide rate about twice the population average.

Not surprisingly, most cops who kill themselves do so with a firearm. Most civilians in that demographic do too. That's why men are so much more likely to kill themselves than women -- the method of choice is almost always lethal. Suicide is most common in groups with easy access to lethal weapons, cultural bias against asking for help and a lack of severe cultural bias against suicide. That last factor is what differentiates black males from white males.

Men don't like to ask for help. Cops really don't like to ask for help. So do a favor tonight, would you? If you know and love a cop, ask them how they're doing. If they're fine, fine. At least you've told them you're willing to have the conversation.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call, 24 hours, 7 days a week: 1-800-273-TALK (veterans press 1 at the prompt). Help is available. You just need to ask.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What Breaking the Silence Really Means

Just over a month ago, I was blogging, as was pretty much every other blogger out there, about the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. I wrote about how hard it is to know what you don't want to know and see what you don't want to see. I wrote about breaking the silence and creating a world where things like this didn't happen and children knew they'd be believed and supported if they did.

Today brings us a story that I would like to offer as exhibit A in my argument that this is a cultural phenomenon and that we as a society need to create a cultural context that does not allow it. At Rosemount High School in Minnesota they held a "pepfest" last week. During this, and organized by school officials, Captains of various teams were blindfolded and told they were going to get a kiss from "someone very special" and they had to guess who. Then each of their opposite-sex parents came out and started to kiss them.

Now, apparently this is a not uncommon prank, and generally mom comes out and gives sonny boy a peck on the cheek, and he thinks it's some girl, and he's embarrassed in front of his schoolmates. We can argue about whether that's a good idea, but it's not inherently evil. But that's not what happened here. In a video that has gone viral, we see the parents lock lips in passionate, make-out kisses. One parent rolls with their child on the floor. A mom can clearly be seen placing her son's hand on her rear end.

The most common reaction I've seen to this is something along the lines of "What the heck were they thinking?!?!" and I certainly echo that sentiment. But I want to put something of a closer focus on what is wrong here.

This "prank" involves parents doing something with their children that, if we saw them do in any other context at all, we would not only think was inappropriate, we would feel obligated to intervene. If one of these children told us that their parent had done this to them in any other context, those of us in education or human services would be obligated, by law, to report it to child protection authorities. If a teacher did this, they'd be fired.

Consider this. Statistics tell us that at least 5% of the boys and 15% of the girls attending this assembly have been or are being sexually molested. Some of them are being molested by a parent. They already feel like they can't tell, like no one will believe them, like no one will protect them. Then they go to pepfest, and see this, arranged by adults, condoned by adults and performed by adults. Can you imagine any stronger message that no one is going to help them or care what they're going through? And God forbid that one of the Captains is being molested at home. Now they got to have it happen in front of the whole school.

As long as we think that adults sexualizing teenagers is OK, or even funny, we are not going to be effective at protecting them from sexual predators. Saying that pedophelia is bad is not the same as stopping it. Child sexual abuse is about failure to respect boundaries between adults and children. We have to show our kids and our adults that we will enforce those boundaries every day in every way, period. If it's going to stop, it stops not just when a rape is in progress. It stops at pepfest, too.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Pepper Spray at UC Davis

A police officer sprays pepper spray at UC Davis
Video is all over the Internet this morning of a police officer at University of California at Davis walking up and down a row of seated, passive protesters, spraying them in the face with pepper spray.

The video has sparked quite a bit of outrage in various circles across the political spectrum, including calls for an investigation and calls from the faculty association for the university's chancellor to resign. Last night, as the chancellor walked to her car, three solid blocks of protesters lined up on either side of her and stood in absolute silence as she walked past. That's quite a video to see, too.

This isn't the first, nor will it be the last, use of force against Occupy Wall Street protesters. That is a statement of fact, not a political commentary or even a critique of the police. It's gotten me thinking, though, about the affect on the protesters of being subject to or witnessing this violence.

On the one hand, by this point in the movement's history, protesters, even those who have no intention of breaking any laws, have to know that this is a possible outcome. That is especially true when you consider the following analysis, offered in the Associated Press:

Charles J. Kelly, a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant who wrote the department's use of force guidelines, said pepper spray is a "compliance tool" that can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters.

"When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them," Kelly said. "Bodies don't have handles on them."

After reviewing the video, Kelly said he observed at least two cases of "active resistance" from protesters. In one instance, a woman pulls her arm back from an officer. In the second instance, a protester curls into a ball. Each of those actions could have warranted more force, including baton strikes and pressure-point techniques.

"What I'm looking at is fairly standard police procedure," Kelly said.

If this is standard police procedure, then it's not terribly hard to imagine a very docile protest getting to the point of pepper spray. One might argue, then, that it doesn't traumatize the protesters because they know it's coming or, to be more extreme, they brought it on themselves.

This seemed to be the take of the Chancellor, whose statement on the incident said:

We deeply regret that many of the protestors today chose not to work with our campus staff and police to remove the encampment as requested. We are even more saddened by the events that subsequently transpired to facilitate their removal.
Whether this is acceptable police behavior or not, and whether these protesters deserved it or not, however, is entirely beside the point when it comes to deciding whether it was traumatic. Blame and fault don't actually have anything to do whatsoever with trauma. You can be traumatized by something you did intentionally or by its consequences.

What makes an event traumatic lies in the internal reaction of the person. If what happened is terrifying or horrifying to you, the question of whether you knew or should have known it was coming, or whether it was your fault, is irrelevant. That means that these students, and many protesters around the country in the last few weeks, may well need early trauma intervention services. My guess is that few are getting them, although I don't know for sure.

Occupy Wall Street is organized by "working groups" that take on everything from cooking to PR to sanitation. I think OWS now needs a trauma intervention working group -- the OWS CISM team. Sign me up.

Friday, November 11, 2011

We Are Penn State

By now, you probably know what happened. At least eight young boys were allegedly sexually assaulted and/or raped in State College, Pennsylvania over the course of 15 years. The alleged perpetrator was an assistant coach for the Penn State football team, which, let's face it, is the only reason those of us outside of the area even know about it.

If the allegations aren't enough to outrage you, throw in the fact that two administrators were also arrested for allegedly covering it up and lying about it to the grand jury. They never even bothered to find out the name of the kid they knew had been assaulted. Joe Paterno, the head football coach, has lost his job for knowing about it, reporting it, but never questioning why nothing was done. The President of the college is out, too, for knowing something was up and not bothering to find out what.

If you have a strong stomach, you might want to read the grand jury report in its entirety (linked here). It gives you an understanding that "eight boys were molested" fails to capture. Two different people actually witnessed boys being raped and reported it, and nothing was done. The question in my mind, and probably a lot of yours, is not just how you can witness that and not stop it, but how you can sit back, knowing you've reported this, and, when nothing ever happens about it just keep it to yourself.

We're glued to this story because it's Penn State football. We're also glued to it because we want so badly to know that this couldn't happen if we were around. If we had seen it, if we had known, we would have stopped it. If it were our coworker, we would have stood up. If it had been our kid . . . it couldn't be our kid.

But let's look at the statistics. Estimates are that between 5% and 15% of men and between 15% and 25% of women were sexually abused as children. If you think about your circle of friends and acquaintances, however, it's unlikely you can think of that many who you know are survivors. That's because this is a crime of shame. Sexual assault -- on adults as well as on children -- is a crime that leaves the person who has been assaulted believing that there is something wrong with them. It is a crime of humiliation and degradation. So people don't tell.

We like to think, however, that telling is enough, and that's part of why the Penn State situation is so disturbing. If the secrecy is what let's this crime go on, then someone knowing about it should make it stop.

And yet, it can be a fine line. There are people who are creepy and inappropriate, who may well be abusers, but we don't have proof, or they're not abusers yet. And you can't ruin someone's life for being creepy. Being creepy is not a crime. Those cases, I know from personal experience, are agonizing.

In this case, though, it wasn't a fine line at all. People saw it happen. But the fact of the matter is, this situation -- that someone knew and nothing was done -- is far from an isolated incident.

I work with a lot of sexual abuse survivors. Whether by temperament or by training, I can listen to their stories with empathy without usually being traumatized myself. It doesn't generally get to me. But what gets to me, what I struggle with, is their stories about what happened when they tried to tell:
My mother told me to tell my father, but he was asleep so that was it.
My grandmother asked me what I did to make it happen?
My dad said I must have wanted it.
My pastor said I was going to hell for talking about sex.
My mom slapped my face and told me never to lie again.
My mother let him do it to me so he wouldn't go after my little brother and sister.
My mother put me in foster care because she didn't want to leave him.
Time after time after time, people tell me that their safety was sacrificed for family cohesion, reputation, the safety of others or simply someone else would not have to deal with the unthinkable.

And is what happened at Penn State so different? People knew but did not want to know. They played a gigantic round of the game "telephone," downplaying a little more as the report went on, to the point that they convinced themselves not to do anything. They sacrificed the safety of young boys for the reputation of the University, its athletic program and its coaches.

We, all of us, need to know that not only can this happen in our neighborhoods, it is happening in each of our neighborhoods, and we can stop it. We need to believe that no reputation or family togetherness or peace of mind is more important than the life of a child. Let us all look back on this incident, on this week, and say that this was the time the silence and complicity ended, not just at Penn State, but everywhere.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Homicide Watch and Victim Identification

This week, the NPR show On the Media had an interview with Laura Amico, the founder of a website called Homicide Watch D.C. This website tracks every homicide in Washington, DC from the time the crime is committed through the investigation, trial and sentencing. It's a big job in a city that has already experienced 95 murders in 2011 (down from 106 at this point in 2010).

One of the things that makes Homicide Watch interesting is that they often publish information that has not been made public by the police department. Most notably, they publish victim's names before they have been released. The interview on NPR today focused on how they are able to do that.

If you think about it, it actually isn't all that hard. The fact of the matter is that, unless the person is truly unidentified, a large number of people know the identity of the victim immediately after a homicide. Friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues, classmates etc. hear about it very quickly. These people, in turn, do two things: they go online looking for information about the crime, and they go online to talk about it.

When these folks go looking for information, they don't realize that public information tends to be very meager and come out very slowly. Chances are that they themselves already know more about what happened than is available in the media. They're looking, nonetheless. So immediately after the murder of John Smith, his friends and relations start googling terms like, "murder John Smith Washington November 7." One of the sites they are most likely to find themselves directed to is Homicide Watch D.C., even though it doesn't have any information for them.

Meanwhile, the folks over at the website have a preliminary police report that a male victim died of stab wounds on XYZ street. All of a sudden, the analytics for their website start showing that people are googling "murder John Smith Washington November 7." So the website folks go on Twitter and Facebook, looking for things like "RIP John Smith." When they find it, they can also often find additional information. For example, the full tweet might read, "RIP John Smith, stabbed to death tonight." That's a good clue that the victim is John Smith. Even better, they may be able to find John Smith's Facebook page, where people may be posting memorials and comments about the murder.

At this point, they know the victim's name and they publish it, hours and sometimes days before the police release it. But should they? After all, the police hang onto that information for a reason, and if they have a good reason shouldn't the website have the same reason?

Let's start with why the police are slow to release the name. They want to be absolutely certain they have it right, and they want to be absolutely certain that no close relative will hear about the crime from the media before they are officially notified. The techniques the police department uses to identify victims and the standards they use for "absolutely certain," however, are very different than what Homicide Watch is using.

The police may be waiting on fingerprint confirmation. At a minimum they're waiting for a family member to come down to the morgue and identify the body. Homicide Watch presumes that if the family is tweeting and facebooking about it, they've already identified the body for their own purposes, if not for the police department's, and that's good enough for them. Homicide Watch also relies on the fact that if the murder has made it to Twitter and Facebook there is very little chance that any close relatives don't already know. Another way of looking at it is this -- the police wait until they have identified the victim to their satisfaction. Homicide Watch waits until they see evidence that the victim's family has identified them to the family's satisfaction.

In the end, I actually think publishing the name before it's released officially is something of a service to the relatives and loved ones of the victim. If you have ever been involved in a traumatic event, you have probably experienced the odd feeling that comes when you realize that your world has stopped turning and the rest of the world doesn't know it. Reading media that has no coverage of your event, or inaccurate or minimalist coverage, feels just plain wrong. At least with Homicide Watch, the next time someone googles for information, they will find some confirmation that yes, this awful thing did happen and yes, someone noticed. On balance, I think that's a good thing.

Monday, October 31, 2011

From the Files: A Halloween Crisis

Halloween in a school is always an adventure. The best advice for school personnel on this day was shared with me by a senior teacher early in my career: "Stay more sugared up than the kids." Whether or not the school has particular activities or parties planned, there's a certain level of craziness that infects most kids the day of the biggest candy fest of the year.

Several Halloweens ago, I was dressed as Greg from the Wiggles for Halloween. For those of you unfamiliar, the Wiggles are an Australian children's music and television group. They dress in black slacks and solid colored shirts. Greg used to be the yellow one, before he got sick. My infant son was Jeff (purple) and my husband was Anthony (red). My daughter wisely refused to have any part in this.

I arrived at the office at school that morning to find a witch and a mad scientist already hard at work answering phones and assisting kids. The day proceeded as Halloweens usually do, with a smattering more behavior issues than usual and a lot of cute costumes. Around lunch time, a bleeding tree frog entered the office.

The frog had had a collision with a pole on the playground and was sporting a cut on his forehead. There were no signs of a concussion, but he was bleeding pretty heavily. Greg the Wiggle took a look and immediately realized that the frog was going to need to be seen by a doctor -- the cut was pretty deep, and stitches looked like they were in the tree frog's future. The witch got out the emergency cards and started calling his mom.

With the mad scientist assisting, Greg donned gloves and cleaned the frog up. He was scared. He was only a third or fourth grade tree frog, and he'd never had stitches before. There was a lot of blood, and it hurt. Greg spoke calmly to the frog, explaining that the stitches would be quick, and that nowadays they sometimes even use glue to seal up cuts like this. Head wounds bleed a lot, she said, but it really wasn't that bad. The mad scientist held supplies and handed them over as Greg applied a butterfly bandage to the frog's forehead, pulling the edges of the cut together and stopping the bleeding.

Mom arrived and transported the frog to the emergency room, and the office returned to normal, or at least as normal as things can be in a school office staffed by Greg from the Wiggles, a witch and a mad scientist. We had our annual Halloween parade around the neighborhood, with 450+ kids trailing behind Greg in their costumes, scaring the neighbors. I called mom's cell phone that afternoon and learned they were still waiting in the ER, no news.

Around four o'clock, as I was finishing up for the day, the phone rang. It was tree frog's mom. She said, "He wants to talk to you. We're in the car on the way home."

Tree frog got on the phone and exclaimed, "Nothing!" I didn't know what he meant. "No stitches, no glue, nothing! The doctor said whoever put on that butterfly bandage did such a good job he wasn't going to touch it. So I want to know. What's your favorite candy?"

"Why do you need to know my favorite candy?" I asked

"'Cause I'm going trick or treating tonight and I'm gonna get a bunch of candy and I'm getting you some!" he replied.

The next morning, one of my students, sporting a big band-aid on his head, greeted me with a bag full of mini-snickers and a big smile. It may have been my best experience as an administrator ever, the Wiggles notwithstanding.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bombing at Occupy Maine

Imagine, if you will, that you are a protester at Occupy Maine, the Portland, ME off-shoot of the Occupy Wall Street protests. In the interest of economic equality, you have been camping in Lincoln Park in Portland for a few weeks. There aren't many of you, but you're committed. And while not everyone agrees with you, those who don't tend to brand you as harmless loons. Not a compliment, certainly, but if you can stand Portland nights in October you can stand a little ridicule.

Then, early one Sunday morning, someone tries to kill you. Maybe that's actually their intent, or maybe they think they're being funny or its a "prank," but they throw a chemical explosive device out of a passing car into the tent next to yours. You awaken to an explosion. You realize that if they had aimed a little bit to the side you would be maimed or dead right now. You're shaken. You're scared. Sleep isn't going to come easily the next night, or for a few nights. The police come, but have no real leads.

To you, this is a turning point, not just for you but for the Occupy protests. Now it's not just us vs. the banks, or even us vs. the police. Someone out there hates the Occupy movement enough to want people dead. You wait to see what the reaction will be. Will the anti-Occupy folks denounce this act of violence? Will it galvanize support for the movement or cause others to think twice about participating? Is this the first of a rash of similar incidents or an isolated problem? You wait to see what the press will say.


The sum total of press coverage of this attack in the first 24 hours is 148 words in the Portland Press Herald. Not only is there no national coverage, there isn't even any coverage in other parts of Maine. You're pretty sure that if this had happened while you were just out camping in the park for fun, or if it had happened at your house, it would be big news. But you, as a protester, don't matter. Your movement doesn't matter. Your life is so insignificant that nearly losing it isn't news.

At least there isn't intrusive and inaccurate press coverage. At least the press aren't hounding you. At least no one's trying to spin it as justified.

Somehow, I doubt you feel any better.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What if a Wolf Should Come Out of the Forest?

A dead lion on the Ohio game preserve.
Zanesville, Ohio is basically under lockdown this morning after more than 40 animals escaped from a preserve. The owner was found dead, and the animals' cages were all open. So far authorities have shot and killed about 25 of the animals, which included lions, bears and wolves. Four local school districts have cancelled classes.

My first impression when I heard this story was that someone had murdered the preserve owner had been murdered by someone who then thought it would be a good idea to let the animals out, perhaps to cover his tracks. Upon reflection, I don't know why I thought this. Certainly that was not in any way what the media reported. But I think all of us, at these moments, become "experts" based on the many crime novels and cop TV shows we've been exposed to over the years.

One article this morning, however, reports that initial indications are that the owner killed himself. This would imply that he released the animals himself in an unusual twist on a murder-suicide.

I will not pretend to understand what causes someone to decide not only that they would be better off dead but that they should take other people with them. I suppose I vaguely understand, although of course do not agree with, people who believe they've messed up their and other's lives so badly that it's best to put everyone out of their misery at once.

But this type of case is different. In this situation, someone decided that others have made their lives unlivable, and that the others need to be punished with death at the same time that they themselves stop living. That's not just depression, that's a level of rage I simply can't imagine.

This is of course just one facet of the story. These animals did nothing wrong at all and will now be killed to protect human life. I get it, it's probably necessary, but it's wrong. And kids are locked in with their parents out of fear of a wild animal eating them. It feels like a scene out of "Peter and the Wolf." The kicker is that this is the second death of a wild animal keeper this year in this area -- another man choked to death in what the press delicately termed a "voluntary sex act" in July. I'll spare you the details.

If we went with that fictional crime expertise we all seem to posess, this would all be part of a bizarre plot, perhaps on the part of radical animal rights activists, to murder wild animal preserve owners and free the animals. The defense would try to convince the jury that the action was necessary to save the lives of hundreds of animals. Perhaps Jessica Fletcher would crack the case after her nephew was falsely accused by the bumbling local law enforcement authorities.

Unfortunately, this is real life, and real life can be just plain weird sometimes. I hope more of these animals can be tranquilized rather than killed now that daylight is here, and I hope that happens before anyone gets hurt. I also hope we all remember that, no matter what incomprehensible thing he did, this owner was someone's son, brother and/or friend, and they are hurting in private somewhere today. Coming to grips with this is not going to be easy.

* The title of today's post comes from Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," about a boy who encounters a wolf after being warned not to play outside. The link above is to a really fun version illustrated by Bono of U2 fame. It's my favorite, and proceeds benefit Irish Hospice.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why Terrorism is Like Mosquitoes

There's an old wives' tail that goes something like this: Male mosquitoes buzz, but don't bite. Females bite, but don't buzz. So it's when you don't hear anything that you should worry.*

I was reminded of this yesterday, when news broke of the failed plot, allegedly by Iran, to recruit members of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Syrian ambassador to the United States by bombing an undetermined location in Washington, DC. The media has been making the obvious comparisons to a spy novel or Hollywood script.

The plot seems amateurish. The evil Iranians we all fear can certainly do better than this, can't they? In the Middle East, the story has been met with outright disbelief.

In the sage of another highly publicized failed plot, the "underwear bomber" pled guilty in Detroit today. Apparently what he wanted more than anything was the chance to make a public statement about why he did it, and so he did.

Both of these plots should, from one perspective, terrify me. Not only do I live in the Detroit area, I've taken Flight 253 from Amsterdam. I have family in Washington, DC. These plots represent plots against people and places I care about.

And yet, I'm not terrified. To me, these plots seem like the male mosquitoes. They're the ones that we notice, but not the ones that are dangerous. They make the noise, but they don't bite.

I'm not worried about these. If this is the best the terrorists can come up with, I think we're OK. What scares me isn't the ones we know about. It's the ones we don't. Remember, it's the silent, female mosquitoes that bite.

* Like many pieces of "common knowledge," this turns out not to be true. While it is only the females that bite, the buzz is the sound of beating wings and comes from both males and females.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Did the Onion Cross the Line?

The Onion, if you're not familiar, is a "news" outlet that puts out a printed newspaper, a TV show and a website absolutely chock full of fake news. Typical headlines are things like, "Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What's Happened In Past Before Making Any Big Decisions" and "Syracuse Leaves Big East For Woman Named 'Misti'." The Onion, in my humble opinion, varies between mildly amusing and downright hilarious, and occasionally it hits the nail on the head with its headlines in ways that make you say, "What's sad is, that's almost true."

From time to time, the Onion gets in trouble because someone doesn't realize they're kidding. There is, in fact, an entire blog devoted to people taking the Onion literally on Facebook, often with hilarious results. Many years ago, when the Onion published a story saying that Congress was threatening to leave Washington unless they got a new Capitol building with sky boxes, it got picked up by the official media in China and reported as factual evidence of the failures of capitalism.

Today there was another such Onion incident. The Onion ran an article on its website with the headline, "Congress Takes Group of Schoolchildren Hostage." The tagline was, "'We need $12 trillion or all these kids die.'" This was accompanied by a doctored photo of John Boehner with a gun to the head of a little girl.

The Onion then began sending tweets, the first of which read, "BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building." This got retweeted enough times and alarmed enough people that the phones at the Capitol Police Department started ringing off the hook. They actually began an investigation, because by this point, although they knew the story was false, they couldn't figure out where it had started.

So the question is, is this just another case of people not getting an Onion joke, or did the Onion actually do something wrong here? I think it's the latter, but apparently for a different reason than most commentators out there.

My take is this: the Onion is funny because they manage to run stories that relate to reality in some way but are just off the wall enough that if you're paying attention you know they can't be true. In this instance, the notion that Congress is "holding the country hostage" is not a new one, but no one really thinking about it would believe that John Boehner actually was threatening little children with a firearm. You may or may not like the politics of this story, and you may or may not think it was funny, but it was clearly intended as a joke. Most of the comments out there about this mess suggest that such a story by itself, or with the picture, crosses the line of decency. I actually think that is not the problem

The problem is that, when the Onion started tweeting, they did something crucially different than what they did in the original story. That first tweet had absolutely nothing in it that would even hint that it was supposed to be a joke. There wasn't anything about how Congress, as a whole, was taking hostages. That's the part we knew was false. All it said was that there was gunfire and screams at the Capitol. That was purely believable, and because of that it wasn't funny.

You might argue that anyone who knows anything about the Onion should have known it wasn't true anyway, and you would have a point. However, not everyone knows the Onion, and once people started retweeting and the original author was lost in the stream, people seeing this tweet had no way to know that it wasn't real. The Onion lost control of the joke. In hindsight, at least, that seems pretty predictable.

The Onion's sin here wasn't making fun of violence at the Capitol. It was joking in a way that did not insure that everyone would at least have a chance to be in on the joke. I hope the folks over at the Onion learned a lesson, because I'd hate to feel like I can't read it anymore. It's pretty funny.

This post was updated on September 30 at 11:09 PM.
Friday, September 23, 2011

Try Explaining This One to Your Kids

There was a car bombing in Monroe, Michigan on Tuesday.

How many of you just went back and read that again to make sure you had read it correctly? I sure did when I saw the headline. Monroe, Michigan, population 20,700 and change, had a car bombing. A local lawyer, aged 42, and his sons, 11 and 13, were driving to football practice around 5:30 when a pipe bomb placed under the passenger seat went off, injuring all three of them. The boys are still in the hospital. The dad has been released.

At moments like this, I usually flip automatically into what I like to call "Law and Order" mode. Who are the most likely suspects? I'm thinking someone on the other side of a case. Turns out this guy handled divorces, so that makes it even juicier. Someone got screwed in a divorce, decides to kill the lawyer. We haven't even finished the opening credits, and the Quarterback has solved the case.

Of course, if this were a "Law and Order" episode, the very fact that the case was solved so quickly would indicate with certainty that we've got the wrong guy. There's a whole 40 minutes of TV to fill, after all, so it's either that or some big constitutional issue in how I conducted the investigation.

But I digress, which is easy to do, because this story just doesn't seem real. This is not something that happens in real life. I've written often about how trauma messes up our ideas of what is likely vs. what is possible. But this wasn't even on my possible list. There are places in the world where this happens. Southeast Michigan is not one of them.

The Catholic school that the boys attend held a prayer service for them yesterday. There are also excerpts from a letter from the Principal to parents, and it looks like he did a pretty good job. But this raises the question, how exactly would you explain this to one of the boys' classmates in such a way that was honest but didn't scare them? This is not one of the many types of horrible events that I have a fairly stock way of explaining to kids -- and remember, that's allegedly one of my areas of expertise.

So let's go with general rules of thumb:

Tell the truth, the whole truth, but not all the details unless asked: Your friend is in the hospital. He got very hurt in an accident, but it looks like he's going to be OK.

If they're going to hear it anyway, let them hear it from you: There was an explosion in the car he and his dad and brother were riding in. The police think someone put an explosive device under one of the seats.

Separate what is known from what is not known, and that people are working on it: The police are investigating and they've even called investigators from the federal government. They don't know who did this or why, but they have some good leads and they're trying their best to find out.

Normalize the feeling, educate about the probabilities: This is a pretty scary thing. And one of the reasons it's so scary and such a big deal is because it's incredibly unusual. I've never heard of something like this happening. So even though it really scares me, I also know it's really unlikely to happen again.

Is this going to be enough to make them feel completely safe? No. It probably doesn't make you feel completely safe either. But you have to start somewhere, and then just live with the fact that it's going to feel scary for a while, and it will get better.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

No Time to Think: Nevada Air Show Crash

Yesterday, a small plane participating in the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, crashed into the box seats of spectators. Three people were killed on the scene, including the pilot. More than 50 were injured, many of them critically.

The still pictures of this crash are the sort that make me think, "That would be a really amazing shot if I didn't contemplate what's happening in it." The one displayed here, which is from the Associated Press (click here or on the picture to see a larger version), is particularly jarring for a number of reasons. First is the realization that it must have been taken literally the moment of the crash. This is not the aftermath, this is the event. Given how horrifying this must have been to watch, I admire the photographer, Ward Howes, for how clear and steady it is. If he was holding his camera, he wasn't shaking. If it was on a tripod, he managed not to knock into it in the excitement.

The other thing that I notice in this picture, and which I found somewhat disturbing, is that people are just standing there. From this angle, it does not appear that anyone at all is running away. How is that possible? If a plane were headed straight for you, wouldn't you run?

There are two major reasons that no one is running in this picture. The first has to do with visual perspective. It is very hard to judge where an object traveling in your general direction at high speed is going to land. Some people are much better at this than others, as evidenced by the fact that, at a baseball game, a foul ball hit pretty much anywhere into my side of the stands will make me duck, while other people don't even move unless it's coming within two rows of them.

If you look up and see the plane headed in your general direction, you may want to run. However, unless you're really good at figuring out where the plane will land, it's hard to know which way to run, or even if you should run at all. Clearly you'd rather be a mile away, but that's not an option. And while running ten feet to either side might save your life, it might also mean running directly into the path of the plane.

The second reason has to do with our natural reactions to an immediate threat. While most of us are familiar with the "fight or flight" response, you may not know that "freeze" is also a natural, involuntary reaction to danger. Evolutionarily this makes some sense. If you can get a predator not to notice you, your chances of survival are actually much greater than if you try to fight it or run from it.

People who experience this natural "freeze" reaction often feel horrible after the event. They say things like, "I just stood there. Why didn't I try to help? Why didn't I try to get away?" The answer is, they could no more avoid freezing than they could avoid their heart rate going up. It was not in their conscious control.

If you watch the video of this crash, you can see that no one had much time to move. By the time it registered with the spectators that the crash was occurring, it was pretty much over. Couple that with trying to figure out where it was going to land and the freeze response, as well as the fact that the crash was somewhat further away than you might think looking at this picture, and you get a photograph that captures what all of us feel in considering this tragedy -- stunned horror and complete helplessness.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How I Spent My 9-11

I've lived in this neighborhood
For twenty-seven years
I know where to get good bagels
And exotic beers
The favorite sidewalk cafes
Where locals like to eat
But I never paid attention to
The firehouse on this street

My house is about half a mile from our main township fire station. I'm particularly glad about this given that, because of zoning regulations, our area does not have fire hydrants, it's somewhat reassuring to know that the tanker truck is right nearby. The one time we had to call an ambulance the firefighters got here really, really fast.

Last week, driving by, I noticed the station had put up its 9-11 memorial banner. It's a white banner with a red, white and blue lapel ribbon and the words, "We remember 9-11-01." My son, who is 6 and has no knowledge of the attacks, asked about it.

I explained that 10 years ago there was a terrible tragedy in New York where many firefighters were killed. All the firefighters all around the country were scared and sad, and all the people in the country were scared and sad too. The sign says that the firefighters here are remembering, because the 10th anniversary of that day is coming up.

Neighbors lit votive candles
Laid flowers at the door
Baked casseroles and homemade breads
But wished they could do more
And the guys inside were grateful
But preferred to grieve alone
Though trained to save the lives of others
They could not save their own

I decided bringing something to the firefighters today would be a good and appropriate way to commemorate the anniversary and involve the kids. We had a massive Tollhouse Cookie fest this morning and made probably six dozen or more cookies. Every surface of the kitchen and every surface of my son was coated in flour and dough. The whole family helped, which was a nice bit of togetherness and unity.

This afternoon, my son and I took a huge plate of cookies over to the firehouse (important tip -- the total capacity of a single Chinette dinner plate is close to, but not quite, 6 dozen cookies if you stack them really carefully and then wrap in foil). There are two firefighters on duty at all times there, one in the other station in town, and nine total.

I'm not sure what I expected. Half of me was afraid this would be the 47th plate of cookies they got today. Another piece was afraid they'd look at me like I was crazy. Neither was true. The two guys on duty were quite appreciative and very touched. They kept saying "you didn't have to do this. You really didn't." But both of them acknowledged this was a really hard day. They said they were trying to keep busy and not turn on the TV.

The guys let my son wear one of their helmets and get his picture taken in front of the engine with him standing on the front bumper and the two firefighters below. They let him sit in the driver's seat. He was in heaven. We said goodbye and thank you, they said come by anytime.

I'm glad we went. And it was heartbreaking. I don't think it could possibly have been otherwise.

Maybe next year the pain
Won't be as sharp
As it is today
Though it will never
Completely go away
We will talk in terms of
'Before' and 'after' the attack
And wish that more than anything
We could bring those brave men back

Reality sliced cleanly through
That slender thread of hope
The digging just went on and on
Some snapped
Most of us still cope
The photos of the missing men
Are missing from the glass
Of the red door where
We say a prayer
Whenever we walk past

Note: The lyrics interspersed in today's post are from the song "Firehouse" by Christine Lavin, off her album "I Was in Love With a Difficult Man." It was written for the men of Ladder 25 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Every singer-songwriter wrote a song about 9-11. This one, in my humble opinion, is the best for many reasons, but mostly because it so well captures the common experience of 9-11 in all of its many facets, as well as the experience of the first responders who lost their brothers and sisters that day.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Why 9-11?

So, are you feeling like dog poop yet? Sick of the coverage? Want to talk about something -- anything else? Welcome to the 10th anniversary of 9-11, and to being a human who has experienced trauma. If you didn't read what I had to say yesterday about getting through this in a healthy way, I highly suggest it -- that one was more important than what I've got to say today.

What is it about 9-11 that holds such power over us? More Americans have died, after all, in Iraq and Afghanistan than did during that one day. There have been other big, national events -- Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing -- that got our attention when they happened but don't seem to affect us quite the same way. Why?

First of all, I think there is an argument to be made that each of these events affected our society significantly. Certainly the Kennedy assassination did. While I won't put all of the '60s on that event, it was a catalyst. Each generation seems to have their "big thing," and 9-11 was ours.

But something does separate the September 11th attacks in our consciousness. If it wasn't worse, it was different. It is different.

PTSD is unusual in its diagnoses because, unlike most disorders, the cause is part of the diagnosis. You can be diagnosed with depression, for example, without having something obvious causing your depression. But in PTSD, there are particular criteria the trauma has to meet.

First, the person must have witnessed an event that they sincerely believed had the possibility to threaten the life or physical integrity of or cause serious injury to themselves or others. September 11th? Check.

Second, the person must have responded, at the time, with feelings of intense fear, horror or helplessness. September 11th? Check.

Of course, the Kennedy assassination, for those who saw it or saw the footage, met those same criteria. But there is one key difference.

On September 11, 2001, we as a country all witnessed an event that killed over 3,000 people. But more than that, we experienced an event that we sincerely believed had the possibility of killing us. We didn't just have intense horror or helplessness. We had intense fear. We don't like to admit it, and maybe it seems a little silly looking back, but the simple fact that someone was out there targeting Americans simply for being Americans, coupled with the idea that regular folks went off to regular jobs and never came back, was and is really scary.

My daughter was 3 years old on 9-11. She didn't know what was going on, but slowly, over the following weeks, she asked questions about the things she noticed -- flags in windows, singing the "Bless America" song (as she called it). We answered the questions she asked and nothing more. But she knew it was bad. After one such conversation where I had to reassure her of her own safety as I tucked her in, I remember coming out of her room and saying, "The good news is, our daughter now feels perfectly safe. Now who's going to tuck me in and make me feel safe?"

The real truth is, no one is. We can't go back to thinking it can't happen. All we can do is acknowledge that it's there and it's scary, and remind ourselves that it's still really, really, really unlikely that any one of us will become a victim of a terrorist attack. If we can channel our inner toddler, maybe that will be enough.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Turn Into the Wind: Dealing With the 9-11 Anniversary and its Hype

All week I've been writing about how American society matches the symptom profile for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This morning, I took the first of those pieces to my writer's group, a small circle of women writers who share and respond to each other's work every Friday mornings. I knew it was not my best work, and I wanted feedback.

As usual, the group was very helpful, but one of their reactions caught me by surprise. Members felt that my writing was distressing (not in terms of quality, but in terms of topic), and that I needed to give information on how to deal with that distress. So I'm taking a detour from the exploration of PTSD in a post 9-11 society to help all you Quarterbackers out there as we head into the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

Perhaps the most important thing you should know is that, if you're feeling blah this week, or sad, or anxious, or irritable, or having trouble sleeping, or anything else that makes you feel "off," even if you do not consciously connect those feelings to this anniversary, you're normal. Anniversaries are very powerful, and quite often people who don't even realize that it is an anniversary have negative reactions nonetheless. This isn't helped by the terrorism alert for New York and Washington. What might be somewhat distressing anyway only feels magnified given the time of year.

You also aren't crazy if you are sick and tired of the anniversary coverage (although chances are you aren't reading this, so I may be wasting my breath). The extra coverage is draining because it prevents us from getting away from the intense memories and the feelings they evoke.

Whichever of these two groups you most identify with, you're normal. Don't waste one minute worrying that your reaction is too much or not enough or inappropriate, any more than you would criticize yourself for feeling pain when you stub your toe. You couldn't control those feelings if you wanted to, so don't bother trying.

But what can you do? If the coverage or the date or the blogging about our messed-up society is bothering you, what is the solution? You may not like the answer, because here's what it isn't. Turning off the TV, avoiding reading my blog, doing something completely non-9-11 related on Sunday and generally trying to get your mind off it may feel good for the moment, but it is a quick fix for a longer term problem. That's because problem isn't the reminders of the attack, it's how upsetting they are to you. Avoiding the reminders won't solve the underlying issue, it will just push it back underground.

What I suggest is completely counter-intuitive. When you find yourself having negative feelings -- sadness, fear, hurt, anger, guilt, shame or whatever -- don't try to turn away from them. Turn towards them. Identify what you are feeling and what caused it. Label them consciously. Don't try to explain it rationally, because emotions are not rational -- they're, well, emotional. Whatever you're feeling just is, so you might as well feel it.

The reason this is a good idea is that, when you turn and face your negative emotions, they stop feeling so overwhelming. Feelings, by themselves, do not hurt us. What we tell ourselves about those feelings and the events that trigger them can. No one likes to feel sad or afraid, but you can tolerate it. Your negative emotion loses its power when you acknowledge it and face it head on.

Does this mean you should glue yourself to the TV and watch as much coverage as you can this weekend? No. Just as avoiding reminders isn't healthy, seeking them out to excess isn't, either. Watch, read and hear what interests and moves you or is meaningful to you. Consider for yourself what type of commemoration, if any, you believe is appropriate for you to participate in. Just monitor yourself and be careful when you find yourself saying things like, "I can't watch that," "I want to get my mind off it," or "I won't be able to handle that." Those are signs you're avoiding, and you're not turning into the wind.

For me, this Sunday is about reclaiming September 11th as a day of grief and fear -- yes, I'm reclaiming fear -- and as a day of unity, service and collective support. I am allowing myself to feel the sadness and, as hard as it is, some of the horror of that day. And I'm patting myself on the back for doing it, because it isn't easy. I hope you'll join me.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

America's PTSD Part 3: Society on Edge

We're continuing to look at the ways American society is manifesting behaviors indicative of PTSD in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. Today's topic is the third cluster of symptoms, "Hyper-Arousal." People with PTSD are, in many ways, in a permanent state of fight or flight. They are overly alert and on guard. So are we.

People with PTSD have at least two of the following symptoms:

Difficulty falling or staying asleep. It's somewhat difficult to judge how much of America's current sleep deprivation has happened since 9-11.  It is certainly well documented that on average we don't get enough sleep. What's more, we don't value sleep as a society. Few people work in places where the boss will tell you not to come in if you're tired. In fact, we don't consider exhaustion do be a legitimate reason to take a sick day -- that's faking. More and more, our institutions function on the assumption that we are awake at all hours. Congress works into the wee hours of the morning. The funniest television is on past 11. The announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden was made late at night even though it had happened hours before -- couldn't it have waited until the morning? We assume no one is sleeping, and we may be right.

Irritability or outbursts of anger. I talked at some length about how angry we are as a society in yesterday's post. Everything is a place to draw the line, make a stand and stand our ground. You're either with us or against us, with us or with the terrorists. Comparisons between politicians, political parties, grassroots organizations and the Nazis are so common we're not even surprised anymore when someone makes them.

Difficulty concentrating. Let's face it. The American public has the attention span of a flea, with apologies to all the hardworking fleas out there. The "news cycle" is getting shorter and shorter and it is easier and easier to push a big story out of it. We can't stick with a substantive news story for more than a day. A mass shooting or a celebrity wedding, sure, but not hunger, poverty, public policy or the wars. We're on to the next.

Hyper-vigilance. Consider this. The risk of a terrorist attack on American soil was no different on September 12, 2001 than it was on September 10, 2001. Does that even seem possible to you? It barely does to me. What changed on September 11 was not the risk, but our knowledge of the risk. And since then, we're constantly looking for the next one.

You can make a reasonable argument that we should be more vigilant than we were before. We were naive, and now we know. We're smarter than we were. The thing is, we're not only vigilant in smart ways. We are constantly trying to prevent whatever plot was the last one, successful or not. We take off our shoes, put up with backscatter screening and don't carry liquids on planes because those steps might have prevented a previous attempt, not because we have any reason to think anyone's going to try them in the future.

We profile Arabs and Muslims horrifically. A report that came out in the last couple of days indicates that the Mall of America has been reporting people, two thirds of them non-white, for such suspicious and sinister behavior as forgetting their cell phone at the food court or pacing outside the bathroom while they wait for a companion. This isn't just a lesson learned, it's hyper-arousal.

What's more, we seem to also be defending against entirely imagined threats. The fact, for example, that Sarah Palin said that Paul Revere was telling the British they weren't going to be taking away our arms was not just wrong, it was weird. There's a segment of society that has been obsessed with the idea that the government, or more specifically the Obama administration, is trying to take their firearms. We're more than two years into Obama's term, and not one gun control measure has been proposed. We're afraid of being unable to defend ourselves and sure that that's what "they" want, but it's not based in reality.

Exaggerated startle response. Last year, a major international terrorism scare was triggered by someone shipping watches that were taped together. A plane was grounded because a man was putting on tefillin, the leather boxes with straps that Orthodox Jewish men wear when they pray. We're a little bit jumpy.

A couple of years ago, I was flying from Washington, DC to Detroit with my family. There are four of us, so it often winds up that the two kids sit with one parent and the other sits alone. On this occasion, I was alone. The man sitting next to me put his bags in the overhead compartment and sat down. I wasn't paying much attention. Then he spoke to me, in good but accented English: "My name is Ahmed. I am a dentist from Toledo. You are safe." How jumpy must the average member of the traveling public be around Arab men on planes that Ahmed felt he needed to say that before I even registered him at all?

So, we've established that we're all acting in very PTSD-congruent ways. But why did 9-11 do this to us in a way that the Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing or the Challenger disaster did not? I'll be looking at that tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Our Numbed Society: America's PTSD Part 2

Yesterday I shared the idea that America, as a society, is manifesting symptoms of PTSD. There are three sets of these symptoms, and today we'll be looking at symptoms of numbing. People with PTSD go to great lengths to avoid and/or numb themselves to feelings and experiences related to the trauma.

Specifically, to be diagnosed with PTSD, there must be at least three of the following symptoms present:

Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma. Traumatized people often come across as angry. It's not that they don't have a right to be angry at the people who traumatized them. But they're often just angry all the time at everyone. Anger is a very effective defense mechanism against other, more uncomfortable feelings.

If there's one thing Americans are, it's angry. You need look no further than Capitol Hill. We don't just disagree, we think the other side is a threat and evil. We are locked and loaded. And we're rude.

So, what feelings are we avoiding? Fear. If you think back to how you felt on September 11, you weren't mad. You were horrified, and you were scared. Pretty quickly, you were sad. If someone had asked you if you were mad at the people who did this you would have said yes, but anger was not the primary emotion.

The thing is that fear doesn't feel good. It feels weak. So does sadness. Anger feels strong. So we stick with anger -- at each other, at other countries, at whomever. Do you remember that feeling of togetherness we all had right after the attacks? Have you wondered why we can't seem to get it back? Because we came together in fear and in grief, and as much as we might like togetherness, we don't want to go back and feel those things again.

Efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma. There was a contingent of people who got mad at President Obama for visiting Ground Zero after bin Laden was killed. They said he was politicizing September 11th (and I would argue that ship sailed a long time ago, but let's put that aside).  But Obama didn't go there to give a speech or do a victory lap. He went to lay a wreath. He went to acknowledge grief. That's a no-no.

Inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma. There are certainly things about 9-11 that none of us will ever forget, but here's a test question: Following the September 11th attacks, what was the stated motivation of Al Qaeda for attacking the U.S.? If you said something like, "They hate us for our freedoms," you're not alone -- that is our dominant societal narrative. It was started by President Bush the same week as the attacks. And, if I may be so bold, it's wrong. At the time of the attacks, Al Qaeda wanted the U.S. to withdraw its troops from bases in Saudi Arabia, which it considers sacred ground. We forgot the motivation for the attack almost as soon as it happened.

Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities. This is a tough one. "Significant activities" for individuals are easier to define. However, I'm struggling to remember the last time it seemed like everyone was having a joint experience -- like the last episode of M*A*S*H, or even the Superbowl. Is it me, or is it just harder for us to all decide that something, other than a disaster or trauma, is important these days?

Feeling of detachment or estrangement from others. We know who our allies are in official terms. But what foreign country do we as Americans truly respect as partners these days? I can think of no one. We have become a very lonely country in a lot of significant ways. You can blame politics or policies for this, but it's also the manifestation of a gut feeling that no one really understands us.

Restricted range of affect (e.g., unable to have loving feelings). As discussed above, our primary societal emotion is anger. We don't feel joint happiness or pride anymore. We don't "put aside politics" for any common purpose. We want Congress to compromise, as long as they don't compromise on the things we want. We have lost the ability to have mixed emotions, and changing one's mind about something is weak. This is what a restricted range of emotions looks like -- anger and black and white thinking with no nuance.

Sense of foreshortened future. There is a conventional wisdom in America that the United States is no longer a superpower, or that we won't be one for much longer. Polls show we believe America is headed in the wrong direction. Every new law or policy (passed or just proposed) on both sides of the aisle is met with doomsday scenarios about how it will mean the end of America as we know it. It's one thing to say you don't like an idea, and quite another to think we can't survive it. We don't, as a country, feel very confident about our future.

Tomorrow I'll look at the third cluster of symptoms -- hyper-arousal. Later in the week, we'll examine why 9-11 impacted us this way when other things didn't, and at what kind of "treatment" we might recommend for our traumatized society.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Does America Have PTSD?

This Sunday marks 10 years since the September 11th attacks. Everyone, it seems, is doing some kind of memorial or retrospective to mark this solemn anniversary. Some are focused on remembering those who died, others on service to the community and still others on looking at how America has changed over the last decade. This last theme intrigues me. We know that trauma changes people as individuals. Can trauma change a whole country?

I have a friend who is a mental health professional who suggests that it can and it did. In a blog post several months ago, she proposed that American society is showing many signs of post-traumatic stress.

Now, let's not take this too literally. American society does not have a single brain that can contract a mental illness. But Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a very symptom-based disorder. You know someone has it by how they act. In my friend's opinion, American society isn't behaving in a very adaptive manner. Over the next several days in this space, I'll be laying out a detailed look at the ways in which our current society is showing signs of trauma.

Symptoms of PTSD fall into three categories: Intrusive Recollection, Numbing and Hyper-Arousal. Today I'd like to look at the first of these, the so-called "Criterion B Symptoms" (named after the letter in the description in the diagnostic manual) of intrusive recollection. People with PTSD have at least one of these symptoms, and many have more:

Recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts, or perceptions. On the day after Osama bin Laden was caught, news outlets ran all kinds of 9-11 retrospectives. Some of them were horrifically graphic and would never have made it past the editors under other circumstances. Telephone recordings of dying people and video footage of people jumping out of windows was played without even the basic "viewer discretion is advised" warning. Not only do we remember, but we do not have mastery over our memories enough to modify how and when we process them.

Recurrent distressing dreams of the event.
Obviously it's somewhat difficult for an entire society to have distressing dreams. There is some argument to be made, though, that works of art, literature and movies represent the "dreams" of society. If that is the case, the tremendous popularity of the Harry Potter series is telling. With each installment in the series, the foreboding message that there is a great evil "out there" that can strike anyone at any time and that we don't really know who can be trusted gets stronger. In each book, we look to Harry to master the terrifying unknown because we can't.

Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring Perhaps the best example of this is the media coverage of the infamous "balloon boy" incident last year. A kid supposedly trapped in a balloon got national breaking news coverage. Even if it were true (which we know now it wasn't), how do we explain that? I think we learned, on 9-11, what it was like to scramble news coverage and all have our attention focused in one place, and we have become very bad at figuring out when that's actually necessary. Everything that is generally newsworthy is Big News. When something we think may be important happens, we go into 9-11 mode.

Intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event. For much of our society, Muslims as a group have come to symbolize 9-11. When people get so upset about the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque," they are getting upset about something that reminds them of the trauma. Even for those who don't blame all Muslims, the anger against those who do may also be a symptom. One group is furious at Muslims for supposedly desecrating the memory of those who died, while the other is furious at the first group for supposedly desecrating the memory by being hateful.

Physiologic reactivity upon exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event
Can a whole society have a physical reaction? Society can certainly change its physical set-up. What in individuals manifests as a rapid heartbeat or excessive sweating, in society shows up as barriers, scanners, metal detectors and, more importantly, over-focus of security measures on people based on their ethnicity. Something reminds us of the attacks -- someone's religion or skin color -- and as a society we physically try to defend ourselves, even though we have no real evidence that religion or skin color is very predictive.

We need only one of these symptoms, but we have more than that. September 11 was 10 years ago, but in a very real way, as trauma victims often do, we are still reliving the attacks.

Tomorrow: America's symptoms of numbing

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

All Hazard Preparedness (for Some, Anyway)

Rikers Island circled in blue on evacuation map from NY Times

As Hurricane Irene churned its way up the East Coast last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of coastal areas of the city. 300,000 people were ordered out of their homes (although a fair number didn't leave).

In the middle of this unusual situation, someone asked a very interesting question. What about Rikers Island? For those of you who don't watch Law & Order reruns, Rikers is the principal correctional facility for New York City. It currently houses about 12,000 prisoners. As the name suggests, it's on an island, and it's smack dab in the middle of the zone that was evacuated ahead of the hurricane.

But Rikers Island was not evacuated for Irene. We can argue about whether it -- or anywhere else in New York City -- really needed to be. But it turns out that Rikers has no evacuation plan. Let me reiterate that, because it really is striking. There is no plan in place to evacuate Rikers Island under any circumstance. Not a hurricane, tornado, flood, fire, earthquake, riot or anything else. If someone brings a bomb into the visitor's room and they can't diffuse it, too bad. If the whole island catches fire, oh, well.

I know that concern about the welfare of criminals is not a politically popular stance, and maybe that's why they haven't figured this out. But there are some other things to consider. First of all, Rikers houses people temporarily awaiting transfer to other facilities, those serving less than a year in jail and those awaiting trial who cannot make bail or are being held without bail. This is not, overall, the place you find the most hardened criminals of New York. What's more, a sizable number of them have never been convicted of a crime. They are accused and poor, but presumed innocent.

What's more, in order to maintain the prisoners at Rikers, there is a sizable staff of guards, cleaning crew, cooks, medical personnel and others who make the place run. Those people aren't even accused of crimes. They're just doing their jobs. And as long as there are prisoners on Rikers Island, they have to be there.

The public school where I was Principal has not one but two different evacuation locations plus a variety of plans based on the hazard. We have to practice evacuating the building, as does every school in the country. If your business doesn't know how to evacuate its personnel and its customers in the event of a disaster, I'd call that negligent. But a facility with about 20,000 people in it, all told, has no plan.

I'm sure evacuating Rikers would be a nightmare. It is possible that even if they had a plan, implementing it for Irene would not have been worth it. Fine. But not having a plan at all isn't just stupid, it's criminal. I don't know which is more horrifying -- that there is no plan, or that nobody thought it was a problem until now.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Irene, Goodnight

The remains of a VT highway bridge.

It seems like I should have something to say about Hurricane Irene. I write about traumatic events, and this storm certainly did some serious damage to parts of the east coast and was a major nuisance to others. At least 40 people died, and many more lost their homes and businesses.

It's not really that I don't have anything to say about Irene. But all weekend and yesterday I found myself having difficulty formulating something. I think I've finally put my finger on why. Put simply, the media coverage of Irene stunk. Or, perhaps more precisely, the national media coverage -- which was the only coverage you could get if you weren't in the storm's path -- stunk. And I really don't have much to say about the storm as it was portrayed in the media.

The former Rte. 7
Here's the problem. Irene headed significantly further north than most Atlantic hurricanes. Instead of hitting the gulf coast or Florida, or even just the Carolinas, it was predicted, in addition to North Carolina, to beat up Washington, DC and New York City. These are two major, well-known, densely populated cities that don't generally get hurricanes.

This was big news, and the potential for disruption to those two cities got a ton of coverage. I found the breathless speculation that Wall Street might not open for business on Monday a little much. Yes, that would be unusual. Yes, it would be newsworthy. And if it happened, there would be much more important stories of damage and loss of life to talk about. It's a stock exchange. It's one day. Let's get a grip.

Killington Ski Resort base lodge
When the storm actually hit, it was big and important, but not necessarily in the places that news outlets were most prepared to cover. Yesterday morning's coverage on NPR at 8:00 AM (which is when I was in the car listening to it) led with a teaser quote from a woman in New Jersey saying, "The scariest part were the tornado warnings." It then went on to report that there was damage "up and down the east coast" and then cut to a live report from Keene, NY, which was absolutely devastated by flooding. The first story on "Morning Edition" was about how New York was getting back to normal and things weren't as bad as predicted. From this, one could easily get the impression that there was a flood in one town in upstate New York, "some damage" everywhere else, and the big issue was getting commuters into NYC.

Except that is not even vaguely a decent picture of where the news from Irene actually happened. The state of Vermont was massacred by this storm (Keene, NY, by the way, is fairly near the Vermont border). Vermont, since it is not on the Atlantic coast, was not nearly as over-prepared as some other places. The damage was horrific, the power was out, and no one had reporters there to report. One might expect NPR (or other outlets -- I'm just picking on them because that's where I got my news yesterday) to talk about this, even if only to say that information was sketchy. They didn't. The word "Vermont" did not make the newscast.

On the one hand, I think storm coverage is often overblown. Hurricanes happen. It's a storm, not the apocalypse, at least most of the time. But I certainly think we owe it to our friends in Vermont to have headlines that are a little more relevant than "Storm Doesn't Close Wall Street After All."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Explaining the British Riots

Last week, parts of the United Kingdom were rocked by four nights of violent rioting. The initial incident began when a planned peaceful protest in the of the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a black man, in the Tottenham section of London turned violent. The trouble spread, first to other parts of London and then to other parts of the UK.

If you read the coverage of this, you will find two perspectives on what went wrong. The official view taken by the British government, is that this was senseless criminality by people who have no actual complaint against anyone but who are using the excuse to cause trouble. This was exemplified by Prime Minister David Cameron, who told the British Parliament that the Duggan shooting
was then used as an excuse by opportunist thugs in gangs, first in Tottenham itself, then across London and then in other cities. It is completely wrong to say there is any justifiable causal link.
On the other side, you have people who argue that, while the Duggan shooting itself may not be the cause of the unrest, the rioting is nonetheless based in people's deep dissatisfaction with their current situation. Writing on, Matthias Matthijs notes,
The present moment . . . is defined by a more disorganized class politics of reaction, propelled by huge inequalities and a perceived injustice and indifference by the state to the fate of those involved.
So, which is it? Is this rioting the work of criminals who saw their chance and took it, or of the dispossessed victims of economic and judicial inequality? And why is everyone so sure they know the right answer?

Traumatic events often challenge deeply held beliefs about the world. Given this conflict, people have two choices. They can assimilate the trauma into their worldview, or they can change their worldview to accommodate the trauma.

Let's imagine, by way of example, that I strongly believe that the world is safe. Then, one day, I am mugged. What do I do with that belief? I can change it and decide that the world is dangerous. Or I can take a view of the mugging that allows me to continue to believe the world is safe. In that case, the mugging was my fault for being where I should not have been. In other words, if the world is safe, it must be my fault.

Of course, the most adaptive thing to do is a mixture of both of these. In my mugging example, the healthiest place for me to land is with a belief that the world is generally safe, but probably not as safe as I once thought it was, and that given that I probably should not go to that particular area. Unfortunately, very often people over-accommodate (the world is dangerous) or over-assimilate (it's all my fault). These beliefs often get in the way of people recovering after a trauma.

You can see these two tendencies in the analysis of the London riots. David Cameron's version holds that London, and the UK in general, is full of criminals just waiting for their moment to cause havoc. This is an over-accommodated belief. In the face of danger, he is saying that the world is dangerous. He is also not taking any responsibility at all for the situation. The view that the UK's inequality caused the riots is, in much the same way, an over-assimilated belief. Faced with danger, this view holds that the world continues to be safe, so this bit of danger must be our (or somebody's) fault.

Just as in my mugging example, however, there is a healthy middle ground. It says that yes, the world is generally safe, but there are those who take advantage of situations. Our actions, or the actions of governments, furthermore, can make it less safe. The riots are neither purely the anger of the dispossessed (what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was referring to when he called riots "the language of the unheard") nor the work of pure thugs. Like everything else in life, they're complicated. Denying one side or the other will only make it that much harder to recover.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Do Mapping

My friend Ed is what I like to call an Internet savant. If you want to know something, and you think the Internet may have the information, ask Ed. In fact, even if you don't think the Internet may have it, ask Ed. In June of 2010, there was a small earthquake on the Ontario/Quebec border that could be felt in Ann Arbor. We don't get earthquakes, but I felt something. I looked on the USGS website to see if there was anything there, but it was too soon. So I sent a message to Ed. He knew.

One of Ed's particular talents is gather information from all over the place and compiling it in one place. He's particularly great at maps. During a power outage in central Ann Arbor last year, Ed invited people to let him know if their power was out. He mapped it on Google maps. The result was a very clear visual of where the outage was, where it wasn't, and what might be the cause (it turns out there's a substation right in the middle of it).

Last night, Ed's blog was about the rioting in London. He begins:
There is an instinct, when things go bad, to want to make sense of the situation by putting the fragments of information that you have on a map. Things are going badly around London tonight, and several people are making sense of it the best they can with maps of what is being reported on Twitter as #londonriot.
I thought this was an interesting observation. Why do we want to see maps in a crisis?

I think what Ed is referencing is actually a small piece of a much larger phenomenon. In a crisis, we try desperately to maintain our own sense of safety. There are all kinds of ways we do this, many of which you've heard me talk about before. We convince ourselves that those doing the "badness," as well as its victims, are not like us or are doing things we would not be doing. We place blame for it not being prevented or feel guilt that we allowed it. All of these are predicated on the idea that whatever has gone badly either has nothing to do with us (and hence could not happen to us) or that it was preventable (and hence we or others will prevent it from happening to us).

Ed's observation adds another dimension. We look for maps because we want to understand not just that what and who the event is do not concern us, but that where it is does not concern us either. As Ed points out, mapping helps us "make sense" of an incident. Reading that there is "rioting in London" doesn't actually tell us much. London is a big place with lots of people. Is there rioting all over, or just in a few places? Is it confined to the incident that initially sparked it, or is it spreading? Is it affecting the places I know about in London? How exactly am I supposed to feel about this?

When we look at a map of an incident, the badness goes from being generally "out there" to being very specific in its location. If it's not near us, we feel safe. And if we are there, we can see that it's not everywhere. There is a place where this is not happening. That means that the time is foreseeable when it will not be happening to us. In a crisis, good information, in whatever form, may be all we have to hold onto. That's why it's great to have an Internet savant like Ed on your side.

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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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