Sunday, January 30, 2011

We Stand with Egyptians, but Egyptian-Americans? Not so much.

Imagine, if you will, that an American, motivated by hatred of, let's say, Roman Catholics, drove to New York City and parked a car full of explosives outside St. Patrick's Cathedral during a funeral, only to be caught by the FBI on a tip from a bar employee who had heard the man ranting about Catholics earlier. Surely this would be a big story. It wouldn't take more than a day for it to hit the news, and we'd be hearing major coverage.

Now let's substitute a few facts. Instead of Catholics, let's insert Muslims. Instead of New York, let's move to Dearborn, Michigan -- the Detroit suburb with the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the United States. Now the plot can't be against St. Patrick's, of course, so we'll move it to the Islamic Center of America -- the largest mosque in the Detroit metropolitan area. The rest of the facts are the same. What kind of press coverage do you expect?

I hope your expectations aren't very high, because this actually happened on Monday. It didn't hit the media even locally until this morning, six days after the arrest and four days after the man was arraigned. It took the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) releasing a press statement to get anyone's attention. It's not the top story in Michigan news even now that it has gotten some coverage.

I find this particularly poignant given that Americans have been watching round-the-clock coverage of the unrest in Egypt this week. My Facebook page has lit up with postings asking me to sign various petitions asking our government to stand with the people of Egypt. I'd like to suggest that we might like to stand with Americans of Egyptian extraction as well. The situations are not the same, certainly. But I can imagine nothing more dehumanizing than being the target of a mass murder plot, foiled at the last moment, and it not even registering as a blip on anyone's radar screen.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Challenger Disaster 25 Years On

Those of us of "a certain age" remember vividly where we were the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded.  It was January 28, 1986 -- 25 years ago today -- and by "certain age" I mostly mean the age such that we were in school 25 years ago. 

I myself was a junior in high school, and I was on a break from physics lab when a friend who was given to hyperbole ran up and said the space shuttle had exploded.  No one believed him. By the end of the afternoon, we were all glued to the television watching the coverage, still gripped by disbelief, but knowing it was true.

Every generation, it seems, has a day like this -- a day where everyone remembers exactly where they were when they heard. For generations before ours, it was the Kennedy assassination, and, before that, Pearl Harbor. For the generation after, it was 9-11. In fact, I think it is now 9-11 for pretty much everyone.

Looking back, it seems almost quaint. The entire country came to a grinding halt 25 years ago because of the death of seven astronauts. The President postponed the State of the Union address by a week, and delivered a live address to the country from the oval office instead. It was a really big deal.

Twenty-five years later, it's hard to explain what was so gripping about this event. Yes, it was a tragedy.  That we can tell just by reading about it. But the country didn't stop 17 years later when the Columbia exploded. Most people barely remember it. And compared to 9-11, the Challenger explosion seems incredibly small.

Twenty-five years ago, most of us thought of space travel as relatively safe. If you were in school then, you were too young to remember the Apollo 13 near-disaster or the earlier Apollo 1 launchpad fire. The space shuttle was still relatively new, it was cool and, on this particular mission, it was carrying the first teacher to space. A very large number of school children were watching the launch live on an upstart cable network called CNN when it exploded. The thing I remember most vividly was the palpable sense that things like that were not supposed to happen.

In 2011, we still don't like things like that to happen, but most of us know that they do. In the intervening 25 years, we've had another shuttle explosion, numerous mass shootings, the bombing of a Federal Building that killed 168 people including children, a massive Tsunami in Asia and several big earthquakes. Perhaps most importantly, we've had the 9-11 attacks. There is no way that the death of seven astronauts could seem like the worst thing that could happen when it is dwarfed by the memory of an event that killed more than 400 times as many people.

January 28, 1986 was a day that seriously challenged our collective worldview, which had been carefully rebuilt, one might argue, since the Kennedy assassination or, perhaps, the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Having your worldview challenged is very painful and very memorable, and so we remember where we were that day. Our worldview as a country isn't so rosy twenty-five years later. One wonders how long it will take, or if it is even possible, to build it back again.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Enduring Lesson of Keith Olbermann

Depending on your politics and personal tastes, Keith Olbermann is a liberal pundit, a newsman, an overhyped sports reporter, a propagandist, the voice of the nation's conscience, or a traitor to his country.  Last evening, he added one title most can agree on -- unemployed.  Olbermann, the host of MSNBC's Countdown With Keith Olbermann, announced on his show last night that he was leaving the network.  Rumors vary between him being fired and him leaving over a money dispute.  Last night's show was his last.

Olbermann had a decidedly and unashamedly liberal bent to his show.  He openly loathed Fox News, which he called "faux news," and particularly Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck, who often took top honors on his "Worst Person in the World" feature.  Throughout the Bush administration, he ended his newscast by stating how many days it had been since the declaration of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq.  He was suspended last fall for violating the network's rules about political donations by reporters after he donated to three congressional campaigns, including Gabrielle Giffords. 

Even if you loved Olbermann's politics, there was plenty to squirm about in Olbermann's style.  He often used the same kind of "anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot" kind of rhetoric that he criticized in O'Reilly.  His segments with guest commentators often fit the formula:
  • Introduce story by stating the facts intertwined with Olbermann's opinion
  • Introduce guest
  • Ask guest whether Olbermann's opinion is the only reasonable one, as he thinks
  • In unlikely event guest disagrees, restate opinion as fact and wait for response
If you were looking for the news, the whole news, and nothing but the news, you didn't tune in to Countdown.

I'm writing about Keith Olbermann today, however, not because of my personal feelings about him leaving MSNBC or even about the show itself.  Keith Olbermann deserves a nod because of something absolutely unheard of which he did, on air, with great frequency.  Keith Olbermann apologized.

When you are as unabashedly partisan and fiery as Olbermann is, you wind up saying a lot of things that make people mad.  And certainly, Olbermann stood behind the majority of what he had to say nonetheless.  But every once in a while, Keith Olbermann had the good sense and the good grace to admit when he was wrong.  A terrific example occurred after Olbermann raised questions and spoke, in a way that some felt was offensive, about the rape accusations against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.  He later tweeted,
Rape has touched my family, directly and savagely, and if anybody thinks I have addressed it without full sensitivity, then that assessment is the one that counts, and I apologize.
Read that again, because you won't hear apologies like that from media people -- or from anyone else, really -- very often.  He doesn't say, "sorry if I offended you," or even, "sorry that I offended you," both of which imply that the problem is the offense taken and not what was said.  He says, "If I offended you then my words were offensive, and so I'm sorry."

Most recently, Olbermann delivered a passionate and, in my opinion, moving commentary the night of the shootings in Tucson on January 9th.  He discussed the current political climate but, unlike many other liberal commentators, he didn't put the blame on the right.  He said,
Vio­lence, or the threat of vio­lence, has no place in our Democ­racy, and I apol­o­gize for and repu­di­ate any act or any thing in my past that may have even inad­ver­tently encour­aged vio­lence. Because for what­ever else each of us may be, we all are Americans.
So, why am I bringing this up on a blog about trauma and crisis response?  Because very often, after a major incident, the impulse of those in charge is to circle the wagons and vehemently deny any responsibility.  The result is that those affected, who are primed to be looking for someone to blame, have a reason to step up their blame of those in charge.  Few and far between are people in authority willing to say, "This shouldn't have happened, we didn't want for it to happen either, and we will be carefully reviewing everything to make sure it doesn't happen again," let alone, "We screwed up, and while we don't think this is entirely our fault, we are willing to take some of the blame.  We're sorry."

It's always easier to blame those who are upset then to take a good long look at yourself.  Failure to do so, however, often makes it worse.  Whatever you think of Keith Olbermann, his show, or his politics, I hope that, with his departure, we don't also lose his excellent example of how to apologize gracefully and sincerely for the mistakes we all make in this world.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tucson and the Quest for Meaning

One of the byproducts of the phenomenon I explored yesterday in which we try to find patterns and causes when something awful happens is that many people become glued to various types of coverage.  There are people who read everything we can about the shooter, others who follow the recovery of the injured closely, and others who become obsessed with the funerals and memorial services.  When we do this, we are not just looking for patterns, we are looking for meaning.  We want this event to mean something.  We want to find the positive, and with it to find some comfort.

It is this phenomenon that caused the largest flag recovered from the World Trade Center to be displayed at the funeral of Christina Taylor Green, who was born on September 11, 2001 and died last Saturday in the shooting.  Scientifically, we know that the date of her birth is a coincidence that has nothing to do either with her death or with the terrorist attacks that occurred that day.  And yet, this particular false pattern gives us a sense of meaning.  It embodies the sadness and horror that we feel in a concrete way that perhaps has eluded us beforehand. 

There are other ways to search for meaning in this tragedy.  Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers fame once said,
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."
In that vein, I find meaning in the actions of Daniel Hernandez, a college student and intern for Representative Giffords who, as everyone ran away from the shots, ran towards the wounded and propped up Giffords and tried to stop the bleeding, probably saving her life.  I also find meaning in the fact that, in a conservative state with serious controversy over Latino immigration, he is gay and Latino. 

At the memorial service for those who were killed, Hernandez, speaking extemporaneously, said that he is not a hero, and urged us to honor the first responders at the scene with that title. I don't know what the word "hero" means anymore, since people list professional athletes as their "heroes" all the time.  But it seems to me that Hernandez, the first responders, those who tackled the gunman, those who tried to shield others with their bodies, and probably many others deserve to be called heroes in some way.  In my search for meaning, I look for the helpers.

I recently encountered a children's book entitled, The Moon Came Down on Milk Street by Jean Gralley.  It was written for children in New York after 9-11. It tells, in simple verse and lovely pictures, the story of the day the moon fell from the sky onto the street.  Everyone was frightened and wondered how things could ever be right again.  Then the first responders arrived and carefully worked together to put the moon back up in the sky.  I encourage you to buy it for your kids, for the next time you pass a traffic accident or see something horrible on the news.  I also encourage you to buy it for yourself, as a gentle reminder, at moments like these, to look for the helpers.*

* For the record, I do not know Jean Gralley and have no personal connection to this book.  I just think it's awesome.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Two Personal Notes from the Tucson Shootings

Aside from what I had to say last week and today, and will have to say tomorrow, about this horrible event, I wanted to share two tidbits that are important, but neither of which stands on its own as a blog post.


The first is that I'd like to extend my prayers and well-wishes to fellow blogger Ashleigh Burroughs.  I don't know Ashleigh personally, but she and I are both part of the BlogHer network, which sponsors our blogs and links the writing of female bloggers (supposedly quality writing, but then they include me so who knows) across the Internet.  From time to time my sidebar includes links to her blog, "The Burrow," and hers to mine.  When my traffic statistics show people coming here from, I always think, "Thanks, Ashleigh!" even though I know the link was automatically generated.

Ashleigh was at the front of the line to shake Gabrielle Gifford's hand last Saturday when the shooting started.  She was shot three times but, thankfully, survived.  I wanted to publicly recognize Ashleigh and her family, and the difficult road they are on right now.  Life has a funny way of linking people, and I take Ashleigh's shooting more personally than any of the other victims.  It adds a "that could have been me" aspect that is both scary and tender.  I'm keeping Ashleigh and her family in my prayers today and hope that you will, too.

The second is that I'd like to share with you what I think is the best commentary on the shooting out there.  It might come as no surprise, given the polarization and dumbing down of our public remarks these days that it comes from Jon Stewart of the Daily Show.  I urge you to watch it, if only to aid in the healing of this wound to our collective psyche.  (The clip begins with a rather amusing bit by John Oliver -- stick with it through that to get to the commentary.)

Searching for a Cause in Tucson

The week since the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which killed six people and injured an 12 in addition to Giffords, has been full of discussion about our political discourse.  On one side, we have people pointing to the fact that Sarah Palin's website had a map with gunsight graphics over several congressional districts -- including Giffords' -- during the campaign, and to political rhetoric like "2nd amendment solutions" and "lock and load" as being responsible.  On the other, we have people pointing out that the shooter was almost certainly seriously mentally ill.

What both sides have in common is the very human trait of seeking a reason for a traumatic incident.  Studies have shown that humans are hard-wired to see patterns and causation, and if there isn't any we tend to see it anyway.  From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes a lot of sense.  In order to survive in the wild, animals need to have very good and detailed information about what a threat looks like, how to know when it's coming, and how to avoid it.  Understanding that something can't be avoided is not very helpful.  So if there is any chance at all that there is a pattern, we will find it, but we're not great at knowing if there isn't one.

If you ask me (and you did, because you're reading my blog), the choice between blaming this on political rhetoric and blaming this on mental illness is a false dichotomy.  Yes, it seems extremely likely that the shooter is mentally ill.  I don't have enough information to know if he is so ill that he is not criminally responsible for what he did, but it would be ludicrous to suggest that his mental state did not play a part in this tragedy. 

At the same time, mental illness occurs in a context.  The delusions that people experience are influenced by the culture in which they live.  You can see this clearly if you imagine someone with a psychotic mental disorder, in some completely other time and/or place.  I doubt people in the middle ages thought the CIA was monitoring their thoughts through their dental work, and I'm guessing that few such people in Mongolia believe they are Jesus.

This man's delusions apparently centered around illiteracy, mind control, the constitution and the government.  Did he ever see Sarah Palin's graphic or listen to Sharon Angler speak?  I have no idea.  Did he hear the negative tone of current discourse about the government?  Almost certainly.  That is the context of our culture. 

That having been said, that doesn't mean that toning down the rhetoric would have prevented this particular person from killing people.  It might have prevented him from killing these particular people on this day.  And maybe it would have held off the violence for long enough for someone to recognize that he really needed help.  We don't know.  We can't know.  And we don't like that.

What do I take from all this?  As they say, the best we can do is the best we can do.  And whether you blame rhetoric or illness or both for this situation, it's clear we can do better with both.  Talking about armed rebellion and resistance with regards to public figures is not OK, whether it caused this or not.  It adds to a culture that devalues those with whom we disagree, and that can't be good for us, with or without this instance.  And there are hundreds or thousands of severely mentally ill people who don't get decent help and, as in this case, sometimes don't even get noticed, because of the stigma associated with their disorders and the devaluing of its treatment in our society.  That isn't just bad for them.  As we learned this week, it's bad for everyone.  We can do better. 

And if I'm wrong, and neither of these things are at fault, and I'm just seeing patterns where there aren't any, I think our society will benefit from fixing them anyway.  It's certainly worth a try.

Tomorrow:  What pulled at our heartstrings in the Tucson coverage, and why

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords Shot, U.S. District Court Judge John Roll Killed

You don't have to be a fan of Speaker John Boehner to appreciate that he got it exactly right today when he reacted to the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in which six others, including U.S. District Court Judge John Roll and a child, were killed and Giffords was critically wounded.
An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.
Eighteen additional people were injured in the shooting, which occurred outside a grocery store in Tucson during a public event hosted by Giffords.  The alleged shooter is a 22-year-old man who, in various social media, talks about himself as the "mind controller" and lists Mein Kampf andThe Communist Manifesto among his favorite books.

I'm not from Arizona and, like many Americans, I knew nothing about Rep. Giffords before today's attack.  Yet the story grabbed my -- and the country's -- attention almost instantly.  If it were just me we could chalk it up to the subject matter of my blog.  After all, my family no longer says, "Did you hear this horrible news?" when something bad happens.  They say, "Do you need a blog topic?"  But it isn't just me.  As I write this than four and a half hours after the shooting, Google News is listing nearly 4,000 news articles online about this event.

To me, this raises two questions of the sort where you think you know the answer until you try to articulate it.  The first is, why do we care about the shooting of someone we've never heard of?  The second is, if we have a reason to care, why do we focus on the fact that Rep. Giffords was shot and not on the death of another public servant, Judge Roll?

The answer to the first question, I think, goes back to Speaker Boehner's remarks.  Understandably, he feels a personal connection when someone targets a member of Congress.  By the same token, we as citizens feel a personal connection because, as the title suggests, congressional representatives represent us. They are our voice in government, whether we love them or hate them.  When someone attacks a member of Congress, we know on a gut level that they are attacking the people that person represents, or at least the people who voted for them.  Whether we ever heard of Gabby Giffords before today or not, the position she holds makes us assign particular and personal significance to her shooting, what it means to us as individuals, and what it means to our system of government.

That having been said, what about Judge Roll?  He was a public servant.  His job was to ensure equal and fair protection of the law for all.  He had received death threats over a recent immigration case, and surely we should worry for our system of government if judges cannot rule without worrying about their lives.  Why aren't we focused on him?

I think there are a couple of reasons.  First of all, eyewitness accounts seem to indicate that Giffords was the first one shot and the original intended target.  In the chaos that followed, she was the only person shot whom everyone knew had been shot.  The news of Judge Roll's death came several hours later, and the story had already been "branded" as being about Giffords.

Still, I suspect that even if Roll had been the target and Giffords had not been there, this would not be as big of a news story.  And I think that's largely because your average person on the street doesn't have a very clear idea of what a District Court judge does.  We understand judges in general, and we understand Supreme Court justices, but we don't have a good mental image of the importance of mid-level federal judges and their day-to-day impact.  We also don't elect federal judges, so we don't feel the connection that we do to members of Congress.  No one out there is thinking, "I know who John Roll is.  He's my judge."

Intellectually, I think that we should care very much about the assassination of Judge Roll, at least as much as the attempted assassination of Rep. Giffords.  But reactions to traumatic events are not about what we think, they're about what we feel in that fleeting moment before our thinking brain takes over. So my gut is focused on Rep. Giffords and her family.  My brain, and the heart that sometimes follows it, also expresses horror and condolences to the family of Judge Roll and the other five people who died in Tucson today.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Two Administrators Shot at Omaha, NE High School

There are two things I often say about school shootings.  The first is that, if someone enters a school hell bent on killing the first person they see, then the first person they see is going to die.  The second I sometimes say to teachers when we talk about lockdowns -- most people who come into the school mad are not going hunting for you.  They're going hunting for me.

Today, a 17-year-old student at Millard South High School in Omaha, Nebraska, bore this out.  At about 12:40, he shot both the Principal and the Assistant Principal.  He then drove off in his car and, sometime less than an hour later, killed himself.  Both administrators are in the hospital, one in critical and one in serious but stable condition.  The shooter was a recent transfer student to the school whose father is an Omaha police officer.  He apparently used his father's gun.

What are we to make of an incident like this?  People's reactions are pretty predictable.  Here are a few that might seem familiar: There needs to be stricter gun control. Kids see too much violence on TV. Our schools aren't safe. It's poor parenting. There must have been signs. Kids today have no respect for adults. He shouldn't have been able to get anywhere near those administrators with a gun. We need metal detectors in schools. These statements all fit rather nicely into two basic categories:

Category #1:  This must be preventable and someone is to blame that it wasn't prevented.
While it is of course possible that this was preventable and that someone messed up, it is also entirely possible that everyone was as prepared and aware as they possibly could have been, and the signs just weren't there and all the procedures in the world wouldn't have stopped it.  You can install metal detectors, but that won't stop shootings in the parking lot or the foyer.  Criminals will find ways to get guns.  Good parents have messed up kids.

We want to blame somebody because the alternative is awful.  We can't really wrap our minds around the idea that something this scary could happen even when everything is done right, because that means that none of us is safe.  Which brings us to our next category:

Category #2:  I'm scared for my children's safety.
This is an interesting one, because, in fact, no children other than the shooter himself were injured in this shooting.  However, it's not much of a stretch to imagine why a parent would feel their child was in danger if someone is shooting people in the school office. 

Most parents have a pretty skewed understanding of how dangerous schools are.  School shootings, when they happen, are all over the news.  This makes them seem much worse and more common than they truly are.  The reality is that kids are safer for the six or so hours they're in school than they are any other time of the day.

Good parents also view protecting their children as one of their primary responsibilities.  Even though schools are, on the whole, very safe, they are the one place that parents have little control.  When parents drop off their babies (and yes, even the high schoolers are their babies) at school, they are taking a leap of faith that the school will do for those children what the parents would do in an emergency.  When there is violence in schools, it preys on the fears and insecurities of parents not because schools are so dangerous, but because parents aren't there.  Parents overestimate the chances that they would be able to protect their children if they were present.  The fact is, they couldn't do a better job in most cases, and in a lot of cases they would be worse.

All of this wends us back to my second stock comment about school shootings -- the shooters aren't going for the teachers or kids, they're going for the administrators.  I haven't seen many statistics on that issue.  It's certainly true in some cases, as it was in Omaha today.  However, by no stretch of the imagination is school administration the profession where you are most likely to be assaulted on the job.  You might be surprised to know that it isn't law enforcement, either.  It's actually health care.  How many of us think, "I don't want to become a nurse, it's too dangerous?"  Yet another example of how bad we are at estimating our actual risks.

My heart goes out to the families and staff at Millard South.  School is closed tomorrow, and that makes the healing process harder in a lot of ways.  It's hard to open school in the middle of a police investigation, however, so one can hardly blame them.  Walking back through those doors is going to be really hard.  And a lot of school administrators in other schools are going to be a little more jumpy at work tomorrow.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

David Senft: A Foreseeable Suicide that Wasn't Foreseen

The New York Times ran an article today about Staff Sgt. David Senft, who died in Afghanistan in mid-November.  All indications are that Senft killed himself with his roommate's firearm.  This was at least his third attempt at suicide.

Senft was on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, and had also done one tour in Iraq.  It seems that everyone who knew him knew he was depressed and traumatized by his experiences in the wars, most notably responding to the site where a helicopter carrying wounded servicepeople had been shot down in Iraq.   After one of his previous attempts to kill himself, Senft admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital and his deployment to Afghanistan was delayed.  In Afghanistan, his superiors were concerned enough about his suicide risk that they took away his weapon.

Senft family wants to know why, if everyone knew he was in this much trouble, he was allowed to deploy to Afghanistan and why, if he was enough of a danger to himself to take away his weapon, he wasn't sent home.  These are decent questions, and the army says they have three different investigations into Senft's death going on.

I have no idea who, if anyone, screwed up here.  I am, as the name implies, just a Monday Morning Quarterback.  However, I do know that it is much easier after the fact to look back and see what might have been done differently than it is to make predictions looking forward.  Anyone -- in the military or not -- who ever comes into contact with someone who may be at risk of suicide has to make a judgment about how big the risk is.  It's easy to look back now and say Senft was a big risk -- obviously, since he killed himself -- but what is obvious now was not necessarily obvious then.

Could this have been prevented?  Probably.  In fact, we could probably eliminate most of the suicides in the military if we disarmed all military personnel, stripped them naked and locked them in empty rooms.  Everyone recognizes that we don't want to do that.  But where is the line?  How many other soldiers like Senft came across however he did and turned out to be OK?  How do we balance the risk of a suicidal soldier with the risk of severely restricting someone who doesn't need those restrictions?

After a suicide, it's very typical to start pointing fingers about who should have or could have done something differently.  In this case, the finger is being pointed at Senft's superiors.  No doubt they're pointing fingers at themselves, too.  Maybe they deserve it.  Or maybe, this is a case where although they could have done something differently, no one at the time thought they should have.  Sometimes, you just can't know.

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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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