Friday, April 22, 2011

Anniversaries: Bombs in Littleton, Colorado

Wednesday was the 12th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado. For those of you much younger than I or living under a rock, on April 20, 1999 two students went through the school shooting, killing 12 students, one teacher and, eventually themselves. The original plot was for propane bombs to explode outside the cafeteria, sending people running directly into the line of fire. The bombs failed to go off.

On Wednesday, April 20 this year, a fire broke out near the food court of a mall in Littleton, Colorado. When it was extinguished, firefighters found two explosive devices nearby. They had not, thankfully, detonated. The mall was evacuated and the schools placed on lockdown.

Anniversaries of traumatic events are tricky things. From a distance, there is no particular reason that the anniversary of an event is any better or worse or more or less related to the event than any other day. But we don't live at a distance. Our culture tells us that one rotation of the earth around the sun is an important length of time, and each successive rotation is also important. If we had no concept of a calendar, we might not care that this week's incident coincided with the anniversary of the massacre at Columbine. Most of the time we're glad we have that concept. This week, perhaps not so much.

I first learned about the mall incident on Thursday morning from a friend's Facebook post. She noted that she has family who love to shop near there, and another friend commented that she has family there too. This is the sort of personal connection we all tend to make at moments like this. The thing is, it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense. On Wednesday two bombs did not go off at a mall near where bombs were placed and shootings occurred 12 years ago. Why, on Thursday, do I care that I have family that was in the area but not at that mall on Wednesday?

We notice these connections, as distant as they may seem, because of a very natural and automatic response we have to danger. When a threat is detected -- whether because we see or hear it ourselves or we simply hear about it -- our automatic response is to ask whether it affects in any way. I imagine us sending little office workers into the files in our mind to find out if we have anything filed where the danger is. If the threat is near us -- say an oncoming car -- those little people come back pretty fast with "yes!!" and we try to get out of the way. Most of the time, they come back with "no."

Once in a while, however, they come back with the news that we have stuff in a related file but it's not clear how important the relationship was. They looked under "Littleton, Colorado" and found the "Columbine" file. For my friends, they found the "shopping" and "family" files. Even though the answer to whether the threat affects us is still "no," it takes us a little longer to decide that. Even though we know we and everyone we love are OK, we are left with that nagging feeling that "no" isn't the whole answer. And so we post on Facebook and say, "This could have affected someone I care about but it didn't."

The interesting thing about such loose and tangential connections is that, when we post them, our friends all know how we feel. We've all been there, and the little office workers are just doing their job.


Ashleigh Burroughs said...

And then, sometimes, they find out that it really was their friend/cousin/sister at the Safeway on January 8th in Tucson and that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish.

PTSD creeps into everyone's life at that point. It seems that the only thing "the other" can do is rush to my side and see that I am, in fact, alive and breathing.

Fascinating post.

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

Ashleigh, you're right -- trauma affects about 80% of the population at some point in some way, not counting things like 9-11 that affect many more. It's also not uncommon to hear that things are worse for the family than for the primary survivor (not always, just sometimes). The survivor has a job to do -- surviving -- and can say that they did it. The family didn't have a job to do but thinks they did -- protecting.

Hope you're doing ok and getting whatever help and support you need.

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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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