Friday, May 13, 2011

What Exactly Do We Think an Emergency Looks Like?

Usually in this space I write about people's natural, typical reactions to stressful events. Often, these are reactions that appear, at first glance, to be overreactions. We are affected by things that we think perhaps we should not be. And of course, my "moral of the story" is almost always that the ways that we are affected actually make a lot of sense. What I'd like to share today, however, is a little difference. I encountered a stressful experience during and after which I understood my own reaction, but not that of others.

I spent a few hours this morning in a local coffee shop. I should have been doing work, but honestly at the time this occurred I was playing a game on Facebook. Sue me. At any rate, I suddenly became aware of raised voices at the counter. More specifically, a man was yelling about wanting his money from the barista. The first that I "tuned in" to what was being said, he was saying something about a card being worth $500 and the barista was saying something about it being $5. My immediate, gut impression, without hearing anything more, was that the man was mentally ill in some way. I don't know where I got that, and I couldn't see him, but there was something about the interaction.

Soon, the man's words escalated. He was swearing and saying he wanted his money, and that the barista "always slips out the back door." She was asking him, calmly, to leave. Her coworker asked him to leave. I could see him now -- a well dressed but somewhat poorly groomed man in a suit and tie, about my age.

At this point you could hear what he was yelling clearly throughout the store. I had put down my computer and was watching carefully, wondering if it was my place to call 911. I had just decided that I would if he actually threatened the barista or became physically aggressive, when he said, "If I had a knife! Not a little knife! A chef's knife! I should get a chef's knife!" I reached for my phone just as the coworker picked up hers and called 911.

The man was pleased that the police had been called. He said they would settle this. He calmed down and sat in a chair for a while. I continued to watch. And I became aware that not one other person in the store had changed what they were doing at all. The woman in the next chair over from me was still talking to a friend on her cell phone, and not about this. The men having a business meeting were continuing their meeting.

I don't get it. I understand not wanting to get involved. I understand not wanting to overreact. Maybe this encounter was more disturbing to me than it needed to be. Maybe the police didn't need to be called. Those are all judgment calls. But how could you sit in the coffee shop this morning and not think that this warranted your attention. A very quiet establishment in a relatively quiet town has a man yelling about getting a knife and refusing to leave, and you don't even look up? Really?

The only thing to which I can attribute this is people's tendency to think that danger is more obvious than it ever is. For example, your kid will probably tell you they're not supposed to talk to strangers. But if a nice woman with a puppy starts chatting them up on the playground, most kids will still talk to her. She's not a stranger, she's a woman with a puppy. Similarly, I did a training for a school yesterday in which we used a scenario regarding an out-of-place backpack. There was some debate about whether that could constitute a "suspicious package." The thing is, suspicious packages don't come labeled as such.

I don't want to invoke stereotypes, and I don't know the whole story here. But it seems to me there was a man not completely in touch with reality threatening violence, and that such a person is somewhat more likely than average to carry out violence. Yes, he's wearing a suit. Yes, the chances are still on the small side. But it might be worth pricking your ears up. Deranged gunmen don't wear t-shirts that say, "Kiss me, I'm a deranged gunman."

The police took a long time coming, and the man left in the meantime. I offered to talk to the police but they said they had the information they needed. Another day on the job. Another day for most of the patrons at the coffee shop. I'm left shaking my head.

Friday, May 6, 2011

White Powder in Letters: DC Schools Say, "Nya, nya, you can't scare us!"

Someone is sending letters to Washington, D.C. schools with white powder in them. The letters, which also contain the typewritten message, "AL AQEDA-FBI [sic]," have arrived at at least 28 schools thus far, and four more letters have been intercepted. Authorities say that the substance inside them is not hazardous, although they haven't said what it is.

If you do a Google News search for "white powder schools" you will find numerous incidents over the last decade, plus a bunch involving various organizations, institutions, and even Dancing With the Stars. Apparently, something similar even happened in Washington schools last October.

Am I the only one who remembers a time when it would have been the furthest thing from someone's mind to try to scare people with cornstarch? Before the anthrax attacks of 2001, this just wasn't on anyone's radar screen -- not even the lunatic fringe. Since then, it seems like almost an epidemic.

In 2001, schools in Western Pennsylvania (and perhaps elsewhere -- I just happened to work in Western PA at the time) had to scramble over "white powders." A local supplier of science curriculum had a 5th grade science explorations unit which many districts used which asked students to identify various "mystery powders," all of them white. All of a sudden, this didn't seem like a good idea, and replacement units had to be created or purchased.

As far as I can tell from the news coverage of the latest incident, the level of panic occurring at the schools involved is extremely low. It looks like people opened the letters and notified the authorities, who took it seriously and came out to the schools. I'm not seeing reports of school personnel becoming hysterical or evacuating buildings. I'm not seeing any reaction from kids, which seems to indicate that most of them didn't know about it. One school did notice the letter before it came inside and left it outside -- that seems cautious without being a complete overreaction.

The thing is, if we panic every time someone does this, then the bozos who are doing it get what they want. This encourages future bozos to do the same thing. Would it be safer to evacuate every building where this happens? Maybe, maybe not. We may be at the point where the chances of someone getting hurt in the evacuation -- tripping, stepping on something, getting hit by lightning, being a crime victim, getting hit by a car -- are actually greater than the chances of someone getting hurt by a mystery powder in a letter.

You might be surprised to know that the same logic often applies to bomb threats in schools. Many schools do not routinely evacuate if they receive a bomb threat. They wait for the advice of the police and fire departments regarding the specific threat. That's because if you know you can disrupt school -- any school, but particularly your own school -- by phoning in a bomb threat, then this becomes a very attractive thing for kids to do to get out of exams and such. Add to this the risk that someone will phone in a bomb threat and then wait for everyone to start coming outside and do something to them there, and evacuating is not always the thing to do. It depends on the situation.

Often times parents, in particular, don't want to hear that not evacuating is the best thing. Our knee-jerk reaction is that we should evacuate kids if there is any risk or threat. The thing is, that may not be in the best of interests of the kids. If we actually did that, we could well spend every day going in and out of school buildings. Schools have to evaluate relative risk, just as parents do at home. We don't get everyone outside when our dirty ovens start to smoke at home, or every time we hear a funny noise in the night. In loco parentis means that schools must act with the same care that parents would at home, not that they must jump every time someone says "boo." It would be a lot easier, however, if people didn't think it was a good idea to say "boo" in the first place.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Should the Bin Laden Pictures Have Been Released?

Today, the White House announced that President Obama has decided not to release photographs of Osama bin Laden's dead body. As reported in the press, there was some disagreement over whether releasing them would be a good idea. One view was that it would convince people that he is actually dead. The other was that it would "inflame" his followers, in part because it might be seen as an act of disrespect.

I actually don't have any opinion about whether either of these arguments is true. I was interested, however, that, at least publicly, a third issue was not being discussed. These pictures are described as "gruesome." What effect would seeing them have on your average person on the street?

I myself don't really need to see "gruesome" images. Just as I felt triggered by listening to audio of people screaming on 9-11, I find certain kinds of images very disturbing. Over the years, for example, I have studiously avoided the video of people jumping out of the twin towers. I don't need to see it to understand what happened, but seeing it is too vivid for me. It takes me from the reasonable point of needing to understand others' trauma to being traumatized myself.

Now, it's perfectly reasonable to say that we don't censor the press to protect Naomi Zikmund-Fisher from objectionable images. If I don't want to look, I won't -- just as is the case with the 9-11 videos. This relies, however, on media outlets handling the images in a manner that acknowledges that not everyone wants to see them, or wants their children to see them.

I vividly remember the day more than 4 years ago when I hooked up my laptop to a projector to show a website to some kids, opened my browser (which had CNN as its startup page) and was confronted by -- and confronted my students with -- a picture of the Virginia Tech shooter aiming a firearm at the camera. I had some explaining to do to some parents, and I wished CNN had made it just a tiny bit harder to see those pictures.

This is a free society, and we don't censor our press. If my sensibilities, or even the sensibilities of a lot of people, were the sole issue, the pictures of bin Laden should have been released. The President has decided not to, and I know that a lot more went into that decision than whether they would be traumatizing to the average American. This is a good occasion to remember, however, that sensory input -- sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings -- can trigger very strong emotional reactions, much more intense than just hearing about a traumatic event. While we shouldn't prohibit them, we should be careful about exposing people to them by accident.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bin Laden Coverage: Protecting Our Kids and the Kid Inside All of Us

Yesterday, I shared with you my thoughts about explaining Osama bin Laden to children. I was apparently not the only person worrying about this. Time ran a piece which began,
President Obama certainly wasn't taking the sensibilities of West Coast children into consideration when he made his stunner of a speech Sunday night.
Parents in the Pacific time zone found themselves scrambling to explain the news in real time, and some of them were pretty unhappy about it.

While I certainly understand the problems of trying to explain this stuff to kids -- that's why I wrote yesterday's piece in the first place -- I will admit to feeling a little frustrated with those who would make this complaint. If there was one thing we all should have learned from 9-11, it is that live television is unpredictable. Anything can happen at any time. Part of being a parent is recognizing this and using it to make decisions about whether your children can watch TV, and whether you will choose to watch things live. Part of being a parent is also realizing that kids will inevitably ask about things we'd just as soon they not know about, and we have to answer the questions when they come.

In addition, speaking as someone from the east coast, Obama's speech didn't start until way past my bedtime. If he had waited until every kid in the country was asleep, he wouldn't catch a whole lot of adults, either. News happens when it happens. If you don't want your kids to see it, don't turn on the news.

That having been said, I have been somewhat appalled by what some media outlets have chosen to run in their coverage of bin Laden's death. Yesterday afternoon I was listening to "Here and Now," a public radio show from WBUR in Boston. They had the usual talking heads discussing the implications of bin Laden's death, which was all well and good. At the very end, the host said that his death also brought us "back in time" to 9-11. They then proceeded, with explanation of what each clip was, to play the audio of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center (complete with screaming), audio of someone who died in the towers on the phone, and audio of a very frightened voicemail message left by someone who died.

I cried. Then I got mad. Don't get me wrong, I certainly understand that this weekend's events bring back memories of 9-11, and to some extent they will trigger any unresolved trauma we all have. But wasn't the memory enough? Did we really need the extra boost of some vivid sensory input? Did we need to invade the privacy of dead people just one more time? Were they afraid we wouldn't remember unless they retraumatized us? And if you're worried about the sensibilities of children, would you want your kids hearing that with no warning at all?

9-11 is unique in our collective experience because it was a trauma for almost everyone in the country. That means that, in planning what to broadcast, you have to treat everyone in the audience as a trauma victim. You wouldn't force the victim of a shooting, for example, to listen to the audio of the incident without a good reason. We all deserve a little less sensationalism and a little more respect for how raw this still feels.

* The artwork on this post, like yesterday's, comes from the FEMA website and was created by a 5th grader at Chagrin Falls Intermediate School for the 1st anniversary of 9-11.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Mommy, Who's Osama Bin Laden?

I can trace my expertise talking to children about traumatic events directly to the night when my 3 year-old daughter asked, as I was tucking her into bed, "Why is everyone singing the 'Bless America' song?" It was September 14, 2001. We had been at a previously scheduled party, and at 7 o'clock we spilled out in front of the house, lit candles, and sang.

This was the first of many questions my daughter would have about 9-11, then and many times in the years that followed. We tried our best to answer them in an age-appropriate way. We wanted to give her answers that were honest and respected the question, but not overwhelm her with frightening information. I like to think we did a decent job.

This morning, when my husband told our daughter that Osama bin Laden had been killed, she reacted with disbelief. "No way. Osama bin Laden, gone?" To her, the bogey-man had been vanquished. Then her brother piped up. "Who's Osama bin Laden?" My husband responded, "It's hard to explain."

My son will be 6 this week. As much as bin Laden was the bogey-man of my daughter's early childhood, he was completely irrelevant to my son. That by itself is amazing.

In our house, "It's hard to explain" really means, "Go ask Mommy, she's good at this sort of thing." So it fell to me. I wanted to give an honest answer to an honest question. But I knew the answer would be potentially scary, and so I wanted to make sure the answer removed any danger as much as possible from my son's experience.

Here's what I said:
    A long time ago, when your sister was little -- she was 3 -- some very mean people attacked our country. The man in charge of the mean people was named Osama bin Laden. We wanted to catch him and arrest him for what his people had done, but we couldn't find him. We looked for him for almost 10 years. Then, yesterday, our soldiers found him in the country of Pakistan. They tried to arrest him, but he didn't want to go. He shot a gun at the soldiers, and they shot guns back, and he died.
For today, this answer satisfied my son. I know from his sister's experience that it will not satisfy him for long. Inevitably, he will eventually ask why the mean people attacked us, and what they did. We will tell him that they were angry at our country because they didn't like that our government had soldiers in a part of the world they believed was holy, and they stole planes and crashed them into buildings. In his sister's case, it took her many, many years to realize that there were people on the planes that were stolen. By then, she was old enough to not translate that into an abject fear of flying. Hopefully my son will be, too.

I'm sure my son is not the only little kid asking this question today. I'm sure my husband is not the only parent at something of a loss for how to explain the situation. If my explanation can help you talk to your own kids, please feel free to borrow. I've also heard very good things about the books The Day America Cried and The Little Chapel That Stood for discussing 9-11 with little ones.

We owe our children honest answers to honest questions. If we don't give them that now, who will they be able to turn to when the next bogey-man comes along?

* The artwork on this post was created by a 5th grader at Chagrin Falls Intermediate School in Chagrin, OH for the 1st anniversary of 9-11, and comes from the FEMA website.

Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
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
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle