Las Vegas Massacre: Why This Hurts So Much

We were told this could happen, yet its still devastating. Why?

Posted Oct 04, 2017

pexels photo
Source: pexels photo

Las Vegas is usually a place of fun, great entertainment, and even escape; and it will be again. But as a reminder to us all that nowhere is immune to tragedy, and further, that we must be prepared for the unthinkable, tragedy struck Las Vegas.

As of this post, at least 59 people were killed and 527 were injured in Las Vegas on October 1. Using an illegally altered rifle, a gunman opened fire on a country music festival crowd from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort. The carnage lasted until the gunman apparently took his own life. The physical toll was devastating. It is the deadliest mass shooting in modern history. But the psychological toll will be worse.

Las Vegas is not the first mass shooting in somewhat recent memory.

wikimedia commons
Source: wikimedia commons

The first mass shooting that gained international attention, and its own docudrama, was the 1966 Texas Tower Shooting. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman went to the University of Texas at Austin Tower, where he ultimately shot and killed 17 victims while wounding 31. On April 16, 2007, Seun-Hui Cho went to Virginia Tech University where he shot and killed 32 students, wounding 17. On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut and murdered 20 children. On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen went to the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and murdered almost 50 people, wounding 58. With the exception of the Texas Tower Shooting, these attacks were the four deadliest shootings in modern American history.

What makes shootings like these so psychologically devastating? Factors that increase psychological “toxicity” are numerous, but here are some of the most important:

pexels photo
Source: pexels photo

1) Obviously, the sheer number of victims increases psychological distress. Gruesomeness increases toxicity.

2) The fact that these murders were not expected is traumatizing. The fact that there was no real warning increases distress. This leaves us all feeling vulnerable. To be fair, security experts have been warning us that such an attack was possible, but we choose to deny the risks, or we simply refuse to change our ways of living. Nevertheless, no one at the concert believed they were at risk.

3) Innocent people were victims. Innocent concertgoers did not deserve to die we say to ourselves. It is especially distressing when children are victims…they deserve better. They deserve a chance to grow up.

4) In the cases of Whitman, Lanza, and Cho, mental illness was an apparent contributing factor. In the case of Mateen, hate seemed to be a motivating factor, In the case of the person reported to be the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, the motive is currently unknown. All of these factors seem vague and they are out of our control. Feeling out of control increases distress. This is especially true for emergency services professionals who are trained to take control of chaotic situations. What happens when their training or resources prove inadequate?

5) Perhaps the most devastating aspect of the Las Vegas massacre and similar shootings is the destruction of a core human need…the need to feel safe. All of the shooting I enumerated above occurred in places most of us assumed would be safe places. Schools and places of fun, joy, and entertainment. We expect tragedy on the battlefield. We don’t expect it our “safe” places.

Dr. Jeff Lating and I have written extensively on the factors which increase psychological toxicity in the aftermath of disasters and terrorism (Everly & Lating, 2004; Everly & Lating, 2013; Everly & Lating, 2017). The destruction of fundamental beliefs sometimes called “assumptive worldviews” seem to be at the core. The two most important core psychological assumptions that allow us to otherwise navigate a world that can sometimes be dangerous, are the beliefs that it is basically a just and fair world, and then we are safe most of the time. The Las Vegas massacre, the shootings in Newtown, Virginia Tech, Orlando, and Austin reveal our core assumptions may be illusions. Such a psychological injury can leave lasting scars. But such doesn’t have to be the case. With the rise of the field of disaster psychology, we have learned that there are ways to mitigate the pain of trauma, disaster, and yes, even terrorism.

© George S. Everly, Jr., 2017

References

Everly, G.S., Jr. & Lating, J.M. (2004). Personality based treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. Washington, D.C.: APA Press.

Everly, G.S., Jr. & Lating, J.M. (2013). Clinical guide to the treatment of the human stress response. NY: Springer.

Everly, G.S., Jr. & Lating, J.M. (2017). The Johns Hopkins guide to psychological first aid. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.