PTSD Nation Update

We vowed Sandy Hook would be the last. Will Parkland be the finale?

Posted Feb 26, 2018

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Over five years ago, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, we wrote a column titled PTSD Nation in which we conveyed how our nation as a whole suffers from PTSD each time a mass shooting occurs. Further, we expressed the thoughts of many Americans at that time: Surely this most heinous atrocity —the shooting deaths of 20 first-graders and six adult staff members by a troubled twenty-year old man (he shot his mother to death prior to driving to Sandy Hook) would be the catalyst for real change to occur in our country in regards to an out-of-control American gun addiction.  

But since Sandy Hook, depending on the definition of a “school shooting,” there have been somewhere between 63 school shootings with 41 deaths (Time.com), and 239 school shootings resulting in 138 deaths (nytimes.com, which includes college campus shootings; see links in References, below). To be clear, our lawmakers, guided by President Trump and other politicians who have received funding from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun promoters, have made some changes in the last year. Unfortunately, these changes have been in opposition to the vast majority of our population calling for sensible gun laws such as better background checks for gun purchasers, and a total ban on sales of military assault weapons. For instance, a month into his first year as POTUS, President Trump signed a bill to revoke an Obama-era regulatory initiative that made it more difficult for people with mental illness — such as the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida shooter — to purchase guns.

Mass PTSD

Each time we experience an unexpected devastating trauma such as the Parkland massacre, we are gripped by the real-time visuals of the “event” as it unfolds – and our nation suffers from more PTSD. We collectively hug each other, weep together as we feel intense sorrow, and vow “never again!” To add to our sadness, we’ve stopped wondering why these shootings occur because they have become so routine in our collective consciousness.

Although we are not advocates of the therapeutic process of desensitization — thinking and talking about the traumatic experience and/or viewing images over and over again – it is a common practice in certain therapeutic modes for helping people overcome PTSD. Is this what’s happening to us as a nation? Or do we have enough puzzle pieces yet to figure out why and how this keeps happening? According to Parkland survivors, who are speaking on behalf of not only themselves but also the Columbine High School students, the Sandy Hook first graders and all people who’ve suffered mass shootings in between, as we do also, we shout out loud and clear: never again!

Understanding Mass Murderers

As we piece together the puzzle of mass shootings, a picture forms that is difficult to conceive – that we may have inadvertently helped create the shooters. They are American homegrown terrorists, every bit as terrible and terrifying as Middle Eastern suicide bombers. Although the motives behind mass murderers may differ, the goal is always the same. And in our country, we use guns instead of explosive vests.

After the Parkland massacre, we no longer think this couldn’t happen in our town. Because it could. Nor do we wonder that a shooter wouldn’t do such a thing because the Parkland massacre shooter’s troubled behavior was well known by teachers, fellow students, and the community at large.  After scores of mass shootings, we see that these horrific incidences do indeed happen anywhere in America where guns are freely available and that the shooters have for some reason chosen to isolate themselves from family, friends, and from society. They live in every town across the country. Frequently they are loners - quiet, reserved, extremely shy kids and adults who may have been socially excluded by peers. And of the scores of shooters, all but two were males.

What’s Happening to Our Boys and Young Men

Across the United States, many boys and young men have become lonely social isolates who do not know how to relate to others in informal, personal ways, as described in Man Interrupted, written by Zimbardo and Duncan (Conari Press, 2016). They lack male mentors, have too many absentee fathers and few older males to look up to and show them how to live on the right path. Having no one to turn to, they turn inward and to their tech devices.

Realistic visuals are provided in countless ways by the media, Hollywood and the video gaming world. Programs recycle terrifying information 24/7 under the guise of “news” and then ignore its social effect - shock - which plays on our fears and hooks us into watching even more. For a mentally unstable viewer/player, violent video games can anesthetize and confuse reality to the point that the line between the digital world and the real world can become intertwined and even seamless.

Mass murderers are so badly damaged and feel so deeply that they have no future — or their future will get worse — that they have nothing to lose by their violent acts. Perhaps they’ve been bullied to the extreme, or ignored, or suffered atrocious traumatic events or brain injuries. Whatever the reason, they become sociopaths and feel justified in their actions. They seek the extreme negative present hedonism of a last firefight and in most cases if they don’t take themselves out before they get caught - they commit “suicide by cop.” They have a final plan and they follow through with self-destruction as their goal.

It will take years if not decades to rebuild our society to be more understanding, more inclusive, more compassionate in order to heal these young men. In the meantime, we must search for a quick fix to this horrific American reality.

A bad solution

Rather than oppose powerful gun organizations and gun selling companies by considering legislation for sensible gun laws, President Trump has foolishly suggested arming many of our teachers as his solution to school shootings. He hasn’t bothered to ask teachers if they are willing to take on the awesome responsibility of carrying a concealed weapon and use it to defend their students against weapons of war. He hasn’t bothered to ask his constituents if this is a good idea, or discovered that more guns does not mean less crimes. And it’s apparent he hasn’t bothered to consider how having armed teachers in the fray during a mass shooting would add to the terror and chaos for students, unarmed teachers, and law enforcement first responders.

In fact, along with the eloquent students and teachers of Stoneman Douglas High School, some of the most vocal opponents to the president’s “solution” are seasoned military combat veterans. Through op-eds, viral blog posts and Twitter threads, these veterans have expressed their opposition to the availability of assault weapons for civilians as well as arming teachers.  “It increases the chance of kids dying in crossfire, adds to confusion with SWAT teams trying to identify an armed assailant, and greatly increases odds of an accidental shooting,” tweeted VoteVets, a progressive veterans group.

That the loudest proponents of more guns (President Trump and NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre) by arming teachers have never served in the military further galls those who have served. Three Marine Corps veterans wrote in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, “When it comes to guns, gun violence and the effects of weapons of war on human tissue, we are uniquely qualified to offer expert testimony. Two of us are former NRA members. We resigned in disgust. We have seen the effect guns have on human flesh. We’ve lost friends and brothers and sisters in uniform, seen the torn bodies, the wounds, and carry the scars ourselves.”

The real solution

Five years ago, we thought the loss of innocent lives at Sandy Hook was the ultimate wake up call. Sadly, it wasn’t. Instead, it is the clear, youthful passion of the students of Stoneman Douglas High School who are, as President Obama recently tweeted, the leaders we’ve been waiting for. Within two days of the worst day of their lives, these brilliant young people took their grief and turned it into action. Through their savvy understanding of social and mainstream media, they are fighting powerful gun organizations and calling out politicians, including the president, who, through their acceptance of gun organization donations and legislation have promoted easier access to guns, which in turn, have allowed school shootings to occur.

So let’s call upon the inner hero in each of us and join these young champions. Let’s focus on being brave by not allowing people or organizations to control us by fear. Let’s conceive of ways to stay safe in a rapidly changing world. With guidance by our youth, let’s make our decisions based on where we want to go as a nation rather than on past negative traumas – and move toward the light of a brighter future. After all, our nation, and its future, is in the minds and hands of this sparkling bright next generation.

Let us reaffirm the hero motto from Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project: “Stand Up, Speak Out, Take Wise and Effective Action in Challenging Situations to Make Our World Better.”

References

Rampton, R., Dunham, W., (2-22-2018) Trump emphasises arming teachings in response to school shootings. Reuters.com.

Guardian Staff, (2-21-2018) Trump’s solution to school shootings: arm teachers with guns. theguardian.com.

Lucier, P., Hunter, K., Plenzler, J., (2-20-2018) We’re Combat Veterans. We support the students demanding gun reform.  Washington Post.

Zimbardo, P., Coulombe, N. (2016) Man Interrupted. Conari Press.

Zimbardo, P., Sword, R. (2017) Living & Loving Better, McFarland Publishing.

Moyer, M., (2017) More Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows. scientificamerican.com.