The Existential Fall Out after Newtown
I have a heavy heart tonight. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of Newtown. The Newtown shooting is a terrible tragedy. It has reminded me of lessons learned while studying the families of murder victims.
For the past 2 years, I have been researching the everyday lives of families who lose someone in a murder. This has been difficult—and often heartbreaking—research. I have spent many nights thinking about how much I take my family, friends, and other people in my life for granted. I think about the mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings whose first and last thoughts of each day are of the person they loved and lost. The things that I have seen and the stories that I have collected have left a deep and permanent mark on my soul.
Amongst the many thoughts swirling around in my head, I keep returning to a troubling “double standard” that we often taken for granted when shootings happen.
On one hand, the Newtown shooting reminds us that fatal violence can happen at anytime to anyone. It is a painful reminder that life is precious and that it can be snapped away from us at any moment. The Newtown shooting makes many of us feel an existential fall out. How could this happen? Why did this have to happen? And what does this mean for me?
For many of us, these shootings cut a little too close to home. They happen in places to people who remind us of ourselves. We begin to wonder: “Are we ever really safe?” “Will our children come home from school today?” “Will this happen at my favorite movie theater?”
In turn, these ideas shape how we feel about families who mourn in the wake of such tragedies. We feel deep empathy, compassion, and sadness for families and victims in Newtown. We talk about the victims here as innocent children who met a horrible death completely out of their hands. We wonder how the families and friends of victims will cope with such a loss.
But, the same kinds of sympathy and compassion are often not extended to families who lose their children in street shootings every day. These situations are treated very differently by the media, by our leaders, and by many of us. We see these shootings as events that only happen to people who are caught up in the wrong crowd. We assume that these victims—who are often children—must have been dealing drugs, in a gang, or doing something to meet such a horrible end. Everyday violence in our inner-cities helps us hold onto a precious myth: Fatal violence only happens to people who bring it on themselves. If we can believe this, or at least think it might be true, we can feel safe again.
How do we reconcile these conflicting responses to tragedy?
I’m here to tell you that many of our popular assumptions about the second group of victims are deeply problematic and misinformed. Many of the people that I have followed over the years have been young men who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is a powerful message that John Rich—a physician, scholar, and interventionist—teaches us in his powerful work on young black men’s experiences with trauma.
This is a theme that also resonates with my work: One family I followed lost their youngest son in a street-style execution shooting. The mother and two older brothers of the victim faced an unsympathetic and sometimes cruel world. Newspaper articles talked about this case as an example of how families need to keep closer tabs on their children. Local community leaders and church pastors used this event to denounce drugs in the community. And, most hurtful of all, supervisors at the mother’s work filed complaints about her work productivity slipping after her son’s death. When she told them that she was in the bathroom wailing over the loss of her youngest child—she was fired and released with severance.
This is only a small sample of the many tragedies that I followed in Philadelphia. I hope that this underscores the need to rethink how we process and make sense of gun violence across the board. The deep sympathy and pain that we all feel tonight for the victims of Newtown should be extended to families who lose sons, daughters, husbands, wives, grandparents, aunts, uncles, best friends, and siblings in our backyards everyday.