Everyday Terror: Initial reflections on the Orlando shooting
Working in a hospital I’ve come to fear the everyday activities that just don’t end well: riding bikes, taking walks, driving, taking the stairs, etc. Any one of these activities can suddenly go awry and land you in the ER. These everyday activities can be punctuated by unpredictability—a car comes out of nowhere and hits a bicyclist, a pedestrian is hit by a car on a routine walk to the grocery store, sock feet on wooden stairs leads to head injuries. I admit, I have not found a good way to cope with these everyday traumas. I’ve put off making my bicycle my primary form of transportation because it just seems too dangerous, I am a more careful driver, and in general I have become more risk averse. I think of this as the effect of seeing and sitting with patients who happen to be the outlying edges of the bell curve with regard to accidental trauma.
In contrast to the accidental trauma, there is the victim of trauma: a person who has suffered violence at the hand of another. I rarely get to talk to these victims because they often need immediate medical care. And yet, I have a coping strategy for distancing myself from being a victim—I learn as much as I can about the circumstances and convince myself that I will never be in those circumstances. Where was that gun shot wound victim when he was shot? Oh, farther south in Chicago than I live, in fact, I’ve never even been there. When did it happen? Well, I’m never out that late. In my mind, this is a normal human response to feeling unsafe; let’s face it, I live in a city where there are people shot every day and “farther south than me” is measured in blocks not miles. I feel like this is the awakening of old coping strategies rather than an adaption to a new reality.
In the wake of the Orlando shooting, my old coping strategies for dealing with terrorism have been awakened. These coping strategies are not so different from the distancing I described above, but they reflect a numbness to the situation that I’ve acquired from cumulative effect of all of the mass shootings in the country and the consistently high level of violence in Chicago. They are my “old coping strategies” because I developed them when I lived in Haifa, Israel at the beginning of the Second Intifada from 2000-2001. Haifa was fairly insulated from the violence in the early months so I vowed to stay in Haifa rather than traveling to other parts of Israel. This plan didn’t always work, so I would sometimes find myself on an intercity bus convincing myself that only intra-city buses blew up. For a while this was true, but after an intercity bus blew up, and I couldn’t tell myself that story anymore. But that’s okay because my basic coping strategy was still in tact. Haifa was still pretty safe, so I would just stay there. Cities closer to the border were less safe, but Haifa was a peaceful island of religious harmony. Sure there were bombs at checkpoints and in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, but there always are, and those places were in fact miles away. Then there was a bomb at the docks in Haifa. But no worries, Haifa is built on a mountain with the docks at the base and the university at the top. The entire city was in between me and the bomb. Besides, I never go to the docks. As the violence climbed the mountain my coping strategy held: I never go to that market; I don’t use that bus; I don’t shop on Friday mornings; I don’t live on that side of campus. The encroaching violence and its ubiquity led to a learned numbness, a numbness required for survival because you cannot live in constant fear and grief, or at least I can’t. But there are high costs for this learned numbness. For one, it is hard to unlearn.
I returned to the US in August of 2001, just in time to watch the Twin Towers fall. I was numb. Sitting in KY at the time, NYC seemed so far away, much farther away than the Haifa was from the border or than the docks were from the university. Just a month prior I had been surrounded by explosions and had to get on with my shopping and studying. In hearing the reports from Orlando today, I feel numb. It is so far away—I’d have to fly there. I don’t go to nightclubs. I’m never out that late. In the absence of stopping violence, we learn to adapt, to get along, to take refuge in macabre senses of humor. The human cost is high, it is unbearable.