The Trauma of Gun Violence
March 4, 2018
Genesis 3 “Your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground” Lk. 22:47-51
We’ve had a lot of emotional reaction to the shootings in Parkland, Florida because it is an emotional subject. It is as it should be. You can see people visibly have to control themselves, parents who lost a child, students who lost a kid that sat next to them in Honors English class. They can barely keep from screaming and crying all at once. It is very intense what they are going through.
I’ll never forget the day that my sister-in-law died. She was like 43 I guess. My brother called me on the phone. I just got in the car and drove to Capitol Hill in DC where his family lived. By the time I got there, my niece and nephews were home for school.
I hadn’t though about seeing them. I walked in the house and they were upstairs in the bedroom, laying on the bed. My nephew is a special needs child. He was like 14 at the time. He is 6’7” tall today, so he was already 6”5’ then. A man child. He was curled up in a fetal position on the bed, just numb… like a little boy that needed his Mom.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I did what his mother would do I suppose and lay down on the bed next to him and just hugged him. What a terrible, awful moment that was. Abandonment, fear, incredulity, frustrated rage.
I remember in those days and weeks right after she died, sometimes I would call my brother and he was so sad and so confused, I didn’t think he was going to actually get out of bed. Sometimes you can get so sad that you are actually afraid to start crying because you are not entirely sure that you can stop. It is powerful thing, the subterranean emotions of life and death.
We know from our neurologists that chemicals get released in our brain. And sometimes when you are in the middle of being deluged with trauma, you can feel the hormonal shift in your personality so that this whole other you begins to emerge, a person you don’t come into contact with day in or day out.
Real fear, life threatening fear, suddenly changes you dramatically, palpably. You feel it intensely, even as you are aware that you are making decisions you will likely amend later.
I think most of our country understands this… And then I wonder if they do. We had the raw emotions of parents speaking in the midst of their loss, struggling with composure, struggling with logic even as they spoke- spiritually overcome, spiritually traumatized…
The next day, we have other people that experienced all of this saying, we just need to arm our teachers… If you are worried right now that I am going to jump into the debate over guns, don’t worry. I’m not going to get that far.
But that particular solution reminded me of a conversation I had with my eighteen-year old son upon the occasion of his deployment to Afghanistan in 2002-2003. He had finished basic training and was stationed with the 25th Infantry as a Scout. His job was to do reconnaissance in the mountain passes near Tora Bora, trying to run down Osama Bin Laden and other military leaders in Al Qaeda.
Before he shipped out for active deployment, he came home for a visit. The two of us had a moment alone, so I asked him the question, “Ian how does the Army train you spiritually to kill a man?”
He was quiet for a while. And then, spoken just like an eighteen-year old boy, he said to me, “I don’t know Dad. They have you practice and practice and practice… so that when you get there and actually pull the trigger, it is no big deal.”
I thought to myself, ‘there is a reason we draft eighteen year old boys to fight our wars for us.’ It is no big deal??? It is no big deal??? As his father, I wanted to stop and pray for him, right then and there, because I know it is a big deal, probably the biggest single deal of his life.
We humans are not wired to dismiss trauma. We don’t get past it easily, sometimes we don’t get past it ever.
When I was thirteen, I was walking to school one day with the same guys that walked to school pretty much every day. We were walking on the side of the road, next to on-coming traffic. One of my friends in the back of the pack, stepped out to say something to all of us and he stepped out into the road at precisely the same moment as a truck was veering much to close to all of us. The truck hit him, threw him twenty yards in a crumple on the side of the road.
8th grade… I remember we were so big. Boys, emergency. We all took off our coats, our shirts, and we covered him as best we could. His skull was crushed. The loss of blood was catastrophic. But we jumped into Doctor mode, all of us. They took him away in an ambulance. I am sure he was already dead.
I remember the driver that hit him. He kept going over what had happened, over and over and over and over, saying the same things, really… It was like he kept hoping that if he could go over it again carefully enough, something would change and he’d get a different outcome.
I moved from there a year later, but I stayed in touch with my friends. Years later, like when we were going to college, I got a note from one of them. He told me that the driver used to send him periodic updates on that piece of road. Changes had been made. They installed a crosswalk or some warning lights, I can’t remember all the details. But that driver that killed my friend sent him a picture of that section of the road, looking much safer and more officially zoned now.
8 years on… 10 years on… this guys is still going over and over and over that day, trying to undo something.
That driver was haunted, probably for the rest of his life, probably not that different from Lady MacBeth who had deep regrets about her complicity in murder. She is washing her hands and washing her hands and washing her hands and she finally yells out loud, “Out, out damned spot.” And it just won’t wash away…
That guy could not get that incident out of his head. I can’t even remember if it was really the drivers fault or just one of those terrible accidents, but he was guilty in his mind, guilty in a way that he could not let himself get over it. Years later, he still wanted to reach out to the boys that he had hurt in the hope that we would somehow be mature enough to extend to him a forgiveness that his own conscience would not grant him. He couldn’t get by it. Trauma is like that. It stays long after you are ready to be done with it.
I think about this all of the time. Your children come back from the war permanently changed. They don’t even know how they have been damaged but they just aren’t the same. I’ve talked to the young men in my son’s unit. They only had 9 because they were a recon unit, very small.
If you talk to them, none of them think that they experienced anything that was exceptionally traumatic. Yes, you have people die in warfare. Yes, some of these incidents are very difficult. But, no, none of them is particularly imperiled or unable to go on with their life. Nothing like that.
But a higher percentage of our veterans use heavy drugs and heavy alcohol than the regular population. A higher percentage of our veterans have trouble developing meaning back in their civilian life, which seems boring and without purpose relative to when they were deployed. A higher percentage of our veterans have trouble getting their careers on track because their work doesn’t engage them front and center. It is not like their lives are derailed.
But they have been traumatized and just being together is a good thing for them but they don’t sit around and talk about their trauma. It is more that they know that the only people in the world that can really understand them at some level are the guys that they served with, but none of them thinks of themselves as traumatized, because they are not exceptional. Everyone went through the same thing.
A couple years after Ian was back from Afghanistan, I had to participate in a Memorial Day parade here in town with Senator Corzine, who himself is a Marine Veteran. Flags, marching, springtime. One of our politicians, a little wound up with patriotism spotted a couple of Vets in the crowd and invited them up to the stage for the pledge of allegiance.
One of them was my son, and I could see both of the Vets with an expression of ‘don’t make me do this.’ Sure enough, before we could get to the actual pledge, our politicians started thanking them for being hero’s. You could see both of them looking at the ground, waiting for this unasked for praise to pass.
And I don’t know, they may be hero’s but that is not the way that they look at themselves. They didn’t do anything that everybody else wouldn’t have done. They didn’t suffer any more than anybody else.
But I sat there thinking the obvious, they don’t see themselves as hero’s so much as they think of themselves… as wounded.
Not a hero in victory, just a guy trying to recover from his wounds, trying to figure it all out.
These are our trained warriors. These are the guys that we draft for the Green Berets, the Navy Seals. They have a significantly difficult time getting on with their life, making peace with themselves, developing a basic meaning and purpose in civilian life because what we put them through when we send them to war is that negatively impactful.
I do think of these men and women as hero’s because of what that have taken on so that we don’t have to. We owe these people.
About 15 years ago, I was downtown on a Bridges run just before Christmas. Our Confirmands were handing out soup and sandwiches and Christmas presents donated by all of you at the church. Someone had a boom box on and the radio station played a song by Sly and the Family Stone that was a number 1 hit in 1969.
O man, I came to life, I’m dancing around to the music, some of the other guys are dancing around to the music, waiting in line to get their food. So I said to them, “December 1969? Where are you and what are you doing?”
You have to be of a certain age to answer that question but that era came back in an instant.
First guy says, “I was in DaNang”
Second guys says, “I was traveling up the Haiphong Harbor.”
Third guy says, “I was about to deploy from Ft. Hood.”
Almost all of the homeless guys that are over 60 are Vietnam Veterans. This is a national disgrace. I don’t know why it took me so long to make the connection. I’m an idiot but I never looked at homeless guys quite the same. Sometimes I still try to see the traumatized boy inside the layers of woundedness that made these men homeless survivors. We owe these people for what we’ve put them through so we didn’t have to…
So when I heard people endorsing teachers to be armed so that they could defend their students during a mass shooting event, I’m surprised how naïve they are about human nature… Because I know that if you take another persons life, even under circumstances that are completely justified by reasons of defense, even where every precaution is observed and proper protocol is followed to the tee. It is incredibly difficult. You might never get by it.
Never mind that about 20% of all our soldiers that engage the enemy simply do not fire their weapons for a number of complicated reason, not the least of which is being momentarily overwhelmed by aggression and terror.
Never mind that a large percentage of people who survive such a traumatic event, somewhere around 20%, develop full blown symptoms of PTSD: Persistent headaches, nightmares, flashbacks, hyper-anxiety unto depression and/or paranoia, withdrawal, avoidance, repression, emotional numbness, hyper-arousal like being jumpy all the time, irritability- always on edge… And the last two that cast such a long shadow over your life guilt and shame (whether or not they are actually deserved).
It can, it will define and entire generation, all of Syria today and most of Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and half of Pakistan.
At the end of WW1 in Europe, so many people had been involved in trench warfare… So many people experienced death as arbitrary, some people dying by sheer accident, some people living by sheer accident…
That after the end of the war, they could not adjust back to normal again… a whole generation in Europe. They were reckless, and lived with abandon.
Every weekend in Germany, thousands and thousands of these alienated young men would gather in Munich, put their uniforms on, like they were still in the Army, get staggering drunk, like it was the last night of their life, reaching for something extraordinary to feel. Because inside, their soul was burnt out, felt nothing. They would do anything wild to escape it.
Because being married was so boring, doing your menial job (and the unemployment rate was staggering) was so boring. Why did I survive? Why did my best friend die? Erich Maria Remarque described it so well in “All Quiet on the Western Front” the way that “survivor guilt” morphs into generational despair that destroys families and cripples lives. It ruins a generation.
We’ve been through this as a society. We know how bad it is. In 1928, reflecting on the horrors we went through in World War 1, Congress passed the Kellog-Briand Act that promised not to use war to resolve “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them”… We outlawed War and by the way, France and Germany signed that pact with us. They outlawed war too. We knew just how awful it was. You can’t live in trauma.
And, now our children and their children are begging us and pleading us not to be subjected to this regularly recurring trauma… in their schools. They are afraid, anxious, unsure, antsy. What kind of world are we creating for them by allowing this to regularly recur?
Why can’t we raise them in love, with trust in their people and trust in their world, optimistic and oriented by hope, imaginative and curious about different cultures and traditions? What will it take for us to become intentionally focused on the foundations by which our children and their children will flourish?
We come to the Communion table to remember the One that chose the way of reconciliation and forgiveness, the One who absorbed spiritual trauma that we might not have to. We come to be pointed again towards the way of communion and healing and harmony in the place of what is fractured, what is broken, what keeps us alone and hurting.
Come bring your brokenness. Come in hope for healing, healing for one another, for our community and our families, healing for our nation. Come.