On January 31, 2023 an armed gunman entered the retail store that my wife works at and opened fire. This was not a training exercise. It was a tragedy come true.
The gunman was killed by responding law enforcement officers. Fortunately, Kathryn was not at work when the shooting occurred and no customers or employees were shot in the incident.
The national media covered the story almost immediately after it transpired (see video above). The framework for their reporting followed the standard outline. They answered the what, when, and how questions. It can be summarized as follows:
Subject: A male individual.
Action: Opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle.
Location: Inside a popular retail store in Omaha, Nebraska.
Time: Around lunchtime on Tuesday January 31, 2023.
Outcome: The gunman was killed by police. No one else was hurt.
The list above may appear to be a factually accurate representation of the event. But can you spot the error? I'll give you a hint, it's found on the last line.
While no customers or employees may have been shot, they clearly were hurt. Not a single one of them was struck by a bullet, but all of them were negatively impacted.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk makes the argument that when humans experience a traumatic event they receive damage at multiple levels of their being.
"After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases. This explains why it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind, and brain."
Part of what Dr. Van der Kolk is suggesting here, and other research appears to support it, is that human beings are negatively impacted by psychological distress in multiple ways.
This probably isn't that controversial of an idea. Most of us have experienced physical repercussions from emotionally distressing situations. For example, public speaking causes many people to have an increased heart rate or shaky hands. Some people even become physically sick when presenting in front of others. Now imagine how much calamity a traumatic experience like being threatened by a gunman will have on our personhood.
An unstable person firing indiscriminately inside a store causes harm in every situation. Even after the shooting has ended, negative outcomes typically develop among those who were there, and it often impacts those who weren't there but heard about it. Some people have problems sleeping. Others are fearful and withdrawn. Some develop stomach ulcers or migraines. Still others get into angry arguments about what government should or should not do to respond. The list goes on. The research is clear, traumatic events have both immediate and long-term psychosomatic consequences.
One night while I was working as a member of my emergency department's trauma team, I started to think deeply about how human beings are impacted by high-stress situations. I decided that experiencing a traumatic event is analogous to being irradiated.
Let me explain what I mean by using this recent shooting incident in Omaha.
Rather than seeing this episode as a gunman threatening shoppers & employees until he is neutralized by the police, I approach this incident as if a malevolent actor had set off a dirty bomb (an explosive device containing radioactive elements) in a public setting. The damaging energy waves emitted from the explosion impact everyone in the vicinity in some very significant and complex ways. For simplicity, I will label this dirty bomb episode a radiation exposure event (R.E.E.). And to be clear, I equate a traumatic episode as an R.E.E.
An R.E.E. has three important characteristics that get missed in the typical "man with gun" narrative.
Encompassing: Unlike a shooter who is typically only able to harm people within a limited line of sight, and from a limited distance, an R.E.E. radiates outward to impact a much wider area. In our case, since all of the shoppers and employees were able to escape the store or hide, the media reports that no victims are considered to exist. However, in an R.E.E. almost everyone in the area has already been exposed and thus harmed, including the emergency responders who came to the scene after it was set off.
Enduring: An active shooting situation is time-limited. The danger only lasts as long as the gunman can keep firing. Once the shooter is neutralized or arrested the threat is over. But an R.E.E. continues to give off radiation even after the dirty bomb has detonated. In other words, the area where it occurred is still considered a dangerous place. In our incident, the shooter was killed and his body was subsequently removed, but the fear he created lingers in the area and keeps people from returning to the store. This sounds much more like an R.E.E. than a "done and over" crime.
Ratcheting: Exposure to radiation adds up over time. A person who receives doses over and over again will eventually get sick or even die. The seriousness of being involved in an R.E.E. is very much related to the levels of radioactivity an individual has already experienced in their life and how much radiation has already been absorbed by their body. In a similar way, being threatened by a gunman is one more troubling event that can combine with other traumas, past and future, to create a toxic level of harm.
To put this idea into greater perspective, think about what the response would have been if a dirty bomb had been set off in my wife's store. We'd likely consider the entire area around the store to be at risk and we'd be worried about the safety of those who live and work in the vicinity. But in the aftermath of a shooting, we don't usually think this way. Instead, we typically approach the crisis as a localized episode affecting only the specific people who are in the building at the time of the event. Yet a shooting event is not psychologically contained. There are many people throughout the community who have been negatively impacted. Some are probably not only fearful to return to that specific store, they are afraid to go out to any public place.
If this incident had been a radiation exposure event, the retail store would be considered a hot spot and a dangerous place to be around. But in a shooting scenario we often clean up the site and then assume that people should be willing to simply return to the crime scene, as if nothing has happened. We often don't think about how the event can join with other traumatic events or get combined with other horrific news stories to ratchet up fear and increase harm.
To its credit, the company my wife works for quickly made on-site counselors available to employees who desired support. Our county government also provided a uniformed sheriff's deputy who walked the store and provided a security presence after the store's reopening. These are good and appropriate responses to reduce the effects of trauma, but this isn't all that can be done in the aftermath of a traumatic event such as this.
There is a greater role, a purpose if you will, that many of us can engage in to reduce harm and facilitate healing after a traumatic event.
In my next article I'll continue the radiation analogy and describe several practical actions my wife took in order to reduce the negative effects stemming from the shooting. In the meantime, feel free to use the comments section below to offer your own thoughts on this topic. Which concept (Encompassing, Enduring, or Ratcheting) do you think is the most important one to address after a traumatic event like the one we experienced here in Omaha?