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Those facing tragedies are more traumatized

When James Holmes murderously interrupted the new Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, opening fire and killing 12 people and injuring 58 others, it was a sickening déjà vu for many of us here in San Diego.

On July 18, 1984, recently fired security guard James Huberty told his wife he was going “hunting for humans” and walked three blocks from his apartment to the McDonald’s restaurant near the San Diego-Tijuana border.

He fired away for 77 minutes in what must have seemed like a hellish eternity, snuffing out the lives of young, old, men, women, kids and 8 month old Carlos Reyes — firing 257 rounds of ammunition, murdering 12 people and injuring 19 before his destructive existence was mercifully ended by a sniper.

I was one of many staffers on The San Diego Union drafted into covering the story.

The most haunting photo of the event was of a kid’s bike on the ground – a bike earlier ridden by Omar Hernandez, 11, who was unlucky enough to be riding too close to the restaurant where Huberty systematically emptied his weapons into the bodies of anyone in sight.

In 1985 I was assigned to be part of a team to do the inevitable “year after” story. An editor told me that since I spoke Spanish I was to go down to Baja, Calif. and find the relatives of some of the Mexican murdered victims and ask how they felt a year later.

Of course, the answer was evident beforehand but to see it first hand was stunning. These were relatives and friends whose lives were forever changed, not just due to the loss of a loved one, but how in their minds-eye they literally could feel the terror of their loved ones last minutes or seconds of their lives.

But so many others touch by the trauma were impacted for years as well: the first responders, bystanders at the scene, editors, and reporters. It was a centipede of trauma.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés is a longtime psychoanalyst and post-trauma recovery specialist who worked at Columbine High School and its community for three years after that massacre and also with 9-11 survivor families. She’s known for her Post-Trauma Recovery Protocol and for books such as Women Who Run with the Wolves.

She notes that shock impacts people emotionally, physically, spiritually and mentally. It impacts their very identity and leaves set-to-spring emotional triggers. People heal, she says, although perhaps never completely.

“It would be a rare human being who could withstand sure death suddenly writ large without every aspect of the human being deeply affected for the psyche is like a camera as are the senses,” she says. “It is like having six surveillance cameras on at all times — five senses and the mind as cameras. Thus at disaster sites, the bodily senses and mind of each individual are recording the visuals of the tragedy as it unfolds, the smells of it, the sounds of weeping-screaming, the deadly silences, the very taste of death, and more, often details that can barely be spoken about.”

She notes: “Time stops, for most everything held precious by each individual in the disaster… feels as though it has been threatened utterly, or ripped away entirely, leaving the person ‘walking wounded’ on the road to a future that seems shrouded in smoke and death….With help from those who ‘will walk with the wounded’ consistently in the aftermath… each traumatized person will find their way back, I say, not to ‘wholeness,’ for the vessel once whole has been broken … but there will be a return to the pole star.”

And society? In each tragedy we hear promises of how things will change, but tougher gun laws remains one more boilerplate political issue and polls find little shift in political polarization on it.

Some say guns don’t kill people. True: Weak laws drafted by gutless politicians focused on perpetuating themselves in power that allow criminals and nuts to get virtually unlimited use of weapons kill people.


Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He can be reached at jgandelman@themoderatevoice.com.