Processing Speed: Our Reaction to Violence

What American adult will ever forget the Newtown massacre? As that horrific story hit the media on December 14, 2012, I recall being overwhelmed by shock, anger, sadness, and more shock. It was simply unfathomable. How could a human being do such a thing? When my kids arrived home from school, the three of us discussed the tragedy with a combination of disbelief and tears, and when my husband got home, there was more discussion. After dinner, my mom called on the phone, asking, "Did you hear what happened?" Everyone needed to talk, to grieve, to ask questions, despite the fact that there were no real answers.

Later on, my husband and I turned on the TV news, hoping it would help us process and perhaps get some sort of grip. And as depressing as the coverage was, watching it felt better than sitting alone with the pain. In a strange, electronic way, the news provided some sort of community experience. I wasn't alive when JFK was shot, but I think Newtown was similar in the sense that it kept people glued to their TVs for hours or even days. Somehow, hearing the weak explanations of what'd happened, listening to stories from survivors, and watching President Obama weep and offer hope in the form of the words "we can do better" helped us deal.

Then, as the general public's grieving eased a bit, people began to discuss how the tragedy might've been prevented, and ways to prevent future ones. Thousands of Americans begged elected officials to make changes. Some called for stricter gun control laws, some demanded better mental health care, but almost everything I read and heard came from a place of deep concern, and sadness. And for a brief period, it appeared that things might improve.

But three years and many mass shootings later--sadly, I've lost count--the only changes we've seen have been quite disturbing. On Wednesday, December 1, 2015, I was driving to pick up my husband at the train when the DJ on the radio paused between songs to send his condolences to the people injured and killed in San Bernadino. He provided no other details.

Of course, I wondered what'd happened, so when I parked at the train station, I Googled San Bernadino on my phone and discovered there'd been yet another mass shooting. Fourteen people were dead and many more injured in a building that housed social service agencies. I felt a shock and sadness that had become all too familiar, and when my husband got in the car, I told him what I'd read. He asked a few questions, I told him the police were trying to figure out who the perpetrators were and what their motives might've been, and we both shook our heads. Then, we began driving home. I asked him about his day, and he told me how crowded the train had been. Neither of us mentioned the shooting at dinner. Afterwards, as we cleaned up the kitchen, my daughter said she'd heard something online about a shooting in California, and I told her the little I knew. Again, we all expressed sadness, but we didn't cry. Nobody turned on the TV news.

A few hours later, when everyone else was in bed, I went on Twitter in search of more information about the shooting. And although I did find a few news reports, most of the information was political. About half the stuff I read was about race and religion, while the other half was about gun laws and the NRA. And although I have very strong opinions about the unfair treatment of Muslims in today's world and believe the NRA must be stopped, even the tweets with which I agreed were upsetting. Because although the shooting had happened only several hours earlier, there was very little evidence of shock. Where was the compassion for the victims? Where were the tears? And where were mine?

Has violence become so commonplace in today's society that we've lost our ability to be stopped in our tracks by it? Sure, the Paris attacks caught our attention for at least one full night, but they were extremely large-scale, and honestly, by the next day, I think it's fair to say that most people in the US were back to doing whatever they would've been doing had the attacks not happened.

What is happening to humanity? After Newtown, the victims were repeatedly mourned by name. Similarly, the names of the Boston Marathon victims--both injured and killed--are often referred to in the news, and many wounded survivors have had multiple opportunities to tell their stories publicly. This helps us remember the tremendous loss that results from violence, and keeps us in touch with our human emotions. Grief, however difficult it may be to experience, is a natural and necessary step in the healing process.

Yet as the body count increases and the time between violent attacks decreases, societal compassion fatigue seems to be settling in. Just the other night, I learned about the hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv before hearing about the actual knife attack in the London Tube. Why? Because the hashtag #YouAin'tNoMuslimBruv was trending significantly higher than #London.

I'm no psychologist, but I do know that compassion fatigue brings with it a whole host of problems, including stress, anxiety, depression, trouble focusing, and self-doubt. Just what we need these days, right?

As for solutions? I wish I had some. Personally, I'd love to see stronger gun control laws in effect, especially in the US, but also realize that even if that were to become a reality tomorrow, it would still take years--maybe even generations--to get the majority of illegal weapons off the streets. Still, it would be a start, and I hope the people we entrust our government with will begin to understand that.

In the meantime, I can't help but wonder what John Lennon--who'd be seventy-five now if he hadn't been assassinated thirty-five years ago--would think about the violence in today's world. I like to hope he'd still be fighting for peace, and believing it's possible. Because it is, if we really want it to be.

Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one.
--John Lennon