Terror Attack or Shooting? – A Poem

Trigger Warning: Mass shootings, gun violence, graphic depictions of violence.
I wrote this poem in response to the talk about the Pulse Orlando shooting being a terror attack because it was perpetrated by “possibly a Muslim”. As a shooting survivor, I have a lot of feelings about that.

Do not tell me what is a terror attack or what isn’t.
You do not know the ice of hearing windows shatter
You do not know the terror of hearing sister is shot
You know nothing of what bullets sound like hitting human flesh
or the screaming of your sisters
or the desperation of being on a phone to a 911 operative
begging them to come because my sisters have been shot
because my twin is lying in front of me on the floor of a minivan
with blood streaming out her nose
and she looks like she’s asleep but she won’t wake up
Do not tell me it is not terror
to try to hide behind a leather seat
to see bullets hitting windshield
to not see where they are coming from
to watch father fall to ground from one piercing him
to want it all to stop, stop, stop
but the bullets are ringing over and over and over
there is so much noise
time is so slow but it keeps going
do not tell me it is not terror
to rip a scarf from your body to try to stop twin sister’s bleeding
to have to look your twin over for an exit wound
do not tell me it is not terror to not have her answer you
to hear your mother saying “I can’t find a bullet hole
I can’t find one, oh God I can’t find one”
do not tell me it is no terror to stumble out of the car
to see other sister on the ground
with face blue from lack of oxygen
to feel your heart fall apart into your stomach as you know she is dying
to have to run from her because the shooter could be returning
to feel your soul is being ripped from your body
because your sisters’ souls are leaving you
do not tell me it is not terror
to wait for news of which hospitals they went to
to know on the way there that twin sister is gone
because you don’t feel her soul next to yours anymore
to watch a policeman speak what you already know while he is trying not to cry
do not tell me it is not terror
when father comes out of surgery, silently looks at you all
looking for the people missing
looks at you and asks where your twin is
and mother is quiet and says nothing so your mouth has to open
you say the worst words you have ever said
“Dad, Stephanie is gone.”
Do not tell me it is not terror
to stand by other sister’s bedside begging for her to come back to you
to sing all of her favorite songs in a desperate attempt for the bullet not to win
to try to cry it out of her heart and take the bullet into your own heart instead
to ask her to please not leave you alone here
do not tell me it is not terror to have the doctors
come out to waiting room to tell you that other sister is gone
that she has left you here alone despite all your begging

you say that a mass shooting is not a terror attack
unless it happens to have a Muslim face behind it
I want to tell you to fuck yourself and wait until you live one.

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Supporting Victims in the Aftermath of COS Shootings

On Saturday, I was approached by a community leader wanting to know victim and community impact after a shooting. As a shooting survivor, I have an intimate view on victim support after a mass shooting. And in light of both of the recent shootings here in Colorado Springs, I wanted to let the community know how victims are impacted, and how to move forward.

This is a long post in Q&A format. I kept it long because I feel these ideas are important.

How do secondary victims get help despite being secondary?
First, let’s define what a so-called “secondary” victim is. Victims can often be people you aren’t even aware of. They’re of course the people we quickly think of – friends and family of those who were killed (primary). But there are many others – “secondary”.

For instance: there were people that watched either shooter kill his victims. There were people that heard the gunfire of either event. There were people that lived on the streets where the Halloween shooter began or enacted his rampage (I happen to live on that street myself). There were the hundreds of people who had to shelter in place in the Centennial shopping center on Friday afternoon for 5 hours. There were the hostages that were trapped inside Planned Parenthood until the police were able to extricate them.

In other words, there are a LOT of victims. And it’s easy for them to go under the radar, because unless the news media exploits their story (and I do mean exploit, I’ll explain later) they are unknown to the public.

If you are friends with either a primary or secondary victim, it’s important to know that the experience most likely changed their life forever in some way shape or form. Right now is a time for you to know some mental health first aid:

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If you don’t know what to say – don’t say anything. The BEST thing you can do is to be present, gentle and supportive. Cliched statements such as “well, everything happened for a reason” are much more harmful than helpful.

If you or someone you know was a victim and need more professional help, there is a Community Crisis Recovery Center set up right now to provide resources. If the victim is in the police report, they could be eligible to have mental health costs covered by the 4th Judicial District Victims Assistance Fund (also present at the Community Crisis Recovery Center).

If not covered, many therapists work on a sliding scale – I am putting together a list of COS Trauma Therapists here. AspenPointe also has a 24/7 Community Crisis unit. And if you are on the UCCS campus, utilize the Counseling Center. They have many quality LPCs and PhDs that can provide effective counseling or mental health services.

Also, of great service to me has been the Rebels Project online Facebook group. It is a group for victims of mass shootings and traumatic events to share their experiences with people who understand. This has given me personally a lot of support when I am triggered or processing something.

If you are a secondary victim, your experience is no less important or impactful than if you were a primary victim. If you are feeling fragile and jumpy, it’s okay to get help. If you are feeling frozen or numb, it’s okay to get help. Tell close family and friends what is going on. Ask for support. Find a good therapist. The better support you have, the more likely you will be to emotionally recover.

 

How can the community engage with this somewhat new reality?

It’s important to be aware of mental health first aid, especially knowing that there are many people impacted that you’re unaware of. Be aware that people will have a variety of triggers.

Mine, for instance, are screaming, loud bangs, and men who are behaving in a erratic way. I can also get triggered by news of new mass shootings, if I read the news too much. Sometimes I have to stay off social media after news of mass shootings. I used to also be triggered by sirens, emergency vehicles, and car accidents as well. Other people will have different triggers.

If you know a victim (primary or secondary) be very aware of this. Don’t shut them down for reacting in certain ways. If they literally run away from situations, if they hide from certain things, if they freak out for no reason, this is ALL normal. Those are ALL things that I have done.

Be very cognizant of what you say. For instance, there is a lot of talk right now about how college campuses utilize trigger warnings. It helped me immensely to have trigger warnings. I went to college after my sisters were murdered, and it was by far the place I felt most unsafe. I had a professor who warned the class about a video interview with a serial killer. I was extremely grateful because then I could choose to leave class before sitting there in shock.

I also experienced one of my worst triggers in a class in which a professor made an extremely inappropriate joke about the Aurora shootings. I was dissociated and couldn’t pay attention at all for about 20 minutes. So be sensitive to survivor experience.

Another huge thing is to realize that we will be dealing with this for years to come. It’s been 8 years and I still have triggers, albeit fewer than I did even 2 years ago. As a community, it’s important to ensure that supports remain in place on a continual basis.

We often forget the massive impact of traumatic events because of the media’s short cycle. Realize the victims are probably still processing in some way, shape, or form, even years later. Churches, community organizations, businesses, and schools should be especially aware of this as they endeavor to support their members.

And for the general population – if someone shares with you that they were affected by these events and are still processing, suspend judgment and just be present to their story. Listening and providing your emotional support (without having to say much beyond “I’m here”) is the best thing you can do. But, don’t be afraid to ask what happened! It helps after the media spotlight goes away to know people still care. A good way to ask is, “Do you feel comfortable sharing what happened?

 

While many people have an experience of losing a loved one, how is this different when it is in the public eye?

This changes the experience drastically. There is a whole set of expectations that comes with your tragedy being seen by the whole world (or your whole town, state, etc). Here are some expectations I’ve had placed on me, and my responses.

People (especially the media) expecting victims to tell their storyNo one is constrained to tell their story publicly, even if the media covered the event. It’s up to the person involved. We as victims make the final call on whether we share or not. But, DO feel free to ask us as victims about what happened. A good way to ask is, “Do you feel comfortable sharing what happened?” This leaves it open for us to say yes or no. Often the “yes” or “no” depends upon how safe we feel sharing with you.

People expecting victims to react a certain way emotionally when telling their story (crying, being very upset, etc). – Everyone deals with things differently, and trauma can further distort that. Just because I’m not crying doesn’t mean I’m not upset. But if I’m crying that doesn’t mean I’m falling apart, either. Maybe I’m just having a rough day. Suspend judgment about reactions and realize all of our stories are different.

People having certain ideas about what victims are going through, based on media reports.As victims, we may or may not be shattered by what happened. We may or may not be “over it and stronger as a result.” The media does not reflect our personal feelings most of the time.

People having assumptions about victims beliefs/politics based on media reports or where the event occurred.In my shooting, just because it was at a church doesn’t mean I’m still a Christian. Just because an armed guard took down the shooter doesn’t mean I’m pro/anti concealed carry. Victim beliefs and politics are not necessarily in line with public assumption. Just because a victim’s shooting happened at Planned Parenthood, or as a result of open carry, doesn’t mean their specific beliefs/politics align with the popular assumptions carried around those places or ideas. Be careful to not assume stories based on media representation or current political climate. Let victims tell the stories. Our beliefs are not a way to further a political platform, unless we choose to use them that way ourselves.

People seeing the fact that victims do sometimes choose to tell their story publicly, and telling them that “they’re so strong” for being able to do so.What you see in a victim may not be strength or peace. It may be shock. My repetition of the story immediately afterwards looked like strength, because I didn’t break down and cry. As a matter of fact, it was not strength or peace, it was shock.

Not being able to have your private grief, because the media is looking at you – but then when media moves away, feeling abandoned – When the media is around, the public is completely involved in victim’s private grief. But conversely, when the media turns away, it can feel like the whole world has forgotten about you. Both suck. When it’s public, I felt like I couldn’t grieve the way I wanted. When the media turned away, I felt like my grief didn’t matter. It’s a catch 22. In this situation as a community, we can make sure we continue to support all victims of these tragedies months and YEARS to come (recovery takes years, my friends).

 

 

With the sharing of information at our fingertips, entities are constantly trying to beat each other to this “social equity” , up to the point of obtaining it within minutes of an incident or positive ID.  Have you experienced the feeling of someone using your experience for their gain in social capital? 

Yes. The media especially is skilled with this. I’ve recently chosen to begun sharing my experiences more in the media, in the interest of shutting down the “sides” mentality we have around gun issues and encouraging more dialogue. (This is my position, not necessarily the position of other victims of shootings) When I share, I find my words get skewed. I am often made to sound more traumatized than I actually am. People love disaster stories; I call it disaster porn.

An example: I have widely shared the Gazette article I was recently in because it maintains my greater point, but some of the material was skewed. For instance, I did not hear sirens when I delivered food to the Penrose ER on Saturday morning. [Editthe Gazette has since edited the article]

People often use victim’s stories to further their own aims or viewership. I implore you, local media – please do not exploit victim’s stories to improve your ratings. Be compassionate and aware. And as a community, we all need to be careful that we don’t exploit victims for our own ideas or political platforms.

Are victims of gun violence also a victim of the current politics of gun violence?  Can it be a double whammy (victimized from all sides)? Is there additional impact when the violence speaks from other political arenas?

In a word, yes. This is a huge area where the media can take advantage of victims. Currently, the media tends to portray sides within the politics of gun violence – pro-gun or ban guns. I personally have expressed a middle view of dialogue first, action or possible reform second. I have to be extremely careful how I word this, because if I don’t word it correctly, the media will portray me as being on one side or the other.

After I wrote my letter to Congress, many responses were revictimizing. The worst were people asking me about the armed guard Jeanne Assam that took down Matthew Murray in my shooting. Several people asked me why she didn’t play into what I wrote.

Their questions were indicative of wanting to convert me for one side or the other in the debate (in this case, pro/anti concealed carry). Problem being, they were not at New Life Church that day, and I was. Their attempt to tell me what to believe/write about was revictimizing. It was an attempt to steal my voice as a victim and to use me to further their own politics.

I can’t speak for the victims in these past two shootings. However, my experience has been that victims have a variety of political views, just like the general public does. Therefore:

It is not up to the public to assume any victim’s stance by seeing their status (i.e. police officer), situation (i.e. shooter openly carrying rifle) or where they were on that day (i.e. Planned Parenthood clinic). None of these things give us any real insight on victims’ political views or beliefs, and to assume and place labels on them is to revictimize them.

It is up to the victims of these shootings to state their political beliefs if they so choose. Until then, no assumption should be made about where they stand on any issues. All assumptions made are an act of re-victimization and the public stealing the victim’s voices for their own aims.

 

I want to end with this: Most importantly, we are a community and we need to step forward and support our victims. We need to be sensitive to what they need right now, and careful to not re-traumatize or re-victimize. Between Halloween and the Planned Parenthood shooting, there are hundreds of victims who need us right now. These are just some simple ways that we as a community can support them for the months and years to come.


 

If there are any other questions that anyone is interested in, I am willing to write a follow up post. Please leave your questions in the comments. Commenters from Colorado Springs will have priority.

I’m also interested to hear any other thoughts or in put on this – please share!

 

 

Dear Congress – Sincerely, A Mass Shooting Survivor

Dear Congress,

I write you today upon hearing the grave news that another heinous mass shooting has happened, this time in Roseburg, Oregon. We learned today that at least 10 people have lost their lives, and at least 7 have been injured.

I write you this letter so that you can see the face of a survivor.  I write you this letter as someone who saw with my own eyes the horror of a mass shooting, a shooting that took the lives of my twin and younger sister and injured my father at New Life Church in December 2007. And most importantly I write this letter to open a dialogue about the role that gun violence has played in our country.

I say specifically to open a dialogue, because I am not strictly anti-gun. I feel that I am in a unique place to address this issue. About 3 years ago, I took a class to obtain a conceal-carry permit. After having been a victim of gun violence once, I was terrified to face it again. I still have nightmares about shootings about once a month. The need to protect myself was strong. At the time I felt that a conceal carry permit was the only way to sufficiently do so.

However, once I finished the class, a thought began to pervade my mind. What if I had to actually do it, actually pull the trigger? What then? Could I? Should I?

I thought about seeing my twin Stephanie’s face just moments after she was shot. I thought about my sister Rachel who was gray when I passed her just outside our family car that day. And I knew in that moment I could never pull a trigger against another human. The human might be someone who did something horrific. Some think I might have been able to even stop the shooter who killed my sisters. But when it came down to it, I realized it didn’t matter how horrible the person was. They were human. They had a family – a brother or sister, parents, cousins. In retaliating with a gun, I would be inflicting the same violence on the shooter and his family, that the shooter inflicted on me the day he killed my sisters.

This changed my mind about getting a conceal carry permit. Since I could not personally take on the responsibility of another’s life, I chose not to carry at all. Many have argued that I don’t necessarily have to “kill” someone, or that I could use this permit while out on one of my many hikes to defend myself from animals. However to me, the potentiality is there for me to commit harm against a human, so I refuse to carry.

I do not share this story as a censure against conceal carry but rather to share my thought process. I am not against conceal carry as a whole. What I am against is the lack of foresight that goes into it, both from those who carry, and from our government. Our government in many instances does not background check either those who conceal carry or those who purchase guns.

Why? We know that these atrocities are committed on a regular basis. We know that guns especially can be used to commit violent and heinous crimes. And yet we have little system of checks and balances to prevent these crimes from occurring. Many who argue against gun control say that it is not the gun that is the problem, it is the person. But if we have no way of checking who the person is, the gun becomes the problem.

I must say again clearly, Congress, that too many people have not sufficiently thought through what gun ownership in this country entails. I address you as well as those people. You have not sufficiently thought about what the responsibility of owning a gun means. Therefore you do not regulate it sufficiently in our government system. Because you do not regulate it, others do not either. And we come to where we are today, where people have clearly said to me, “I conceal carry because I am afraid to be in a mass shooting and I need to protect myself.”

The role of a country is to protect its citizens. You have failed to do so and now citizens feel the need to protect themselves, not realizing that the cost of this may be in human lives.

I am appealing to you today not to repeal the 2nd amendment, not to take people’s guns, but to consider within yourselves your responsibility to your people. As I considered my own responsibility towards human dignity when I chose not to carry, I ask you now to consider your responsibility towards human dignity when it comes to guns in the United States. I ask you to bear the grave burden of human life on your shoulders and decide in yourselves what checks and balances can be made to sufficiently uphold its dignity.

I ask you to open a dialogue – to see the human faces of this issue. To see my face as a survivor. To see the faces of gun owners who feel the need to protect themselves. As the tradition of my childhood says in the Scriptures, “Come, let us reason together.” Let’s make this discussion human again.

Please, consider me, and all those who have survived. I ask you, please consider how to prevent these atrocities so that others will never have to say, “I survived seeing my friend, parent, sister, shot and killed.” Put yourself in my shoes, feel what it would be like to survive such terror. And ask yourselves what you can to do prevent this madness from continuing.

Sincerely,
A Mass Shooting Survivor


I would love to hear your thoughts and dialogue in the comments. Let’s start a conversation about this. And if you agree and want to add your voice, please share this post via social media. 

EDIT: I’ve begun a dialogue post here, come join!