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Mass Violence in the News: How Do We Cope?

People draw on community, religion, introspection and hope


Incidents of mass violence have become too common in America. These include the many seemingly random shootings in various public places, including the Parkland school killings one year ago on February 14, and hate crimes targeting specific races or religious groups. And, as we learned on Sept. 11, 2001 and from the Baltimore Marathon bombing in 2013, large-scale terrorist attacks are a reality today. Yet, most of us don’t spend our days paralyzed in fright. How do we summon the courage to move forward from fear?

One of the most recent mass shootings was a hate-crime case, killing 11 Jewish people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It left Jewish communities around the country worrying about their own safety, including some members of Temple Israel synagogue in Minneapolis.

“Yes, of course, there’s been more fear since the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting,” says Temple Israel’s Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, who presides over a congregation of 2,100 families.

Zimmerman sees members’ fear and increased anxiety play out in many ways. In emails, for example, their correspondence is often along the lines of, “Act right away, do something,” says the rabbi. “It’s not just what they’re saying, it’s how they’re saying it.”

Meditation, Prayer and Taking Action

By contrast, Zimmerman also recognizes an increase in prayerfulness in response to current fears. For example, “Mussar,” she explains, is a Jewish meditation of mindfulness and “people are flocking to it. They want to turn off the airwaves to find peace.” When asked if she’s also seen an increase in physical illness as a manifestation of congregants’ fear, she pauses. “I’ve had a sense of it,” she says.

Congregants of all ages, Zimmerman says, are concerned about adequate security for the temple. Yet, “you can have security all you want, but if you’re scared, no amount of security will help you,” she says. “You’ve got to counteract that fear. My view is always to be a model of not being afraid.” It’s hard at times, she says, but it’s about not giving power to people who have hate in their hearts.

It’s also about taking concrete steps to move people and institutions toward solutions. Recently, Zimmerman went to Washington, D.C. for a Senate hearing on hate crimes. “What’s clear is how infrequently ‘hate crime’ is used to describe a crime,” she says. She and others at the hearing reported the lack of charges defined as hate crimes and thus the need for legislation to align the term with reality. “These are the kinds of things we can do to enact change. Action is one of the antidotes to fear.”

Where the Fears Come From

Tammie Rosenbloom, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in Minneapolis,  says she has definitely seen an increase in fear in some of her clients in response to public violence like mass shootings. They talk more about politics and gun violence, for example, and sometimes — especially if people have had traumatic or violent things happen to them in the past — news of violent events can trigger fear.

“Fear often manifests in ‘worst case scenarios,’” Rosenbloom adds, like catastrophizing, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.

Rosenbloom, 57, has her own feelings about public violence. She says she expects there will be more mass shootings or other types of attacks around the country. She sees an escalation in interpersonal tensions among her age peers, from workplace violence to road rage to drunk driving.

Visual artist Sharon Louden, 54, of Queens, New York, shares Rosenbloom’s feelings about mass violence in the U.S. She describes a sense of a “looming, constant violence occurring unpredictably in the world.”

One Way to Cope: Be Around Your People

Neither Rosenbloom nor Louden, however, live without hope.

“You select the community that gives you strength,” Louden says.

“These are the people you will spend time with.” Rosenbloom adds. “Hearing about violence makes some people want to go into a shell,” in an attempt to feel safe. But Rosenbloom is convinced that “people need people.” When asked by clients how they might feel more in control of their fear, she often answers, “Be around your people.”

Perspectives from Two 9/11 Survivors

The perspectives of two survivors of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York adds another perspective on moving through fear as we age. The passage of time alone may help, and living mindfully may help even more.

“9/11 was a significant turning point for me,” relates survivor Roy Cohen, 63, now an author and a nationally-respected executive coach. On that morning in 2001, Cohen was one of the thousands of people rushing out of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. He watched first responders rushing the other way, climbing steps they would not descend, and “nameless individuals jump courageously to their deaths,” he says.

In spite of it all, Cohen says, “I still believe that the best is yet to come.” His goals as an executive coach are to encourage his clients to be bold, to accept change and to stay positive. Change is possible at any age, Cohen says, and it can be achieved successfully and with gratitude.

“And above and beyond all else, life is precious, a gift we can never take for granted,” he says.

Herb Palmer also was in New York that morning. “We were in a moving truck going into NYC for work,” he says. “We saw the smoke from the towers.” His truck was eventually turned away from the city after being stuck in traffic for hours. “When I finally got home I went to the park and just sat on the grass, thinking how the world had changed that day,” he recall.

Over the next weeks and months, Palmer says he felt “this world of fear was not a world [he] wanted to live in.” But he says he is at least as optimistic today as he was on 9/11, and that now, in his 60s, he has a high level of faith and trust, believing “he is protected and will always be in the right place at the right time. I am more aware, but I’m not more afraid.”

By Donna Pols Trump
Donna Pols Trump writes for the online platforms Next Avenue and Build With Rise. She also writes fiction; her short stories have been published in Ploughshares, MidAmerican Review, and the New York Public Library subway collection. She's working on a coffee table book of wild birds in flight.

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