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The violent rampage by alleged gunman Aaron Alexis at Washington D.C.’s Navy Yard on Monday marked the fifth mass shooting since the 2012 killing spree in Newtown, Conn. But as news of mass killings becomes more commonplace, experts say a collective numbness creeps in. Kojo explores our response to the Navy Yard shootings and how we process grief in person, in public, and on social media, amid repeated mass tragedies.
- Drew Permut Psychologist; author of "Inside Your Therapist’s Mind: How a Psychotherapist Thinks and Why it Works."
- Petula Dvorak Columnist, The Washington Post
Map Of U.S. Mass Shootings
The Navy Yard shooting is the fifth mass shooting in the United States this year. Details of the additional cases from 2013 are included in the Mother Jones map below. See the full data set and analysis of the findings.
Hover over the dots or use the search tool in the top-left corner of the map to go to a specific location. (Zoom in to see the Aurora shooting, located close to other massacres in Colorado, and to see other proximate shootings in Milwaukee, Seattle, and elsewhere.)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Robin Givhan on what's bothering the fashion industry or should be.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first their names that are like scars on the American psyche, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown and now the Navy Yard. After each awful shooting, we didn't think it could get any worse but then another one happened and another.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd now, breaking news, headlines about mass shootings seem almost, well, routine. It's a scary, sad phenomenon that experts say isn't uncommon in populations accustomed to regular violence. But when a society feels helpless and even hopeless, the call to get back to our daily lives seems like empty advice.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo why do we feel numb amid tragedy in our own backyard and how do we make change even as the shootings slip from the headlines? Joining us in studio to have this conversation is Petula Dvorak, a columnist at The Washington Post. And Petula, thank you very much for joining us in studio.
MS. PETULA DVORAKThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Drew Permut. He's a psychologist in private practice in Washington. He's the author of "Inside Your Therapist's Mind: How a Psychotherapist Thinks and Why it Works." Drew Permut, thank you for joining us.
DR. DREW PERMUTThank you, Kojo, I'm very happy to be with you.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think we are, in fact, becoming numb to mass tragedies and if so, why? 800-433-8850 Shoot us an email to email@example.com or send us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIPetula, on Tuesday, after the shootings at the Navy Yard, you came right out with a column voicing your distrust at how these terrible incidents are becoming almost routine. How would you gauge public sentiment now that we're three days out? Has it been muted? Are we all back to business as usual?
DVORAKI think that's exactly what's happening. If you want to look at social media to gauge that, days after Newton, you know, #sandyhook, people were still talking about it. I remember just being racked by that for weeks. Today, one of the top trends on Twitter is #talklikeapirateday.
DVORAKWe've moved past it and that's frightening and depressing.
NNAMDIAnd I have to say that even as the incident occurred on Monday and in the two days since then, very few of my own Facebook friends have mentioned it at all. Of course, a lot of them are out of town, but they're in the country.
DVORAKNo, exactly. You're not seeing that outpouring and when it happened that Monday morning, my Facebook community, everyone wrote -- and I live near there. I live on Capitol Hill not far from the Navy Yard.
DVORAKI have lots of friends who have spouses who work there and a lot of people kind of -- even then it was perfunctory. We're all okay. Everyone's okay, kids on lockdown. How are we going to walk the dog?
DVORAKIt's something that we're getting used to in America and the numbers bear it out. You know, we've had -- It's squishy how to quantify it, but we've had about 67 mass shootings in the last three decades. We do mass shootings more than we do Super Bowls.
NNAMDIDrew, is there a scientific explanation for this apparent feeling of numbness? What happens to society when tragedies like this keep occurring?
PERMUTWell, I think that, I mean, yes, that in order to survive, I mean, look, anytime you go into Metro, I know, for me, there's a little bit of a pause. I think, you know, this could be a terrorist attack waiting to happen. But in order to function, in order to live your life, we all rely on a certain amount of denial and, you know, until we're proven tragically wrong, that's what seems to work.
PERMUTBut I think the helplessness that we feel also makes sense in a different way. We are waiting for somebody. We're waiting for forces larger than us, for, let's say, our leadership to do something and every day we see that our leadership can barely function in so many things.
PERMUTThey, you know, just to take, you know, an obvious issue about guns, the whole controversy. Whatever your position is, there's total gridlock on that. It is very discouraging, but I think that we're too locked onto the larger solutions. There are smaller and more approachable questions to ask...
PERMUTAnd one of the questions we should be asking is, shouldn't we be looking at what creates the problems in these people earlier? That's something that individual people can do something about.
NNAMDIBy which you mean what?
PERMUTBy which I mean every one of these people who's committed these mass shootings comes from a troubled past. Surely there's got to be better ways for us to, not only detect it, but make it easier for fragile children, fragile adolescents to get the help they need.
PERMUTIt didn't start -- this guy's problems didn't start two years ago. I'm sure that he was a troubled kid at 10. All along the way, we've missed that and there have to be ways for us to make it easier for people to get the help they need.
NNAMDIAnd there has been some discussion about need to look at our mental health care system. We need to scrutinize it more. But I’m interested in exactly why it is that we, as members of the public, don't seem to be reacting as strongly to these events as we did before.
NNAMDIWe're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think these shootings are becoming what the president calls a ritual every few months? You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking with Drew Permut. He's a psychologist in private practice here in Washington and the author of "Inside Your Therapist's Mind: How a Psychotherapist Thinks and Why it Works," along with Petula Dvorak. She's a columnist at The Washington Post.
NNAMDIPetula, you and your Washington Post colleagues have been writing about this. Today, Paul Farhi, he made an important point that I think many of us are afraid to say out loud, that we tend to react differently to these mass murders depending on how close we feel to the circumstances of the shootings.
NNAMDINewtown was unspeakable because the victims were children. Aurora was horrifying because, well, we all go to the movies. But the Washington Navy Yard, that somehow seems harder for many of us to relate to. I'd like to hear first your thoughts and then Drew's on that.
DVORAKYeah, he was exactly on point with that. I think it was easy to not get as emotional. You know, certainly our household was much more scarred by Newtown. I have a first-grader. I was shaky for days after that. And you know, it's unfortunate, the victims play a role in it.
DVORAKNobody looks too compassionately at the Washington bureaucrat. Read our victims' profiles. They're devastating. They were good, hardworking people, much beloved, many families scarred. But the rest of the nation might see Washington as an institution, people who work in an office. It's a military installation.
DVORAKI'm not going to go there, unlike the movie, that's a role. And I think there was also - I found in the day after, the playground mommy group I was talking to, I had a reaction again to Newtown in that it happened again and those kids died for nothing. It's was a delayed mourning for the fact that we couldn't get any legislation passed.
DVORAKWe couldn't make any real, meaningful change and so it goes back to the previous shootings that maybe did scar you more because of familiarity, because you see that. There was no change, nothing changed and it's more depressing to say that.
NNAMDIAnd Drew, despite the image that Washington may have outside of the Beltway, the memorial service that was held here the day after itself was not that well attended. I'd like to hear your thoughts about whether or not we have more problems identifying with these victims than we do with some others.
PERMUTI think there's no question. I mean, it reminds me of the -- I think actually it was attributed to Joseph Stalin saying that one person's death is a tragedy, a million people's is a statistic, that we have difficulty identifying for more than a little period of time.
PERMUTYes. I think that Newtown was gripping, but a week later, we're off to the next thing, that it's extremely difficult to stay connected to these things that seem so big and these are not people that we know. We can always say, well, I don't work there.
PERMUTWe have to start thinking smaller. I'm not talking as a matter of public policy, but if we want to really start working on the problem, the things that underlie the violence and these explosions, we really have to start thinking, this could be lots of people that we live with.
PERMUTWe have no idea. You know, as a therapist, I know because I see terrible pain and terrible backgrounds all the time and I see, you know, from a kind of a micro-level and I feel that at least, one person at a time, I have a chance to make the world better. But...
NNAMDIHere is -- go ahead please.
PERMUTBut I think it does get overwhelming for the public and it would help for us to take a smaller focus.
NNAMDIHere is Shirley in Upper Marlboro, Md. Shirley, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHIRLEYOh, hello, everyone. I had a co-worker, a former co-worker. I worked for Navy for 17 years. I'm now retired, but my heart was just so -- was hurting so I got on Facebook and told all my Facebook friends. We must pray. We must pray.
SHIRLEYBut then another co-worker from Quantico was speaking to my co-worker at the Navy Yard on 197 building and it upset her so bad. But then, when a minister that I know posted hers, she was glad that it wasn't her. They never mentioned God. They never mentioned prayer, you know, and I do agree with the guest there that, you know, we got to, you know, think about it.
SHIRLEYAnd it upset me so bad and, you know, just like I had seven former co-workers at the Pentagon. So I don't know why we're so removed when these things happen. My other friend worked at transportation at the Navy Yard. I called her the next day to see if she was okay. She said, oh, we've got --everybody's back now.
SHIRLEYYou know, and I just have to pray for...
NNAMDIIt seemed to you as if they were saying everybody was back and it was work as usual. Our caller, Shirley, had a special relationship having worked there, but for people who do not have that special relationship, it seems to have been different.
NNAMDIPetula, yesterday, we spoke with Kenneth Feinberg who's been in charge of compensating victims of mass tragedies in this country. He said that, quoting here "Money is a pretty poor substitute for loss." Do these compensation funds, which have become all too familiar to us, somehow lessen, assuage the guilt and grief that we feel after these shootings?
DVORAKThat's interesting. I don't know that it does. It certainly -- I'm sure it doesn't for the family. It at least may not burden them with something else, tragedy on top of tragedy, if they can't make ends meet. That's certainly a formula -- and I liked Dr. Permut's bringing up the idea of survival, you know. Like he said, you go into Metro. You go sitting in Starbucks today despite their flaccid gun request.
DVORAKYou know, I was sitting in Starbucks today and, you know, someone can walk in and shoot 12 people, of course, without stopping and to survive, we have to think of those things not so personally and that's a little frightening.
NNAMDIDrew Permut, weapons are a part of mainstream culture now, whether in movies, on clothes, tattoos or even jewelry. Does the presence of weapons in our culture play into how we react to gun tragedies?
PERMUTThere's no question. I mean, the disheartening truth is that this has always been a rather violent country. And I think the debate on weapons is not a rational debate. It's a very emotional debate. We look upon weapons as our right. I mean if you look at -- I mean, I think one of the state flags says, Don't Tread On Me. It's always been part of the culture. And we look upon that, you know, and under most circumstances we all think, okay. Freedom, autonomy, we'll fight for it, but then we had the problem of what if it's somebody who's very fragile, what if it's somebody who has not had the advantages that we've had and then there are all these weapons that are available.
PERMUTWe want them available for, you know, under normal assumptions, but without the weapons there, this is, you know, a fist fight or maybe somebody -- a knifing, and somebody gets hurt. With an automatic weapon it's 50.
DVORAKCan I ask you…
DVORAK…Dr. Permut, what about the -- also we're talking about the culture present, as Kojo said, jewelry, pillow cases, sheets you could get with AK-47s. I was convinced for years that I would die in a fire, because at the start of every school year we had fire drills. Out of the school bus, out of the classroom, it was just a fact that I would have to face down a fire at some point. Now, my children are doing intruder drills. Are we raising a population of children who just know that mass shootings are going to happen and there's a really good chance that they will have to duck?
DVORAKI think that is where we are right now. I think it's a rather discouraging conclusion, but we are doing what people always do, we are adapting. Because we don't know how to look at it differently. We're saying, okay, we can't stop it so we're going to cope with it. And until we really get serious about thinking about why is this happening, what is the individual, you know, from every level, from the individual to the familial to the neighborhood level, why is this happening -- I believe that changes can take place, but they're going to take place from the bottom up. And until we do that it's not going to be any different.
NNAMDIOne more call from Kim, in Brookville, Md. Kim, your turn.
KIMWell, you've all just made my point. I think the reason I stopped caring -- and I hate to say that, because I care -- is because I feel helpless and I feel awful. And we had an opportunity to do something and make a change after Newtown, our congressmen, our president stood in front of everybody and said let's make a change. Our Congress couldn't make a change. And it's these big -- the NRA with the money and it's just our whole system has to change in order for us to make changes. And I got on all of these websites and joined all of these, you know, communities that said we're going to stop this gun violence. And it's gotten nowhere. And I just feel hopeless and helpless. And so as a self preservation, I have to not care and say this is just a joke.
DVORAKWell, you hit the nail on the head, too. The emotion in your voice was in hundreds of emails that I got on Tuesday. And it was people who donated to Gabby Giffords, who signed petitions, who joined the Mothers Against Guns group, and just felt like what can I do, what else can I do. And it's a multifaceted solution. It's talking about gun control. It's talking about early intervention in mental health issues. It's talking about cultural changes. That's huge. We did it with smoking, but that's not as complicated as mass shootings.
NNAMDIWhich, in part, may explain the feeling of helplessness. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Petula Dvorak is a columnist at the Washington Post. Thank you for joining us.
DVORAKThank you for having me.
NNAMDIDrew Permut is a psychologist in private practice here in Washington. He's the author of, "Inside Your Therapist's Mind: How a Psychotherapist Thinks and Why It Works." Drew Permut, thank you for joining us.
PERMUTThank you very much, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, Robin Givhan on what's bothering the fashion industry or maybe what should be bothering the fashion industry. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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