Sunday, October 9, 2022

Another traumatic anniversary.


Alexis84 | Deposit Photos

This month is the 20th anniversary of the DC sniper shootings. An angry man and his teenaged acolyte drove to the DC area in a Chevrolet Caprice with the back seat and trunk modified into a sniper's nest, and began shooting random people. Over the course of three weeks, 13 people were attacked out of the blue by John Muhammad and Lee Malvo. The victims were doing normal things: pumping gas, crossing the parking lot of a big-box store, getting off a school bus. Ten of those shot were killed. 

It turned out later that Muhammad and Malvo's killing spree had begun months earlier on the West Coast. In all, they were responsible for 27 shootings, 17 of them fatal.

Muhammad was put to death for his crimes in 2009. Malvo, who was 17 at the time of the murders, was sentenced to six consecutive life terms. He could not be given a death sentence because of his age. He has since been denied parole.


I first realized it had been 20 years since the shootings when I saw this headline last week in the Washington Post: "The D.C. snipers terrorized a region. Here's what it was like." 

I skipped the article. Then, a few days later -- after I'd screwed my courage to the sticking place -- I went ahead and read it. It relays the body count and something about each victim, but it doesn't fully explain the terror. 

Keep in mind that 9/11 had happened just the year before, in September of 2001. The whole world focuses on the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, but the Pentagon was attacked, too; I've talked about my experience that day on the blog before. Also, just after 9/11, there was a rash of incidents in DC in which several media outlets and two US senators were mailed packages or letters laced with anthrax, a deadly poison. So everybody in the region was pretty much on edge in the fall of 2001, starting on September 11th and lasting through early October.

A year later, we were moving past the fear and trauma -- and then Muhammad and Malvo showed up and started shooting people. You never knew when or where they'd strike next.

And today, on the 20th anniversary of the sniper shootings, the whole world is still in the midst of a global pandemic.


Collective trauma is the term for the psychological impact on members of a society when a traumatic event occurs. That society can be as small as a family, or as big as a major metropolitan area -- or the world.

Sometimes I think that between political shenanigans and mass shootings, we as a society lurch from trauma to trauma, never really processing what we've been through before the next thing happens. Maybe that's just the nature of life: you deal with stuff as it comes at you. But when upsetting event follows upsetting event, how do you deal?

Some researchers say one thing that doesn't help is to forget about the traumatic event. Not only do we need a ritual or commemoration to put the thing behind us, but if we don't learn from history, we are at risk -- as the saying goes -- of repeating it. That's what happened after the 1918 flu pandemic: the disease became endemic and the survivors got on with their lives, and society retained almost nothing about behaviors that would help us cope when COVID-19 hit.

So I guess retrospective articles like the one at WaPo last week are a good idea. And I promise not to hide from them. Just please give me a minute before I have to read them.


These moments of retrospective blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

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