Violence—random, sudden, illogical and lethal—has become a fact of life. Shootings and acts of terror, homegrown and imported, with or without racial or religious overtones, have become gruesome signposts along a seemingly endless path of public and private horrors. They are taking a toll on our children.
No child should have to wake up each day as if he or she is on 24-hour-a-day guard duty. But in the United States this is the reality.
We can no longer think of these as isolated incidents, and aberrations, or confined to urban settings. Denial, an emotional trap door, is not a viable escape in a world where a sense of imminent threat is ever present.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack, writer Jeph Loeb and artist J. Scott Campbell produced a nine-frame cartoon titled “Please Stand By” that features a very young girl watching cartoons.
By the third and fourth frames, the image on the screen changes to a live feed of the Twin Towers ablaze. As the little girl stands transfixed, stuffed animal in hand, the commentator announces, “We interrupt this program to take you live…”; the little girl turns away and calls, “Mommy…” The next three frames begin with her mother dropping a basket of laundry. Then, with her face contorted in anguish, she embraces her daughter to shield her from the unrelenting images. The final frame is a close up of the little girl asking, “Mommy, when are the cartoons gonna come back on?”
Among those who are left in the wake of violent acts are the survivors—friends and family members of victims, who live with the emptiness, frustration, and rage of incomprehensible death by violence.
Last month, as the mother of the oldest child of Alton Sterling, the black man fatally shot by Baton Rouge, Louisiana police, expressed sorrow and outrage at his death, Cameron Sterling, 15, the oldest of Sterling’s children wept inconsolably by her side for the entire world to see and experience his heartbreak.
One day later, a St. Paul, MN, Montessori school cafeteria supervisor, Philando Castile, met a similar fate. Just one day after his shooting, five police officers protecting hundreds of people in Dallas, TX, who were peacefully protesting the two shootings were gunned down and murdered, ambush-style, by a lone shooter who was fueled by racial hatred and bent on misguided revenge. Ten days after the Dallas shootings, three Baton Rouge police officers met a similar fate.
Beyond those left in the direct wake of violence are growing numbers of young people who are fed a regular diet of horrific episodes of violence through graphic media accounts, such as the live streaming of a bloodied and gasping Castile filmed by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, who wanted the world to join her in bearing witness as he took his last breaths.
In the aftermath of trauma, children (and others) feel fearful, unprotected, hyper-vigilant, and hopeless and on their own, similar to orphans who feel they must take care themselves.
We are living in a world gone mad, a place where the rich diversity of colors, shades, languages, orientations, beliefs and rituals should be shared and celebrated rather than drawn as battle lines. The answers do not lie in books of psychology or popular bromides, or in aspiring national leaders who have proven to be untrustworthy.
The answer lies in being mindful—paying attention on purpose, making connections with one another, and building a sense of commonality.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families.
Visit www.northshorechildguidance.org for more information.