TOPICS > Politics

Communities Torn by Tragedy, Violence Seek to Redefine ‘Normal’

January 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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All too often, the country has mourned tragedies like the Tucson shooting spree through major memorials and services. After a report from Tom Bearden in Tucson, a panel reflects on how communities recover from unexpected violence.

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Now: looking ahead to tonight’s memorial service in Tucson, first from the scene in Arizona.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports.

TOM BEARDEN: The collection of candles, flowers, and posters at the informal memorial at the hospital where Representative Giffords is recovering has grown dramatically.It’s four or five times bigger than it was on Sunday.

Micca White’s emotions were very close to the surface.

MICCA WHITE, retired:This travesty has touched me as deeply as it’s touched anyone here in Tucson.And I came here especially for Gabrielle Giffords.

TOM BEARDEN: Most of the people we talked to here at the hospital where Representative Giffords is recovering are looking forward to the president’s speech tonight.They hope he can help heal this community.

JENNIFER JOHNSON, teacher, Catalina High Magnet School:I would want him to talk about peace and healing and how we can all come together on this.And I understand that’s the theme of his evening tonight.And I would hope that our community and all around the world and anybody — anybody aware of this tragedy really, really looks at this as an opportunity for change and how we can make this better one person at a time, because it’s going to take us all.

TERI HESS, health care worker:Well, of course, he is going to give his sympathy and condolences.I wasn’t especially happy to hear that he was coming, though, because it just brings extra attention to this.All of the news is “Tragedy in Tucson,” which is a negative impact.

RAFAEL LUCERO, retired truck driver:Well, I would like for him to — What’s his name, Daniel, the one that helped Gabrielle? — recognize him whenever he comes.And I’m quite sure he will.And we all appreciate it for what he did with the lady.If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think anything would have happened, but he helped her.

NORMA LOPEZ, retired accountant:I think that he should talk a lot about peace in this country.There’s a lot of prejudice, and there’s a lot of anger.And I think that we need to be more united as a nation, and there should be more love and peace.

TOM BEARDEN: The funeral for the youngest victim, Christina Green, will be held tomorrow.

 

 

GWEN IFILL: All too often, the country has mourned tragedies through major memorials and services like the one in Arizona tonight.

We get some perspective from people involved with three past events.

Frank DeAngelis is principal of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. He was principal during the Columbine massacre in 1999. Kari Watkins is executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. And the Rev. Janet Vincent is rector of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church here in Washington. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, she ministered to rescuers, workers and families of those killed at the site of the World Trade Center.

I want to start with you, Kari Watkins.

When you hear in Tom Bearden’s piece people saying that they are hoping for healing from this public memorial, is that an experience you’re familiar with? Did that happen in Oklahoma City as well?

KARI WATKINS, executive director, Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum: It did.

President Clinton was here just a few days after the event, has been here five or six times over the last 15 years. I think, when he came, it didn’t matter if he was a Republican or a Democrat. It mattered that he was the president and that he came to offer healing, to understand the depth of the grief that we were going through here.

And, really, his visit began to start the healing process. People will not be healed tonight. They’re not going to be over it tonight. But it’s a process to show the people of Arizona that the nation’s arms are around them and that, together, we will get through this.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. DeAngelis, in the years since the Columbine massacre, did that kind of communal, public grief, did that healing, did it take? Did it work? Did it help people?

FRANK DEANGELIS, principal, Columbine High School: Yes, it did. It just showed that we had the support of the world, that we were not in this alone.

And when President — or Vice President Gore did show — come to Colorado on the Sunday after the tragedy, it brought a community together to show that they had support. And then President Clinton did visit us at the one-month anniversary of the tragedy. And he met with our kids, the parents, community members and teachers.

And we knew that we had the support. And it was just the first step in the healing process. And the healing continues as we approach the 12-year anniversary of the tragedy at Columbine.

GWEN IFILL: Twelve years, and we’re approaching the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.

Rev. Vincent, what is it about these incidents which require us to have some sort of public airing of our shock? What is that?

REV. JANET VINCENT, St. Columba’s Episcopal Church: I think everyone is touched in some way. We all are deeply moved by the tragedy in Arizona.

But every time a trauma like this happens, we also are touched by our own pain, and different incidents in our own lives come up, and we feel the need to gather with each other, to get strength from each other, to just know that we are being remembered by the rest of the country. That was very important in New York in 2001.

GWEN IFILL: Does it feel like we’re — do victims of these previous tragedies relive it every time something new happens?

REV. JANET VINCENT: I think many do. Some don’t. Some luckily don’t, but I think many do. Certainly, it happens to me.

GWEN IFILL: Back to you, Kari Watkins.

When you talk to people now, all these years after Oklahoma City, tell — you run a memorial there in Oklahoma City. Do people still come there looking for that kind of grief-sharing all these years later, or is this something that people have said, oh, this is history now?

KARI WATKINS: Well, it is history. It’s 16 years past.

But they’re also coming to look for answers, and they’re trying to find a depth of hope and the good that can come out of it. I mean, in the very worst of circumstances, we have faith that something good will come. We’ve heard the acts of heroism, from the people in the parking lot to the other folks who’ve helped. And I think that’s what people have come to look for. They come to try to find the good.

And those are important lessons that we have learned. And we try to share those through the Memorial Museum. We have lesson plans available to teachers. And we’ll reach out to the folks of Arizona when enough time has passed and try to offer what lessons we have learned and try to share those. So, if we can keep them from going through from some pain that we have learned, that’s something we feel compelled to do.

GWEN IFILL: So, 16 years later, people still come to the Memorial Museum trying to work through that grief from that day?

KARI WATKINS: Well, I don’t know if it’s that grief from that day or from their own personal life, dealing with a bout of cancer, or a personal loss, or just trying to understand this moment of history that changed our nation.

But we have — you know, we will welcome the two-millionth visitor in the museum this summer. And it really — it’s because people want to come and to learn and to share. And they want to understand why something this like this would happen.

This is — this blows people’s mind. Why would this happen? Why would this guy come to a parking lot and do this to a community? And that’s what we have to figure out as a community is how we can come together and stop these senseless acts of violence.

GWEN IFILL: Frank DeAngelis, it does seem like it does blow people’s minds, to use Kari Watkins’ words, and that people are still trying to figure out the answer to a central question, not only immediately in the case of Tucson, but also probably over the years in your case, which is why? Do you find people still struggling with that question all this time later?

FRANK DEANGELIS: Yes.

I can remember, when the tragedy occurred at Columbine, that I said that I hoped that the 13 who lost their lives on that horrific day didn’t die in vain and that school violence would end. But it continues.

And there are not answers. If we had one set answer, then you could work on correcting that. I think that’s the question I’m asked the most: What can we do differently? And there’s not an answer.

You know, during the time of the Columbine tragedy, there were a lot of people that tried to figure out what caused so much hate in the two murderers that they would come in and kill classmates and teachers. And I’m sure those same questions are being asked now in Arizona.

You know, what can we do to stop these senseless deaths? And the question that people ask me, what do you do as a school? And I said, what do we do as a society? If we have any hopes of making our society a better place to live, that we are not mourning more senseless deaths, we need to come together as a society, respect and value life.

And I think that’s so important as a nation.

GWEN IFILL: Rev. Vincent, you didn’t just counsel people after 9/11. You also preached on this very topic.

REV. JANET VINCENT: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: And how was that received? Is this the sort of thing where people say, oh, well, that’s just the way we are, and they dismiss it, or are they saying — or are they coming back repeatedly saying, no, really, why, what, how?

REV. JANET VINCENT: I found people enormously hungry to hear some kind of word. And, sometimes, people came looking for an explanation of what had happened. And I could not give an explanation. No one can.

But, often, people are coming to see what’s the word of hope, and not just the hope for the future. For instance, last week, in this awful, awful tragedy, good things were happening. Just as one man was taking a life, another husband was shielding the body of his wife. He was giving his life for her.

So, my job is to explore the things that show our deepest humanity and our courage and our bravery, even in these circumstances.

GWEN IFILL: Kari Watkins, we’re expecting 14,000 people at the University of Arizona tonight. Obviously, events like this affect people who were not directly impacted by the shooting itself.

Is there a way, is there an opportunity to speak to all of those people, not only just the president and the members of Congress, but also we, as individuals, in a one-on-one way?

KARI WATKINS: Well, I think you want to show the people of Arizona that people care and that the nation is mourning with them.

But we’re also celebrating those lives that were saved. And we’re going to walk with those people, too, in the coming days. And, so, it’s not — it’s for both life and death and to help everyone try to understand this incredible issue that surrounds us, so that we have to teach the consequences of these actions.

And, together, as you have heard from the other two folks, that we have to come together as a nation, and to point out the positives that could come out of this, but also to teach the lessons that were learned and to teach the impact of violence, and that, when you see something, you have to say something.

And we have got to stop these random acts. It is — in America, a country that can do so much, we have got to figure this out. And I think, tonight, as a nation, we have got to pause and come back to the middle and say, together, we can get this done. And it’s not a feeling that it’s fleeting. It’s got to be something that we stick with forever.

GWEN IFILL: Frank DeAngelis, in all three of these events and in many others we can name — Virginia Tech — we paid incredible attention to it for weeks, days — at least days and weeks in many cases. What happens, then, when all of that attention goes away? Does it change the task?

FRANK DEANGELIS: No.

And I think people have the perception that there’s going to be this magical date in which everything’s going to return back to normal. And that is the one question that I’m asked even now, almost 10 years out: When did it return to normal?

And what I tell people is that Columbine High School and the Columbine community and what we had prior to the tragedy, we’ll never return to that normalcy. We had to redefine what normal is.

And what happens throughout this journey — and what I said early on, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And what happens a lot of times during our journey is, you do have some bumps in the road. You have obstacles that get in the way, such as 9/11 or other school shootings or what happened in Tucson.

You know, last week, in Nebraska, there was a school shooting, and for us at Columbine, and I’m sure for many people throughout the nation, relive the tragedy that they experienced, even though it was several years ago.

So, it’s something that affects us for the rest of our lives. As I told the students in the community the day after Columbine, is, I said time will heal, but I said that the scars that we experienced as a result of this Columbine tragedy will remain with us forever.

But the message that I wanted to share — and I’m sure President Obama will share this evening — is, you’re not in this alone. You do not have to mourn this alone. And so there’s that feeling of hope.

You know, our theme has always been a time to remember and a time to hope. We will remember the 13 who lost their lives, all who were injured, all that were impacted. But it also allows us to provide for a hopeful future.

GWEN IFILL: Rev. Vincent, so there’s not a moment when — we can point to where we can declare a community healed after something like this?

REV. JANET VINCENT: Yes, if there’s one word I wish we could vanish from our conversation, it’s the word closure. It adds such a burden to those who are grieving…

KARI WATKINS: I agree.

REV. JANET VINCENT: … to think that there’s some day or some moment where they’re supposed to feel better and as if nothing had happened.

I think, over time, we all come to or we have the possibility of coming to make friends with our grief, of coming to some kind of accommodation with the things that have hurt us and find purpose in our lives to move on. But we should not — we should not be announcing a date of closure, either this day or one year from this day.

GWEN IFILL: Rev. Janet Vincent, Kari Watkins and Frank DeAngelis, thank you all very much.

REV. JANET VINCENT: Thank you.