The shock of sudden violence is so severe it takes your breath away.
When it happens in a time and place where it is unexpected, it does more than just remind us that no one is immune to it. It also reminds us how pervasive it is, how much it affects us all, and how important it is that we do something about it.
In the summer of 1989, I imagined that sudden, random violence was something far removed from my hometown. But I was about to learn differently.
An article in The Atlantic has just detailed the event, dredging up some quarter century old memories of a day that changed my community’s life.
I was running for Mayor of Middletown, Connecticut, at the time, and had reserved a booth at the city’s annual Sidewalk Sale in late July. I was handing out yardsticks, asking for a vote “for government that measures up to your expectations.”
Suddenly, there was a commotion about a block north of where I was standing. I noticed people running in two directions, both toward and away from the Woolworth’s store in the center of downtown.
A young girl, randomly chosen, had been grabbed outside the store and then repeatedly stabbed by a 38 year old man. She died on the spot. Hundreds of people witnessed the event.
Over the next weeks and months, Middletown was in shock, just as other communities – Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, Blacksburg VA, Littleton CO, and others – have been shocked since.
The trauma in Middletown almost killed our downtown. Its suddenness and randomness made everyone feel unsafe. It killed much of our sense of community and personal safety.
The healing didn’t happen very quickly.
It took at least a decade or two of steady changes to the Main Street area for that to happen. These changes were so significant that – with the exception of a few businesses, nonprofits, and restaurants that remain from that time – one would barely recognize the Middletown of twenty-five years ago in its vibrant downtown today.
The trauma to which Sandy Hook and other communities have been exposed is even greater.
To appreciate fully the scale of the Sandy Hook tragedy, we must realize that because of it Newtown’s 27611 residents – who experienced zero murders in 2011 – may well have experienced the highest homicide rate in the nation in 2012.
The healing time will be long. And, at some level, my limited personal experience in Middletown suggests that a community exposed to that level of violence may never fully recover.
And this suggests something even more frightening about the shock of violence in communities across the nation.
There were 14,612 murders in the United States in 2011. That’s 4.7 homicides for every 100,000 people.
In Middletown, Newtown, and Blacksburg, the homicide rate was zero. In Aurora, it was 3. In Littleton, it was 5. Even in Tucson, which lived through the shopping center massacre that year, it was under 10.
Murders are uncommon in these communities, contributing to their newsworthiness.
But elsewhere, the everyday shock and trauma of violence is so much more powerful. And because it is so prevalent, media headlines cannot capture fully its true effect.
The murder rate per thousand in Miami in 2011 was 17, in Philadelphia 21, in Jackson 30, in St. Louis 35, in Detroit 48, and New Orleans 58.
Here is another way to look at this. The Aurora massacre this past summer will double Aurora’s homicide rate in 2012, by a factor of 3.6 per hundred thousand residents.
The people of St. Louis collectively live through the trauma of an Aurora-level massacre an average of once every six weeks, the people of Detroit live through it every month, and the people of New Orleans live through it every three weeks. No one gets used to this.
If this is hard to absorb, imagine what these war zones must be like for the children and families living in them. Every year, 3.5% of adults have diagnosable PTSD, and almost 8% will have it at some point in their lives. Half will have PTSD before they reach the age of 18.
What are we doing about the traumatic effect of all of this violence in all of our neighborhoods – including those where it is commonplace? And, more importantly, what are we doing to prevent such violence in the first place?
Email Paul Gionfriddo at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Paul Gionfriddo on Twitter: @pgionfriddo.