I along with millions of Americans watched the Capitol siege unfold in real time, a barrage of video feeds appearing on all major news networks, across all platforms. After dozens of viewings of the wreckage and death, I found myself either looking away, turning down the volume or putting my hand over half of the split screen, unable to continue watching the horror.
Tears flowed as I watched the officer being crushed and screaming in agony time and time again. I could no longer hear the rabid, bloodthirsty shouts of the insurrectionists prowling through the halls looking for Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and any other members of Congress they could find. Zip ties, nooses, handcuffs, a makeshift gallows — a bloody coup in Washington, D.C. For me, it felt a bit like 9/11 — disbelief, alarm, worry, shock, dismay, fear and then outrage.
I expressed my concern about the potential impact the insurrection videos could be having on all of us – adults and children alike — with my colleagues and friends. I told them that if I could, I would ask our news outlets to stop the repetitive loop of the same images time and again of the mob and their beatings, perhaps only airing new footage and presenting the older ones as stills.
While they expressed concern about the potential cumulative impact of the images, many felt it essential that they must continue to be shown. Otherwise, we may be running the risk of minimizing or forgetting the import of the siege and the ongoing threat of white supremacists and anarchists to our democracy. When I listen to some of our members of Congress spew vitriol, lies, and hatred, I now know they are right. Today, over 70% of Americans believe our democracy is in peril.
The shock of the insurrection may wane over time, the long-term trauma of this period in our lives may not. When I was young, my late mother would talk with me about the Holocaust, always with a cautionary note: “Don’t ever think it can’t happen here, Sherry.” Might we run the risk of ignoring the dangers or carry a false sense of hope simply to get through each day?
Experts tell us that there are two types of trauma: witnessing primary trauma and witnessing secondary or vicarious trauma (crisis or violence in others). Trauma not only increases the risk of post traumatic stress, but depression, anxiety, substance abuse, physical and mental health issues, interpersonal relationship and family problems, and the increased risk of suicide. Those who have endured trauma as children. are more even more vulnerable and together these multiple experiences have a tremendous impact on the potential for future violence.
National surveys have found that the majority of us have experienced at least one traumatic event in our lives. Exposure to trauma varies due to economic conditions and those living under 200% of poverty threshold are considerably more likely to have experienced trauma and post-traumatic stress. Between 30 and 40 percent of youth exposed to community violence develop a range of PTSD symptoms: nightmares, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks; emotional numbing, hyper-vigilance, insomnia, and behavioral problems. Having experienced high incidences of disaster and traumatic stress in their daily jobs, first responders are particularly at-risk.
Do I think this means we will all succumb to PTSD? No, but the crises we are facing are pervasive. The Capitol insurrection coupled with the impact of the pandemic — death of our loved ones, loss of jobs, homes, food lines, coping with scared and confused children –- will change how we live our lives, how we perceive others, and how we see our leaders and our fragile democracy.
We must remain vigilant, protective of the gifts that our democracy affords and committed to insuring that those gifts are shared by all. We need to learn ways to protect ourselves and our children through all of this.
We must be ever present, but monitor how much horror we absorb each day. Look for signs of stress in ourselves and in our kids. Talk to them honestly and sensitively about what happened. There are organizations, such as the Voices Center for Resilience, who have helpful tips to share. It is also an important time to share how precious and fragile our democracy is with our children. Here, too, there are great age appropriate books and videos.
It’s complicated and critical at the same time. Our news media must continue to play their crucial role — perhaps with a greater sensitivity to the impact that recycling the same horrific images can have on our individual and collective psyches. Yet, five people have died, two police officers have committed suicide in its aftermath, and our country is in danger from within.
We must never forget what happened here.
Sherry Haller is Executive Director of the Justice Education Center, Inc.