April 17, 2013

Analysis: Contemplating chaos in a nation of 'soft targets'

Allen G. Breed / The Associated Press

When her cousin and 11 others were gunned down at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last July, Anita Busch lost all interest in her favorite television crime dramas. And when she heard that three people had been shot dead at an Oregon shopping mall in December, she stopped her Christmas shopping and sneaked out the back door of a department store.

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The Century 16 cinema east of the Aurora Mall in Aurora, Colo., where James Holmes allegedly killing 12 people and injuring 70 last July.


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"After Aurora, even my little niece who's 11 was afraid to go into a mall, to go shopping," the Los Angeles woman says. "I look around all the time. I think everyone does."

The United States proclaims itself the world's foremost economic and military superpower — the mightiest nation on Earth, "land of opportunity" for those who want to work hard and prosper. But as Monday's bombings at the Boston Marathon illustrate, the reality is that, from sea to shining sea, this is a nation of "soft targets," full of opportunities for those who want to do it harm.

And so the message Tamara Ruben sought to convey to her third- through seventh-graders as they celebrated Israeli Independence Day Tuesday at Temple Beth El Mekor Chayim outside New York City was to not let fear rule them — "that as much as possible not to let this event to dictate our daily life and make us afraid and paranoid and change drastically our style of life."

"Enjoy the simple things — the simple things that give us contentment and joy in life," says Ruben, director of the synagogue's school.

Like Busch, so many Americans have a visceral reaction when the backdrops of everyday life — a school, a supermarket, a mall, a sporting event — become places of violence and tears. The Boston bombings had Tricia Kaye second-guessing, if only briefly, her decision to participate in her fifth Chicago Marathon this October.

"I had that kind of gut reaction that there's no way to secure a race like that, and that it's better not to do it," said the 35-year-old Chicagoan, who works for a national financial planning company. "But it quickly changed to 'Screw that, I'm going to do it.'"

Lt. Christopher Shane Henderson, a firefighter and paramedic in St. Petersburg, Fla., says he can't take his 20-month-old daughter to the circus or a fair without the specter of 9/11 or some other tragedy casting a pall.

"This absolutely impacts how you view people," the 33-year-old father says. "I think it's pretty disgusting that people can't go to places and enjoy things with our families without the idea lingering in our heads that somebody has malintent."

Psychologist Timothy Strauman says these reactions are only too natural. Growing up in Philadelphia in the late 1950s and early '60s, Strauman remembers the "duck and cover" drills and the signs pointing out the nearest nuclear fallout shelter.

"What we felt then was, you know, the WORLD could come to an end," says Strauman, a professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "Mutually assured destruction — that was the policy."

Personally, Strauman — who specializes in depression and anxiety — feels much safer today.

"Anytime a high-profile event like this occurs, one of the things that it does is it makes people think that the event is likely to happen again," he says. "It changes our sense of how likely this is to occur ... and so it makes it very difficult for people in the immediate aftermath to stop and realize that it's still an extraordinarily rare event."

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