TUCSON, Ariz. – The harrowing first week is over. Now, as the national focus drifts away and a quietness returns to this laid-back college city, the profound pain is settling in as victims of last weekend’s shooting spree – and their tight-knit community – enter the toughest part of their healing process.
There are the parents who lost their 9-year-old daughter. A wife who will live with the haunting memory of her husband’s dying moments, filled with her loving whispers after he used his body to shield her from the bullets. A 20-year-old intern for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords stamped with the mental images of holding her to his chest and trying to stop the bleeding after a bullet passed through her head.
And then there’s the city of Tucson, a picturesque desert community of sun-bronzed university students, retirees and artists that prides itself on being open-minded now linked to a heinous crime.
“I happened to get hit by bullets and all of you, especially those who were there, you got wounded too,” said Giffords aide Pam Simon, 63, who was shot twice, as she met with survivors, witnesses and community members.
The months to come will determine the lasting impact of those wounds, not only for the residents of Tucson but the country itself, which has spent a week reflecting on whether a divisive political atmosphere, angry rhetoric or loose gun laws might have intersected with a dangerously mentally ill young man in Tucson.
And what of suspected gunman Jared Loughner’s parents, who have remained secluded in their modest home, issuing only a brief statement expressing sorrow? Questions as to why he fired on the crowd that Jan. 8 morning may never be fully answered.
“This was a combat situation that hit people not prepared for combat,” said Dr. Paul Ragan, a Vanderbilt University expert on gunshot victims. “There really is this profound assault on one’s own sense of certainty in life and safety.”
Survivors have found a sense of peace from the community’s overwhelming support, rolling their wheelchairs past the cards, candles, and flowers blanketing the hospital lawn.
They also are consoled by the moments of human goodness – the heroic feat of the men who tackled the gunman, the woman who grabbed his empty magazine and the strangers who scampered under the hail of gunfire to help the wounded.
Most uplifting has been the remarkable recovery so far of Giffords, whose condition was upgraded from critical to serious Sunday after a procedure to remove her from a ventilator was successful.
Many of the 13 victims have undergone multiple surgeries and face months, possibly years, of physical therapy.
Survivors recognize the body often heals more quickly than the mind.
“The wounds in our heart are a lot, lot deeper,” Simon said. “They aren’t going to heal in a long time.”
Steve Siegel, of the Denver district attorney’s office, has seen the long-term fallout after helping people in the aftermath of the country’s most horrific crimes – from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.
Some have been unable to function, losing jobs, turning to alcohol and drugs, even attempting suicide. Every time a tragedy occurs somewhere it can trigger their traumatic feelings – an actual chemical response in their bodies.
Trauma, he says, acts like a stone dropped in water, rippling out far beyond the crime scene: Within 48 hours of the Columbine massacre, all youth beds at mental health facilities across Colorado were filled. Many were teens shaken by the news clips of the chaos.
More than two years later, some 600 people were still seeking help to cope, said Bill Woodward of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Doctors say some of the victims could experience a near-constant mental replaying of the attack outside the Safeway grocery store that left six dead. They may develop irrational fears, worrying obsessively that Loughner could escape and harm them again. A few might find they can’t even drive past any Safeway.
A team of psychiatrists and social workers is working to counsel the patients and their families.
“We’ve got to bring them back as a whole human being,” said the victims’ chief trauma doctor, Dr. Peter Rhee, who has treated soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Countless others may need the help, too: There are those who escaped the gunfire unscathed, the police officers and emergency crews who witnessed the carnage, the Safeway workers, the neighbors and friends of both the victims and the assailant, and the community as a whole.
“In a lot of ways you don’t really know what the overall impact is for a very long time,” said the University of Colorado’s Woodward. “You don’t know what the impact was on the community as a whole.”
The same is true of the political process, he said. “How many people are still going to be wanting to go to political events? What kind of security is there going to be there?”
So far officeholders and constituents outside Arizona appear to be emboldened by the tragedy. Less than a week after the shooting at Giffords’ public “Congress on Your Corner” meet-and-greet, similar gatherings across the country resumed under greater police presence, drawing large crowds.
Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley called her Las Vegas office’s open house a stand against violence, noting America’s political climate is at a crossroads.
“The reality is, we haven’t been behaving very well as leaders of our nation,” Berkley told the Associated Press. “I hope this is a turning point.”