It has been two decades since April 20, 1999. The day senseless violence debased an obscure Colorado high school to a byword for indiscriminate killing. By turning guns on their peers, two students from Columbine High School perpetrated a barbaric act, taking the lives of twelve students and one teacher before ending their own.
People’s lives forever changed. Along with armed law enforcement, the trappings of the modern media era descended on the community of Littleton, Colorado. There have been many more days like it: Gutenberg Gymnasium, Germany; Virginia Tech, US; Jokela High School, Finland; Utøya island, Norway; Sandy Hook Elementary School, US; Pulse nightclub, US; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, US; and the recent Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Center shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.
The emotional scars borne by mass shooting survivors is detailed to varying degrees in academic research. Post traumatic stress symptoms like hyper anxiety, sleeplessness and re-experiencing are commonly reported among survivors.
In her analysis, Laura Wilson, clinical psychologist at the University of Mary Washington, Virginia, notes evidence that between 12 and 64 percent of mass shooting survivors experience PTSD. Recovery is dependent on many elements like pre-trauma risk factors, as well as the level of danger and media exposure.
Craig Scott’s story
Craig Scott’s older sister Rachel was the first pupil fatally wounded as shots rang out at Columbine. Mr Scott, then a sophomore, was soon faced with Rachel’s killers as they murdered ten students inside the library, including two of Scott’s close friends – Isaiah Shoels and Matthew Kechter. Craig Scott managed to escape the killing by hiding under a desk and playing dead.
Scott, who now tours classrooms promoting positive school culture, describes how “part of my brain seemed broken” in the immediate aftermath. He later struggled with overwhelming feelings of grief and anger which came to a head when he pulled a knife on someone during an argument.
“I was like a zombie. In shock and disconnected. Often I was not present. I dealt with other emotions like real sadness and anger,” he said. “I hated the shooters. I watched the media paint a narrative that they were pushed to the edge because of bullying.”
As television camera crews encircled the community of Columbine, the rush for information, meaning and motive became paramount. Later came admissions of how the media flopped. Myths of victim deaths and harmful inaccuracies, such as a “trench coat mafia” out for revenge, were wrongly pedalled.
“As I watched news media trying to understand why, there seemed to be justification for the shooters,” Scott says. “Bullying, medication, lack of gun control, bad parenting, and others failing not to see warning signs began to be blamed instead of the shooters. It took away where the responsibility really lied – and they were buried in the ground.”
“I already hated the shooters, but this justification intensified it leading me to fantasize: if I had only five minutes alone with them, what I would do.”
Holding this anger inside began to affect not only Craig but his friends and family. “For a while I was hell to be around.” Scott is careful to state that no singular event pulled him from the pits of despair he believes was making him intolerable. However, he attributes “a process” of counselling and a chance meeting with providing him with tools to cope.
“My sister planned to go to Africa on a mission trip, but I ended up going in her place. Every day this bus driver sang beautiful Zulu songs and he was filled with so much joy. One night I couldn’t sleep and was up, when the bus driver pulled in seeing me out when I wasn’t supposed to be. He saw I was upset, and then he said, “Tell me your story.” I hadn’t told anyone so I told him. He listened. Then he shared his story.
“He had come home one day to his village to find his entire tribe killed. It was during the apartheid in South Africa. He lost 17 members of his family. At first I didn’t believe him. How could this be the same person who was filled with some much contentment singing beautiful songs? Then he said something I share with kids today, “Forgiveness is like setting a prisoner free, and then finding out that the prisoner is you.”
During counselling Scott was taught to take powerful negative emotions and translate them positively. “Anger into determination, fear into courage, sadness into an appreciation for life, and anxiety into excitement,” he explains. “I began turning anger into determination that I would not be a victim. The shooters had a goal to kill as many as possible, I was going to save as many as possible.”
After years fielding journalists’ questions, Scott admits he has witnessed sensationalistic reporting on the subject. The media’s fascination with the gory minutiae of murder has perhaps always been apparent but never more clear than in the pursuit of a mass shooting story. But the media has also allowed Scott to communicate his journey, he says.
“Overall I have a positive relation with the media. They help me get the principles I learned because of Columbine out there. One of my main messages to students is ‘what you place your attention on, you give power to.’”
In the wake of last month’s mosque shootings, it’s perhaps a message that could be heeded by many others including journalists. “Too much focus on the shooters gives them a platform,” Craig adds. “They want fame. Let’s not give it to them.”