By David K. Shipler
You could not look away from the grim faces on the front page of The New York Times this morning. They were students in Parkland, Florida, who returned to classes two weeks after their school became the latest memorial in America’s litany of shootings.
Their hollow gazes chilled me in a special way, because they wrenched me back to a picture I had taken 45 years ago of Cambodian children about two weeks after their village of Neak Luong had been mistakenly bombed by an American B-52. The huge bombs had marched through town leaving enormous craters like the footprints of some giant, smashing most of the hospital, obliterating fragile houses, killing and maiming parents of children and children of parents.
Unlike most kids I’d met elsewhere in Indochina, these youngsters of Neak Luong did not crowd curiously around an American to grin and laugh into his camera. They stood silent and unsmiling, their faces impassive from torment—just like those Florida kids—as if the reverberations of shellshock had not yet died away. And perhaps never would.
The eyes of the tallest girl in my picture haunt me still. She is probably about 12 years old. She looks straight into the lens, but vacantly, without guile or passion. Her stare seems neither angry nor fearful but emotionally flat, like a veil across a wound.
In the center of today’s picture, too, is a Florida girl whose downcast eyes, in shadow, should not ever be forgotten. She looks broken. Her head bends slightly forward; she might be carrying a red flower, just visible between two teenagers in front of her. She seems about to weep—for all of us.
The Times recently ran a piece of sensitive reporting, by Andrew E. Kramer, on small children returning to Chechnya, in Russia, from the catastrophic warfare of Iraq and Syria—children born there or whose parents had taken them along on their misadventures to join ISIS. The kids, reunited with grandmothers and other family members after their parents had died or gone missing, displayed troubling behavior.
“They talk very little,” Kramer wrote of three small boys, “but they run around, hide and, occasionally, slam one another to the ground with a disturbing ferocity.” An eight-year-old girl, “found like flotsam in a Mosul street,” he reports, doesn’t speak about what happened to her but retreats with “distant and angry” eyes into cartoons on television.
Millions of children worldwide are growing up as unwilling witnesses to carnage. In wars across the globe, they have seen so much blood and shattered flesh and have watched their families and communities crushed by gunfire and explosives, that many are likely to be desensitized to violence. Some may be perpetually caught in trauma disorders, and research by Dr. Rachel Yehuda, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, suggests that “the children of traumatized parents are at risk for similar problems due to changes that occurred in the biology of their parents,” according to Psychology Today. This raises the prospect of childhood trauma being passed down across generations.
Little kids don’t find their voices very easily. But high school students do. And the students at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people died in bursts of semi-automatic weapons fire by a former student, have challenged their elders to chart a path out of this American swamp. If those elected to govern and keep the country safe fail to heed the calls, they will damage not only other lives in the future but the recovery of the survivors.
A key element in coping with trauma appears to be how nurturing and protective others are to the victim. Chaya Roth, a psychologist whose mother took her and her sister in flight from the Nazis back and forth across Europe, taking refuge time and again with non-Jews who risked all to render assistance, drew a healthy lesson from her trial. She came through with post-traumatic syndrome of another kind—the kind that instills the realization that around you may stand many good people.
“I knew that many Christians had a part in saving me, and that is why I never lost faith or hope in people,” she said. Let conservative Republican politicians now hear the Florida students’ deepest need, to be surrounded by good people, not pistol-packing teachers whom SWAT teams could easily mistake for shooters during a gunfight, but good people who will finally curtail the flood of guns and ammunition into American society.
That can be the healthy lesson of the students' trauma, for as Chaya Roth observed, “If one goes through difficult times, but comes out of these alive, it is because in the last analysis there was someone who provided help.”