Disasters involving terrorism and criminal mass victimization bring unique challenges for communities to consider when responding. Preparing for these challenges, in advance, will allow emergency response officials and victim services to better understand and respond to victims’ needs.
The response environment is often more complex, intense, demanding, chaotic, and stressful than in a natural disaster. The impact area is a crime scene, which may limit the movements of responders. There may be significant problems and delays in identifying human remains, including the misidentification of loved ones. Some of the testimony at the Air India Inquiry suggested that more than one person/family attempted to claim one body and this was also experienced following the 9/11 attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing. The very real issue of loved ones never being found exists (the majority of people killed in the Air India bombing were never recovered; more than 1000 victims in 9/11 have not been found or identified), as well as the ongoing discovery/delivery of body parts, identification of victims who are found (i.e. must get DNA from family), etc.
With respect to victim services, during 9/11, “the impact of the crisis and scope of the victim needs were not anticipated, severely straining existing resources and jeopardizing effective compensation and victim assistance.” Other jurisdictions around the world have also found that in responding to the terrorist event, existing resources were strained. Victim service workers, for example, had to balance responding to the needs of the victims of terrorism with the need to respond to other victims of crime.
As victims are suddenly caught unaware in a dangerous, life-threatening situation, many will experience terror, fear, horror, helplessness, betrayal, and violation. The event seems incomprehensible and senseless. Some view the disaster as uncontrollable and unpredictable, while others view it as preventable. Outrage, blaming the responsible individual or group, desire for revenge, and demand for justice are common.
Among the lessons learned from 9/11, officials suggest that mass criminal victimization requires specialized response strategies that address the complex toll on people. Victim services in Oklahoma City were found to be unprepared for the scope and intensity of the traumatic reactions.
Mass casualties, threat to life, exposure to trauma, and prolonged recovery efforts may result in significant and long-term emotional reactions. There are often higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and traumatic bereavement.
The impact from human made disasters may be more prolonged, recovery may take longer, and may have the most profound psychological effects when compared with natural disasters. The psychological, behavioural and social impacts of a terrorist event have the potential to inflict the most persuasive, long-lasting and costly consequences to individual’s health.
Assumptions about humanity often change. Persons impacted no longer view the world as safe, just, orderly, and that danger can be kept out. Survivors are confronted with the reality of the tragic event and its underlying causes. This often results in distrust and fear of people and may cause withdrawal and isolation.
A natural disaster differs somewhat from an act of terrorism in that people and communities affected usually have advance warning of the impeding event, for example, a hurricane, flood, forest fire, tornado, etc. This advance warning allows people to prepare for the psychological impact of the disaster and the possibility of loss of life/livestock, homes, material possessions, etc. In the case of unexpected disasters or accidents such as earthquakes, explosions, hazardous material accident, transportation accident, famine, or epidemic that causes human suffering, victims and survivors may be more accepting of the outcome because although the event is a shock, it does not usually involve the horror, terror or violence inflicted against innocent persons that normally define an act of terrorism. The most significant difference is that no single person or group is culpable in the natural disasters listed above.
Stigmatization of victims
Some victims may come to feel humiliation, responsibility for others’ deaths, survivor guilt, self-blame, and being unworthy of assistance—thus assigning stigma to themselves. The larger community, associates, friends, and even family may become distant to avoid facing the fact that victimization can happen to anyone. Well-meaning loved ones may urge victims and those bereaved to “move on,” causing them to feel rejected and stigmatized for continuing to suffer.
Victims often become isolated in the aftermath of terrorism. A Canadian 9/11 widow has spoken publicly of her husband’s death on September 11th, noting her unique situation, being a victim of September 11th who did not live in the United States where the tragedy occurred. This fact led to her isolation from the largest group of affected victims and the services they were afforded by the US government.
Victims’ needs may conflict with necessary steps in the criminal justice process. Steps required to obtain limited crime victim compensation are often confusing, frustrating, and bureaucratic, triggering further feelings of helplessness and anger. Victims often feel that the punishment imposed on the criminal is inadequate compared to the crime and their losses, and this causes further harm.
In the Air India tragedy, the trial took place 20 years after the bombing and there were significant challenges around complexities of allowing/enabling many victims to attend and participate and keeping a large number of victims informed (logistical and language challenges). The ultimate outcome of the Air India trial was an incredible let down and re-victimization for all family members, with the two men accused of the bombing being acquitted.
In many terrorist attacks, the perpetrators cannot be arrested and tried in a court of law because they have killed themselves. This lack of ability to prosecute can be very upsetting to victims and survivors, as well as the fact they are unlikely to be afforded the same rights that other victims of a crime will be offered (for example, attendance at trial, victim impact statements, attendance at parole hearings).
In mass victimization situations, there is a higher risk of violations of privacy and re-traumatization by graphic media exposure and replays. Past terrorist events have shown the media is generally far more intrusive when the human impact is greatest; covering the horror and psychological impact of the event relentlessly. With so much media competition to deliver the latest news to the public instantaneously, media outlets will seek interviews with witnesses who are in shock or vulnerable; they will speculate and may even report incorrect information. The Dart Center at the Columbia School of Journalism is making an effort to educate journalists on covering disasters responsibly.
Media coverage can be so intense that an entire community is negatively affected. In December 2013, on the first anniversary of the mass killing at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the town asked national and international media outlets not to descend upon them. They did not want a return to their streets of the antenna-topped vans and reporters holding microphones to their faces. They asked the networks to stay away as children were still suffering from anxiety and the sight of TV vans triggered reminders of the shootings. While there was a desire to keep their grief private, the town also considered their economic wellbeing, as media vehicles clogged streets following the incident, making it difficult to get to shops during the important Christmas season. It is now commonplace for media to replay video footage taken at the scene of terrorist attacks, over and over in the immediate hours following the incident and perhaps for days and weeks afterwards, as seen following the 9/11 attacks, 7/7 bombings, the Boston Marathon bombing, etc. which has the effect of re-victimizing persons impacted.
In some cases, an entire religious or ethnic minority group may be impacted by an act of terror or mass victimization. Responding officials should be wary of labelling/ostracizing groups. Immediate response should also consider the cultural and spiritual needs of victims to allow for prayer, if desired, and their special dietary needs. Following the 1985 Air India tragedy, a Catholic priest opened up his church and allowed the victims’ families to have Hindi prayers there. He invited them to take part in Mass even though they were non-Catholic. He put rules aside to bring family members comfort and peace. There were extraordinary efforts made to have East Indian families from other locations in Ireland cook vegetarian meals so that the families impacted by the tragedy could eat.