While the recent Washington, DC, area sniper siege apparently ended with last week's arrests of John Allen Muhammad (nee Williams) and John Lee Malvo, its effect on the nation's well-being may linger for some time, says Prof. Paul Kline (GSSW).

These are tough times for Americans' sense of personal and family security, says Kline, who has shared his expertise on the impact of community violence on children and families with the Boston Globe and Providence Journal-Bulletin, among others.

The factors in this collective uneasiness are easily identified, he says: last fall's terrorist attacks and anthrax scare, anxiety over Afghanistan and Iraq and the unfolding Catholic Church crisis. Kline also cites the sagging American economy, as well as revelations of corporate malfeasance, as further exacerbating feelings of anxiety and helplessness.

Add this past summer's spate of reports of child abductions or attempted kidnappings, he says, and the American public - already concerned about incidents of workplace and school violence in recent years - was understandably unnerved by the stories of people shot down while performing the most mundane tasks, like pumping gas or loading shopping bags into a car.

"Most of us have been blessed with sufficient resources to cope with a single, brief encounter with frightening violence," said Kline. "We are more likely to be damaged by cumulative stress associated with multiple violent events or the persistent threat of violence. Catastrophic events, such as terrorist attacks or the threat of attacks, and unspeakable acts of violence, such as crimes involving children or ruthless aggression by those we most trust - our ministers and priests, for example - are particularly toxic.

"This continuous exposure erodes trust in our own safety and the safety of those we love. In addition, this loss of security also involves a loss of confidence in our ability to predict and control the events in our daily life. We begin to see ourselves as more helpless and powerless. We cope by watching for signs that a stressful and difficult situation is suddenly turning worse and hope that quick action on our part might provide some measure of protection from harm."

Closely following coverage of such events in the media, on the Internet or through other sources, Kline says, can be an expression of one's need to regain control and power. But doing so also can produce "a chronic state of arousal, worry and tension that damages physical and emotional health especially if our connection to others is damaged, leaving us more alone and isolated," he warns.

There are any number of helpful professionals who can lend their specialized assistance in helping individuals deal with the stress, says Kline, but the best solution may be the simplest, and the closest to one's heart.

"In most cases, we're best helped by drawing support, hope, and practical aid from family, friends, and neighbors and by offering aid in return," he explained. "Taking action to assist others, even when we feel overwhelmed, can elevate hope, optimism, and self-confidence. From a social work perspective, preserving and protecting these connections within families, neighborhoods, and communities is vital."

-Sean Smith


Return to October 31 menu

Return to Chronicle home page