There is a smell to blood. It’s the iron in it. Once you smell it, you can never get it out of your memory. Other things will remind you of it — innocent things, like a rusty pipe. In a scene of violence, like a mass shooting, there are other smells mixed in with the blood. Bodies have emptied out, either because they were shredded by bullets or because that’s what happens with shock and death.
If you talk to men and women who have been in war zones, many of whom have post-traumatic stress disorder, they will tell you that certain smells are triggers. Years ago, I knew a Vietnam War vet who told me the smell of rusty water could send him back in an instant. Suddenly he was in the jungle, slipping on blood and body parts, terror burning through him. It’s a nightmare that doesn’t wait for you to go to sleep, he told me, as a way of describing his PTSD — it just snatches you up when it feels like it. There are other triggers, too. A car backfiring, a wooden sign on a sidewalk toppled by the wind. Even the wind itself can usher in ghosts.
No hard numbers on PTSD victims
We have statistics for how many people have been slaughtered in America’s long siege of gun violence. We can look up how many were injured and survived. We have no numbers for how many people — survivors, witnesses, first responders — are suffering from PTSD, and we probably never will. But it’s safe to say there are many thousands of them.
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People who ran for their lives and had to stumble over torn-apart bodies. People who lay in the blood and gore pretending to be dead so that maybe they could live. First responders who, even though they deal with horrible situations all the time, had never seen carnage like that.
Imagine having to walk into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, with 6-year-old children ripped apart so violently it took hours to process the bodies and identify them. Imagine being one of the children who escaped. There will never come a time in the lives of those surviving children when the images of that day fade completely.
These are the victims, too. We don’t talk about them much, and many of them suffer in silence. Even if they aren’t diagnosed with PTSD, the memories, the images, the sounds and the smells will haunt them for the rest of their lives. They weren’t at war. They were just in school, or a shopping mall, or a movie theater, or a club. Living their lives in America, which has now become the country that other countries warn their citizens about.
This is America in the NRA's grip
We need to look at all the victims of gun violence, including those who are haunted by the screams of the injured and the silence of the dead. We need to speak for them, too. Because, once again, this government is going to do nothing.
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Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell don’t care. And if you think that’s too severe a statement, please look again at the photo from the president’s visit to an El Paso hospital in Texas last month. With his smiling wife holding a baby whose parents had been gunned down, he was grinning and giving a thumbs-up sign. They were posing as if for a Christmas card.
While Trump is on a shopping spree trying to buy a new country or denying he wants to use nuclear weapons on hurricanes, someone is holed up in a basement or a bedroom planning the next mass shooting. Three possible shootings were thwarted last month — but barely two weeks later, this time in West Texas, we have another. Seven dead, nearly two dozen wounded, and more people haunted by a nightmare that won’t leave.
This is what America under the thumb of the National Rifle Association looks like.