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Columbine and Ground Zero first responder Gino Geraci on the tragedy at Virginia Tech today.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

DB: We are joined right now by Pastor Gino Geraci. Gino has been a first responder to things like this, incidents like this. He was a first responder at Columbine, so Gino Geraci, welcome to our show.

GG: Thanks for being there, Dean. This is…I obviously have loved Hugh for years, and glad you guys are able to cover this.

DB: Now Gino, can you tell us a little bit about your background in dealing with these things?

GG: Well, I’m a chaplain for the Arapaho County Sheriff’s Department, I’ve served with the Denver Police Department, I was one of the first responders at Columbine, I also was at the Platte Canyon shooting, Ground Zero, I spent ten days there in twelve hour shifts, and so have had a great deal of experience with this.

DB: And so Gino, what are people there feeling right now? What’s…

GG: There’s raw emotion, and even for the first responders. That means the law enforcement people, the emergency service people. Obviously, you can imagine, it’s one thing to come on a suicide, or a motor vehicle accident. But the sheer numbers begin to play emotional havoc, even among the emergency service responders.

DB: So what’s the way forward? What…how do they begin working through this situation?

GG: Well again, what you have to do is come up with a realistic timeframe. And the realistic timeframe is you have raw emotions that are going to remain raw for several days. You also have offense and defense that’s going to be played. As you can imagine, there’s already criticisms that are beginning to take place, how could this happen, why is this happened…people are asking the largest of the large questions. They’re asking questions about right and wrong, about good and evil, about God and whether or not people survive death. And so all of these things are happening, but for the emergency service responders, they’re trying to gather as much accurate information as they can, in order to sensibly communicate the series of events that have taken place?

DB: Now Gino, what’s the timeline for a first responder? When do they get there? What do they do? What’s that look like?

GG: Well, typically what has happened is you know, you have police, you have fire, you have emergency service workers who work in ambulances. And again, part of the whole point is you’re trying to secure the area. You’re trying to make it as safe as possible. But remember, unless you know, even if you know who the shooter is, or in this case, where the shooter is dead, you have to process each and every circumstance like it’s going to be prosecuted.

DB: Yeah.

GG: And so, again, you’ve got this terrible mental and emotional energy that’s weighing on everyone in the circumstance, parents, students, administration. You know, you can imagine, the President of the United States comes on and says we’re aware of what’s happening, and we’re sorry. But again, I guarantee you that if it happens just like it did at Ground Zero and everywhere else, there’s going to be a process that’s going to unfold over the next few days and weeks that’s going to include amazing fallout, including, I’m going to suggest to you, additional student suicides as they begin to contemplate the painful things that they’ve just experienced. And families are going to be broken, and people are going to kill themselves. And this thing is going to, like a little tsunami, it’s going to build momentum in pain. And for that, I’ve just seen it too many times, but again, hope, hope, hope. People in pain need hope.

DB: Yeah. So Gino, how, as a first responder, and as a pastor, how do you begin doing emotional and spiritual triage on such a large community that has suffered such a grievous wound?

GG: Again, what you do is you take advantage of the many resources that are there. Obviously, they have Godly communities amongst that particular place. Parents and students are going to find support and encouragement in their immediate family, in their Church, in their synagogue. But again, it’s going to require great, great support and encouragement. And oddly enough, believe it or not, when people around the country respond to the family and friends, and they say guess what, we know that you’re there, we love you, we’re praying for you, we’re thinking about you, your school and your life and you family matters, just those very simple concepts bring incredible encouragement.

DB: Now Gino, one of the things that we’ve seen today is a lot of people, in trying to make sense of this, are angry, and they’re lashing out at the Virginia Tech Police Department, politicians for not allowing people to carry enough guns, that…when or does the anger give way to something more constructive?

GG: I suspect that the anger won’t give way to something more constructive until, we’re talking about weeks down the road, where people can demonstrate some emotional stability. Remember one of the great strengths of a first responder is flexibility in crisis. And you have to have a broad base of ministry skills. This is where the university president and all of the people involved are going to have to have great courage, and I can’t even begin to tell you how important…what I’m about to say is maybe the most important thing I have to say, and that is how truth, the truth about what is happening, will bring comfort and hope to everyone involved. The worst thing that could happen is to cover up anything, no matter how malevolent, no matter how inane, no matter how inconsistent, the best thing that everyone involved can do is tell the truth, period.

DB: Now you’ve dealt with parents who have handled, or have been given senseless losses like these.

GG: Correct.

DB: How do they get over it? I mean, what’s…

GG: Well, again, in all fairness and all honesty, there’s certain things you were never intended to get over.

DB: Yeah.

GG: The loss of a child, there is something about us, that we’re not emotionally or spiritually constructed to bury our children. Our children are supposed to bury us, and so you don’t get over it. But what you do is you provide meaning and function and circumstance, that the life that you are talking about was meaningful and important. I can give you just a quick example of a lady who lost her child to brain cancer, and her husband left her and divorced her, and her life was completely falling apart. And I asked her a very simple question. I said if you could go back in time, and never marry this person, and never get pregnant, and never have this child, and never go to the doctor, and never have the needles, and never have to go to a grave, would you? And you know what she said?

DB: Yeah.

GG: She said I would do it all over again, if I could just have my daughter put her arms around me, look me in the eye, and say I love you, Mommy.

DB: You know, Gino, it’s funny. I’m part of the cystic fibrosis community, and I’ve seen that with parents with critically ill, terminally ill children, and eventually, they begin bargaining for time.

GG: Right.

DB: That each day, each week, each month becomes precious, and that’s…you know, they stop looking for a cure, and they just say oh, one more month, two more months. Is there a way we can get some good in this, that people can realize that every day, every week we have with our loved ones is precious, and a gift?

GG: You know, I think that there is some good, and here’s part of what we have to come to grips with. I know that you believe what I’m about to say, but I’m certain that not everybody listening is going to believe what I’m about to say. There is such a thing as right, and there is such a thing as wrong. There is such a thing as good, and there is such a thing as evil. People intuitively know it in their heart. When a person is drowning in a lake because they’ve committed suicide, versus a person that’s drowning in a lake, a child has fallen overboard, and an emergency service worker is swimming to rescue that child, everyone listening intuitively knows that the person who has killed themselves is a coward, and the person who is trying to save the child is a hero. It seems odd that we should have to once again revisit this most important issue. Is there such a thing as right? Is there such a thing as wrong? Is there such a thing as good? And is there such a thing as evil? And again, America…remember what Alexis de Tocqueville said. America is great because America is good.

DB: Yeah.

GG: And America will cease to be great when America ceases to be good. And we have to rally the troops and say no, we’re going to act with courage, with heroism, and with goodness. We’re going to affirm that life is precious and important. And we’re willing to sacrifice in order to save life.

– – – –

DB: Gino, we’ve been getting some calls today, a lot of people are very angry. How can they channel their anger into something productive?

GG: Well, to remind themselves that anger is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a good thing. It’s an invisible psychic response that problems need to be solved. There’s two bad ways to deal with your anger. One is to blow up, and the other one is to clam up. But what you’re probably aware of, most people need to grow up. They need to understand that yes, there’s some very real problems, and those real problems need to be addressed. Certain questions have come up, and they do need to be answered. How do you explain the time gap between the initial shooting and then the subsequent two hour hiatus? And then the rampage? Are there issues that we need to come to grips with, both as a nation, collectively, but individually when we think about the circumstances of our schools and our school system? What is happening in America? And as you’re very much aware, what Columbine did is it shattered the illusion, at least for parents in suburbs like my own, that their children are safe in high school. Now you can imagine, this is what’s happening at Virginia Tech. There are families all across this great country who are wondering whether or not it’s safe for their children to go to school. And so we have to revisit these questions, and we have to ask the questions, and we have to answer them.

DB: Now Gino, what happened today, and what’s happened in the past, is there a pattern? Or are these just random acts that are part of humanity, that there is good, there’s evil, there’s terrible misfortune, or is there an identifiable pattern that we can address?

GG: I think that there is an identifiable pattern, because there is in fact a psychology of school shootings. There’s certainly been a lot of excellent work that’s been done on profiles of violent youth. But as you have probably heard over and over again, there really is a problem with a culture of death, with a death preoccupation, and the way you resolve conflict and solve problem is to kill the people you don’t agree with. We see it globally in the form of Islamism and terrorism and fascism. We see it in Israel. We see the great divide all over the world, but when it comes and visits our country, we ask and answer these questions over and over again, and that is who are we? What are we? What are we doing? And yeah, I think that we’re going to have to address the problem of youth violence prevention. But in my view, it’s going to require a change of heart. It’s going to require a change of heart.

DB: Gino, on the airwaves, on the TV, they’re already calling this the college Columbine. Is that fair? That strikes me as an ugly term. Does it strike you the same way?

GG: Yes and no. Remember, I live in the Columbine community. One of the persons on my radio program today was a Columbine parent whose son was tragically shot and killed at Columbine. It is in the sense that it becomes a pejorative, it becomes a word that describes a senseless act of evil. However, what I’m going to suggest to you is it becomes a way of thinking about a culture shift, where like I said earlier, hey, if Columbine made the parents wake up all across America, and say guess what, public schools have a be a safe place for my children to go, if this causes a wake up call, which the President has already referred to, guess what? Our schools need to be a sanctuary. They need to be a place where students can go and learn in safety. You and I agree that the first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens, isn’t it?

DB: Yeah. We do agree on that.

GG: And the second thing is, if that’s the case, then it isn’t so much government intervention that’s going to make safety and security possible. In my view, it’s a change of worldview. It’s a way of looking at the world differently, with valuing people, with honoring life, with understanding that wicked, evil acts do in fact occur, and that we have a responsibility to address them, deal with them, and make the world safe.

DB: Gino Geraci, one of the things that I’ve seen today is people really being hard on the Virginia Tech Police Department, and the authorities, for not closing down the campus after the two murders were discovered in the dormitory about 7:15AM. Now one of the questions that I have, is that we have a college campus of about 30,000 students, and several thousand faculty and staff…

GG: Yeah, it’s a fairly large campus.

DB: So we’re dealing…yeah, we’re dealing with what’s the equivalent of a mid-sized city at the very smallest. Would you shut…is it fair to expect to shut down a mid-sized city, is that reasonable, because there’ve been two murders?

GG: Well again, I think it’s reasonable that you had a bomb threat on Friday and you evacuated it, that again, part…there might be some valid criticism of did we react, or did we react in a significant way given the circumstances that we faced? It’s easy to blame the police afterwards. You know, we’re talking about that macrocosmic situation there. But in the microcosmic sense, do you remember the little shooting up at Bailey, Colorado, where you had a gunman with two hostages? It became very, very clear to the police chief there that things were going to end on his terms, or they were going to end on the hostage taker’s terms. Every law enforcement officer has that horrible, terrible crossroads that they come to, when they have to ask themselves is this going to end on the shooter’s terms, or is this going to end on terms that we can bring to bear on the circumstance? Oh, it is so easy to be the armchair police, but I’ve got to tell you something, I don’t have all the facts, but it’s been my experience that these men and women act with integrity and with professionalism. And so before we’re quick to criticize, I too would wait for the facts to come in.

DB: Yeah, I mean, it would be so much easier for us all to process this if we could just say oh, that guy messed up.

GG: Right.

DB: And therefore, it was a human error, and as long as we have more competent human beings, then we won’t have anything like this ever happen again. And I think that’s facile.

GG: Well, and I think that that’s part of the challenge. In other words, when you make the mistake, maybe somebody gets a dropped call. But when they make a mistake, and 30 people are dead, we really do have to ask and answer these hard questions.

DB: Yeah, I mean, it almost feels like this is a thousand year storm in terms of college campus disaster. What are you thoughts on that?

GG: Well, my thoughts are probably going to shock you. One of the things about Columbine…

DB: I’m sorry, Gino, we only have about 20 seconds.

GG: Okay, I guess my point would be I suspect that this is going to happen again, that this is not going to go away. I hope and pray to God it never happens again, but you’re exactly right. There’s a storm brewing.

DB: Gino Geraci, thank you very much for joining us tonight.

End of interview.

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