What is the lifespan of a critical incident?
A disaster or violent event happens. After some hours or days buildings stop shaking, winds die down, flood waters drain away, gunfire and explosions cease, or fires go out. In following days or weeks, survivors are found and treated, the dead are counted and named, wreckage is cleared, help begins to come. Gradually, the event fades off front pages and television screens. People go back to work and school and begin to resume the routines of daily life, with pauses for mourning rituals. Damage is repaired; victims are memorialized, in stone or living gardens or spontaneous shrines. Eventually, the world seems normal and ordinary again, at least outwardly. But when in this progression can it be said that the incident is over? Or did it really end at all?
The word customarily used for the later life of an event is “aftermath.” That phase was pinpointed as the focus of discussion when the Academy for Critical Incident Analysis at John Jay College and the Virginia Tech Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention assembled a multidisciplinary group of scholars, administrators, mental health specialists and journalists in Blacksburg, Virginia, to deliberate and reflect on the consequences and reverberations from the April 16, 2007, shootings on the Virginia Tech campus. The meeting took place from July 22 to 24, 2009 — two years, three months and one week after a seriously mentally ill student named Seung Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people in a dormitory and a classroom building and then killed himself, in what is believed to be the worst mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history.
At the opening session, Ned Benton, ACIA’s first executive director and subsequently chair of the ACIA Council, set the framework for the proceedings: “There’s a dynamic between learning about the event here at Virginia Tech and at the same time asking some higher level questions about aftermath dynamics, about what happens in the days, weeks and months after the incident. We believe that it’s important for us to ground our analysis in cases and to engage with the perspectives of the people who were actually involved. So we are doing a case analysis, we are learning from a case, but we are asking some broader questions at the same time.”
The word aftermath has an interesting and evocative history. Its use has been traced back to the 1520s, when it meant a second crop of grass grown after the first had been harvested. It combines “after” with -math, derived from an Old English word for mowing. Betty Kirby of Central Michigan University pointed out that in the beginning it “actually had a rather positive meaning.” But when the idea of mowing shifted from literal to metaphoric, the sense of the word changed. This shift can be attributed to some extent to early wars and battles that often occurred in the fields. Most often, Kirby noted, “it currently refers to the consequences after an unpleasant or disastrous event. So ‘after mowing’ took on the meaning of after people have been mowed down, after they’ve been killed.”*
Varying definitions suggest different answers to the question of when — and whether — an aftermath comes to an end. Some dictionaries define aftermath as a space of time: “the period immediately following a usually ruinous event” (Merriam-Webster). That does not say when it ends, but by definition a period of time must come to an end at some point. Other definitions, though, make the word synonymous with “consequence” or “result,” as in the American Heritage Dictionary: “A consequence, especially of a disaster or misfortune.” Since some results are transitory but others are permanent, under that definition there can be no clear end to an aftermath.
Further complicating the question, the aftermath of an event like the April 16 Virginia Tech shootings is to a large extent a subjective phenomenon, rather than an objective one. Several years after the event, those most deeply affected by it are still in its aftermath by any definition of that word. At the same time, though, for a great many in the Virginia Tech community — students who had not even entered the university when the shootings took place, for example — the tragedy is far enough in the past and distant enough from their lives and experience that they are not in any meaningful way in its aftermath. As for the institution itself, there may similarly be no definitive way to decide when the aftermath is over. But as became amply clear in ACIA’s discussions, issues arising from the shooting are still prominent in various areas of the university’s life. As long as memories of the event remain emotionally important to many in the community, and as long as related issues continue to demand time and attention from the leadership, administrators, and members of the faculty, Virginia Tech will still be experiencing the aftermath of the shootings, however imprecise the word may be.
* Kirby noted that some have found that meaning in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1873 poem “Aftermath.” One theory is that it refers to the 1872 Modoc War in northern California and southern Oregon, one of the last Indian wars. It has also been speculated that Longfellow was writing about the Civil War. In that interpretation, the dry leaves in the path represent the bodies of the dead, and the falling snow and the crows’ call are references to death. The poem reads:
When the summer fields are mown,
When the birds are fledged and flown,
And the dry leaves strew the path;
With the falling of the snow,
With the cawing of the crow,
Once again the fields we mow
And gather in the aftermath.
Not the sweet, new grass with flowers
Is this harvesting of ours;
Not the upland clover bloom;
But the rowen mixed with weeds,
Tangled tufts from marsh and meads,
Where the poppy drops its seeds
In the silence and the gloom.