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For one thing, Giffords was shot while doing precisely what a good public servant ought to do: making herself directly accessible to her constituents. For another, she had hired as her community outreach director not a relative or a politician but a trained social worker, 30-year old Gabriel Zimmerman, who seemed to be working at the critical nexus of policy development and genuinely helping to solve problems for individuals and families. Now he's dead for doing his job. And of course there is the ease with which a clearly and seriously disturbed assassin, Jared Lee Loughner, purchased a semi-automatic handgun.
But as awful as the catastrophe for the dead, the wounded and their families, I was reminded of another set of victims. Several years ago, one of my students—an attorney who had returned to school for a master's in social work— conducted a series of interviews of murderers' families. What she found was consistent with the described reaction of Loughner's parents: unbounded grief.
Both her research and my own subsequent experience suggest a range of fairly typical consequences: Devastation experienced by the killer's immediate relatives occurs more often than not. Depression is widespread. The inevitable soul-searching for answers that cannot be found often generates major conflicts and divorce.
The killer's parents are often presumed to bear heavy responsibility (as in "they had to know"). Many times a killer's siblings are targeted in school as if they somehow share blame as well. A heavy sense of guilt and shame pervades close family members. Over the long term, these pressures often lead to the disintegration of families.
(The son of the con man Bernard Madoff, despairing that he could ever separate himself from his father's guilt, hung himself last month— and Madoff was merely a swindler, not a murderer.)
As we properly honor the memories of those who died and pray for those still fighting to recover, it's all too easy to forget that the price we pay for horrendous events like the Tucson killings must include the enormous suffering of those closest to the killer.♦
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