March 17, 2018

Jerzy Nowak’s Story III: We Started Dreaming Together

Thirty-two dead at Virginia Tech, resulting from a damaged mind. Nearly 3,000 dead at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania resulting from twisted religious fanaticism. Another 1,700, possibly more, in Hurricane Katrina, resulting from wind, water and human carelessness. Uncounted more deaths in tragic events every year in the United States and across the world. Nothing can erase the grief those losses left, or make sense of their senselessness. But humans do sometimes find a way to create something positive from their pain. At Virginia Tech, Jerzy Nowak closed his personal account of the 4-16 tragedy by recounting the creation of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, which now occupies the space in Norris Hall where the shootings, including that of his wife, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, occurred:

Remember Francine [his stepdaughter] who was handling the media? She was giving interviews in both French and English, and the French BBC asked her what do you think should be done with Norris Hall? And she said, you know, there should be a peace center there. And the media took it on and it was all over Canadian newspapers and some here. And then she came to me and said I hope it’s okay that I suggested there should be a peace center in Norris Hall. And that’s where the concept started.

There was an announcement made that Norris Hall will not be used for classes. There will be offices. A few weeks later the faculty members who lost their spouses had a gathering and one of them said well, what will happen with Norris Hall and how about this peace center we’ve heard of through the media? So then on a visit with the provost who was introducing a new employee and who came to my house, I said, I have this concept of violence prevention and promotion of peace, and I said I don’t mind competing for this space if there was a competition. And he said the space has been allocated but people are refusing to move in. So, long story short, the competition was announced and it was overwhelming to me that without announcing or advertising that we were developing this concept, we had close to 20 people around the table during our first meetings. Literally it was spontaneous. This was the positive outcome of this tragedy.

A few people had PTSD but a large group of people became dynamic. People started communicating with each other. Different disciplines were coming together. I worked with engineers and everybody from across the campus. And we started dreaming together. The program is student-centered. The mission is research, education and leadership to prevent violence, promote peace and enhance human security, to provide opportunities for student engagement in prevention of violence and contribution to peacemaking. An immediate outcome of creating the center was a contribution to the post-traumatic healing process, with primarily the families but also the entire community, the community who interact with us and who heard about us.

To fulfill this primary goal of student-centered mission, I spoke to the students who started the Teach for Madame program. My wife was called Madame by her students. Some of them spontaneously came to me and said they had this idea to teach French culture and language in the Harding Elementary School. I talked to them about the teaching philosophy of my wife, and her contribution to early childhood education. I actually had a suitcase of props of hers and I had put it in the garage so I could think later what to do with it. So the next day I brought this trash bag and said here are these props. She made them all — she was a really passionate teacher. The students started a 501c(3) charter organization raising money and building a community around it.

We’re trying to develop two concentration areas, violence prevention and conflict resolution, and peace studies. We’ll be developing a minor. The fundamental approach to this is the students will do it, and it will be multi-disciplinary. We will also try new approaches to develop leadership skills — not teaching about leadership but actually developing leadership skills. The first thing we’re going to organize is a program working in the high school. My daughter is planning to organize a studies for peace movement, affiliated with the students for nonviolence club, in her school as a branch. In the longer term we are aiming at the development of an effective student support network that includes evolution of self-governance, developing responsive protocols for safety and security plans, awareness of post-traumatic stress symptoms, enhancing recovery. Unless students are part of it will never work. Students have to take responsibility. There’s a violence prevention committee which has members from the campus and the town.

We plan to have 32 peace fellowships supported by 32 endowments, which is symbolic. Interest from the endowment will be used to foster the student activities we’re talking about.

The major challenge in this society, I believe, is securing a safe school environment as a key obligation. We hear about school violence over and over again. This society is destroying itself. We live in a gun culture with media violence and too much crime and guns too readily available. Thus the process of creating a safe schools  is  more important than ever before in ensuring stress free learning environment.


The word “memorial” entered our language more than 600 years ago, Gerard Fromm told the ACIA gathering, with the same meaning it has today. It has a common root with “monument” — both are from an ancient base word meaning “to think.” Traditionally, memorials have been monuments, made of stone, usually on a heroic scale and created by official authority for heroic purposes.  In recent years, a new tradition of spontaneous memorials, more varied in design and materials, has emerged: homemade, often (but not always) temporary shrines that are constructed quickly and without official sanction or procedure on the site of a tragic event. Fromm, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, found complex paradoxes in contemporary practices of memorialization:

Memorial processes are at bottom about facing grief, with a minimum of heroic or sentimental defenses.  They are as much about recovering one’s own mind as they are about recovering the memory of a loved one. Both are essential to moving forward and living one’s life.   One purpose of a memorial is the ancient, essential function of burying the dead. In the Iliad, the most terrible thing that happens to the King of Troy is that his son is dragged through the battlefield after he is killed; the ultimate Greek revenge is to refuse his burial.  Burials mark the place of the dead, and marking this place allows remembering the lost loved one because it allows forgetting them.  If there’s no place to go back to, no place to re-find the other, it’s extremely hard to let go; the loss is always on your mind.

Another function is dedication for the living. The Institute for Peace Studies at Virginia Tech is an example. So is the VT Engage program.* Both of these illustrate the essential partnership between individual leadership and institutional response.

Memorialization can re-traumatize. But if  a group’s effort to make the unbearable bearable is painful, it also makes that  painful experience available for psychological work — on one’s relationship to lost loved ones, on overcoming helplessness and despair in order to live again actively, on managing intense, irrational reactions, on dealing with our whole relationship to the world, on re-discovering purpose, and on overcoming isolation and reconnecting to others.

This work requires company. So a major function of memorials is that they create space or an environment that is safe enough and yet evocative enough to allow the re-experiencing of pain in a contained, collective way.  Even if they are “things”, like monuments, memorials are also events.  Walking down, then up the path of the Vietnam Memorial is an emotional event that takes you into, through and out of an emotional letting-go process.   Each memorial goes about that process in specific ways, which may well be worth analyzing for their effectiveness and for what they say about the state of the recovery process in those who planned them.

At this conference, we heard about concentric circles of traumatized groups; I think effective memorials can offer help to all of them. And to play with the word “remember”, we also re-member through memorials; we recover the memory of the lost love one as a member of our society, and we become members again ourselves through the work of mourning.

Building memorials is intended to heal, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Designers, officials, survivors, advocates and commentators may have conflicting concepts of how an event and its victims should be remembered and memorialized, and that can lead to disputes instead of healing. The development of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center site is an example. Glenn Corbett, professor of fire science at John Jay College, has been technical advisor to the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, one of several organizations of 9-11 families. He reviewed some of the emotionally painful arguments about the memorial:

I’m not just an observer but a participant and an advocate. So you’ll have to understand that this presentation comes primarily from my involvement with the firefighters’ families and family groups in general.

Let me run through some memorials that have been the subject of controversies. The Custer battlefield, as it was formally known until relatively recently, has been renamed the Little Bighorn memorial site, particularly because of the Native American movement. Chicago’s Haymarket Square.* There was a monument dedicated to the Chicago police, and the memorial itself was defaced, the statue was destroyed twice. All you find today is the platform and it’s actually in police headquarters now because they could never leave it at the site without it getting defaced. The Flight 93 memorial. One of the family members was refusing to have his son’s name put on the memorial because of an issue with the design. I don’t think it was intentional but it was essentially a crescent and the connection to Islam was a major issue here.

Some of you may remember all the discussions about what’s going on at the World Trade Center site. How much is memorial? How much is commercial? There are all sorts of competing interests here, unlike at Virginia Tech where you don’t have something competing for what’s going on at the site. Key elements are two pools, which are the footprints of the twin towers at street level. There are waterfalls, which drop down to about 27 feet below grade. Originally the victims’ names were on a parapet knee wall at the 30-foot-below-grade level, so that is where you’d see the names. The names were a big issue as well.

Construction began in March 2006. Protestors were on the site already because a lot of people were unhappy with the design. A couple of months later it was revealed that the cost of this memorial was going to be one billion dollars. That forced the mayor, who also serves as the head of the foundation that’s raising money for the memorial, to order the memorial committee to bring it in under $500 million. And that is the first time the families I work with got involved.

The families felt they were never included in the development process and in my estimation they were not. The names issue was particularly galling. You would have to climb down to see your loved ones. People went berserk over that and they created another organization: put it above ground .org. And they rejected the way the names were to be arranged. The architect always used the word random, and the families keep saying this was not a random event, it was planned over time and there was nothing random about it. We had a rally in February, 2006. Our signs said things like “Raise the memorial” and “Our sons are not random names.” Today as we speak the names are still random, though they are grouped according to “meaningful adjacencies” — for example if you were in the north tower, you end up in the north tower area. But if you’re looking for someone like a friend from high school, you would still have to go to a kiosk or a person with a book, just like at the Vietnam memorial, to find this person. A better example is a memorial in the firehouse across the street. On that memorial every one of the firefighters is listed by rank and in alphabetical order so you can find them very easily.

Another dispute concerns a senior member of the power company, a man high up in the Con Ed power structure, who showed up at Ground Zero to assist in the emergency response. He showed up down there on 9-11 and he was killed. They found him next to the chief of the fire department. Guess how they have him categorized? He was a visitor. That is the category they put him in. His family, as you can understand, was very upset about this. There’s probably going to be litigation on this issue, saying they want their loved one’s name off the memorial. That’s how bad this process is right now. This speaks to the point about whose story is being told here.

* A Virginia Tech organization founded after the April 16 shootings that promotes community service and volunteer work by the university’s students, faculty and staff.

* Site of an 1886 bombing, attributed to anarchists, that killed eight Chicago policemen and a number of civilians.


The narratives that critical incident analysts will most often look at are collective ones. But there are individual narratives too. Some of those reach a public audience; some are retained within a small circle of family members and friends; many are lost. Capturing and preserving more of this material and thus enriching the store of information available for researchers and analysts is a possible area of activity in the field of critical incident study. Steven D. Sheetz, associate professor of  accounting and information systems and director of the Center for Global Electronic Commerce, outlined ideas — and some obstacles he and his colleagues encountered — on creating a digital library for material on the April 16 events:

We’re a group of faculty from a number of departments across Virginia Tech, computer science, psychology, sociology, accounting and information systems, human development.  The digital library for 4-16 was our biggest initiative. We tried to create an archive of the materials that came from Virginia Tech, electronic materials. We crawled the web, we put up a site where people could submit pictures. We asked people to share their stories, we tried to develop our digital library that would maintain those stories and then conducted several different analyses of the things that people gave us.

Our thought was to capture these things so that people in the future could use them to try and understand why it happened or to try and do some future research. We captured some of the poetry, pretty much all the poetry that was posted. We had a lot of news stories and things. In computer science we like to analyze texts. It fits with what we do, it’s somewhat unemotional. We have this text from news stories and blogs and we analyze that and try to see what kind of information came from that.

We had problems getting people to contribute, we had problems getting the university to agree to things like e-mail logs with all transactions associated with this tragedy so we can do a network analysis of all the communications that occurred during that time. They said no, and no might have been the right answer –  we don’t want to hurt the university, that’s not what we’re about.

Where we’ve evolved to is we’re looking to develop a thing called a Crisis, Tragedy, and Recovery Toolkit. It comes in a form of a computer preloaded with a set of applications  that we can distribute in the case of a tragedy, so that someone can be able to immediately start crawling the web and capturing information and allowing people to upload pictures and blogs and start a Facebook group. We had a grant recommended for funding that we call the CTR grant, and our mission is to develop the CTR toolkit which can be rapidly deployed to any situation and can help people in that situation to be able to rapidly capture information relevant to that situation and to be able to know, quickly, and to create a Facebook group and do some things that would then facilitate populating the library or the digital archive earlier in the process.  These are the services we are hoping to provide within some relatively short period after event.

The toolkit is part of a CTR network where there are existing digital libraries and archives associated with other events. We want to be able to link people going through it, who are trying to figure out what to do, with other people who have already been through it and can perhaps help them to respond. These things that seem to make a difference can now be part of what we want to provide for people that are in some similar situation. And sadly we know there will be something like this happening in the future as there have been many things since that time.

Memory and Narrative

The consequences of an event, and the meaning we give it, arise not just from the event itself, but from how it is remembered. Journalist and author Arnold R. Isaacs discussed the importance of narrative and how it evolves:

For critical incident study we need to establish the facts of what happened, but it’s just as important to analyze the story, or the conflicting stories, that we made out of those facts. Was it a healing, unifying story or a divisive and damaging one? Did it move toward some kind of coming to terms, or did it keep painful feelings alive? Who shapes the narrative — another way of asking who controls the memory of the event, the language we use to describe it, how it’s depicted in popular culture and so forth?

Incident narratives go through stages. First is the instant narrative, the one that used to be created mainly by the news coverage, but now lags behind an even more instantaneous narrative composed of tweets and texts and cell phone videos, etc. Next comes what could be called the short-term consensus narrative — a consensus that may or may not last.  This emerges after the first few news cycles when the identifiable event is over, coverage is shifting to reactions and consequences, and news media and public have usually reached some kind of common version of what happened and adopted a phrase or tag to describe it.

Another variant is the institutional or official narrative, designed to defend the actions and protect the image of political leadership or some official body. There’s also the advocacy narrative, that exists to promote the issues or interests or ideas of some group or cause or ideology. Both of these come into being very quickly nowadays. One form of advocacy narrative is the victim narrative, meant to get maximum recognition and sympathy for the victims and often to dramatize their pain and suffering to promote some cause or policy position. And last is the enduring narrative, the one that gets into the history books if the memory of the event lasts that long.

Some further observations: Do advocacy narratives, including the victim narratives, sometimes intentionally or unintentionally keep a story alive and keep fueling the emotions that the event created? And if so, how does that affect recovery and the effort to return to normal life? Another thing to note about the advocacy and official narratives is that these so often turn on issues of blame, on showing that someone is at fault in an event — in many cases not the actual perpetrator, but someone who should have been able to prevent the incident from happening or keep it from getting as bad as it got.

In the Virginia Tech story, it’s striking how quickly the blame narrative got started. The early AP coverage quoted several students criticizing the lack of an earlier warning, including one kid who said university officials had blood on their hands. One newspaper made that its main headline: “Blood on their hands.” You might think that on the first day, if they were going to talk about anybody with blood on his hands, it would be Seung Hui Cho rather than the university, but there it is. I found a bunch of similar headlines: “Warning came too late to save lives” (San Francisco Chronicle), “Bloodied campus asks where were the warnings?” (Chicago Tribune), “Could the massacre have been stopped?” (Detroit Free Press). The headline is supposed to tell you the most important thing, so these tell readers that the most important issue was why didn’t the university stop this from happening? There’s no way to know if anything would have been different if the early coverage had been different. But the way it unfolded put the university on the defensive from the first hours, maybe the first moments. And this kind of coverage must have helped promote the demands for financial, emotional and legal redress in the aftermath.

Victim narratives also tell us quite clearly that all victims are not the same. Think about the attention and deference, not to mention the money, that was given to the 9-11 survivors, along with the great concern and vast funds spent on their memorial. And then think about the Hurricane Katrina victims who got not even remotely similar recognition. I discovered there’s no memorial with the names of Katrina victims. There was never even a plan for such a memorial. There are some local ones, I think the city of Biloxi has one, with the names of those who died in a particular town or parish. But no authority that I could find attempted to keep track of all the victims. The only list I know of was made by a scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. It  was there on the Internet, but hard to find.* And then you go to the website for the 9-11 memorial, and right away you’re looking at very elaborate displays of photographs and tributary paragraphs. I believe that’s a function of social, racial and economic differences that ought to get a lot more attention than they do. I hope ACIA will keep that in mind as we move forward.

Narratives, like events, have consequences. Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg observed:

As I listened I thought, from a physician’s point of view, after a trauma or an infection, there’s a body response and that body’s response isn’t always good. It could involve too many white cells, or an immune response that’s awry, or an allergic reaction. All of that at the individual physiological level is part of what we need to study. Writ large, the way the noise emerges is something we have to learn to appreciate, measure and consider a part of a critical incident. A narrative emerges that may be right or wrong but ends up having a great amount of power to proclaim what occurred and sometimes to divide us on pre-existing fault lines in a terrible way into antagonistic human groups. That often does happen. Rarely do we come out of a catastrophic incident in the long run stronger at the broken places and coherent and united. A lot of us hope that we can impose that, make that happen.

* At the end of 2009, the site still exists at, but the list itself has apparently been removed.