When fear became reality: How students are coping in a world defined by tragedy

A banner hangs on Mandalay Bay hotel one week after the Las Vegas shooting. Photo courtesy Claire Treu.

In just the last few months, members of the Chapman community have been faced with a 9,200 acre fire, mandatory evacuations, an unprecedented two-day campus closure, the devastation of homes in Sonoma and Napa County, and the largest mass shooting in United States history, in which, one of our own, Fowler School of Law student Ariel Romero, was shot.

“It’s such a different reaction when you hear about someone you know,” said sophomore major Peyton Babbe. “It’s hard to feel something. You don’t ever expect someone to hurt or kill a loved one.”

The political science and strategic and corporate communications major woke up to a call from her mother on Monday morning after the Las Vegas shooting, informing her that her cousin and her cousin’s boyfriend were there. The two survived, but the boyfriend was shot as he shielded his girlfriend.

With tragedy looming, our greatest fears have become urgent realities. Scarcely a day goes by without a devastating cover story decorating the news and social media. In recent months, the persistence of these events has exhausted our emotions and interrupted the upbeat rhythm on Chapman’s campus. It’s left many students questioning how they should respond when every week, another disaster demands their attention.

Babbe said coping with the shooting has been difficult for her because she’d never had a personal connection to a national tragedy. Going to school that Monday was surreal. People were not having conversations about an event that changed her life and world outlook.

“It was the weirdest day of school I’ve ever had,” she said. “I remember being kind of mad that we didn’t talk about it more (in my classes). It felt much closer to home than ever before and it wasn’t getting the attention it deserved.”

For today’s college-age students, September 11 is often their first memory of a national tragedy and first exposure to terrorism. Growing up in an era where there’s news of a terror and violence every time we check our phones has taken its toll on the generation. A 2011 journal published by the American Psychological Foundation said that indirect and direct exposure to the 9/11 attacks resulted in increases in symptoms of posttraumatic stress and anxiety in youth and young adults.  

Madi Moynihan is a senior theatre technology major who was at the Las Vegas shooting on Oct. 1. She said the toll it has taken on her in the last few weeks has been more difficult to cope with than the moment of the shooting.

“You think that after that sort of tragedy that that’s the worst that it gets, but I think the aftermath has been worse than the whole thing itself. I haven’t been able to sleep or been able to eat. It’s been slowly sifting into the smaller aspects of life that people take for granted. I know at least for my life, everything’s off-kilter and been thrown for a loop,” she said.

Undeclared sophomore Hayley Wierwille said it’s hard for a generation that has grown up surrounded by violence in the news to feel reassured about their own safety.

When Canyon Fire 2 started, Wierwille had to evacuate her home as the fire descended over the hill behind her street.

“You couldn’t see the other side of the street there was so much smoke,” she said. “I was very afraid. Just the thought of it being a couple miles from my house… Seeing the sky and the sun turn red was very scary.”

Like many of us, Weirwille was glued to her phone to keep up with the updates on the fire. She said she does the same with every tragedy because she can’t help but try to make sense of what’s happening by reading the news.

The sense of urgency we get from social media translates into a culture of fear, said Katherine Khaloo, a sophomore political science and strategic and corporate communications major. Her response to the tragedy in Las Vegas felt more emphatic because she was following the shooting in real time.

“I found out about it while it was happening because of social media. My roommate came out and told me there’s a shooting going on right now,” she said. “And I woke up the next morning and it was 50 dead, 500 injured. The process of grieving felt much more connected.”

In the midst of tragedy, Wierwille said it’s important for communities to take time to grieve. She recalled the Charlottesville rally and how grieving this event was different for her because it scared her in a way other tragedies haven’t.

“I think that people are more aware now of the things going on in the world, and our parents brought us up differently because of that,” she said. “I feel like right now those fears are rational because of what’s going on in the news. The world is in a lot of turmoil.”

The anger born from tragedy is part of what has shaped the generation’s culture of fear, according to Khaloo.

“I try really hard to not be scared. I think the best way to combat the terrorism in our world right now is just through living our lives,” she said. “I think more than anything our generation is angry. Are we fearful? Sure. But more than that we’re angry. That fear is motivation for us to fix things.”

The same rang true for Moynihan who said that if we change our lives because of our fears of terrorism, we only become more terrorized.

“I think those fears are rational but when you do that, those people win; the terrorists, the guy who did the Vegas shooting. If you allow yourself to think you can’t go to a movie theater now, you’re never going to live your life,” she said.

True to her words, Moynihan goes line dancing regularly and found that her involvement in the country community has put life into perspective. She went to a country concert four days after the shooting. Twice during the show, the performer asked the audience ‘are we afraid?’ and everyone shouted ‘no!’.

“We’re not going to let that person win or take our joy,” she said.

(Don’t) Trust Your Intuition
Why we worry too much about the wrong things and think too little of everyday threats
Though our proximity to fires and violence seems unprecedented, statistically these threats are remote. The next time you find yourself worrying about nuclear weapons or dying in a plane crash, take a second to think about the last time you texted and drove.
You are 33,842 times more likely to die from cancer than a terrorist attack, 35,079 times more likely to die from heart disease and 1,904 times more likely to be in a fatal car crash, according to a 2014 article published by the Centre for Research on Globalization.
“A lot of people don’t worry about going into debt. It could happen to you. You could get alcohol poisoning, it’s not that hard. Or trip while you’re walking. Driving; car accidents happen every day,” said Weirwell, who herself is most fearful of natural disasters and earthquakes.
When tragedy hits home, our willingness to trust the numbers wavers, even when we know we are in more danger doing everyday tasks. Suddenly, we have become the statistic, and we are reminded of it through a constant stream of news and social media. We are redirected from the things really worth stressing over, like saving for retirement and the risks of driving, and are caught worrying about the wrong things.
One example is texting and driving. Ninety-eight percent of people who text every day and drive regularly said that texting and driving simultaneously is dangerous, according to a 2014 study by AT&T. Of this group, 75 percent admitted to texting and driving anyway.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation found that nine percent of fatal accidents involving drivers under 20 years old were caused by distracted driving, which is the highest proportion among age groups.

When tragedy hits home, our willingness to trust the numbers wavers, even when we know we are in more danger doing everyday tasks. Photo by Jack Irvine.

If you worry about your safety in Orange, know that the violent crime rate is four times less than that of California’s average violent crime rate, according to NeighborhoodScout.
Eighty-three percent of 15 to 21-year-olds in the world said terrorism and extremism make them fearful for the future, according to a 2014 study by the Varkey Foundation. The same year, the Centers for Disease Control found that the two most common causes of death for young adults are unintentional injury, like car accidents, and suicide.
One study that is trying to understand the persistence of fear is the Chapman Survey of American Fears, which survey’s people’s most prevalent fears based on different categories of disasters and threats. The last report was released Oct. 11 of this year, and it found that the most common fear for Americans is the corruption of government officials. This has been the leading fear since 2015.
“America’s not trusting each other. We’re afraid of each other and what others say. And that fear leads to demonization,” said one of the survey’s researchers, Chapman sociology professor L. Edward Day.
Close behind the fear of corruption is the fear of terrorism. In 2016, the fear survey found that 41 percent of American people describe themselves as “afraid or very afraid” of the threat of a terrorist attack. This was the second most prevalent fear for Americans, followed by personal financial hardship and government restrictions on firearms.
Though the survey does not target young adults specifically, Day said a large part of America’s fears can be attributed the constant flow of media we now have. On example is the impact of 9/11, which resulted in people having misconceptions about crime.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the majority of Americans have come to believe that the crime rate is increasing in the U.S. when actually, it has been decreasing since the early 90’s, according to Day.
What is current in the news is related to the fears found in the Chapman survey each year.
“The biggest change we’re seeing are changes in which issues are being talked about in the media, which seems to affect what’s popping up in our top 10,” he said.
Wierwille said that paranoia and anxiety seem to be contagious because media is often exaggerated and it is shared between people so quickly.
“There’s so much more news coverage on things now. Every story is really attacked,” she said. “I think we’re definitely more paranoid. There are so many more reasons to be.”

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