There’s a neighborhood bar not far from where I live. I drop by often enough that the bartenders know me and automatically get me my beer of choice. It’s a friendly place and easy to make conversation.
Back in mid-December the coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was almost wall-to-wall. One evening it was silently unfolding on one of the bar’s muted televisions. I noticed a Hispanic man watching the images, his eyes wet with tears. A short time later we began talking and I found out why.
The man–I’ll call him Fernando–was thirty-eight years old and had grown up in El Salvador during its long civil war (1979-1992). The conflict was between the right-wing government, with its death squads, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMNLF), an umbrella term for several left-wing guerrilla groups. Fernando’s parents were afraid of both sides. For them it was simply a matter of los hombres armados: the men with guns.
When Fernando was a little boy, he told me, his parents would sometimes take him from their house and spend the night hiding in the woods, with a hand cupped over Fernando’s mouth to keep him from crying out. We think of school shootings and civil wars as worlds apart. But for Fernando, the former was irresistibly reminiscent of the latter.
I have since talked to Fernando on several other occasions. We never speak of the civil war but it plainly haunts him. At some point–I have never asked how–he acquired an M-16, perhaps because he eventually joined one side or the other. Although he left the weapon behind him in El Salvador, he once told me he has never felt comfortable without it, and he alternates between having thoughts of violence and thoughts of running away. He becomes tearful easily and indeed, never seems far away from weeping. Although his case is undiagnosed, he almost certainly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
As a military historian, I have never quite known what to make of Fernando’s equation of the Sandy Hook murders with his own childhood. But it is the same equation that others make who have to live with the threat or reality of mass killing. For military veterans present at the recent Boston Marathon Bombing, the scene resembled the aftermath of an IED blast. People residing in neighborhoods wracked with gang violence must know the same fear that Fernando’s parents did. Fernando is a reminder, I suppose, that although we define the boundaries of our field as centrally concerned with political violence, the lived experience of people caught up in violence is essentially the same.