Schoolroom Massacre—Comfort in the Aftermath
THE front page of the newspaper was all black. Across it was printed one word: “Why?” This was the question asked over and over again after a 17-year-old went on a shooting spree in Winnenden in southern Germany, killing 15 people and finally turning the gun on himself. Flags all over Germany were flown at half-mast, and news of this tragic event flashed around the world.
Winnenden is a prosperous and idyllic town, flanked by vineyards and orchards. March 11, 2009, started as an ordinary morning at the Albertville Secondary School. Suddenly, at 9:30 a.m., violence and chaos broke out.
A young man stormed into his former school with a gun taken from his parents’ bedroom. In quick succession, he shot dead nine students and three teachers in three classrooms and the hallway, wounding several more. Within minutes, the police arrived. The killer fled to the grounds of a nearby psychiatric clinic. There he killed a maintenance worker. He then hijacked a car, holding the driver at gunpoint. Some 25 miles [40 km] away, the driver managed to escape. At a car dealership, the gunman killed a salesman and a customer and seriously injured two of the policemen who were closing in on him. When the police finally caught up with him, he shot himself in the head.
According to those who knew the gunman, he was an ordinary teenager who wanted to be accepted and to have friends. What went wrong? He might have had depressive moods, and he played with air guns and some popular violent computer games. But so do thousands of other youngsters, some say. And the victims? Did he choose certain ones, or were they shot at random? There was speculation about why he shot eight girls and only one boy. No one could give any sound explanation.
“When our son called and told me about a shooting at school, I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Heike. “But when I heard more and more police cars and ambulances rushing by, I panicked.” The quick response of the police likely prevented the gunman from killing more people at the school. After the school was evacuated, paramedics, counselors, and chaplains came on the scene and worked to the point of exhaustion caring for the students.
Reporters quickly converged on the school, trying to interview students, many of whom were still in shock. One pupil counted 28 television vehicles belonging to 26 different stations parked in front of the school. Competition was fierce among the media, leading to reports of unconfirmed details. One reporter called on the family of a murdered girl on the very day of the massacre to ask for pictures, and others paid students to pose for photographs. Seized by the frenzy of the moment, some reporters seemed to have difficulty finding the balance between getting newsworthy stories ahead of others and showing consideration and respect for the victims.
As is often the case in such instances, people turned to religion to find comfort and explanations. On the day of the massacre, an ecumenical religious service was held. Many appreciated the support. But those looking for comfort from God’s Word or for answers to their perplexing questions were sadly disappointed. One family attended the funeral of their son’s classmate. The mother said: “A bishop talked about the sufferings of Job. I waited for him to explain the lesson to be learned or to offer some comfort—but nothing. No word about the reasons or about the final outcome.”
One man was quite upset at the empty words he heard. The man had studied the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses some 30 years before but had stopped. Now he started to attend their meetings again.
Valisa, a 14-year-old girl who has a regular Bible study with the Witnesses, was in a classroom near the scene of the bloodshed. Upon hearing the gunshots, she started to pray to Jehovah. Later, when asked how she was coping, she said that the events confirmed what she had learned from the Bible about these critical last days. (2 Timothy 3:1-5) Two Witnesses were busy sharing some comforting words with their neighbors. An elderly woman approached and said, “Many more should do what you are doing.” As sad and shocking as the massacre was, it moved some to open their ears to the hope and comfort from God’s Word.
Lingering Traumatic Aftermath
Of course, not even the most heartfelt words of comfort can eliminate all the shock and despair felt by those affected directly. No words can completely ease the pain of a parent who has lost a child or the devastation of the police officer who rushed to the school only to discover his wife among the murdered.
Students who survived the ordeal, along with their families, were deeply traumatized, each in his own way. Vassilios jumped out of an emergency exit as soon as the gunman opened fire. “When I jumped out the window,” he recalled, “I prayed to Jehovah. I thought I was going to die. I was sure this was my last prayer.” In the following weeks, he was tormented by nightmares, and he did not want to talk to anyone. He was especially vexed to see the commercialization of the massacre and the insensitivity of those who pried for details. In time, he was again able to deal with reality.
Jonas was in the same classroom as Vassilios and witnessed the killing of five of his classmates. He said: “Right afterward, I had no problem describing what happened; it was like a horror movie. But now, to talk about how I am doing—that’s difficult. My mood varies. Sometimes I don’t want to talk about it; at other times, I talk about it a lot.” He too suffers from nightmares and sleeping problems.
After some days, the students were given back their personal belongings from the classrooms. Traumatologists warned that seeing such items could bring back memories of the tragedy. At first, Jonas did not want to touch his jacket, schoolbag, and motorcycle helmet. He was also terrified every time he saw someone who looked like the gunman or who carried a backpack like the gunman’s. When his parents watched a movie and a shot rang out, it rattled his nerves. Therapists tried to help victims to break free from such mental connections to the traumatic event.
Jürgen, Jonas’ father, works in the clinic where one worker was killed. He mentioned that many parents and colleagues were tormenting themselves with questions of why? and what if? For example, an employee of the clinic, who from a balcony saw the gunman walking by, was so troubled by the thought that he could have shot her as well that she needed psychiatric treatment.
How Some Were Helped to Cope
What have some found helpful in coping with such a horrendous experience? Jürgen remarks: “Although it is hard at times, it feels good to be with others. To know that others care, that you are not alone, is helpful.”
Jonas also appreciates that others care: “Many send cards and messages. Some mention Bible texts, which I then read. That is nice.” What else helps him? “When I wake up at night and can’t cope anymore, I pray. Sometimes I listen to music or to recordings of Awake!”* He adds that the Bible tells us why all of this happened: Satan rules the world, and we live in the time of the end. His father mentions that such insight helps them to cope.
Soon No More Suffering
Within a few days, candles, flowers, and letters covered the area in front of the school. Kerstin noticed that several people wrote notes asking why this happened and why God allowed it. Feeling that these questions deserved an answer, she and two other Witnesses wrote a letter and placed it among the others.
At the official memorial observance, a television station showed her letter and quoted the first lines: “Why? In the last days, this question has been sounding out louder and louder, and especially the questions: Where was God? And why did he allow it?” Regrettably, the quote stopped there.
Why regrettably? Because the letter went on to explain the origin of all suffering and stated that God “will see to it that all the harm humans have caused will be undone.” Then it adds: “In the last book of the Bible, God says that he will wipe out every tear from people’s eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.” Jehovah God will even bring back the dead. Under his Kingdom that is soon to come, there will be no more tragedies, massacres, or suffering. God promised: “Look! I am making all things new.”—Revelation 21:4, 5.
Awake! magazine in print and on audio recordings is published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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Jonas received a card saying, “We are thinking about you”
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