Chapter VIII
Lessons Learned

Victims of violent crime experience a range of needs—physical, financial, emotional, and legal. Victims are entitled by law in this country to certain types of information and support. Although victims of terrorism have much in common with other violent crime victims and with disaster victims, they appear to experience higher levels of distress that are in part due to the unique issues related to the traumatic elements, and often the magnitude, of these politically motivated events. Witnessing the murder of people as they go about the everyday tasks of daily life creates a sense of horror and vulnerability that may last a lifetime. It may also put people at risk for significant and long-term psychological difficulties. A number of factors increase the level of traumatic stress for terrorism victims and present special challenges to victims and to the professionals charged with responding to them:

  • The realization that the act and the resulting emotional and physical devastation was an intentional act directed not at individuals but at the government.

  • The scope and extent of the physical and emotional damage to victims, the age of the victims, and the defenselessness of the victims.

  • The often extraordinary financial cost of the damage and losses associated with the crime.

  • The duration of the event, including the length of time it took to rescue the injured, to identify victims, and to recover and release victim remains, and the inability to recover the remains of some victims.

  • The extent of the intrusiveness of news coverage, especially the repetitive publication or broadcast of disturbing visual images.

  • Speculation about the perpetrators, motivations, and the capacity of official agencies to have prevented the act.

  • The involvement of the criminal justice system, especially when the process is significantly delayed, or is lengthy and convoluted, or when a trial is held in another region or country.

  • The difficulty in obtaining information about compensation, services, and the investigation in cases where the event occurred outside the boundaries of the United States and/or involve many victims from many different geographical locations.

  • The difficulty in identifying and taking into custody perpetrators, particularly in crimes that occur outside the United States.

  • The difficulty in finding victim services and mental health professionals with experience and expertise in dealing with the issues and needs related to terrorism victimization.

Like other victims of violent crime, victims of terrorism need help in handling the crisis created by the terrorist event, in stabilizing their lives, and in dealing with the criminal justice process, whether there are an arrest and a trial or an arrest and a trial are delayed for years. Because each victim's coping abilities and support systems are different and his or her loss is individual, the needs of individual victims may vary. A process should be in place to help victims assess their specific needs and find appropriate sources of help and support. Most victims will be able to function and stabilize after a period of time with moderate assistance, but a percentage of victims will continue to need assistance for years after the event.

Many people were involved in identifying the lessons learned in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing: the U.S. Attorneys' Offices for the Western District of Oklahoma and the District of Colorado, Project Heartland, Colorado Oklahoma Resource Council, Critical Incident Workshop Group, Inc., and the Oklahoma State Crime Victim Compensation Program. The experiences and lessons learned from the Oklahoma City bombing were echoed in the responses to the terrorism cases that have occurred since 1995. The lessons learned along the way were taught by victims, victim advocates, criminal justice professionals, mental health professionals, clergy, the media, and outside observers and include the following:

  1. An effective response to victims of terrorism is dependent upon prior planning and coordination. Understanding the needs of victims, clarifying the roles of responders, and building trust among responding agencies are essential to developing and implementing workable and effective interventions with victims.

  2. The victim population must be broadly defined to include not only the primary victims and their families, but also first responders and rescue workers, law enforcement, clergy, victim assistance personnel, and others who are exposed to traumatized victims.

  3. Identifying, setting aside, and effectively managing resources are key to providing a comprehensive response. Encouraging cooperative efforts between the public and private sector can maximize resources, leverage expertise, and build a stronger sense of community support.

  4. State and federal laws mandate that certain rights and services be afforded to victims. Agencies and individuals charged with responding to terrorism must be familiar with what the law requires.

  5. Victims of terrorism are considered victims of a federal crime, but there may be many different agencies at different levels of government involved in the response. Coordination among federal, state, and local agencies is critical to effectively addressing the needs of victims of terrorism.

  6. Victims must be identified quickly and given access to information and services.

  7. Services and support must be victim sensitive and easily accessible.

  8. Cases involving large numbers of victims require special measures to ensure that adequate information and support to all victims is provided in a timely and effective manner. Creative application of existing technology, such as Web sites, may help overcome challenges presented by large numbers of victims who are scattered geographically.

  9. The impact of terrorism is not limited to physical injury and property damage. Consideration and resources must be given to the emotional and psychological impact of terrorism, and decisions must be made early in the process regarding the delivery of appropriate mental health services to victims and responders, e.g., who is responsible for funding, for how long, and what should be the qualifications of those providing the services.

  10. Victim notification about and participation in the criminal justice process is an important aspect of how many victims come to terms with the criminal event.

The above lessons form the basis for the following policy recommendations made to help improve future responses to acts of terrorism. A more prepared response to terrorism will provide for the needs of victims not only in the immediate aftermath of the crime but also during the judicial process and following the final case disposition.

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Responding to Terrorism Victims: Oklahoma City and Beyond October 2000