Soon after the senseless tragedy in Tanana last week, I was the guest speaker at a victims' rights dinner. The people in that room were all dedicated in one way or another to ensuring that victims of crime were not again victimized by the criminal justice system. This concept is one that most people take for granted nowadays. But it was only 30 years ago that people started to acknowledge the needs of victims. Until then, the justice system dealt only with the criminal. The victims were there to testify at trial perhaps, but beyond that they were simply expected to go home and get over it.
The problem was, and continues to be, that you don't simply get over it. Something as simple as going to your car and finding the window smashed in or the car stolen can leave you feeling angry, frustrated and, most frighteningly, vulnerable. Now imagine if that crime were physical or sexual assault or murder. How much more vulnerable and frightening is that?
If you are the family of the victim, you too are a victim. When someone rips the fabric of your life to shreds by violently ripping a piece of your family from your circle of love, you have been violated in a way so deep and personal that many people are never ever able to express how angry they are. They fear allowing that anger to bubble up because it might make them explode.
One of the greatest tragedies that often follows acts of violence are subsequent senseless acts of violence on the part of victims who feel they have no other way to express their overwhelming sadness and rage. These are the people who turn to drinking, drugs, suicide or personal revenge to quell the anger that dwells inside them.
At this dinner, awards were presented to a variety of organizations and people who have dedicated themselves to helping victims ease the passage back to some sort of normalcy in life. They spend their days counseling, comforting and helping family members find their way through an often confusing justice system that can delay trials for so long that some families feel as though justice never will be theirs.
The families of Brooke McPheters and Jordyn Durr were there. They're the girls killed by a drunken driver as they walked home from shopping for school clothes. The chaplains who helped ease these families along the path of grief and acceptance were also there. These families now reach out to help others cope with the unbearable tragedy that became their burden when some drunk got behind the wheel of his truck and did the unthinkable. I can't imagine the courage needed to be able to reach out and help others heal after that.
We humans are a resilient species. More than that, we are ultimately a kind and caring species. When others hurt, we want to comfort. The people in our midst who perform horrible acts are the exceptions. The majority of us rush to help, not harm, our family, friends and neighbors.
The families of Alaska State Troopers Gabriel "Gabe" Rich and Sgt. Patrick "Scott" Johnson will never be the same after their tragic deaths. That they died doing a job in which they both passionately believed is little comfort when measured against the hole they leave in their families' lives. Their children will grow up knowing their father was a hero but never knowing his loving pride as they achieve each milestone on the road to adulthood. Their wives will feel the emptiness in their beds and their arms every night for who knows how long, because no one can put a stopwatch on grief.
Thirty years ago these families would have had support from the brotherhood that is our law enforcement community. But they would not have had much more. Now, these families will have support, counseling, legal advice and anything else they need to get from today to tomorrow through the victim's rights groups.
It doesn't bring your loved ones back and it doesn't make the horror of what has happened ever fully go away. But thanks to the multiple groups that contribute to helping victims get through the worst time of their lives, at least we no longer re-victimize the victim with a system that does not recognize their needs and their rights. And that's a start.
Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.
commentBy ELISE PATKOTAK