tv Joe Holley Sutherland Springs CSPAN February 6, 2021 11:10am-12:01pm EST
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director of princeton university center on contemporary china. watch book tv this weekend on c-span2. ♪♪ >> hello, everyone and welcome to the texas book festival panel. i am the moderator and immigration reporter and i also cover the november 5 mass shooting incident which is what we are about to talk about. you have with me a former washington post reporter and finalist for his editorial on gun culture, and tragedies. we are here because he wrote a new book. and it, he gets incredibly close
details about the mass shooting that happened in the community and go through and get to know the people and we learn more about the culture and how they recovered in the months after the tragedy. welcome. >> nice to see you again. tell everybody you and i had more in church then we could have imagined because i guess you would say the aftermath of that horrible tragedy that those people who are now friends and acquaintances experience. we got to know each other well working through. she and her photographer has done a superb work. i came away admiring them both.
>> that's really nice. there is big media right after the shooting happened but stuck around and we got to dive in on a more human level and a closer perspective than most media outlets that flew in and flew out. i respect her for choosing this community. they have had to move on. >> that's what we do. >> yeah. i want to ask a basic question, why did you want to write this book about this community this topic? this is something you're doing outside of your work and it's not something that's going to necessarily be, it's not the
happiest public. it's really dark stuff you chose to focus on it. >> yes, recalling how this all happened, on that sunday, i was at the texas book festival signing books. there were all line of people and my daughter was in the line. when she said hey dad, did you hear about the shooting? i have not she said i did get the name of the town but she said it might have been close to the virginia. when my book signing session was over i got in the car and headed back to houston turned on the radio and heard about this unfolding, horrible event a
little town. the more i listened, the more i realized that i need to go find out what this is all about. so i turned down 35 circled around and until you and ended up after dark in this little town that i had never heard of. i had never heard of sullivan springs. like you, there i was and i realized i needed to write this because it contained what i had dealt with much of my career. i write about small towns. i was writing frequently about guns and gun culture and i had grown up in a fundamental household so those people were
in essence, my people. i knew them. >> how would you describe it? >> the reason i have not heard of sutherland springs, is not officially a town. it's been there a long time that has interesting history but it's a town where if there is one flashing yellow light its highway 87 between san antonio and victoria, people pass on through and they don't stop. they are so downtown, the church
is sort of at the heart of what communities there did in sutherland springs. all of the members of the first baptist church there to live in the community. they come from the surrounding areas and then they go there separate ways. this particular church, they are like an extended family. not only worship sundays, the get together sunday evenings, tuesday evenings and wednesday evenings and thursday bible studies and eat together, they are a community. >> the church is so pregnant. that made covering the tragedy even more devastating seeing all the connections. >> you learn pretty quick, you're probably talking to a relative of the person you
talked to earlier. >> did you, you said you grew up in a similar culture but what are things hadn't considered or looking at the community similar to going up from the outside, what do you learn about, was there anything that struck you? for me, there is a lot i learned about that way of life. >> i grew up in a fundamentalist immunity which means pretty much that the bible their guide in life they take it fundamentally, literally. what the bible says is what they believe in and that's how they direct their life. they are deeply dedicated
fundamentalist christian. everything about their life, they tried to find either a parallel guidance in the bible that think it was even more, i'm not sure this word is correct but it was intense. even more than growing up in a church community similar to the baptist church. the other thing that i was not expecting, i was surprised at how accepting they were of this horrific thing that happened in was not expecting, i was expecting them to be enraged or in despair are committed to working to change the gun law
but that's not what i saw. >> i think a lot of people maybe think tragedy like that would change your views or propel them to rest and their belief in god. why would god do something like this? anything, it strengthened that belief in their favor was part of recovery for them. >> go ahead. >> are just going to say, for the people listening, maybe explain what exactly happened november 52017 before we talk about how they recovered from it. >> the time of the shooting, it was small congregation, maybe 50 or so people and on that morning
november 5, 2017 to 50 people gathered for their sunday morning worship and as he began service that morning, gunshots began to go through the flimsy wooden walls of this little church. he didn't know what it was or where it was coming from until people started getting it a few minutes later, the shooting pain to the outside, walked down the aisle and sprayed bullets right and left. a chilling 26 of the 50 or so people gathered that morning and wounded many others before he walked out. it was the largest mass shooting in texas at the time.
>> during church service, talking about faith and recovery happened while they were practicing so while you were going about writing this story, what was your process for writing it? how did you engage. >> the purpose of the book, the underscoring of this book is that you can write about the tragedy, what happened that day, which you did and i did, reporters around the world did, what i wanted to do is explore the fact that what happens that morning doesn't go away.
the pain, emotional and mental and physical radiates outward, when you throw a rock into a pool except radiated, it does go away. we go to the next one but they are still there. there was this community there was left to cope with this experience. to do that, i had to get to know them as people, as you did. not just as statistics, the 26 who died, 20 or so wounded that i had to get to know david stephen and all those people. still difficult to take your
notebook, walk up to somebody and say what you tell me about what happened that sunday morning fortunately, they were gracious people most of them were willing to talk about it but is hard. >> i felt like this was a community that was not friendly to media and especially after the tragedy when national outlets descended on this town and "afterwards", especially when they are in their life, it can be hard to gain their trust so what did it do that you think made the community members open up to you and willing to talk about such difficult subjects for them, especially after it happened?
>> imagine this little town, it's taken a calm conglomeration and suddenly, there are trucks and ambulances and police cars, reporters, a mob of people who descended on the town. >> i remember that day. my editor asked, what sense of the town are you getting? i was like, i couldn't see through the media. i have no sense of it because they were just satellite trucks and cameras and reporters like me coming in knocking on doors, too. i couldn't even grasp it. >> they were overwhelmed not only by what happened that morning but overwhelmed by us i understand why we have to do it, you see movies where there's this mob of reporters on the
courthouse steps and here comes the mob descending with the district attorney or politician or whatever it is, we try not to be that yet, when there is a mob so i started driving their sunday, i tried to be easy with them. for the first couple of weeks, i didn't have my notebook, i just introduced myself and explained what i was doing. i didn't want them to think i was descending on them. and, a wonderful investigative reporter she was telling me one time she did this story like i
am right now, she had the time to do the story, she just goes in for as long as she can until they are comfortable with her. after we had them in the congregation got to talk about people. he was sort of an unofficial blacklist. reporters who had been to persistent had gotten things wrong and hadn't corrected it or just felt they didn't trust, they just talked to the reporters. they just had joe, it's nothing personal, it's just the way it is. it took a while for me to be comfortable with them and i
think for them to be comparable with me. >> i think that showed up for so much longer "afterwards". >> most reporters don't have that luxury and i was on my own and i. >> you wrote a lot about gun laws and one culture and what that was so i am wondering if you are surprised or not, and what you took away from the fact that in that county after the shooting, there was an increase in application for security and the church brought in active shooter simulations and were actively trying to arm themselves.
>> i was surprised initially because i thought people who had experienced mass shootings would somehow want to change the law. i was naïve and despite my background, i was naïve. i didn't realize the depth of their devotion for a lack of better word, to the ground. almost everybody in the conversation were gun owners, a more air comes to church and he were a pistol on his first, it is concerning, preaching with a gun on his hip. you look around you and many in the conversation congregation were also wearing a gun on their hit so they pointed out to me,
he became known as the hero because accidentally, had it not been for him not only be armed but familiar with guns, the shooter that morning would have killed everybody else so it took a while for me to get used to that culture. >> interesting to see the gunshots and they ran out and basically had a shootout with the gunman. he became a big nra spokesman for that because of this. >> it was amazing and as you
know, he was a member of the church but he lived across the road and he was sleeping in that morning because he had to go to work at a hospital in san antonio where he was the in-house floor. his daughter who lived with her parents heard the sound, to because she's been around guns whole life. she mentioned something to her dad who got up and put on a pair of jeans and went out and basically confronted the shooter and came out of the building to load. >> i spoke to gun control advocates, i think there is common ground when it comes to encouraging lobes to be well trained and he had his gun in
block and those are all things that not every gun owner practiced or had, training. i've always thought maybe that was common ground. >> six or seven years old, he knows them well. nra certified, having written about guns myself, i wanted to make sure i got my information write about guns because gun owners can get impatient with reporters who don't know what they are talking about. i went to his house one day and asked for a tour tutorial about
guns. he had arsenal in his house but they are under lock and key. i stayed in the living room and he would go back and come out guns and he showed it to me and would explain what it did and what came from and what it was used for. he was extremely careful about his guns. after the shooting, he was not only a hero at the nra convention, but he also became the churches around the country, how they can protect themselves. >> i wanted which back to talking about it, the role of faith in the community.
the aftermath and recovery process. the church congregation grew immensely after the shooting and the worship band group with a lot of them, family members of the church and those who passed away, those who decided to join the worship band and stuff like that, his parents were killed in the tragedy so what role and how important was faith and why? why does not become an important part of their recovery? >> i think very few people who left because they couldn't bear to go back into the building, but most stayed. all who stayed, credited their
belief to get them through something that was just unimaginable. when i first started talking to people about their faith and how he sustained them, i felt they were just talking to the reporter and telling him what they want to know and then falling away the better i got to know them, the more i realized that there belief them going. i had trouble understanding. i would have expected them to be angry with god, the shooter for sure to be depressed or whatever and i know they have gone through depression and anger and get, it didn't cause them question their belief.
i think it also had trouble with the idea they would often express either allowed this to happen or as pastor would say, this event teenage daughter, couldn't deal with that and get i had to accept the sincerity and depth of the belief. >> i found that their faith was strengthened and it seems like god is this nonphysical thing, he can't be taken away from you. can't be there one minute and then the next leave you feeling like that. god is this thing that can be
loved and will never go away. always said it was part of god's plan which is sort of yuriy to think about. it's comfort to them thinking something bigger than we can understand but it's still under control. >> i had trouble understanding but i also remember as you do in the immediate aftermath, other churches and counseling services, psychologists and therapists made themselves available. the base of those people in the congregation are what kept them alive. not only did it help them survive the immediate aftermath of the shooting but kept them
alive in the dark in the months to follow when they wake up in the middle of the night, in a panic about what happened. somebody was in that room and ready to shoot again where they would wake up and remember she was there but she's not anymore. their faith kept them going. >> was hard you to wear them we tell these stories of trauma experienced intimate details of the shooting. >> it was hard to ask the questions and it was hard to listen. go to church and and i am thinking what i heard that
morning, cables or i would go eat lunch with them and hear the stories. i would drive home thinking about what i heard and repeat to my wife. >> i struggled with that in the months "afterwards", just hearing these horror stories going to the funerals and it's nothing compared to what they are going through but -- >> as a reporter, trying to write the book, we had to make a decision about how much we want to focus on the grisly details. that was only part of the story.
i wanted people to understand what they experienced what i didn't want that to be the focal points. >> what did you want your book. >> , odessa and las vegas all these places around the country, these are communities that have been affected by mass shootings should never have happened in affected not just at that moment but they will be effective for the rest of their life and we need to be aware of that and do everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen. >> i think it's time for him
questions. let's see what we've got. have a question about here. the more about communities of faith and does this experience challenged any aspects of your faith? >> i just had trouble understanding. i mentioned i had trouble accepting the fact that they truly did believe deeply as they relate to me. the former head jewish at ut, he reminded holocaust survivors often they could not imagine worshiping god allowed something
like what happened. i would have expected something to be in the community and it didn't. >> one audience member except cleanup flyers and experience nature of the residence, for the audience members. >> i think that is part of the therapy and elsewhere employ and also, if the person who's been through the trauma can talk to someone else who also gets through the trauma is even more
beneficial. >> it's a fine line, we are not there therapist but for some, they do want to talk and it feels better to do that. a question for both of us, as journalists, how do you focus mental health when you have to tell stories like this? [laughter] probably is a valid concern, the work that i'm doing, i will run or listen to music or talk to my kids or just get away from it not always easy to do.
>> i think about a month after the shooting, i was going to the funerals, nearly every day, i remember getting up in my heart racing like it was still in that boat, this is that story, things are changing quickly and it was, i was still kind of in shock mode because i had been there that first day where i had spoken to someone, he had to pull the bodies from the church and getting the care package and it was because they had to cover the mass shooting they were sending a care package and we know what you've been through, be brave, be strong and there was plato and i was so touched
by that. i realized how much something as simple as that, i understand what the journalists are going through. had a chance to process that i was going through something and i'll never forget that i need a facebook group called reporters facing trauma. there was an idea of connecting with others journalists covering mass shootings. >> i'm glad that question came up because i hadn't really thought about it. there in these situations, we are temporarily part of the community. yet, we are onlookers. we can't help but be affected by what we learned.
>> it makes me more scared of mass shootings and i am quicker to think i'll be afraid that's happening -- sorry? >> being in crowds, is that what you are talking about? >> yes, mostly in crowds i noticed my lines goes to. i've spent time around people who have gone through that. official understanding of what it looks like, it happened and how it feels. the fear is closer to me. it becomes having a support group there's movement in recent years i think to acknowledge the trauma that journalists go through. >> they have experienced.
>> yes. why do you believe stories of this kind of tragedy are important to tell? >> unfortunately, it continues and i think have to share in the experience, trying to figure out ways of preventing this from happening again. same thing from earlier, we need to remove these people whether they lost family members are not. human beings, we need to share in their journey. >> i would use that as an explanation, i was trying to talk to them, that is their mission. we want others to understand what they are going to and do something to help others or help
prevent some. >> i am not sure how to say this but you start getting to know people, asking questions, finding out about the lives and then telling the story as a journalist, as a writer, you realize these are interesting people. anybody you talk to has an interesting story to tell but if you can get it on paper and share with readers, it is worth knowing about. >> reading your readers with those people. we have to questions that are similar. someone wants to know what the motive was of the gunman and if they made adjustments to the procedures talk about the gunman in the motive and what came of
that. >> the government was 26 years old. the gunman was 26, had trouble when he went off to the airport and had even more trouble in the air force, came back to the area, married a young woman who had family at the church and as best we can tell, had some problem with his wife's family and came to the church to do away with the family. he realized the church being as close as was killed everybody.
>> are there any. >> talk about the. >> okay. >> go ahead and then we can talk about the air force. >> you are saying for me to talk about it? no -- >> there were warning signs throughout his air force career that he was from the violence and the air force did not report incidents that would have kept him from acquiring a weapon after he got out of the service. as i understand, the deflation by other procedures air force and others had been instituted to make sure happen again.
>> you have any suggestions for helping students who have expressed experienced a shooting? >> they approached it in different ways, identify potential problems, something popped into my mind. you know in sutherland springs, a teacher and also the local historian, at one time, she knew her students so well that she
recognizes something not quite right, she felt she said you need to check on your daughter, your son. i'm not quite sure what i'm saying beyond the fact that we can still have to be aware with teachers parents, of problems, a young person aware of what we. >> there were a lot of them would just look to the facts and never got addressed and that speaks to mental health services, to and the lack of people. it's a lot more now.
we have three minutes. let's see. okay, one audience member says after a mass shooting in scotland where he lives, all guns were banned. he wants to know if there will be a time when gun control will be acceptable. what else would they do to prevent this? >> i have a daughter who lives in a small town near cambridge and her kids have the run of the town. some kind of mass shooting erupting in england because guns are not part of the culture england or new england or canada or japan or countries around the world. there's something about it that
we need to deal with. the only hope i have that we will engage in this problem is our culture and also becomes more urbanized guns are not an intrinsic part of the culture whether we can deal with the problem of mass shootings legislatively and culturally maybe we will get. >> what you think are the next. >> that is hard to say. we're not at that time where guns are not part of the culture, for example, laws that make it possible for citizens to
own military style weapons. controversial in this way. >> if somebody in the congregation were armed. >> none of them were there that morning. pastor frank was in oklahoma city, qualified for rival shooting, one of the elders who always wears a gun coming to church and passed a garage sale and saw hog hatches being offered. others weren't there that morning. the armed person was across the road. >> you think it would have changed the outcome if folks were armed with their handgun?
>> i have trouble imagining that because it would have overwhelmed anybody in the congregation. >> all right, last question. what the next book? what are you working on now? [laughter] >> i'm looking for a book that's happier. [laughter] one thing the novel based on 1897 in a little town called aurora, unidentified flying object crashed into a windmill and burned. [laughter]
>> thank you so much for your time. i have to say, it was a real pleasure getting to know you and reading the book you created. i obviously got close soon to see someone dedicate that kind of time.two people that i got to know well, it's great to see so i am thankful for that. >> there is more to it than just that horrible sunday morning. >> yes, a story of people who recovered show resilience and commitment to be kind and do good even after the world was so unfair to them. all right, thank you so much for tuning in. i appreciate it. stay tuned and have a good
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investigation. book tv will continue to bring new programs of publishing news and watch all past programs anytime online at the booktv.org. c-span2's book tv now, more television for serious readers. ... all of you he is the professor of asian studies, political science and international affairs and director of the china sea policy program in the school here at george washington university in washington, dc. he earned his ph.d from the university of michigan on the