Managing The Victim Dimension Of Large-Scale Disasters, Part 3

In order to effectively reduce the production of victims, all early response thinking and action must take into account what causes victimization in the first place and end the production of victims as early as possible.


This is the third article in a multi-part series on "victim management" in the wake of large-scale disasters and crises. Additional articles in the series can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4.

Crises And Disasters Create Many Kinds Of Victims
Almost every postmortem on crisis communication failure and management decision-making deficiencies identifies the failure to promptly address victims as the emotionally negative energizing force that causes trust to break down. Bad news of any consequence is about victims and victimization, or the potential for both.

When the emotionality of victimization meets the rational decision-making regimentation of management, there will almost always be casualties in top management. In every recent high-profile disaster and crisis, one expected casualty among the responders is the person on whose watch the bungled disaster response occurred.

Some Cannot Be Victims
Unless they are directly attacked or obviously adversely affected, corporations and large organizations, like government agencies, are almost never, from a public perspective, considered victims. Yes, Tylenol was a victim of a product tampering murderer in 1982 in Chicago and in 1986 in Westchester County, New York. Yes, the airlines whose planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center in 2001 were victims. The syringe tampering incidents in 1993 made Pepsi, an icon American brand, a victim for 7 days. The government building bombed in Oklahoma City in 1996 was also a victim. Yes, there are circumstances — although very few in number — where one could genuinely consider a large organization and its leadership to be victims.

Generally speaking, however, it is more likely that large organizations that cause or fumble the response to a disaster will be immediately viewed as perpetrators, or at least as having culpability in the creation of victims. In these situations, it is equally true, but perhaps not as intuitively apparent, that some employees are victims in every scenario. If the response of the organization is to stumble, mumble, fumble, and bumble, any opportunity for the perpetrator to be perceived as a victim is lost.

While civil engineers may actually be on the periphery of the victim response, they are trusted advisers to those who do or direct the responding. Understanding the victim dimension helps advisers keep those at the center of the response focused on what needs to be done and on reducing the production of future victims. Management advisers, like attorneys and other professionals, need to recognize the crucial and important realities of the victim dimension and be prepared to coach management for victim response readiness and for the important humane behaviors required as disasters unfold.

Who Can Be a Victim?
There are three kinds of victims: people, animals, and living systems. Living systems are things like estuaries, deserts, jungles, rain forests, river valleys, and someone's own backyard. The fact is, you can blow something up, burn something down, or otherwise destroy something, but so long as no one is injured or killed, no animals are injured or killed, and no one's living system is harmed, the situation may be bad news, but it is not a crisis. Instead, it could be a disaster or simply a bad day or problem for someone's schedule, budget, reputation, or career. All crises are problems, but very few problems are crises.

Causes Of Victimization
In the list of causes of victimization in the table below, it's a little surprising to note that the vast majority of causes of victimization are communications related. Only three items on this list are physical in nature: abuse, assault, and bullying. And most bullying is verbal in nature. Keep in mind that all of the areas come into play as a disaster (or crisis) unfolds over a period of time. In order to effectively reduce the production of victims, all early response thinking and action must take into account what causes victimization in the first place and end the production of victims as early as possible. In 2011, the British Petroleum oil leak, which occurred more than 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, took more than 100 days to stop. That's more than 100 days of victim production.

Causes of Victimization
Abuse Commission Dismissiveness Negligence
Arrogance Confrontation Disparagement Omission
Assault Contention Embarrassment Sarcasm
Bullying Deception Fear Shame
Callousness Discrediting Lies Surprise

What Does It Mean To Be A Victim?
Victimhood is a self-designated state. Whether there are wounds, bullet holes, or any other visible or invisible damage, human beings have the capacity to choose to feel victimized. They can also choose to be victimized on behalf of other people, animals, or living systems.

I've worked with victims in many parts of the world, and all seem to have very similar behaviors. Most of those injured, whatever the cause, tend to get up off the ground, dust themselves off, and try to figure out how to get home, get the kids home from school, get dinner made, and get back to work or their regular lives the following day. In the context of this article, victims are those who act on their victimization. They locate an attorney, call a local news channel, or find or initiate a support group process to help them almost before they get up off the ground or once they get to a place of safety. Those who are truly victims, those acting on their victimization, are generally extremely small in number. It is a self-designated state.

One response I often hear is, "Wait a minute, Jim. Someone gets their leg crushed by some flying debris; they have a head injury and have difficulty remembering where they are and who they are. These are not victims?" The answer is, in this discussion, victims are those who act on their victimization, hire a lawyer, go to the media, begin or join an advocacy group, or take some action other than getting medical help in support of their injuries or other necessary help to correct their situation. Even in mass casualty situations, victimization is an individual circumstance. It's the trial lawyers who work to get these people into groups for the purpose of legal action, media response, or other kinds of attention. Even that's quite difficult to accomplish. Most victims desire simply to get on with it and get their life back on track.

Victimhood is self-sustaining. Being a victim is a self-perpetuating state. That is, it is up to the individual to choose how long he or she will remain in a situation or state of mind that makes him or her feel victimized. Insurance companies are usually the ones who drive trying to limit the length of time a person can be a victim. It's done by setting arbitrary standards; for example, a broken arm might be worth $500 and a day off work. The problem is that being a victim is much more complicated. For example, if the arm got broken by a coworker twisting it until it snapped, and the victim hid in her office for 4 1/2 hours out of fear before she sought help with her injury, this broken arm is likely to be much more than a $500 day off work. The circumstances of victimization are crucially important. Despite the pressure of insurance companies, corporate legal staffs, and outside counsel hired to contain and more promptly end the victim experience, victims get to be victims as long they feel victimized.

Victimhood is self-terminating. Victimhood ends or abates when the victims, largely by themselves, begin to come to terms with or let go of what is affecting them and get on with the rest of their lives. No matter how damaging an event, only a small number of individuals continue to act on their feelings and emotions of being victimized. Some may begin their recovery by blaming others for their feelings of helplessness, demoralization, frustration, or betrayal. Most injured or wounded just suck it up and deal with it.

Victims suffer alone. Even though there may be mass casualty circumstances in which many are injured or wounded at the same time, each person suffers alone. Even the phrase "mass casualties" is a serious, sometimes devastating mischaracterization. Every person suffers differently, experiences pain differently, and needs to be treated individually. Bob VandePol, president of Crisis Care Network of Grandville, Michigan, and a global expert on critical incident response, said recently that current trauma research strongly emphasizes that "how people make sense of what happened to them and their experience of posttrauma symptoms is a strong predictor of their outcomes" (personal communication, March 14, 2012; see also "Crisis management: The critical human element" by Robert VandePol and Calvin E. Beyer in the September-October 2009 edition of CFMA Building Profits Magazine.

Too often, the victimization, the sense of frustration, and the sense of helplessness and being misunderstood persist because the perpetrators, the media, the bloviators and commentators, and sometimes society lump individual circumstances together into joint suffering too quickly. This is very frustrating to victims. Each victim suffers by himself or herself.

This series first appeared as an article in Leadership and Management in Engineering, a publication of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

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