Editor’s Note: New Orleanian Kerry Cahill is an educator and professional actress whose life in public was completely transformed when her father, 62-year-old physician’s assistant Michael Cahill, was the only civilian among the 13 murdered in the Fort Hood mass shooting back in 2009. Cahill, whose screen credits include such films as “Now You See Me,” “Oldboy,” TV’s “Common Law” and the upcoming “Free State of Jones,” was featured in Greg Barker’s documentary “Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma” — which began airing on HBO this past February. In the aftermath of the Pulse Orlando shooting, I asked Cahill if she would reflect on her experiences and how if at all these recent shooting resonates with her.
I will introduce myself. My name is Kerry Cahill, I’m an actress and a teacher and a 16-year resident of New Orleans. My father was murdered at Fort Hood Army Base on Nov. 5, 2009. It was a domestic terrorist attack. “Domestic terrorism” means activities that A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended — to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion. Also: It means it’s at home, and the attack comes from home; meaning the terrorist is from your country. It also means the attack may not always be violent.
So this definition includes the Westboro Baptist Church, the Charleston, S.C. shooter, the Oak Creek shooter, the Orlando shooter, and the Lafayette shooter. I make sure we realize this because I’m pointing out that we have a very large problem in America that is beyond Islamic extremism. Domestic terrorism doesn’t discriminate; domestic terrorists will target any group they don’t like: soldiers, homosexuals, women, religious groups and African Americans.
Now that the definition of domestic terrorism is clear, let’s move on. We are a country in grief and we have been in grief for a very long time. I don’t know anyone that has not been affected by gun violence, and I know quite a few people all across the nation. I travel a lot, and I moved a lot as a child. I’m willing to bet you, the reader, know at least five people affected by gun violence. So it is safe to say that we have a violence problem in America and people are using guns most of the time to enact this violence.
I’m not sure how to say this next part without it sounding mean, but it’s important that you realize this. You are probably not going to be a hero if this ever happens to you. I say this because I think the human condition requires us to have a sense of certainty and control over our lives to feel safe. Mass shootings and gun violence are obviously uncertain. No one I have ever met runs faster than a bullet. There is no negotiating. So if you are in a movie theater, club or a well-lit mall, and you have a gun and you are not a special forces or SWAT-team-trained individual, the first thing you will do when the shooting starts is freeze for about three seconds. Three short seconds. About five bullets. It’s not on purpose, it’s not because you don’t care; it’s because your body is in shock. If you have not already been shot now you are catching up and there is chaos, people are running, screaming, the gunman is still shooting, and you are shaking. Now pick that gun up and miss all the other people and make a kill shot in three seconds while the shooter is moving around. Do it! Come on! What’s wrong with you?
(Learn more: Read CNN article on Michael Cahill)
At the Soldier Readiness Processing Center on Fort Hood Army Base there were many heroes; charging the shooter, warning people and saving lives. Most of the people there that day were trained soldiers and first responders; uniquely able to respond to an attack. My father was one of the people who charged the shooter. Let’s explain him a bit: 62 years old, more than 20 years in the Army, and grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Spokane, Wash.. He was also in a cubicle when it started, so frankly that gave him two or three split seconds to start running. He was a hero everyday, too. He stood up for people all the time, fought for his patients, and never backed down. It was a habit with him to fight; to charge the bad guy was an extension of that. I urge you to look at your daily habits, because that’s what comes out when a trauma happens.
I still miss my dad, I fight for veterans to further his mission, I tell stories about him, I emulate him, and I …. I cry, more often than I will admit. I cry when something great happens, when something bad happens, I pick up my phone and call his voicemail; we still have his phone on. I’m missing a piece of me. I’m never getting it back, and I am just one of the thousands upon thousands affected. I can tell you there are wounded from the Fort Hood shooting still getting treatment from their wounds, bullets lodged in their bodies, severed nerves, brain surgery after brain surgery, and more.
I can tell you that the phrase “That must have been hard.” is haunting. Why is it past tense? Do people think that mass shootings, trauma, terrorist attacks suddenly go away? I’m getting better at moving through life with this suitcase of trauma, but movie theaters make me nervous, as do buildings with one exit, and lone men who look a little too quiet or angry because 99 percent of mass shooters are lone men who are a little too quiet or angry.
I say all this because you might think about this when a mass shooting is near your home or your city, but for me it’s a computer tab in my brain that is always open. I am not saying I never laugh or smile or feel joy. I do. I just need you, the reader, to understand that I’m laughing through some pretty thick scar tissue, and, unfortunately, there are more and more people like me every day. That is the bigger problem. I wish I was unique. I don’t want you or my future children to feel this way.
Thank you for reading this. I know this isn’t easy. This does not mean I don’t think you should have a gun. I know people who evacuated to safety during Katrina because they had guns to keep them safe. I own a gun, as do most of my friends, and guns are what eventually took down my father’s shooter. Let me be clear: I do not think all guns should be banned. I’m just pointing out that in a couple weeks before the next shooting, we will sit back down and forget that we still need to fix this problem. We will sit back down into our “It would be different for me” world. Because we have to. We have to so we can leave the house and smile.
So here is what I’m asking you to do: Acknowledge some facts, be honest with yourself, be honest about our current politicians and continue to argue, debate and struggle through to find some solutions. I for one tend to wonder why we don’t treat guns like cars. The bigger the car the more you have to do to get a license. I don’t see this as a major issue. Terrorists and future mass shooters are buying the same guns you are, training with the same people. (My father’s shooter trained with good old-fashioned Texas gun lovers.)
But my real point here is that we can’t stop in two weeks; we have to focus on multiple policies at a time as well. If you think one sweeping policy will fix this — like banning immigration or banning assault rifles — you’re wrong. There are more guns in America than people, and almost all the mass shooters over the past 20 years were born and raised in the USA. These are facts. I don’t like them either, but they are true. Google them. Most mass shootings are domestic violence, as well. So we, including our congressional members and U.S. senators, have to now use the same tactic the founding forefathers used when they wrote the Constitution. We have to sit in rooms and argue, debate, listen, yell, state facts and believe the facts, and come up with policies for background checks that can help, as well as access to mental health, domestic-violence policy changes, funding for metal detectors possibly, hotlines for people worried that they know someone who needs a mental-health assessment, more training required if you want to own a certain type of gun that can kill 50 people in a short amount of time, etc., etc. … I put the “etcetera” there on purpose because I don’t know the answer, either.
I do know that I will probably not make it out of a mass shooting alive. I won’t win against an AR-15 or a Glock 45. I won’t, and that’s OK. I never want to have to fight one again, I already got lucky once: I was robbed at gunpoint and made it out alive. And if you think you’re tired of the violence, imagine how the 13-year-old in my school who lost her 3-year-old sister to a drive-by shooting feels. Imagine how I feel, imagine how a 9/11 survivor feels, imagine how a president who has had to hug more than 100 victims’ family members feels. So don’t get tired — get mad, get energetic, and don’t stop because I’m never moving out of the USA. I will stay and make it better. I hope you do, too.