The evening of Wednesday December 2nd, I was in my Brooklyn kitchen helping my son with his homework. NPR was on, and news was unfolding about an active shooting incident in San Bernardino, CA, where it was still daytime. The phone rang, and it was a dear friend Sonya Stokes who is completing medical school in San Bernardino.
Sonya was working that day in the hospital emergency room. All the senior residents had been called in but they had no idea what was going on because they didn’t have internet access in the hospital. Sonya asked me to keep track of the news and keep her posted by text message. It was the beginning of a very long afternoon and night for Sonya and her colleagues. As we all know now, the massacre that day took the lives of fourteen people, and injured at least as many more.
Sonya’s family is Indian Hindu, although she herself isn’t religious. I first met Sonya in 2002 when she was a bright-eyed undergraduate at Barnard College. She has volunteered for Women for Afghan Women since then. I have traveled twice to Afghanistan with Sonya, and she has traveled there several times without me, always to serve the cause of women’s rights and to do research as part of her medical studies. When Sonya and I talk of “the front lines,” we usually refer to our work in Women for Afghan Women, whose work is to build human rights facilities, programs, laws and machinery in absolute defiance of the Taliban and other Islamic extremist forces in Afghanistan. On December 2nd, Sonya served on the same front line against Islamic extremism – since we now know that the San Bernardino shooters were radicalized Muslims – but here in the United States.
Sonya spoke with me [Women for Afghan Women co-founder Sunita Viswanath] about what it was like to be on the front lines of this horrific attack.
Sunita Viswanath (SV): What is your official role at the hospital?
Sonia Stokes (SS) : Officially I am a PGY-3 (post-graduate year 3), but usually we are referred to as senior residents, or just ER physician (no longer a medical student!).
SV: What work did you do on December 2nd specifically? What was the mood in the hospital?
SS: I was working in the ER that day. I can’t say what I was doing specifically since it would violate patient protected information (HIPPA).
SV: You were inspired by the team at the hospital. Can you say a bit about what inspired you?
SS: Every day I am impressed and humbled by the talent and dedication of my colleagues, but that day I was particularly amazed by their selfless attitude and emphasis on teamwork. Hospital staff from every department volunteered to stay and help with patient care in all capacities. Within minutes the entire Emergency Department was able to mobilize our Mass Casualty Incident protocols, something for which we practice drills on a regular basis. I think this is what made us exceptionally effective in dealing with the events that day.
SV: Is there one example of an individual or a group who went above and beyond the call of duty, showed great bravery or compassion last night?
SS: There are so many, but I can’t mention any names or even what they did specifically because of HIPPA.
SV: You are Hindu by birth and culture. In what ways do you see this part of your identity influencing the work you do and the way you live?
SS: My family is Hindu, the community where I grew up is Christian, and I’ve volunteered and worked in Islamic countries. Honestly, I can’t tell which one if any religion has influenced me more. I was not raised with religion; growing up we were a very science-oriented household, but I respect the beliefs of the people I love. It is like a language I don’t understand, and I don’t want anyone to be silenced because of my lack of understanding. I treat my colleagues and patients with the same respect. I hope this makes me a better communicator and eventually a better physician.
I remember when I was younger being taught that Hinduism’s strength stemmed from its flexibility. It has endured the import and even genesis of new religions not by force or subjugation but rather through adaptation. Different belief structures are not necessarily seen as antagonistic; gods from other religions could be viewed as avatars of Hindu gods. I’m sure there are many sides to this argument, but the general attitude has stuck with me even though I myself do not practice any one religion.
SV: The FBI is still determining the motivation of the San Bernardino assassins, but we do know they were radicalized Muslims. You have also been a long-time volunteer for Women for Afghan Women, a group which is building a movement for human rights in spite of Muslim extremists including the Taliban gaining strength in Afghanistan. What is your view about the way people motivated by religious extremism are tearing the world apart?
SS: I see extremism in all its forms as a confounding bias. I’m analogizing a term used in medical research where the data appears to demonstrate a causal relationship between two groups; however, the actual cause is due to a separate variable, a confounding factor. A famous example is the study of coffee and heart disease. Researches identified a link where drinking coffee seemingly increased the chances of developing heart disease. But the confounding factor was cigarette smoking; the coffee drinkers in the study also happened to be smokers, which the researchers initially didn’t take into account. So coffee wasn’t causing heart disease but rather cigarette smoking. The confounding bias of the researchers made it difficult to identify the underlying cause. This is the way I view religious extremism and acts of terror. Our immediate confounding bias is to blame religion itself, but I do not believe Islam is the cause of violence. Religious extremism itself is probably a symptom rather than a disease. The confounding factor, the underlying cause is something far more complex. To discover what it is and how to solve the problem, we need to take a step back and examine the patterns and aberrations over time. To use any one incident, however horrific and devastating, as anecdotal evidence in any argument is spurious at best. At worst, it can perpetuate the violence and hatred we’re trying to avoid. There are people who are much smarter than me who have said as much with far more eloquence; hopefully they have the solutions!
SV: What would your message be to a person in San Bernardino whose response to this latest massacre is to blame Islam?
SS: First of all, I have to say I am grateful for feeling so welcome in this community. San Bernardino is a wonderfully diverse although economically barren county, and my experience is that people tend to be very tolerant of one another. I have not come across many people who would attribute the events on December 2nd to Islam. For anyone who would, I might ask that person to consider the high rate of gun violence we experience everyday in San Bernardino and the many factors that have lead to this: the large number of people living below the poverty line, an overcrowded and underfunded school system, the overwhelming rate of addiction, just to name a few. I would also ask this person to remember how hurtful and isolating it can feel when people from outside the community point fingers blaming culture and ethnicity. It feels terrible. We cannot let gun violence be limited to a conversation about race because it tears people apart and further damages the community. Similarly, we cannot let what happened on December 2nd to be reduced to an argument over religion or else we run the risk of destroying ourselves more effectively than any single act of terror and violence.
SV: What gives you hope?
SS: Shifting focus to see the strength and beauty in the ones I love teaches me how to be beautiful and strong myself. I can make it through anything as long as I don’t lose sight of that.
By Sunita Viswanath, WAW Co-founder and Board Chair