Skeptigun: The illusion of a community

Editor’s note: Two of the names in this story have been changed for the privacy of the individuals involved. Their names are marked with a *.

I had looked forward to Skepticon 6 for a long time. This would be my third year going to the annual skeptics conference in Springfield, and I was excited to experience the community of like-minded activists, old friends and stimulating conversations.

Little did I know how much that weekend would shake up my life.

I arrived in Springfield late the night of Nov. 15, and went downtown for dinner and a drink with my old friend Louie* and his wife. Afterward, Louie and I joined other conference attendees for drinks, jokes and a game of Cards Against Humanity. Around 4 in the morning, once things started to settle down, our friend Dave suggested we walk to Steak ‘n Shake. Louie, Dave and I, along with our friend Dannie*, made our way out of the hotel.
It was a comfortable walk in the cool, moonlit streets. Not four blocks away, we could see the restaurant.

But we soon realized that Dannie was upset. I was walking elbow to elbow with him as he began to talk himself into an unprovoked rage.

The rest of us made eye contact with each other, then reminded Dannie he was with friends. This didn’t work. We then tried to changed the subject. This aggravated him more.

Dannie mentioned his career several times – the source of his anger. Then, he started talking about a gun.

At first, it was “a gun,” then “my gun.”

Then, “this loaded .38.” He drew it from his pocket.

Gun. Image via Flickr, by Gideon Tsang.

Gun. Image via Flickr, by Gideon Tsang.

He was actually holding a gun. He pointed it at each of us in turn. We went quiet, plodding toward the restaurant. My heart began to race.

In mutual terror, we tried again to change the subject.

Dannie eyed his pistol, then said, “Dave, you’re so f—ing smart, I should shoot you in the back of the head.”

Our lives were in danger – especially Dave’s. We had to do something.

I tried to calm Dannie down by asking cheerful, friendly questions about his job.

“It must be very hard to do that all day, I know I couldn’t do it,” I said. “You’re a stronger person than me, surely.” I searched for common ground, grasping to keep Dannie’s mind on something else. This lasted all the way to the restaurant, through our to-go order and back to the hotel. It must have been about 30 minutes before the three of us were safely locked in our rooms away from Dannie.

From there, we decided to get the police involved.

I spent the rest of the morning with police officers in the lobby, waiting in a heightened, alert state. It wasn’t until 6:15 a.m. that we were cleared to leave the lobby and go back to our rooms. I crashed from the adrenaline, but I barely slept. A sense of overwhelming dread crept through me, as I began to feel the fear I hadn’t been able to feel before.

For the rest of the conference, I tried to keep my composure, excusing myself regularly to step outside or into an empty hallway to cry, breathe, or simply be alone. I was vulnerable and felt empty and lost – so lost I didn’t know how to ask for support. Several friends said I looked “like sh–,” so I explained what happened. Often, they responded with what looked liked disbelief, which left me disheartened.

Then, I read Dave’s security statement. (You can read the full statement here.) My eyes lingered on a few key parts.

…Skepticon organizers have been fully informed of all details of the incident, and all organizers and volunteers, as well as police and hotel security, have this person’s name and photograph. This person has agreed to leave the hotel and not return to Skepticon this year or in future years.

Skepticon organizers have been overwhelmingly supportive and competent. I was offered a security escort, which I appreciated, but felt was unnecessary and declined.

I still feel safe at Skepticon. I have been coming to Skepticon for four years now and intend to continue to donate and to return to Springfield for Skepticon 7 …

I would prefer not to discuss this incident further. I am OK. I thank everyone for their concern. I am extremely impressed and flattered with the outpouring of support from Skepticon organizers, other attendees, and speakers, as well as the support from the atheist community online….

After that, I felt reassured that Skepticon organizers would support me and Louie, too, and make sure we were OK. After all, the statement said that they had been fully informed and had graciously offered a security detail to Dave. At least they could spare a moment to check on me or Louie just to be safe, right? But that didn’t happen – the organizers didn’t check on us.

Instead, I found myself dealing with the aftereffects of shock alone. I mustered all my strength to smile at people who were interested in the information table at which I was stationed – I was representing the student organization I was president of at the time. I overheard friends, acquaintances, and strangers discuss the night’s events and their takes on what happened.
Later that day, I began to wander through the large, mostly empty halls outside the main auditorium. I could not bear being in a room with all those people.

I decided to step outside for a little fresh air. On my way, I saw Micah Weiss, the only organizer with whom I was acquainted. He greeted me with a warm smile and said, “Thanks for helping Dave out last night.”

I met his eyes as best as I could and said, “I really need to talk to you about this.”

For whatever reason, his attention was immediately drawn away. In my state of shock, it was difficult to convey my need for help. I felt brushed off and unsupported. I could feel myself diving further into the depression I’ve battled for a long time.

Returning to my college campus to finish the semester was not easy. The sound of boots on the sidewalk and feelings of elevated stress triggered extreme anxiety. I would freeze up, unable to move because I was sure someone was holding a gun to me. Even if my eyes told me otherwise, I was overcome with terror. Eventually, I would calm down, only to swing lower into despair and hopelessness.

This happened dozens of times: During a class presentation. Walking around campus. Sleeping. In crowds. In empty rooms. During holiday celebrations.
I have since corresponded with Micah via private messages. He said Louie and I weren’t identified as victims because Skepticon didn’t have a policy on how to handle a violent situation like this.

They do have a harassment policy, and since the gun incident was new territory, organizers used their existing policies as a framework. He also said that, at the time, he didn’t actually know the details of the event, which I have since told him.

In light of this, I think it was unwise to announce that “Skepticon organizers have been fully informed of all details of the incident…”

Having any written policy is a great way to inform conference attendees that they’ll be helped, but this should not limit anyone’s ability to support those who need it, nor should it ever serve as an excuse for failure to do so. Do organizers need a policy for every possible situation that could occur? Absolutely not, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.

Even in the absence of a formal policy, I thought the natural human response to anyone involved in a violent act is to be supportive: “Are you okay? Do you need help?” Had the organizers asked questions like these, I would have felt much more supported and safe.

This experience left me questioning why I am involved in the “secular movement” in the first place.

For me, the largest draw was having a community. My conception of a community is more than a group of people in the same place who have something in common — it is a fellowship, a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals. Not only did I believe I found a place where I could be accepted, but I imagined the community actually cared. But in my experience, “care” and “support” were little more than words tossed around to generate interest in the movement.

A real caring community is one of the largest draws to organized religion. One way a sense of community is fostered in organized religion, for example, is the tradition of group prayer for those who have experienced loss or hardship. Practices like this create a supportive environment for people whose lives are intimately interwoven, strengthening their bonds.

I once thought of conferences as a “secular tradition,” because they generally align around ideas of education, entertainment, bonding, and recuperation. Miri Mogilevsky says it much more clearly:

“From what I gather, people who attend secular/skeptical/otherwise progressive conferences do so for a number of reasons … And while people might not go to conferences with the explicit goal of Changing The World while they are there, the things they learn and experience at conferences might help them to eventually do so. And I have to say, Changing The World is very hard when you feel alone, unsupported, and unaware of what else is out there.”

I agree with Miri: Goals achieved through conferences are important. And anything is hard when you feel alone.

I stood in the middle of a “community” that professes to be rational, intellectual and supportive and felt completely alone and entirely unsupported. Surely people of such lofty qualities could recognize that not all parties who have been held at gunpoint would be able to shake it off as if it were a regular occurrence.

Why did I need the community? Because I could not pick myself up. It’s the same reason you like to ask your close friends for advice or a family member for a hug. I wanted to hear the community say, “I care,” because part of the community threatened me and my friends. Although I walked away from Dannie’s threat physically unscathed, I did not walk away calm or comfortable. The passion that fueled my activism, like wood to a fire, has long since left me.

I am truly burnt out.

I ask the organizers of Skepticon for two things:

1) To know why this situation was not handled with more support.

2) To provide support to ALL individuals involved in any future violent scenarios.

Aaron Underwood

About Aaron Underwood

Aaron Underwood is a senior Anthropology student and MU with strong interests in feminism and social justice.

One Response to “Skeptigun: The illusion of a community”

  1. Midweek Missouri Faith Fix: Student leadership, nuns in winter, prayers for life, and more | Columbia Faith & Values

    […] Aaron Underwood attended Skepticon 6, a conference he’d long been looking forward to, but suddenly had a gun pulled on him by a friend. Without a written policy, the members of the event did not reach out to Underwood, making him question why he was involved in the secular movement. […]


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