For the past few months it seemed like there was a school shooting every week. Those took the top news slots. Until they didn’t. Until they were bumped from the place above the fold by college students protesting against what they see as institutional racism on campuses like Yale and the University of Missouri. Until the attacks in Paris bumped that news off the front page. And all along, threaded in and out of the above disasters, are the increasing number of black men and women killed by overzealous police. Every one of us lives with the intimidation of a heretofore unmilitarized group who was once sworn to serve and protect. Since Saturday, the 24-hour news cycle, both print and electronic, is consumed with the refugees from Syria, who a short while ago were seen as tragic characters displaced by violence. Now, too many Americans want nothing to do with them. Their appearance in the U.S. will make us unsafe.
This is the headline that matters: There is no safe space.
I understand the young woman at Yale who feels her “home” has been violated. I sympathize with politically correct speech that treads carefully on the feelings of others, which strives to be inclusive. I understand those who want a school to be a place to learn, unfettered by behavior that is offensive and perhaps dangerous. Students want professors warned against “triggers” that ignite the students’ trauma; they want books and films which depict unseemly or “old-fashioned” ideas banished. But even if that were a desirable outcome, which it is not, at all, ever, do we really wish to build a word fence around us? Do we want our minds to operate like a gated community where every visitor has to pass through security and get a pass to enter? The university is not a safe space. The world as a whole is unsafe.
Yes, of course, words can hurt us but they are not as irrevocable as a bullet or a bomb.
While we are worrying about metaphorical triggers a man with a real trigger shoots up a classroom full of six-year-olds.
If the shootings and bombings in Beirut and Paris, the downing of the Egyptian airliner, the kidnapping and murder of Mexican university students, the kidnapping and murder of young girls by Boko Haram, and other incidents too overwhelming in number to name, can teach us anything it is that our desire to create safe spaces is both misguided and ultimately more dangerous that trying to confront, individually, the people who threaten us. There will always be a sociopath who paints a swastika in feces, a narcissist who thinks your rights end at his Halloween costume, a psychopath who truly believes that he and only he holds the truth. The sociopath, the psychopath, the narcissist, the ignorant, even the truly deep-down evil, all live next door. They drink their coffee at the same café. They ride the bus beside you. They date your daughter. They determine your next paycheck.
I am quite sure that the two women in the Lafayette, Louisiana, movie theater thought they were safe, as did those watching a film in Aurora. The students at Virginia Tech did not go to school and imagine that it was their last day alive. The young men and women who were having a cocktail in an outdoor café in Paris, listening to music at a concert hall, attending a soccer match, or just walking down the street, had not, that evening, slipped on their clothes with the fear that their parents, spouses, children and friends would never see them again. Shopping at a mall is not meant to be a trip to the Thunderdome.
After the shootings and bombings of November 13, Facebook quickly put its safety application in place. I had spoken to some of my friends but was relieved to see them “check in” online as “safe,” even as I knew one woman friend and her daughter were huddled in their house, the loud gunshots outside peppering their peace. But like a baseball player sliding into third, I also know that any safety in this world is both illusory and temporary.
There is no doubt that the child sleeping in his crib believes himself safe, as much as he can believe. He doesn’t understand a man who rapes him, a mother who tries to drown him. A woman accepting a date with a man doesn’t imagine that she will wind up traumatized and in torn clothing, trying to decide what she did to bring this on. How do those dying of cancer reconcile the disease’s disruptions on the life he or she thought was safe? How do they answer those who tell them that things happen for a reason? If there is a God is he really keeping a ledger in which He notes the day you will die? If that is true then we have a lot to reconcile.
But in truth there is no reconciliation; there is no place free of fear or anxiety, no moment at which absolutely everything can’t happen. Americans cannot close themselves off, huddle in the minimal tranquility of their homes and families and then pull the ladder up behind them so that no one else can be free of danger. We may symbolically operate as if each day is our last but we don’t really believe that. We are invincible, indestructible, powerful. Both things are true. Each day may well be our last but we have the power to decide each day’s acts. Pulling up that ladder behind us, building those fences around us, asking society for places where no fear and anger reside, are all fool’s errands.