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We No Longer Have the Luxury of Sheltering in Place

We may not be able to recall when we first heard the term “shelter in place” but it is being bandied about frequently now that we have shootings and major disasters occurring almost daily. Our understanding of the term means that we hunker down, stay where we are, keep our head low, and don’t move until the immediate danger has passed, whether it’s a tornado, a hurricane, a flood, a terrorist or just the garden variety mass murderer America seems to grow like weeds.

Find a safe room, lock the door, slide under a desk or chair, take refuge in a doorway, make yourself as small and unobtrusive as possible. Or just play dead.

The idea has been around forever, although it originally was used to describe only chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear events and has only recently been broadened to describe precautions taken during “active shooter”events.  The current European generation can remember blackout curtains which gave the illusion that no one knew you were inside your flat. Boomer Americans recall “duck and cover,” in which as very young children, we were told to put our hands over our heads and get under our school desks in the event of a nuclear bomb. And we all recall the absurd duct tape and plastic shortages in 2003.  From hindsight, the reality of the shelled buildings in London or the power of an explosion over the Nevada desert or the notion that duct tape can protect us from biological warfare, make these attempts to avoid death seem naïve.

Faith in the near miss is misguided; it is merely chance that protects any of us at any time.

But still heroes throw themselves over the bodies of their children or coworkers. They try and confront the attackers in order to save more than themselves, while the rest of us hold our breaths and wait with huge anxiety for the tragedy of any moment to be over. The rest of us hope.  And we never really believe that next time it could be us. Some people simply ignore the possibility of danger. Others are frightened to go to the movies, to shop, to be in public places.  Some people don’t want to leave their homes.  I understand  this. The world seems unsafe. Places we never thought would be the targets of violence are now under possible threat.  But the fact is that we no longer have the option of sheltering in place to protect ourselves, while the world around us crumbles.

In the largest, broadest, most metaphorical sense, sheltering in place is another word for cowardice. In the face of abject evil, of abhorrent prejudice, of races and religions being subject to gross lies and distortions, is sheltering in place the way to cope? Or is it the way to continue to ignore, at our own permanent peril, the growing danger around us?

Recent incidents where Americans who are assumed to be foreign-born or Muslim or merely “other” and “different” have been attacked by fellow Americans who are ginned up, emboldened, by several of the men and women running for present from the Republican party and the fires further stoked by a generally hysterical media. The candidates and the right wing press specifically (although the 24-hour news cycle in general bears some responsibility) are feeding the latent anger and ignorance of people who have effectively been sheltering in place for their entire lives.  People who have separated themselves from the greater society by wearing a cloak of hate that they think makes them invisible.  But what may be even worse is that too many times the recent attackers have been met by silence. By the silence of people who were also afraid, often too stunned by the presence of such evil to respond.  Can one blame them in this age when we have no idea who carries a gun and who doesn’t? Can we chastise a person for choosing silence over protest because he fears for his life?

In a word, yes.

The quote by Martin Niemöller, which  begins “First they came for the socialists…,”used to illustrate how prejudice and danger can quickly escalate if we remain silent, is all over social media lately. But in a large sense that quote no longer holds: too many groups in the U.S. have already been marginalized. According to research, 2014 was the worst year yet for anti-Semitism; in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act; black men and women are being gunned down by police in record numbers; and horrific anti-Muslim rhetoric is being spouted by many of the leading Republicans, not just Donald Trump.  Attacks on African-Americans and Muslims can be tied directly to the hateful words being spouted by candidates, as can the murders at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado.  Indeed it has been proved over and over and over that words can hurt us.

If we sit back and remain silent – if we shelter in place – however much we may wish to, then we are, to use a cliché, part of the problem and not the solution. Every time we avert our eyes or hold our tongues as violence, whether rhetorical or physical, is visited upon some of our society, it is visited on all of our society.  We can only save ourselves by saving others.


(This post originally appeared in The Broad Side)