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On Violence and Fear

June 3, 2012

My brother texted me a few days ago, asking if I were in the University District.  I had been there about twenty minutes before, and had seen a number of police cruisers racing toward some scene.  He told me that five people had been shot in a cafe-bar about a mile from our house.  I turned on the radio, and heard that another woman had been shot and killed in a downtown parking lot after an argument with a man.

Our nanny had the babies at the community center, which locked its doors.  I was visiting friends outside of the city, and was in no rush to re-enter my neighborhood with a potentially armed man escaping on foot from police.  As news trickled in, I wept for the victims, for their families, for the police officers putting themselves in harm’s way to protect the community from more violence.

When I was a freshman in high school, two suspended students went to the pizza shop next door to our school building during the busy lunch rush.  Someone they had done a drug deal with shot them both at point-blank range.  One died; the other is a paraplegic.  It shook me to my core, that angry young men with guns could attack so close to where I often stood.  This new instance shook me again.

It turns out that the gunman was the same in both shootings.  He was mentally ill, according to his brother, who said, “We could see this coming.”

This brings up so many questions, about gun control, about mental illness, about law enforcement and violence.  The questions that still haunt me revolve around social psychology and personal ethics.

One man in the cafe threw a bar stool at the gunman, allowing a couple of patrons to escape.  Two women ran to give CPR to the woman who had been shot in the parking lot.  These people are heroes, Good Samaritans who risked their own safety to help strangers.  Most onlookers ran, or were paralyzed by fear.

I would like to think I’m a Good Samaritan, who would intervene to protect my fellow citizens.  But I think I know what I would have done back at that pizza shop, or on the sidewalk.  I would have run like hell.

I have intervened in a fight, several years ago.  I was walking to lunch and two students who had been shouting at each other started taking swings.  The student ring surrounding them, of course, stared, or shouted encouragement.  No other adults could be seen.  I pulled one boy off the other, who was on the ground, and was yelling at students I knew to get help (they did not).  It seemed like forever until another staff member appeared.

It turned out that one of the boys in the fight had a knife on him.  I would perhaps choose not to intervene again if confronted with the same situation.  Now that I have kids, my first priority is to protect them, and my second is to protect myself so that I can continue to take care of them.

But what if I needed help?  What if I were being physically assaulted, and called out for assistance, and everyone ran away–or worse, stood and watched?  Shouldn’t I model for my children what it means to sacrifice one’s own security in order to help another?  Can I live with letting fear rule my choices?

Ultimately, I cannot live in a world of “them” vs. “us.”  I can’t say that violence happens to someone else, somewhere else. I can’t say that because I don’t live in *that* neighborhood, or belong to a gang, or any one of a number of variables, that I am safe and they are not.

Because even if it doesn’t make the news, even if it’s in some other neighborhood, violence against anyone is violence against me.  The victims could so easily have included me, or someone I love.  Categorizing people as outsiders, as potential antagonists, only perpetuates the energy that violence thrives on.

Maybe no one could have prevented the killings.  Maybe the man would have snapped anyway, and chosen violence as the vehicle for his rage and instability.  Right now, what I control is my choices and my reactions.  I choose to try to let go of fear, of hatred, of building a bubble around myself and family.  I only see through a glass darkly.

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.  And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:17-18).

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