Everybody is getting ready for the holidays in one form or another, and not to put a damper on the holiday spirit, after recent attacks and violence, it has added another layer of concern to our usual activities. Maybe because I live in France half the year, I’m more sensitive to it, but even in the US, there have been frequent and constant bouts of violence this year, sometimes politically inspired, and sometimes by a disturbed person who went unnoticed, or was thought to be harmless, until they go berserk in a public place and leave a tragedy in their wake.
It is soooo disturbing to read the news right now. It isn’t commonplace yet, and we’re all still shocked at the senselessness of it, but it feels like every day we’re hearing about these events. The tragic recent attacks in Paris, which left 130 dead and 350 severely injured, the heartbreaking attack in San Bernardino, which killed 14 and 18 injured. Another shooting in Michigan….one in Wisconsin. A man went berserk on a London subway and stabbed 3 people. How are we supposed to behave after that? What are we supposed to think? How do you protect yourself or your kids? Do we just act like nothing happened? Do we stay home? Avoid certain public situations? Or try not to think about it? How are we supposed to behave??
British authorities issued a statement after the subway stabbing, telling people “Not to let the incident affect their behaviour”. That sounds good for public morale—but really? If I were riding a subway in London now, there is no way that I wouldn’t think of it, and not worry that some lunatic would want to do a copycat event. Further on in the British statement, it said “We cannot let these people dominate our space”. It’s a noble thought, but right now, in every country there are random acts of incredible violence with tragic results. The people who commit these crimes are not dominating our space, but they are sorely affecting our lives.
I don’t have the answers to these questions either, but they cross my mind every day. The French are being incredibly brave in the aftermath of the November 13 attacks, just as they were after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. They are determined NOT to let fear take over their lives. They seem to be making a point of taking the Metro (the subway), and doing the things they did before. It’s noble, and in some ways admirable, but is it crazy NOT to change our behaviour—-or is there no way to protect ourselves from these attacks, so we might as well go about our lives in the same ways we did before? I suspect that some middle ground is more reasonable. I had dinner with 3 friends in Paris recently. They wanted to go to a restaurant, and dancing afterwards. I met them for dinner, and I love to dance, but there is NO way I was going to go downstairs into some nightclub where exactly the same scenario could happen as a few weeks ago: where a room full of unsuspecting, innocent people in a confined space could be taken hostage. They thought I was being silly when I said I wouldn’t go to the disco with them (and they went without me), but it just seemed stupid to me to take the risk. It just wasn’t worth it to me to take the chance, even if it might have been fun, and there was a good chance that nothing would happen (and nothing did, they called the next day to tell me they danced til 3 am. But honestly, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, and would have been worried). I met them at a restaurant, where 2 guards were posted outside, it was a friendly little bistro, in a street of many restaurants and bars, where young people were congregating on the street, talking and laughing, meeting friends and bar hopping and eating in the restaurants, and it reminded me again of the street where tragedy struck on November 13th. Had bad people/attackers showed up they could have ravaged the street and killed hundreds of people within minutes. I couldn’t help think of it as I left and saw the throngs of young people standing around outside.
There are just some places I don’t want to go right now, in any city, still feeling raw and uneasy after the recent attacks. Movie houses seem very vulnerable to me, again a group of unsuspecting people in a confined space, where attackers could hold them hostage within minutes. Big department stores, major sporting events, where an attack would draw much attention and take a high toll. It just doesn’t seem smart to me to be hanging out in places like that right now. And yet if we don’t, and we’re cautious, then the ‘bad guys’ have won, and have changed our lives. But they have anyway. I have my heart in my mouth now when my kids go to big public events. But they still do, and I do some of it myself. And it’s not just happening in big, well known cities. Who could possibly have expected an attack of any kind in San Bernardino?…..Michigan….Wisconsin. And you can avoid all the sporting events you want, and go to a Mac Donald’s for a cup of coffee, or any other fast food restaurant, and have some lunatic open fire. We can’t stay home in bed under the covers, but I think we need to be sensible too. A discotheque in Paris doesn’t feel like a good idea right now, congregating in the street smoking and talking doesn’t seem smart either. Not right now, until the world returns to a semblance of sanity again. And when will that be? Paris ‘terraces’ outside restaurants are always crowded with smokers, and I notice that now the terraces are not so populated. If something unfortunate happens, the people sitting on the terrace are going to be hit before anyone else inside, just as they were only a few weeks ago.
It feels brave and noble the way the French are reacting going on about their lives, but I do think we also need to be smart and careful, and think twice right now about what we’re doing. As much as we may want to, we can’t pretend that this isn’t happening. It is, and we have to face it, and act accordingly within reason. It’s sad that we have to think that way, and people say that there is an element of destiny to it…”if it’s your time”, but there is no point tempting fate either. As a priest said to me once when I was working on the streets with the mentally ill and the homeless in dangerous neighbourhoods, “the Church doesn’t canonize the foolish”. I think we need to be smart about it, and think twice about the circumstances we put ourselves in now. Is it smart? Is it safe? is there an alternative? Do you really have to do that, or want to?
It made my heart ache to hear that the government and medical agencies in France are doing ‘rehearsals’ of how to provide the best medical aid in the event of school shootings that would involve children. I hope that never happens, and they are smart to provide for it and be prepared, but what a tragedy that we have to think about that now as a real possibility, and part of daily life.
It seems odd too that there seem to be ‘fashions’ or trends in violence. When I was very young, planes were sometimes hijacked to Cuba, with all the passengers on them, or to other locations. No one does that anymore. But now these violent and random attacks on public places are the current high-risk situation. And it’s impossible to predict where the next one will be. A supermarket? A parking lot? A church? A movie theater?
I was startled when I went to a very high end store in Paris, in an excellent and theoretically safe neighbourhood, and two security guards were standing outside the front door, one to look into everyone’s purse or whatever bag they were carrying, while the other made you open your coat wide so you could show that you weren’t armed. And once inside the doors, 2 more security guards repeated the procedure. And 6 more guards were cruising around the store observing shoppers. I think they were smart to do it, none of us want to be the victims of people who want 30 seconds of fame when they kill innocent people in a random location.
We have to go on living our lives, but I think we need to be smart about it too, as best we can be.I hope with all my heart that the violence will stop, that we won’t be reading about these tragedies almost daily. This year, the notion of peace seems all the more meaningful, for everyone, in every country, in all parts of the globe and in our daily lives. Let’s hope that in the new year we see and experience less violence. We all need to feel safe as we go about our lives, doing ordinary things.
Take good care,