What Makes Us Safe

It is only natural that in the wake of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, the world of social media is awash with solutions, things that we should have done to prevent this tragedy, things that we urgently need to do to prevent more such tragedies, things that will make us safe. Some of these suggestions strike me as downright bizarre, such as the idea that we need to arm teachers so that they can protect their classrooms. Hmm…guns in the classroom—what could possibly go wrong? Some of these suggestions are, to my mind, flat-out offensive, such as the claim that this tragedy happened because we have taken God out of the schools, and that “God will ‘bless the USA’ when we put him back in it.” Really? God allowed innocent children to die out of a fit of pique over the lack of prayer in school? Who would believe in such a God?

Other suggestions make more sense to me: that we should limit the sale of assault weapons, or require gun owners to carry liability insurance, or that we control the sale of ammunition. Still other people are arguing for better mental health care, to which I can only say “about time.”

Unfortunately, the more I think about it (and like much of the country I’ve been thinking about it obsessively for days), the less I think that any of these solutions—including the ones I like—are going to really make us safe. By all means, let’s have sensible laws limiting weapons. But no, we’re not going to get all the dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people. Or people who were never dangerous until the moment that they snapped. Absolutely, let’s give people better access to mental health care. But even if we could assure compliance with medication and therapy not every illness responds will to treatment. And we will never be able to know for sure the difference between someone who is dangerous and someone who is merely volatile.

And really, if you get down to it, even if we were able to prevent every shooting spree, that’s hardly a guarantee of safety. No amount of control over people’s behavior could prevent the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, or Katrina before that. As someone who lives pretty much on top of a fault line in California I know that a devastating earthquake in the area where I live is basically inevitable – a matter of when, not if. While I in no way agree with people like Adam Lanza’s mother who prepare for cataclysm by stockpiling weapons, given the ever-increasing effects of climate change, I would say that expecting disaster is not unrealistic.

The question is what we plan to do about it. We could prepare our children for the possibility of school shootings by sending them to school with a gun (as one parent is bizarrely said to have done). Or we could teach them to be kind to loners and misfits, to report or stand up to bullies, to tell an adult when another child seems depressed or distraught. We could deal with crime in our neighborhoods by arming ourselves. Or we could get to know our neighbors, and keep an eye on one other’s houses so that we are prepared to call the police if something seems amiss. We could stockpile food and weapons so that in a local or national emergency we are prepared to defend ourselves against all comers, prepared to go it alone. Or we could support increased money for the government emergency services that we are sure to increasingly need. And we can get together to fill sandbags when it seems like the floodwaters are coming, or find ways to share electricity with those who are without power after the storm comes, or offer shelter to those who have lost their homes.

This is what people did for Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. In the aftermath of 9/11 people poured into New York to search the rubble or support the first responders. When a section of freeway collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake folks in that “dangerous” neighborhood converged to help the injured and look for people who might be trapped. This is what we do. This is who we are.

The conservative entertainment complex and the NRA make a lot of money selling fear, and solutions to fear that involve scapegoating, isolation and the capacity to inflict damage before someone gets to you. And yes, that gut-level defensive reaction is who we are, too.

But we get to choose what we act on. We get to choose what we practice, so that when the time of crisis comes our habitual ways of being come to the fore. What makes us safe is the ongoing work of caring for the vulnerable; loving our neighbors; living, like the lilies of the field, in the beauty of the moment rather than in the fear of what might come. We will never be safe. Safety just isn’t part of this package we call life. But we can harbor one another, creating all the safety we can muster in this dangerous world.

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