The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School and other heartbreaking events like these have forced us increasingly to question our safety in public spaces. While the extensive body scanners, pat-downs, and other security procedures at airports have made us feel marginally safer about flying, these options are not valid for shopping malls, movie theaters, schools, or any of the other places that fifteen years ago seemed completely innocuous. Not only are security measures cost-prohibitive, but the appeal of these public spaces is their comfort, their familiarity, and their accessibility; a militaristic barricade of security guards would betray everything that we love about these places.
So what can we do to feel safe in public spaces? I remember having this same discussion, unfortunately, when I was in high school. It was April 21, 1999, the day after the Columbine shootings, and I recall multiple classmates demanding more intense security, more locked doors, and more proactive identification of suspicious persons. But I felt then (and after witnessing yesterday how even seemingly overprotective security is no match for a determined yet troubled soul, feel even more strongly today) that it is not security that we need to overcome our anxieties. What we need is community.
People will mental illnesses are not “someone else’s problem.”* They are people whose best chance at healing comes from compassion and acceptance. Focusing on what parents did wrong when raising their kids, how movies and video games are influencing children, or what we can do to keep ourselves safe now are questions that need to be secondary—if even relevant at all—to the bigger truth that we must all accept: we are all responsible for each other. As a teacher, I know how easy it is to look at a parent and think “If only they just did something,” or look at a student and think that it would be easier just not to have to deal with him or her in the first place. Yes, in an ideal world, all parents would know exactly what to do at all given times and all people would be receptive to the help of others. But let’s be honest about this world we live in, and recognize when we, too, are being called in to support.
I don’t know if we can ever feel completely secure in all public spaces anymore. There are some things that are just out of our control. But what is in our control is our perspective on other people, and the way we treat them. We enjoy public spaces largely because they are gathering places for everyone, because they bring us all together and help us enjoy each other’s company. And refusing to help, or even acknowledge, those who need us the most is contrary to everything these public spaces stand for.
Regardless of your politics, your privilege, and your past: we are all responsible for each other. At some point in your life, you have been helped by somebody even though you didn’t explicitly ask for that help. Now it’s your turn.
*I don’t mean to speculate as to the mental health of the man behind the Sandy Hook shootings. These are merely my reflections inspired by the actions of a clearly troubled individual.