What makes us safe, facing hatred and violence?

An onslaught of violence begs the question: What makes us safe? Should we run and hide, should we become heavily armed, should we only speak with people who look like us?

Photos by Immo Wegman and Anthony Tran of unsplash.com. Call for help. Keep hope alive.

It would be easy to frame the recent incidents in Monsey, Pittsburgh, and San Diego as hatred against a particular people, in this case the Jewish people. It is that plus more. Hateful attacks indicate a “rot in democracy” and call for systemic reform, according to Dr. Deborah Lipstadt.

When violence strikes, it is not the survivor’s job to respond immediately to countless inquiries from the press, not in New Jersey or elsewhere. Trauma is delicate, and managing trauma should be driven by the healing process. Hate is driven by rage, ignorance, addictions to bullying, desperation, and despair. Intentionally blurring facts and fiction is a strategy used to stir hate. As Lipstadt explains, neo-Nazis “work to confuse the facts…. Some create impressive-sounding organizations that seem harmless but after closer view reveal adulation of the Third Reich…and racism [like] swastika-waving neo-Nazis. This is extremism posing as rational discourse.”

Extremism posing as rational discourse is precisely what makes us unsafe.

Distorting reality and justifying violence is deadly yet effective. When people think I can do whatever I want, this is an inadequate story that breeds flippant behavior. It is important to notice the stories in us and around us, especially those that fuel hate. “When we tell stories one way, it allows certain things to happen, and when we tell stories another way, it allows others things to happen” explains author Dr. Betty Sue Flowers in Open Ceilings. Stories can open to possibility, stories can morph for harmful gain, and stories can cultivate a safer society. People tend to believe prevailing stories, whether true or not.

We have arrived at a point where individuals are pulling triggers to express their feelings instead of using their words. We need to practice using our words more. Mental health professionals can help people achieve great success with this, especially when the field is funded. And mental illness can be treated with medication, therapy, on-going management, and ensuring healthy habits of exercise, sleep, nutrition, and socialization. Guns do not adequately address brain chemistry or mental health. We must distinguish guns from mental health and appropriately address both.

I began thinking about safety over 25 years ago when a personal encounter with gun violence nearly ended my life. It was New Years Eve December 31st 1992 and I was in New Orleans with my sister and some friends. We were sitting down in a restaurant when suddenly around 11:50pm, I fell over. We did not know why. I was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. Apparently people shoot “celebratory” gunfire up and do not know the deadly consequences. What goes up must come down. The bullet hit multiple organs. Doctors said it was a miracle I survived. Police said the bullet came from several miles away from an assault rifle weapon.

It can take years to heal physically and emotionally. Some things we do not have to “get over,” rather, we learn to manage them over time. When beliefs shatter, finding new language and new artistic outlets help, as well as athletics and spirituality. It was tremendously helpful to me to find trusted mentors who had had their worlds destroyed and who could listen with wisdom and empathy. Sadly, my story is not an isolated event. “Celebratory” gunfire kills thousands each year. Houston Nurse Phillipa Ashford died this New Years in 2020. Amy Silberman of Boston died in New Orleans in 1994, and countless families grieve nationwide.

When I was shot, I was a top student at Emory University, played college soccer, and volunteered with the elderly. It never occurred to me that a stranger with an AK47 could change my life forever. Sadly today’s gunshot wounds mainly involve children and adult male suicides. For better and for worse, we are inter-connected even when we don’t see it. We can harm each other and lift each other up. Watching the Florida teenagers from Stoneman Douglas High School on youtube sing “Shine” inspires me beyond words.

People ask: But what can I do? How can I make it better? There are prevention protocols to do like: locking doors, developing exit plans, increasing communication, installing emergency buttons, connecting with neighbors, adding security, and more. Sometimes, it helps to implement the prevention steps first and sort out our feelings separately. After all, it is hard to process mortality. Neither money, nor title can ensure safety. Safety requires smart policies, implementation of prevention protocols, plus mazel (luck).

There are excellent prevention programs that can be replicated. At Temple Hospital in Philadelphia, Dr. Amy Goldberg, leads the Cradle to Grave program that teaches youth what happens when you get a gun and shoot it. Doctors answer kids’ questions, clarify misconceptions, and dispel shame. Over 11,000 youth and adults in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware have shown a reduction in their proclivity to violence.

The Kaiser Permanente ACES research study on early childhood adversities is revolutionizing the way that clinicians, doctors, and individuals think about risk factors and capacity to foster resilience nationally. Robust public health education and outreach enhances safety.

We could model our policies after other countries. In Israel, which is heavily armed, “guns are tightly controlled and carefully tracked by the state” and citizens must meet a “detailed list of criteria to be allowed to own a firearm.” Israelis are limited to one gun and 50 bullets at a time. When Israeli military go home for family visits, they must turn in their guns and check them out again afterwards. Healthy regulations distinguish between civilian life and the military.

We can pay attention to our surroundings and seek truth. Millions of people are already engaged in healing work, writing, speaking, marching, voting, bodywork, and making art. I envision a world where small group discussions and art salons on safety and purpose occur in living rooms, offices, on playgrounds, in faith groups, libraries, and online. Social workers could facilitate. As we dialogue across socio-economic lines, we “educate ourselves” and tip the scales of “structural inequalities.” Finding similarities among people minimizes the divisions.

Despite hatred, holiness prevails. Ritual reminds us of this. At Jewish weddings, we smash a glass. On the Sabbath, Jewish people dip challah bread in salt. Joy and sadness intertwine. Being safe depends on acknowledging good and evil, rejecting violence, celebrating life, and vigilantly welcoming individuality and diversity.

This article was originally published in the New York Jewish Week, January 2020.

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