I grew up in the country. Columbine happened the spring before I started high school. Things changed. It became more annoying to arrive to campus late. We had to keep coats and backpacks in our lockers throughout the day, which meant a lot of lugging books around between classes. Up until then, we had thought of school as a relatively safe place, at least as safe as it got for an adolescent in high school. Then the bomb threats started — and kept — rolling in. We still felt safe. Colorado was so far away. We were kids.
September 11 happened at the beginning of my junior year. I had just turned 16. I watched the second tower fall on the tiny TV in my World Cultures class. Within minutes — mere minutes — one of my classmates was yelling about nuking the Middle East. I was angry. I stayed angry. I yelled at the other students. I yelled at the administration for not making an announcement. I yelled at my mom that night because all I could think about was the violence still to come. I yelled at the news for months. But I still felt safe. New York was the big city. It felt so far away. I was a kid.
In my time on this planet, I have felt deeply uncomfortable. I have been gravely ill. I have lived through emotional and verbal abuse. I have been through winters without heat, hungry months, an emergency room visit without health insurance. But I’ve felt physically unsafe only on specific occasions — walking alone at night or when I’d hear gunshots from my old apartment. I haven’t had to feel like my life was in danger while grocery shopping, sleeping, or stepping foot out my front door. I am a white, middle-class woman, and it took me years to recognize feeling safe for what it was: an extraordinary privilege.
In the years after college, I’ve developed relationships with people of backgrounds vastly different from my own — something that wasn’t quite available in my hometown. I’ve transcribed recordings of women in poor neighborhoods talking about their experiences with domestic violence, about how many 911 calls they made before the police just stopped coming. I’ve seen other women, strangers to one other, discover they shared similar heart-wrenching trauma, and break down in tears and support for one another. I’ve talked with many, many, many people who are Muslim, Black, gay, Middle Eastern, perceived to be Middle Eastern, part of any marginalized group, about the many, many, many times their lives have been threatened. I’ve heard brilliant, beautiful people talk about being called terrorists by strangers in the street. I’ve learned that over half of deaths among Philadelphians between 15 and 24 are due to homicide. I have come to realize how many people feel unsafe in their homes and communities not just on specific occasions, but all the time.
My Facebook trending news on October 6
As a culture, we have allowed this to become normal. We have sorted places into places that are inherently unsafe, and places that should be safe. We have sorted people into groups of people who can feel unsafe, and people who shouldn’t feel unsafe. By August, over 2,500 refugees had died or gone missing crossing the Mediterranean this year. By October 1, there had already been 45 school shootings in the U.S. — again, just this year. 242 people have been murdered in Philadelphia so far in 2015. 37 people were killed in Beirut two days ago, and another 21 in Baghdad. 129 died in Paris yesterday. These are all horrific crimes against humanity. They are all abhorrent. We cannot let them be normal.
I am an adult now. I’ve seen enough to know that there are no simple answers to complex problems, despite last night’s tweets from certain so-called political leaders. Arming every man, woman, and child before they leave the house is not the answer. Where there are more guns, there are more deaths. Violence begets violence. Hate begets hate.
I still feel comparatively safe, but the danger doesn’t seem as far away. There’s no clear distinction between what happens to people like “them” and what happens to people like me. I can’t distance myself. We can’t distance ourselves. We can’t sort people and places just because it’s easier and more comfortable. We are not kids anymore, and this cannot be our normal.
This post was originally published over at Medium.