Exceptional violence is just that: an exception

In the midst of the Second Intifada, in summer 2001, I was living at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Signs in store windows offered discounts for the “brave tourists” who ventured inside despite the growing violence. Being constantly on alert exhausted me, a short-term visitor insulated from the complexities of what was unfolding.

I was relieved when I left the escalating tensions in Israel in August for Spain. A week later, on the TV in my hotel room in Madrid, I saw a Jerusalem neighborhood I knew well turned into a chaotic mess by a suicide bomber. I felt like I had dodged a bullet.

A month later, I was back in the United States, in L.A., when terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. Those attacks breached many Americans’ sense of national security. I had that same feeling I felt in Madrid a month earlier: A place I knew had been converted into a site of destruction and death.

Since 2001, I’ve felt this sense of dread and insecurity again and again. My work and research — understanding how religious communities are responding to the rapidly changing world — take me across the globe, sometimes to violence-stricken locales. As I travel abroad, it seems as if there are more attacks closer to home. At a school in Connecticut, a nightclub in Orlando, a music festival in Las Vegas and on a bike path in lower Manhattan, individuals or small groups have murdered scores of innocent people.

My travels have taught me another thing: not to retreat. Yes, after a trauma like the massacre in Las Vegas and the deaths in New York, it’s tempting to run away from other people and the places where they gather. But I’ve learned that living in fearful isolation is actually far scarier than moving through potentially hazardous places.

My family has constantly worried about my travels since I went to Jerusalem in 2001. But I’ve come to worry just as much about them. When I went to Uganda in 2015 with the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Generation Change program, it was a few weeks before the fifth anniversary of the Al-Shabaab attack in Kampala where hundreds were killed and maimed. Several young Ugandans we were training as peace-builders had survived that attack. But after a long day of training in Uganda, news jarred me from back in the United States. A young white man had slaughtered nine souls in a black AME church in Charleston, S.C.

The violence we experience through the media often feels immediate and visceral, making our own surroundings feel unsafe. But the focus on unimaginably terrible mass casualty news events also distorts our ability to assess our own risk. It makes every place feel unsafe at all times.

Violence is too much a part of human lives, particularly when people are excluded and targeted because of their identities. It is this everyday violence that truly plagues us. But it is obscured by exceptional violence — the type where individuals wreak carnage on a large group of bystanders.

This exceptional violence can’t be allowed to control our actions. Threats and terror spread by white supremacists should not keep us from visiting black churches or standing with Muslim communities in the United States, just as fear of terrorist violence is no reason not to travel to Kampala, Jerusalem, Brussels, or Paris.

Human fears, of course, are no less real for being irrational. In my experience, I’ve found that preparing for the worst helps — getting trained for how to respond to an active shooter, or learning vital skills like CPR or emergency first aid. I always know where my exits are. Preparedness goes hand in hand with the obligation to help, not as an afterthought and not out of fear.

When I returned home from my 2012 trip to Nairobi, during which a white supremacist killed six and wounded four others at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc., I met with the leaders of a Sikh congregation in Los Angeles. We ate in the langar hall, where Sikhs prepare free meals daily as a service to those in need. I kept an eye on the door just about every second, trying not to be disrespectful to my hosts, who were eager to talk about how Sikhs could contribute to L.A.’s disaster response because of their daily mass meal preparation tradition. My hosts were alert, too, because Sikhs have been targeted in violent attacks in the U.S. for decades. For those who aren’t in immediate danger, the point is not to ignore your fear but to develop a sense of agency over it, and use that agency to fight the conditions which bring about violence. This is not tough talk. It is a vital strategy for a safer, saner world.

Brie Loskota (Twitter: @brieloskota; @usccrcc.) is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. She wrote this essay for the Zocalo Public Square.

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