As a reporter in Connecticut, I once covered the first homicide in years in the small town of Old Saybrook. A convenience store clerk had been shot in an armed robbery, and residents expressed disbelief that it could have happened in that sleepy enclave at the mouth of the Connecticut River.
Weren't crimes like this supposed to happen in Hartford or New Haven or New York City — in short, anywhere but here? After hearing that sentiment more than once, I mentioned it to the first selectman, who had spent part of his youth in much-rougher New Haven, and he replied that wishful thinking wasn't just native to small towns.
"If you live in any neighborhood, people are shocked when this happens," he said. "No matter what your economic status or where you live, you're always horrified by it. That one person who commits the crime is the deviant in our society."
I found myself looking at that old clipping after last week's massacre in Seal Beach, which had gone the last five years with just one homicide. We're used to reading news coverage about mass shootings, of course. And we're used to it always being someone else's community.
In other words, we're used to seeing that story accompanied by a little red dot on the map, showing the location of a city that wasn't a household name until a few hours ago. Jonesboro, Ark. Littleton, Col. Blacksburg, Va. For days and weeks, and maybe longer, they become almost synonyms for the unpredictable nature of violence.
As the stories spread online, it can be hard to remember that each of those spots on the map represents a city where people have lived for years, know their neighbors and, in all likelihood, have gotten used to a calm rhythm of life. But that perfectly describes Seal Beach.
If any part of Orange County feels like Small Town, USA, it's this tranquil spot by the sea north of Huntington. No famous history of skinheads, no crumbling projects. Think of the Bay Theatre, the pier, the Red Car Museum, the shady downtown a quick walk from the beach.
Anything but this. Anywhere but here.
I am no psychologist, but I think it's human nature — and one of the things that keep us sane — to trust our surroundings unless we have a compelling reason not to. Our neighborhood must be free of danger, because we've lived here for years without a problem. Our neighbors must not be shady, because they're ours and we see them every day.
That bubble can be so reassuring that we often don't think about it until it breaks. And now it's broken in Seal Beach, and it's anyone's guess how long until it mends.
City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.