More than 20 years ago, when I lived in Budapest, a ringing telephone woke me one morning and I stumbled across the room to answer. Disoriented and groggy, I lifted the receiver and through the crackling line heard my mother’s voice. She told me that one of my high school classmates and childhood friend had been murdered near Washington, D.C. This woman had crossed paths with a madman while walking to a metro station early one evening. She had been going to her 23rd birthday party.
After hanging up, I sobbed until I was spent and nauseous, then cried some more, for her, for her family and for innocence lost. And I noticed that, from behind the grief and shock arose the thought: at least I am safe, thousands of miles away. Later, I told my Hungarian colleagues what happened. I might as well have said that a UFO had landed on the Danube. Random murders were unheard of, although there were less dramatic forms of violence against the human spirit and life force, such as grinding socialism. Alcoholism was prevalent and the suicide rate was one of the highest in Europe. But, one could walk to the subway at dusk without worry.
Later I attended graduate school in Washington, D.C.. I rented a room near Dupont Circle, on a street that was an ambulance route. Wailing sirens formed a nightly soundtrack. I don’t know if the emergency vehicles carried the sick or those wounded by knives and bullets. But I told myself that if I were cautious, I’d be fine. Violence was at a safe distance.
I said the same thing when I moved to Manhattan and worked a few blocks from where the World Trade Center used to stand. It was the mid-to-late 1990s, before Giuliani’s crackdown on crime. The murders, the rapes, the burglaries — well, those mostly took place in different neighborhoods and other boroughs.
In 1998 I lived in robbery-ridden Mexico City. I followed most of the official advice to stay out of harm’s way: I didn’t wear flashy jewelry, left my ATM card at home and carried little cash. But, I chose to play “taxi roulette.” Most days I commuted in one of the green Volkswagen Beetle cabs that swarmed the metropolis, aware that some drivers kidnapped their passengers, drove them to ATMs and, in the best case scenario, forced them at gunpoint to withdraw money. Still, I tried to exert some control over the game by inventing rules: if a cab’s muffler was loose and loud, if it spewed more exhaust than most, if the windshield was cracked, I wouldn’t flag it down. If I spotted one that looked mechanically sound, I made eye contact with the driver and made sure he understood my destination before getting inside. Either my methods worked or I was lucky.
During the spring of 1999, while I was still abroad, two students at Columbine High School in Colorado mowed down a dozen classmates and injured many more. A sickening horror, but one at a safe distance.
Fast forward to last Friday, when I awoke to news about another massacre, also in Colorado, at a movie theater. I could no longer shudder and then dismiss it as happening there. It happened here, ten miles from where I live. A wave of nausea overwhelmed me as I learned the details. Then, as before, thoughts arose: I don’t go to midnight showings, I usually don’t go to malls, therefore I’m safe. And, in a moment of panic: Let’s get out of here. I quickly realized that not only are these thoughts just as magical as my taxicab rules, they also separate me from the dead, the wounded and the gunman and deter me from taking responsibility for even the subtlest negative impulses I harbor within.
Violence begins somewhere. Perhaps it germinates with barely perceptible self-hating thoughts that drone in the background, morphs to verbalized criticism of self and others, expresses itself as jokes at someone’s expense or judgments that demean groups of people, turns into angry outbursts, road rage, etc. Or maybe it stays underground, burrowing through someone’s psyche until there is no room for anything else. When it escalates or accumulates, and someone snaps, it’s tempting to make them the “other”, to reassure ourselves that we’re not like them, to find something or someone to blame. Most of us might never be pushed to extremes, or go off the rails, but that doesn’t mean we’re different.