In Austin there have been a series of bomb explosions this month from an as-of-yet unidentified perpetrator* (see update below). Of course it goes without saying that all of us here are hoping that the person/s responsible is/are apprehended sooner rather than later. Living in the city, what I’ve seen is that life is more or less carrying on as usual in the public sphere. This is to be expected as people by and large still have duties and obligations to concern themselves with that forces them to carry on regardless of the danger that may be surrounding them (bills still have to be paid after all, and kids still have to get to school). That is to say, while I know many individuals are certainly taking any and every precautions they can to be safe in a time like this, the city’s social life remains largely undisturbed.
This observation caused a coworker of mine to opine how surprised she was that everyone (referring to those of us who reside within Austin) is responding far more nonchalant about these bomb incidences than one would expect of people in similar situations. Although I can somewhat see what she meant by the comment, I feel that it also brings up the further query of how exactly one is expected to act while this kind of situation is going on? How do you as a person properly respond to potential danger that is far enough to be an abstraction to you subjectively, even though you rationally know it’s objectively close enough (mere miles if you’re an Austinite) that it ought to keep you on high alert? In this regard, trying to gauge out one’s safety risk is comparable to standing in fog–those outside can see you’re in it, but you (precisely because you’re in it) still identify it as something that is some distance removed from you.
The southwest Houston neighborhoods I spent my teen years growing up in were not particularly safe places (it unfortunately goes without saying how most urban areas in big US cities aren’t). During that time, I have been held up and robbed–and intimately known many others who have been held up and robbed–by street gangs and desperate individuals enough times to have developed a sixth sense about which way to move, what sort of characters to avoid, and how to secure my home to ease my mind on the matter as much as I can (as a precautionary rule, the little chain lock on the door does little good). My point is that, like most city-folks, being surrounded with some degree of criminal activity is not something new to me. Nevertheless, no matter how much personal familiarity one has with this nation’s crime rate, the news that a neighbor or coworker has been assaulted and/or robbed within walking distance of you (or that random packages are detonating in the city) will always stir a certain level of anxiety in a person’s mind.
I know people who use this to argue that the human “heart” is naturally inclined to do evil in times of desperation. But I’m unconvinced by this line of reasoning. Just as I doubt that man is naturally disposed to be good, I’m equally skeptical of suggestions of his innate wickedness. Man is adaptive; his behavior situational. Which is why I see no necessary contradiction in the fact that a person can be a callous murderer at one moment in time, and a genuinely loving parent in another. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the three men who robbed me at gun point a few years ago probably spent that very evening exchanging pleasantries and joy with some loved one or another (quite possibly with my money; in which case, I at least hope it managed to bring someone happiness).
But this doesn’t do anything to relieve the reality that social communication is being broken down in the densely populated areas of the world. And it leads me to ponder a few things. Namely, what if in the future someone who sincerely requires my assistance knocks on my door for help? Will I readily trust the person, or will I assume that it must be a clever ploy to get me to leave the safer confines of my home, concocted by individuals looking to prey on the average person’s sympathy towards a helpless voice? I don’t know. Ideally, I like to think I’m empathetic enough to answer the call for help. Shamefully, I’m inclined to admit that there’s a chance I might not respond to a doorstep plea. But it’s easy to philosophize about different scenarios when one is safely removed from the moment of action. In the moment, a normally rational person can easily be overtaken by anxiety-induced irrationality. I have even been told by many friends that their social anxiety has reached the point where they don’t feel comfortable having people approach them as they are getting into their cars, because their minds instantly start to recall all the horror stories of victims assaulted (or worse) by opportunistic criminals. (I personally have also always been of the opinion that there is no inquiry that cannot be made by a stranger just as well standing several paces away from my car door, as standing right in front of it.)
For me, all of this brings up the issue of how exactly we’re supposed to create a more socially cohesive and cooperative society, when for the sake of our very survival we have little choice but to be vigilantly suspicious of the individuals we are stuck sharing society with?