An active shooter in Virginia Beach killing a dozen coworkers and seven coordinated suicide bomb attacks on Easter in Sri Lanka killing 258 have something beyond the tragic loss of life in common. There was nothing that tipped off workers, worshippers and vacationers of the impending attack. In each case, some unremarkable people, unremarkably stood close to others and carried out their horrific rampage.
There are always clues: baggy clothes concealing weapons, lack of eye contact, sunglasses or hats with brims pulled low. However, surprise attacks only occur when people are surprised. In order to surprise, the persons involved- their behaviors and their appearances- are best suited for attack when they blend in and keep from drawing attention to themselves. In other words, often, there is not really anything to see.
A common plea today from law enforcement is if we see something, we should say something. Great advice. More of us should do more of that. If there are cues or clues or anything suspicious, we are now encouraged to refrain from polite distance. We should not respect private space if public safety is at risk. Safeguarding someone’s private space is no longer viewed as important as safeguarding humanity.
But, how did we get to the place where we need to tell people to report observable anomalies in the first place? The fact is, especially with global urbanization, we do not see much of anything to say something about. That is because we now live in a world filled with distance in proximity. The world is filled with crowds of the invisible. We are closer, physically, to people than ever before and yet farther away relationally from people with whom we literally rub shoulders than ever before. We pay less attention because we are too close to too many people too much of the time. The crush of urban populations has placed us closer to people than we have ever been and less aware of our neighbors.
I have experienced this first-hand all over the world. Whether it is in a Japan or Hong Kong subway during rush hour, the Elephanta Festival at the Gateway of India in Mumbai, anywhere near Quiapo (Manila) during the Procession of the Black Nazarene and in Times Square or Yankee Stadium on a holiday, the crowds can be impressive or depressing depending upon your outlook. I have seen crowds that visually affirm the idiom, “a sea of people.” Privacy is impossible. Security is laughable.
Fact is, there is too much to see to see anything specific or out of place. There is so much to see that it is easy to see nothing. When the forest is overwhelming, trees seem to disappear. The problem is that there is too much to see. It is impossible to notice anything unusual when everything is unusual- a circus of bizarre acts and unusual appearances. In order to say something if we see something, we will need to start seeing again.
The new human response to others is to not see much of anything at all. Disengagement was once considered a vice. Now it is urban virtue. When I was young, it was incredibly impolite to not smile at someone when eye contact is made or say “thank-you” to the person kind enough to hold the door open. Engagement was clearly a virtue. Now, engagement can get you in trouble with authorities or parents if you have the audacity to smile at a child or vulnerable person. Kindness is viewed with particular suspicion by those who are troubled, abused, angry, abandoned, isolated or depressed. And, this is precisely the point. Most of the active shooters in many of the modern massacres have been described as troubled, abused, angry, abandoned, isolated or depressed. Simultaneously, they have been described as unremarkable and people who did not draw attention to themselves. In other words, those who do not engage when we try to engage them are often the same folks who struggle with issues that make them susceptible to taking desperate measures out of their desperate lives or frames of mind. Many, certainly not all, who are troubled, abused, angry, abandoned, isolated or depressed are more likely to hurt themselves or others than those who are not.
What if we were to engage more people more of the time? What if we became human again, even in the crowd? What if we would demonstrate moment by moment care, politeness, courtesy from a desire to make our world more humane? Perhaps in the process, we will be more astute and helpful along the way. When we see nothing but blank stares, hollow expressions and deaf and muted responses by those who are neither deaf nor mute, our prayers should kick in and our concern should follow suit. If we see nothing, we should say something. When we see nothing, perhaps we should see if there is something troubling the person and attempt to engage with human love and care. Perhaps when we see nothing, we might realize that something terrible might be brewing- either with them or perhaps others around them.
We see too much of nothing every day. I have often found the most visible and unusual things in the crowd are generally attempts to draw attention- a sidewalk salesman, a street performer, a human billboard. These are not dangerous; just annoying. The most dangerous among us are not the most visible. Perhaps we should revive common courtesy and kindness and say something when we see nothing. In so doing, we might alleviate hurt and possible devastation.