With every terrorist attack, every mass shooting, every racist comment, I become indignant. I curse the malevolent forces that attack innocent people. I curse the organizations that carry out such evil acts. I chime in with vapid expressions like “there’s something wrong with Islam,” “we need stronger gun laws” and “#blacklivesmatter.” But as time passes and history repeats itself again and again, I begin to lose hope.
Why does my opinion matter? I grew up in a wealthy, suburban, predominately-white town 30 minutes north of New York City. I grew up in this terror-filled world. I don’t know what I could do about it, but I would like it to stop.
One of my first memories was September 11, 2001. My preschool, St. Elizabeth, was a block away from the World Trade Center. I was just like any other four year old in preschool, playing house and listening to my teacher read from picture books while sitting criss-crossed on an alphabet rug when all of a sudden, my teacher was panicking, crying, and ushering us out the door to the basement of the school. She could barely form words. She did her best to explain what was happening to a group of adorable, goofy, doe-eyed four year olds.
I was too young to understand what was happening at the time. My mom, who worked at Credit Suisse at 23rd and Madison, went through hell and back to pick me up and get me home safely. At the time, I lived across the George Washington Bridge in Jersey City, New Jersey. Since all public transportation was shut down that day, the only way I could get home was to walk. So we did. I ultimately got home at 10 PM.
I recall clearly how many adults cried that day. But there wasn’t much us 4-year-olds could do. We would build towers out of blocks, and knock them down, replaying the incident over and over again. The TV screen lit up in orange. Screams, cries, and gunshots emanated from the speakers. The bad guys in the stories I was told as a kid weren’t witches or evil monarchs; they were scrawny, bearded, turban-wearing Muslims.
As I grew up, I grew desensitized to terror. Sandy Hook Elementary School was just an hour away from my hometown of Scarsdale, New York. I was a high school sophomore. A few years later, I am watching Anderson Cooper endlessly reporting on the barbarity that is crippling Europe. I find myself at another loss, but I am not hopeless. Contrarily, I am a wishful thinking millennial. All my life, I have been silently witnessing these events unfold, getting more horrific each time. I have learned to expect these distressing events. I can no longer just sit back and watch the hysteria unfold.
I don’t see the point in tweeting a trite hashtag, instagramming a picture of the Eiffel Tower or the Belgian flag, changing the filter on my profile picture, or sending my “prayers” to the victims’ families. These events happen time and time again, and we “come together” in solidarity for a few hours, then go back to our daily lives, unscathed. We don’t have the ability to feel empathy without a palpable connection to these events.
I’m not sure where all this hatred came from. I’ve watched us fight hatred with hatred and I’ve watched us do nothing. Neither works. We need to learn how to empathize with people who grew up in very different world. A world where the odds were against them. A world that attacked their families and made them vengeful.
We are also spiteful. We’ve been attacked. We’ve grown up in fear. But we don’t see friends and family killed instantly in front of us. We are not threatened with death based on our personal opinions. We don’t know what that feels like, remotely. So how are we supposed to respond?
We evoke terror to fight terrorism and claim it’s justified. But that’s just like fighting fire with fire. When a white man pulls out a gun and kills innocent people for no reason, we call this terror mental illness. How many more innocent people have to die before we realize this?