This past summer a pregnant woman was punched in the face while walking along a street in Brooklyn. She was knocked out, but, fortunately, no lasting harm came to her or to her baby. The assailant, a 33-year old man, was quickly apprehended in what seems to be a completely random act of violence.
The day of the attack, WCBS news interviewed a neighbor who, commenting on how the attacker was not a teenager, said, “This is terrible. Now we have to be afraid of everyone.”
No question that the attack was terrible, but is the neighbor’s conclusion accurate? Should we – all of us – fear everyone? I guess, on the one hand, that we might be safer if we do: if we assume that every person, in every situation is trying to hurt us for no reason at all, we will always act to protect ourselves. We will never approach a stranger to say hello or ask if they need help; we will never even smile at them as they walk by. We will always lock our doors, our windows, our cars, and we will always ask ourselves if we are leaving ourselves open to attack – on the street, at work or school, on the bus or train, at the mall, in the park… but is that how we want to live?
Years ago, before 9/11, I gave a sermon in which I asked how many people at that Yom Kippur service knew anyone personally who had been murdered. Out of 900 people in the room, four raised their hands. Now I ask you the same question: with the exception of the vile, calculated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, how many friends, relatives or acquaintances of yours have been murdered, or even suffered serious injury, at the hand of a stranger?
I spent a lot of time thinking about this before realizing that the answer, for me, is exactly zero. A relative died in World War II, and a college roommate was killed by a rival for his girlfriend’s affections, but not a single friend, relative or acquaintance of mine has been murdered or seriously hurt by a stranger. When I consider how many thousands of people I have known over the course of my life, that’s seems pretty amazing.
But is it so amazing? If we listen to the news it sounds like people are being punched in the face every day, on every street corner. However, if we remember that over 8 million people live in New York City, and another 8 ½ million live in New Jersey, then our chances of being punched by a random stranger on one day in August seem to be around 16,500,000 to one. And since it hasn’t happened again since that day, the chances are hundreds of millions to one. But you wouldn’t know that from the news.
The job of any news organization is not, actually, to give us the news; it is to make us watch or listen or click or read, so they can sell whatever it is they sell to stay in business. Our job is to ask ourselves whether the reports of random violence are relevant to us and whether we should adjust our lives in response. If someone told me that a knife-wielding lunatic was seen in my development, you can be sure I would bolt the doors. But hearing that a man in Brooklyn punched a pregnant woman, despicable as it was, does not lead me to the conclusion that I “have to be afraid of everyone.” It doesn’t even mean that every person in Brooklyn has to be afraid of everyone.
From the TSA farce at airports to security cameras monitoring cars at Freehold Raceway Mall, we are told to be afraid all day, every day. News reports make it sound like we are lucky to get through a single day without harm. But our life experiences do not bear this out.
Yes, bad things happen in life. But far, far fewer than we imagine. The news has its place and purpose, but we should not let it define our lives for us.
“Fear everyone” is a terrible motto to live by. We deserve better.