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Losing Trust

Suspicion and strange vigilance diminish us all

As a student at Swarthmore, I never thought about getting killed in class-—the possibility really never occurred to me.

But as a professor on the first day of the fall semester 20 years later, the 20th anniversary of my first day of college, I looked around my philosophy classroom and tried to determine how my students and I might escape if an active shooter attacked the campus.

(Yes, I know the chance is very tiny, but it seems like due diligence to have a plan.)

At the same time, I suspect that self-protection would be more meaningfully promoted through plans for better public policies and more public conversation about the forms of freedom most central to our lives.

After the Nov. 5, 2017, church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I read an article written by a former Marine that offered advice for surviving a mass shooting. The author urged us to make a habit of anticipating some means of defense or an exit when inside an enclosed public space.

That evening, I went on a rare date with my husband and we sat at the bar, facing away from the door. If I had followed the author’s advice, I would have sat looking out the window so I would be the first to spot any suspicious person. But if I were looking out the window, I would have missed the expressions on my husband’s face and the pretty mosaics behind the bar.

I wanted to go out to have a great time—not just to survive the night.

A strange form of vigilance has been recommended to us as we reel from massacre after massacre. The stance security experts ask us to take up is an impossible one: We cannot be prepared to defend ourselves at all times while simultaneously relaxing and enjoying our movements through public space. The vigilance is strange also because it cannot admit its own futility.

The author of the article congratulates his wife on her idea to throw hot coffee into the face of a shooter, should one enter the café where they sit. Yet the ability to attack with coffee is not a skill we can cultivate; it is a desperate lurch that would require incredible luck to save a person from gunfire. A society in which every café is perceived as a potential shooting arena will have a lot of coffee flying around, even when there are no bullets—because imagined bullets, catapulted from the mind, will be everywhere.

It is miserable to feel threatened in daily life, but there is something more than psychological well-being at stake in our relation to public space. We must take care not to respond to the fear caused by mass shootings in a way that makes our anxious imaginations a threat to others.

I have a plan for the ongoing emergency of lost trust. Let’s make our public spaces more trustworthy for everyone. Eliminate access to weapons fit for a battlefield and drastically reduce the number of guns in circulation. So, instead of trying to individually fend for ourselves, we can place our trust in each other and reaffirm the fact that a human being can only find real security in community.

MAVIS BISS ’02 is an associate professor of philosophy at Loyola University Maryland.