There’s no getting around it. We live in an uncertain world full of security vulnerability. Those who remember the liminal moments just before and just after the first plane hit the World Trade Center understand the distinctness of then and now. There was a time before Columbine when schools were welcoming, safe places where the biggest stressors were exam grades and who made the team. Churches were places of worship, libraries were places of calm introspection and study, and hospitals were houses of healing. In 2019, all of these places are potential soft targets, and all the people in them potential victims.
Terrorists and mass murderers commit acts of violence to make a point, to gain exposure, to exact revenge for supposed wrongs, and to gain notoriety. The pathology that drives them to commit these heinous acts is beyond the reckoning of many, unimaginable to even more. Naturally, it’s critical that we as a nation learn to recognize the symptoms of mental illness and find ways to treat violent tendencies before they become actions. But what do we do in the mean time? What are the effects of continual, unpredictable threats on school children, parents, churchgoers, the rest of us?
Living in An Uncertain World
According to psychologists, just walking into a public space can cause anxiety for some people, even feelings of panic. Statistically, of course, it is unlikely that any type of violence will occur. Millions of people pass through office buildings, airports, schools, post offices, grocery stores, and hospital emergency rooms each day in America – all without incident. People go to work, travel in subways, and on planes and trains. Violent occurrences are rare for most of us, but the threat is always there in the backs of our minds – in the reality of anytime, anywhere, anyone. What if it’s today? What if it’s this place? This concert? This school?
In reporting the news of these horrific events through the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the media often exacerbates those fears. They are not, of course, in league with the murderers who seek to make us prisoners of our own fears, just another tool for them to exploit. For days and days after an incident, we hear the screaming, cry with the mourners, listen intently to the investigators and to our political leaders promising to do whatever it takes to put an end to this. It becomes part of our world, part of who we are. Psychologists tell us that we are in danger of becoming desensitized to the threat, inured to the danger around us and the pain of our neighbors. Maybe. Maybe we just push the fear down and force ourselves to move past it. But we never really seem to enjoy the old peace of mind we once knew.
What’s Making Security Vulnerable?
Mass public shootings are incidents when a shooter targets a group of people unrelated to himself. Generally, with obvious exceptions, they involve a lone shooter taking aim at people in a selected public place. Incidents of this type have increased in the past decade. Communities struggle, families mourn, children live in fear. And future events, though inevitable, remain completely unpredictable. In retrospect, people realize that they knew something was “wrong” with the shooter, but never imagined that “this would happen.” And it’s the unpredictability that causes us so much anxiety, that makes us feel so vulnerable every time we find ourselves in a so-called soft target.
A soft target can be defined as any place that is undefended. Essentially, open, unsecured spaces where people come and go freely with minimum or no security. In other words, the places we visit every day: the library, the post office, shopping centers, concert halls, amusement parks, sports arenas, schools, office buildings, restaurants, parks, and so on. For a shooter, the ideal soft target has unguarded entrances, narrow exits, confined spaces, and few or no security guards. It rates high for security vulnerability. Most of us live, work, play, learn, and eat inside soft targets every day. And, though we try hard not to think about it, we are continually aware of the threat.
The Price of Security Vulnerability
The fear generated from this security vulnerability can take its toll on all of us. Even those on the periphery of mass shootings have exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With each incident, people everywhere begin to feel numb, to disconnect more and more as they seek the safety of isolation. We trust less, engage with our neighbors and our community less, and stay away from situations that, though fun, might be dangerous. It gets harder and harder to be part of a community, to feel good about being in a group. We cannot know when or where the next one is coming from.
While the stress takes its toll on our bodies and our spirits, general mistrust wears at the fabric of our communities. We question the wisdom of festivals, parades, and concerts meant to celebrate our unity. We opt out of neighborhood events, take classes and shop online, and keep clear of public worship. Public libraries, businesses, sports venues, and local shops shut down. People don’t get to know their neighbors. Community organizations lose membership and funding.
We move through life hoping just to survive, not to grow or succeed, or dream. We’re reluctant to invest our time, our money and our energy in our own futures. Our energy is spent in fear and worry, not on productivity, excitement, and growth. And what are we teaching our children about the future? We’ve moved way beyond “stranger danger.” The world is dangerous, life is dangerous, school and play and people are dangerous. So we strive to solve the problem.
We study, and test, and discuss, and have meetings (public and private), and create action plans, and have more meetings. Meanwhile, people’s level of helpless frustration increases right along with their sense of security vulnerability to impending disaster. Privately, we engage in coping mechanisms to minimize stress. We breathe in through our noses and out through our mouths or stretch while we recite affirmations of positivity. These may make us feel better, but they won’t make us any safer. They won’t make the problem go away. We have to find ways to live, and live comfortably, in a new reality. There are bad people out there. They do mean to harm us and our loved ones. This is a dangerous world.
What would it take to feel safe again? What assurances would we need to walk through public spaces with confidence again? What would a school have to do to relieve parents of the knot in their stomachs when they drop their children off? Underground bunkers? Fallout shelter schools? No windows, steel reinforced doors with deadbolt locks? Teachers armed for battle? Or do we just need a reasonable, practicable response? A way to protect ourselves that doesn’t involve gates and bars and bullet proof vests? Is that even possible?
Peace of Mind in the New Reality
On the other hand, we can’t simply retreat to our homes, keep our children inside, bolt the doors and shut the world out. Increase in distrust from keeping ourselves apart from each other. Teaching children and young adults that the world in which they live is dangerous and unlivable. Teaching Fear. Teaching trauma, teaching vulnerability. We can communicate and compromise without giving up livability. We can make it HARDER for the bad guys to disrupt the peace in our lives.
To be successful, of course, we have to change our attitude, our response. We can’t shut down, lock doors, bar windows, and call ourselves safe. We have to work together. We have to be open to new ideas and new technologies. And, most of all, we have to look at strategies that have proven successful in other areas. And yes, we have to spend money.
It’s very challenging to talk about the price of “hardening” a soft target. People’s lives are at stake. And when it’s time to put a price tag on protecting children, no one is comfortable talking about money. How can they be? What’s a child’s life worth? And yet, real changes cost real money, and someone has to pay for it.
Hardening Soft Targets: Hope for the Future
There’s no question. It’s a different world that we live in now. The threats are real, and they demand our attention. But we have lived through threats before. We’ve lived through them and found hope and courage and real, lasting solutions. We can and must do that again. There will always be those who respond to any threat with urges to lock down, restrict, hide! But there are also plenty of people who meet the challenges of the present with calm and confidence in our ability to find and implement solutions. They think outside the prison of fear and look for solutions that improve the quality of our lives.
While pundits and politicians argue over a variety of hot button issues, industry innovators like Athena Security are integrating surveillance with artificial intelligence to provide previously soft targets with the means to secure their spaces, communicate directly with law-enforcement in real-time, and provide critical information to security and law enforcement about the nature of the threat. Would-be shooters, muggers, and armed robbers are identified by facial-recognition technology. Artificial intelligence provides information about the locations of attackers, weapons, potential victims, and possible escape routes limiting criminals’ maneuverability, alerting law enforcement with live images, and opening lines of live communication between law enforcement and law breakers.
Cameras guard politely and unobtrusively without bars or locks or surly gatekeepers. They help us to feel secure without making us feel like inmates in an endless prison. We feel relieved knowing they are there without feeling guarded out of our freedom and quality of life. The times we live in have presented us with real dangers and many challenges. Innovative thinking, collaborative use of new technologies, and hope for the future are possible if we open our minds to new ideas, and adopt practical, real-time solutions.