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'Will It Be Safe There?' The Question I Can't Answer

We are Americans in peacetime living in a quiet neighborhood, and yet I couldn't offer her promises of safety. For we are a nation under siege: we just refuse to act like it.
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candle light vigil
candle light vigil

"Will it be safe there?"

That was my 11-year-old daughter's first reaction when I told her that we would be going to a vigil in the wake of the Orlando shootings. She was asking because the massacre happened in a public place where innocent people had gathered, as we were about to do. She was asking because her dads are gay and homophobia was one of the hatreds which drove the shooter. And she was asking because I had just answered her logical question of how one person could take so many lives by himself: he legally owned a military-style killing machine that our country is ok with him having. She was asking because she doesn't want us to get shot.

So the real question written plainly in her beautiful brown eyes was this: "Could someone shoot me?"

You can imagine how it felt to know that this is what my child was asking over breakfast, her cereal slowly sopping up milk, uneaten, while she waited for my answer. We are not a family in a war-torn country, or refugees fleeing for our lives. We are Americans in peacetime living in a quiet neighborhood, and yet I couldn't offer her promises of safety. For we are a nation under siege: we just refuse to act like it.

I can't explain to her the all-or-nothingness that drives even people we love to sign off on the legality of high-capacity weapons for civilian use, under the provably false logic that any restriction is bad because it might keep them from ever owning a gun. I can't explain to her that even the slaughter of children in Newtown (about which she does not know) merited more hollow tweets of sympathy from Congress than action. That our laws provide the worst people near unfettered access to do the most damage the fastest way. Again and again and again.

I didn't say that every time I teach in a new classroom, I figure out how to bar the door if I hear a shooting start. I didn't say that one morning when I heard sirens racing up the big nearby hill upon which her school sits, I held my breath for a moment, thinking, "Please let the kids be ok." I didn't say that when I went dancing for the first time in years on the very same night as the Orlando shooting, I looked at the line outside the club and thought: this would be a perfect target for a terrible person. I didn't say how, as a witness to a past shooting myself, I often have moments in malls, at playgrounds, on trains and buses, where I tense up, fearful of things that don't seem quite right. I didn't tell her that churches, backyard barbecues, concerts, sidewalks, sports events, cafes, and even police stations aren't safe. Not here. Not in America.

I told her that I hoped it would be safe at the vigil and that I thought it would be, that there would be law enforcement there. But I was honest, too: until America changes, I can't give her a better answer.

There's hatred to be addressed at the root, and it is hard to truly un-poison a bigoted mind. We do, however, have the capacity to cripple the ability of an angry person to make his hate into a fusillade worthy of an army -- we know this and yet we don't do it. Until we make it much harder for people to do what that man did, all the answers I can offer are ones that darken my daughter's vision, change how she sees the place we call home.

Stipulated: the universe guarantees us nothing; terrible things happen all the time. But we don't have to facilitate the darkness; we need not be made party to the horror by our continued inaction. "Safe" is something we can't promise our children, but safer? Yes, we can. We must.

My daughter didn't ask to stay home. She seemed to soak up the gravity of the moment and the need to stand together as a community. Maybe she'll remember this as the summer that something started to change. Maybe she'll grow up and look back on the time before this as a shameful era, a blot on our history. What I hope with all my heart is that this will not go down as just the first shooting vigil she remembers in a lifetime full of them, that she does not grow up believing that this is as safe as it gets in America.