I took my first post- Boston bombing train trip last week. All of my heightened defenses that had slowly and painfully softened over the last decade had returned as I stood on the Wilmington platform waiting for Amtrak 111 to Washington D.C. to arrive. I had miscalculated, purchasing a business class ticket during rush hour. Business class is the first passenger car on the train. And any terrorist with a brain would target THAT car because of its potential to derail the entire line of cars behind it. And morning rush hour? That was also probably in the terrorist handbook when targeting commuters, giving their attacks a much better opportunity to impact as many people as possible AND hurt the stock market opening. To top it all off, there was a very suspicious fellow waiting about five feet away for the same train.If you see something, say something.
The public safety jingle reverberated in my head as I imagined the conversation that would take place between me and the transit cop meandering about at the other end of the platform.Uh, excuse me, Officer? That gentlemen down there waiting for business class? He is carrying a BACKPACK and I thought you should know. It looks rather full. And I also noticed he is wearing a BASEBALL CAP. It just doesn’t FEELright to me.
Well of course it doesn’t Nothing normal feels right to me these days. Or probably to any of you. The train arrived. I sighed and boarded, right behind Backpack Dude. An hour and 35 minutes later, we arrived in Washington, on time and unharmed.
Lately I have been pondering the question: Is the world is ACTUALLY more dangerous than when I was a little girl, or are we just much more informed, and therefore more paranoid, about the daily atrocities that await us?
Back in 1975, when I was just shy of seven years old, a girl about my age was kidnapped from a busy road and subsequently murdered in my town. The killer was never found. I remember her name – Gretchen Harrington – because of all the conversations that took place in our neighborhood and schools. It was first time I had heard the word “kidnap” and “rape.” And when I understood that there was a man out there who took little girls away, I wouldn’t go upstairs in my home by myself without a parent for weeks.
My mother assured me I was safe. I seem to recall her becoming exasperated at some point after yet another one of my refusals to head up to my room. I had nothing to worry about. Mom was right and, I am certain, steadfast in her convictions. The chance of the Boogie Man being under my bed in the suburban haven where we lived was extremely low. And eventually I believed her.
Years later, when Chase didn’t feel comfortable ascending the steps to his bedroom, I used the same calm words my Mom used with me. You. Are. Safe. And I said them despite the fact that I knew all the details of the Elizabeth Smart case and that yes – the Boogie Man can come to your home.
I chose to embrace the odds.
Because not going with the odds is a grim alternative. It is all we can do as parents to keep ourselves from locking our children in the house, curling into the fetal position, and forsaking the precious time we were given on this earth, agonizing over the chance of unthinkable horrors. I just wish the odds were getting better. They are not.
The world IS more dangerous today than when we were kids. We are scared of backpacks… and shoes on planes … and U.S. mail … and guns that are being used on school children and movie goers. On Friday, my oldest friend was mauled by an escaped dog in her neighborhood. Our fears are warranted. These things happened – many for the first time during our generation.
But knowledge of these atrocities – while tortuous – do make us safer and help us beat the odds. Back in 1975, Gretchen Harrington’s abduction didn’t halt my happy 7 year old solo frolics around our neighborhood. The “isolated incident” didn’t scare my parents enough change the way we lived, which I find remarkable. If this took place today, we would have quarantined our kids from walking anywhere alone until the maniac was caught.
But today, 7 year olds don’t walk anywhere by themselves anyway.
In fact, our 15 and 13 year olds are generally under our surveillance at all times. Is that because the world is more dangerous or we just know more about the dangers that are out there and make far more cautious choices?
The bigger question is how do we manage it all? The line between vigilance and insanity is a thin one indeed. To keep my balance, I hold fast to the odds and cross my fingers. I say “yes” to opportunities for independence for my sons — and myself — and “no” when my spidey sense tickles my spine. We travel on planes, trains and automobiles, my sons surf the Internet, we walk headlong into crowds — all the while knowing that someday it could be our turn. And, so far, that has gotten us through.
As I stood in the queue for the 138 return train from Washington D.C., my eyes fell on the man in front of me. Same cap. Same backpack. It was Backpack Dude from my morning train. My paranoia took a back seat to the funny coincidence and I smiled at him, remarking that we had the same travel schedule. It turns out my would-be train bomber commutes every other week from Allentown to spend a day at his D.C. office. He loves D.C. and enjoys the train ride. As we began to walk towards the business class car, his sneakered feet moved far more quickly than my heels. He moved ahead of me, but not before turning back and smiling:
“Have a good night,” he said, “Be safe.”
I smiled back knowing that evening, the odds were in my favor.