“Just be aware,” are three of the worst words one can say to a person who already runs moderately anxious, the way I do. And this phrase seems to be everywhere: parents’ groups on Facebook, local “investigative” news reports, and neighborhood watch apps, all imploring us to increase the amount of attention we apply to virtually all of our daily activities.
“Just be aware” is the slightly more innocuous cousin of “you can never be too safe.” It’s a phrase that is casual on the surface, but ultimately leaves you with the impression that any paranoia you may feel is warranted — you were just being aware, after all. Awareness is great, right? Aware people are educated! They are with-it! They know what’s up!
But here’s the thing about “being aware:” It clearly does not prevent tragedy. It doesn’t prevent a gunman from entering a synagogue, shouting that all Jews must die, and then setting about to accomplish just that. It doesn’t bring back the eleven lives that were needlessly lost. Being aware is no match for the anti-Semitic vitriol that is on the rise in our society.
And yes, sometimes it’s useful to be “made aware.” Knowledge is truly one of the best — perhaps the only — tools we have as parents and, like most people I know, I consume as much information as I am able. It’s helpful to have a heads-up about things I haven’t already considered, and of course it is essential to be made aware of what’s happening if a horrible situation is unfolding in your vicinity; the quick actions of some of the worshippers Tree of Life, for example, saved their lives.
It’s not useful, however, for me to know that a woman in a neighboring state poisoned her sister’s breast milk while she was staying with them. It’s a horrible thing, to be sure, but the only moral of this story is to trust no one around my refrigerator, including family.
It’s also not helpful to be “made aware” that a woman was attacked in the parking lot of my local Target in broad daylight. This awful news was shared near and far by all the mom and neighborhood groups in my area, along with the plea to “be vigilant!” Since I feel I’m already appropriately cautious whenever I’m in a parking lot, my only takeaway is that the sort of vigilance required to avoid this sort of situation is to never leave my house, or never allow another human to come within ten feet of me.
Plus, since the dawn of time, in the name of “awareness,” women have been told not to go out after dark by ourselves, and that if we absolutely MUST, to keep our heads on a swivel. Carry pepper spray, we’re advised — or, since I’m in Tennessee, I’m told I should carry a gun. President Trump, echoing this, suggested that if the congregants of Tree of Life had in fact carried guns, perhaps more of them would still be with us today. (Never mind that armed police officers were harmed during the attack.)
Now that I’m a mother, this spirit of “awareness” has intensified: Definitely don’t leave your house after dark with your child. If someone starts to admire your child, walk away quickly. Alert store security, have them walk you to your car. But also keep an eye on those people, too, because did you hear about the security officer who… and on and on.
Yes, we should share local news stories and current events with one another. And yes, many of these events are horrible — and that doesn’t mean we should look away from them. But what we shouldn’t be doing is admonishing people that they could have done something to prevent so many of these awful occurrences.
So yes, I’m aware of the risks, as small as they may be (thought not, perhaps, as small as they should be), of sending my child to school. The media has made parents keenly aware that schools are not always safe. The thing is that sensible gun policy — and not “awareness” — is the clearest solution to reducing gun violence. But that’s never stopped people from suggesting that awareness — or its counterparts, fear and paranoia — somehow protect our children, as in, “Be aware of that aloof or unsociable kid.”
It’s human to want to assign ourselves small and actionable tasks; to make sure that terrible things never happen to us or the people we love. The stories we hear that make our hearts ache are often followed by the things we do to assure ourselves of why the same thing won’t happen to us, or our children, or the people we know. But the awful truth is that, in so many cases, the victim had merely participated in society that day — had done the things that he or she normally does on a given day, such as going to school or synagogue.
Anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise, this we know. But that doesn’t mean that we should start carrying guns or stop being Jewish. We should speak out against hate whenever we can, and we should bring attention to the fact that this is not and should not be the new normal. And while we do that, however, let’s be aware about “being aware.” Let’s do a better job of deciphering what are and aren’t realistic action steps to prevent so much of the bad stuff that goes on in our society.
Instead of inadvertently blaming victims by telling the rest of us to pay better attention, or instead of worrying about what could potentially happen during every step of every day, let’s put our collective energy toward helping those harmed by violence. Let’s denounce hate every chance we get, and let’s work toward bettering our communities and our country.
And let’s also stop making the world even scarier for ourselves and our children than it already is.