In light of the horrifying attack committed in Manchester, UK at the Ariana Grande concert, I have been doing a lot of thinking about public spaces.
My latest novel, The Heart of Henry Quantum is a book that takes place in a myriad of public spaces. The characters move through the city of San Francisco, from location to location, interacting with other characters and their surroundings organically. They are able to do this because of their base understanding that walking a couple of blocks in downtown San Francisco will not result in an explosion that may cost them their lives.
If these characters were to lose that understanding of security and were instead in a constant state of fear about what would happen to them each time they left a “secure location,” the story would be quite different. Indeed, the world would be quite different. And it is different.
Humans are social creatures and congregating in public spaces is not merely a mercantile necessity (indeed with on-line shopping, it’s becoming less and less important to gather for the purposes of buying and selling). It’s much more that we love to share our lives with others, to experience things together, to feel that irrational and glorious sense of commuitas – of unity with those around us. Whether you just meet a friend at a restaurant or see a play or concert with hundreds or even thousands of others, you are participating in something greater than yourself. Disrupting that sacred space of gathering alters not only our sense of security, but our sense of who we are as a community.
A friend told me about an experience she recently had on a BART train crossing from San Francisco to the East Bay. They were riding along as they did every day, when suddenly there was a loud crash – just a sound, but a sharp one, a bang. Nothing else happened. Nothing was damaged. No one was hurt. All was good. Until she noticed that everyone in that train car began sizing up their fellow passengers. They were, in essence, searching for the terrorist, even though there was no terrorist act.
This is deeply saddening to me. When we begin to distrust one another, a social bond is broken. When you can’t walk down the sidewalk in Times Square in the sure knowledge that no one will run you down with a car (it just happened); or go to a youth camp without being mowed down by a right wing fanatic (it happened), or, as we’ve seen in Paris and now England, go to a concert and lose your life, something fundamental to who we are is being destroyed.
I’m just a writer. I have no idea how to confront this.
All I know is that we must not only secure our public spaces, but must protect and cherish within ourselves our will to engage and trust in the public sphere, our shared and sacred spaces.