It is a hard lesson — sometimes the people who are the most dangerous are also quite charming, pillars of the community, and fine, upstanding citizens. When I saw the movie “Betrayed” about 25 years ago, I remember my shock when it became clear that the good-looking Iowa farmer, who loved and cherished his kids, was in reality a neo-Nazi assassin who most likely had murdered his first wife.
While I knew intellectually it could be true, I had a hard time with the visceral reality of it — he loved his kids, for heaven’s sake! And I think that was the filmmaker’s point. You can’t always tell by looking.
Our community has had that lesson drilled home in the past two years, and we continue to struggle with it.
Whether it is the charming ordinariness of the perpetrator of violence or our reluctance to believe that anyone we know and interact with could behave in such a way, many of us still cling to the belief that somehow we would know, we could tell.
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But when the reality begins to sink in, as it has in this community, then we begin to struggle with framing an adequate response. Sometimes, our inability to control our environments, to identify those who would hurt us or those we love leads to paralysis and a kind of despair.
If it isn’t possible to know, why not just bury our heads in the sand and hope it goes away or pray that we will be lucky enough to avoid catastrophe? Our community needs more from us.
So what shall we do to protect ourselves and our community?
If we can’t tell by looking, what safeguards can we find? First, we must come to terms with the reality that nothing we can do can guarantee safety. That does not mean, however, that we are powerless in the face of evil and violence. There are things we can do. While we can’t make ourselves and our community completely safe, there are definitely things we can do to be safer.
One of the first things we can do is learn about the dynamics of violence — what does it look like? How do perpetrators operate?
These are difficult conversations, but critical if we would understand the reality of violence.
A second helpful response is to learn how to limit perpetrators’ opportunities to do violence. Attending a Stewards of Children workshop or learning about the work of the Centre County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force are both good options to learn more about sexual and domestic violence and how a community can enhance its safety.
A third response, and perhaps the most challenging for us in these hectic times, is to really get to know those in our community. A recent poster from the national Presbyterian Church has the tag line, “We don’t watch our neighbors; we see them.”
Getting to know our neighbors deeply and well, not relying on surface or first impressions, helps create a community that takes seriously its commitment to care for each other and keep each other as safe as possible.
It takes work, commitment and the willingness to pull our heads out of the sand to deal with the reality before us — but those are critical components of healthy communities.