I’m a soft target, and you are.
O you who want to slaughter us, we’ll be dead soon enough what’s the rush
and this our only world.
At times of escalating violence, I often think of how my grandmother got her family out of Germany in 1938, narrowly escaping deportation to the camps. She was only 19, but sensed the mounting threats as the Nazis marched by her house in Russelsheim, and her father’s store was vandalized. Alarmed, she gathered her wits, frantically riding her bike around Frankfurt to collect the paperwork necessary to leave the country. A family photo from this time depicts my grandmother, her mother, and siblings with a large group of extended family – all of whom would perish in the camps. If my grandmother hadn’t had such astute instincts – if she hadn’t been hypervigilant – she wouldn’t have survived.
In this age of mass shootings and hate-based violence, the poet Wallace Stevens’s conception of the imagination as a “necessary angel,” “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without,” occurs to me with fresh urgency. What if my grandmother hadn’t been able to imagine what was coming and had just stayed put? A failure of imagination would have been tragic for her then, and it may prove tragic for us now. And as concerning as it is to imagine where this escalating violence will lead, it’s perhaps even more frightening to consider what our amped-up anxieties may enable our government to do. My grandmother’s history reminds me that it’s only a matter of time before our collective fear might be used against us, or others among us.
In 2016, after a tumultuous year in France that included shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Bataclan theatre, I found myself in a moment of peace on a boat on the Seine with a hundred NYU students and faculty, when news alerts abruptly flashed on our phones. It was Bastille Day, and a truck had just driven into a crowd in Nice, killing 86 people as they gathered – just like us – to watch fireworks. Unfounded rumors began circulating that attacks were also happening in Paris. In response to the emergency, the police stopped traffic on the river. As program director, I was responsible for getting everyone home safely amidst the chaos – but I didn’t know how I’d do that. Everyone onboard grew increasingly alarmed, and some began to worry about their own children left behind with sitters. Were they safe? I tried to call home but couldn’t reach my husband and kids back in Brooklyn. Not since witnessing the 9/11 attacks in downtown Manhattan had I been so shaken and afraid.
We’re all soft targets, I said that night to a colleague as we left the boat. In the years since I’ve often found myself walking through crowds of people thinking I’m a soft target, and you are, ruminating about how vulnerable we all are as we move through cities in our soft bodies and unprotected flesh. We walk the world in puncturable skin, and kismet it is if we’re in the right or wrong school, office, market, concert hall, or café.
After the attacks, Paris was on high alert. In past summers I’d watched weekly wedding celebrations from my window in the Marais (my third book opens with these weddings); now, in front of the synagogue where once brides and grooms had danced paced soldiers with guns.
As anti-Semitic incidents surged and Jews were leaving Paris, I thought again of my grandmother’s alertness to her moment in history, how such hypervigilance saved her life. At home neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” recalled across generations what my grandmother once heard on her streets. I didn’t understand what was so “neo” about neo-Nazis, they seemed a lot like the old Nazis to me.
In response, I wrote. While I’ve always been preoccupied with the vulnerabilities of the body, in my new book, Soft Targets, the fear of annihilation extends beyond the self to an imperiled planet on which we’re all soft targets amid so many threats – the threats of gun violence, of global and domestic terror, the threats to our democracy, the threat of climate change, and so on.
When we returned to Paris this summer the military presence so palpable just a few years ago had subsided, the French seemed less on edge. One night, after reading from Soft Targets to our students, the poems struck me as melodramatic and dated, hysterical even. Maybe the violence had subsided and there’d be peace for a time.
But history contradicts. Over and over it sics itself upon the soft. The latest domestic terror attacks back here in the United States reactivate the same fears, along with a collective awareness of our terrible vulnerabilities in malls, theaters, restaurants, places of worship, the streets. Assault weapons continue to proliferate; no amount of terror ever moves us to act. At school, our kids perform active shooter drills, huddling in corners behind locked classroom doors. At work, we endure mandatory training to “run, hide, fight,” noting exits in every space we enter. The staff in my office joke about which of our windows would be most auspicious for jumping. Increasingly we perceive mortal danger in the everyday. Our nightmares have become quotidian, our hypervigilance routine.
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As the pressure of reality continues to intensify, let’s press back. Our democracy is empowered when we can imagine a country in which we can send our children to school without worrying they’ll need bulletproof backpacks, in which we can gather in the streets without being spooked into stampeding when a motorcycle backfires. If we fail to dream of a peaceful and humane world for ourselves – for all of us – where are we heading? In W.H. Auden’s famous words, circulated widely after 9/11, we must love one another or die. As sentimental as it might sometimes feel, love seems a potent and necessary force right now. Love and gun control. We’re here so briefly.