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Fighting the Fear of Public Space

After the latest spate of mass shootings, the world — and technology — is in danger of turning us into hermits. We can’t allow it.

Credit: Paul Ratje/Getty Images

LLast week, a dirt bike backfired in Times Square. In another time or place, it may have registered as a brief diversion for New Yorkers, something that turns your head and distracts you while you walk. But in 2019, just days after mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, it prompted fears of gunfire, and then a stampede. Hundreds of people scrambled to escape, running into nearby stores and theaters. “I accepted it was my time to die,” one person wrote on Twitter.

This kind of collective anxiety has become common. The incident was just one in a string of recent panics in California, Utah, Virginia, Texas, and Missouri, and even one two years ago in New York’s JFK airport. When there are nearly as many mass shootings as there are days in the year, the mind naturally assumes. And when seven of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in American history have happened since 2007, a growing unease about public spaces is eminently understandable. (Depending on how you define the term, mass shootings also occur frequently in private spaces, but those that are carried out in public tend to receive the most attention, and seem to provoke the most widespread fear.)

Online, people candidly share their fears about spending time in public. How could you blame them, when shootings happen in churches, schools, malls, military bases, Walmarts, movie theaters, festivals, nightclubs, and offices?

I’ve always loved public spaces. They help me see the value in collective activity, and remind me that I’m not alone here. I love my favorite library because it welcomes everyone. I like the collective ritual of taking the train. I’d rather eat breakfast at the diner surrounded by strangers than eat at home alone. I run in parks and along trails because then I see dogs and birds and grass. I go to bars and museums because their energy becomes my own. I go outside because I never know what will be there waiting for me.

Every irritating poster I see advertising a meal delivery or ride-sharing service is a reminder of the implicit, antiseptic premise that it’s better to stay in my own private bubble.

Yet I can’t help but carry my own disquiet. It comes and goes, but it never fully disappears. It tags along to the movies, and the Stop & Shop where I buy groceries. It’s there when I think about my nephew, who starts kindergarten in September. It’s here now on a stormy afternoon as I sit and write at that library. It’s a specter that has crept into every conceivable public place I visit or think about, and it has irrevocably changed how I see them. The openness means there’s nowhere to hide. The unpredictability that was a joy now seems like a liability. I spend more and more time thinking about the regularity with which these spaces have become stages for ghastly, mass-scale tragedies.

There are other, more benign ways modern culture coaxes me into wondering whether public spaces are worth the risk, the inconvenience, the fear. Why don’t you order your groceries online, or watch a movie at home tonight? Wouldn’t that be better than going outside? It’s easier to do these things alone, you know. The ubiquity of delivery and streaming means that leaving home is an option some of us needn’t consider. Every irritating poster I see advertising a meal delivery or ride-sharing service is a reminder of the implicit, antiseptic premise that it’s better to stay in my own private bubble.

It’s a false sense of solitude, of course. There’s a network of people who make your delivery sushi, or the ride to the airport, possible. But you can choose to make them invisible, and that’s part of the marketability. The assumption is that convenience is an individual endeavor, and must come at the cost of socialization — or, at the very least, spontaneous interaction. Yet paradoxically, these pathways to isolation keep tabs on their users. They know what you eat, what you watch, where you go, and who you see. Solitude is a myth when a device knows more about you than even a partner or a friend would.

In seeking safety and isolation, we limit the unpredictable. “Public space and the public realm is exciting because around that corner, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Charlotte Laffler, an urban planner who works in space development, told me. “People are taking that experience and opportunity out of their lives. I think it’s sad. It makes us less human. We’re opting out of interacting with other people or seeing new things.”

The acrid, psyche-warping fear of violence in public spaces and the increasing ability to cut ourselves off from daily, communal interactions are not overtly connected. Yet in 2019 they are, at least for me, concurrent phenomena that both imbue a sense of creeping isolation.

It feels like a kind of uniquely 21st-century agoraphobia. “Lots of people will have doubts about attending public events or going out at night when we see there’s not really any way to be sure you’ll be safe from a shooting,” Vida Bajc, a sociologist at Yale, told the Trace, a nonprofit newsroom that reports on gun violence. “We will have fewer and fewer ways for people to relate to one another in public space. It’s tragic.” As ghoulish voices like Sean Hannity agitate for militarizing every school and street corner over sensible and humane solutions like gun control, the problem only compounds: Public spaces adopt an aura of smothering surveillance.

I love the unpredictability of open space, and I don’t want to devise an escape route every time I go outside. I think the privileged notion that I should stay home because it’s more convenient is poisonous. Though the world tells me to think otherwise, I don’t want to shut myself in. Still, I can’t shake the specter of fear. When I go to the movies, I instinctively register the exit signs and the topography of the theater in a feeble effort to feel some sense of control.

I often think a better relationship with the community I find myself in would allay all of this. That talking about it with the people around me would help lessen the sense that this growing isolation is inevitable. That’s what collectivity is for, after all — helping you realize that you’re not isolated in your experiences or anxieties. But the world, it seems, would rather I stay inside.

Writer and editor with words in Gizmodo, Motherboard, and the Outline.

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