David, my seventeen year old, came downstairs for breakfast this morning, and asked what was going on, why was he hearing sirens in the distance.  “Sirens?’ Burke and I asked.  “Yes, sirens—like when there’s an attack,” he said.

We walked outside and heard the kind of siren that crests, subsides, crests again, over and over, the kind that made me remember the drills we had done in grade school to practice for the event of a nuclear attack.

Burke logged on to the CNN website, where we learned that someone had opened fire at the University of Texas library, had killed himself, and that a second shooter was suspected of still being on the loose.   The university was in lockdown.

I could not allow myself to register these facts.  Any fear or anxiety I revealed would trigger alarm in David, alarm that would reverberate for days, if not weeks.

I drove the long way to his school, so we would come nowhere near the university.  But on the way back home, I drove closer to the university and saw helicopters circling round and round the campus, the sirens still wailing.  They would continue for over another hour.

Only later in the morning, when I talked on the phone to my older son Ray, who is attending a college in Chicago, about what he had heard from his friends at UT, did my feelings emerge.  I am still having difficulty finding words for my feelings.  Terror immediately comes to mind, but no, I tell myself, that’s too strong a word.

But no other word approaches what I felt and feel.

Terror when Ray reports that his good and dear friend was on her bicycle, heading to the very block of the library, when an acquaintance saw her and told her what was going on. Terror at knowing how thin a line there was between the outcome of no one being shot besides the shooter, and a tragedy like what befell the students of Virginia Tech three years ago.

Terror at being forced to acknowledge that there is no protecting our children.

I am sitting on a plane on my way to a conference in Pittsburgh.  In the Austin airport, all the televisions showed images of the library, of the police cars, the street empty of students.  The reporters said that the coast was clear, there no longer being an indication of a second shooter.  Yet classes were cancelled for the rest of the day.

Ray’s friend told him, “How can I go back to class now?  How can I feel safe again?”

Veterans suffering from PTSD face this truth every day, every second of their lives that the rest of manage to block out:  we are all vulnerable, exposed, at risk—always.

What matters is how we respond to this basic aspect of life, a fact that our technology and politics seem to exacerbate even as they cloak it.

On the plane, I happened to read these words of Ann Patchett:  “I think we have lived for a very, very long time in this beautiful country, in a beautiful life, and it’s made us quite lazycertainly to the extent that we can barely remember we are at war because we don’t have to give anything up, at any moment in our life.  We have no seeming responsibility to a larger whole.”

At times like this morning, one truth emerged with crystal clarity:  We are all mortal. Random violence can strike any of us. We cannot keep our children safe.  But we can decrease, rather than increase, the possibilities of such violence if we live out of humane connection to our larger society rather than to just our immediate circle of friends and family.

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