How safe do you feel now?
As news of the massacre in Colorado spread Friday, that question for many of us set into motion a complicated and deeply personal calculation.
Yes, it was far away. Yes, it was obviously the work of a demented soul.
But it was also inside a movie theater, a place to suspend disbelief, not get a full-bore dose of reality at its most horrific. Once again, a quintessentially public event gets personal.
"In the past, you had the feeling that if you weren't involved in gang activity or street drugs, there was a degree of safety you could assume out in a public place," said Laurel Sutherlin, a 35-year-old longtime activist in San Francisco who has worked with the Rainforest Action Network and the Free Tibet movement. "Public violence like this shakes that feeling up, yet it's something that people in places like Israel and Tibet deal with on a regular basis."
Standing outside the AMC Mercado 20 in Santa Clara, Sue Kozdon said she had two immediate reactions upon hearing the news. The first was political: better gun control. The second, and personal, was horror and disbelief.
"Just the thought of somebody going to a movie theater -- you think it's a safe place for your kids to go, your family to go," said the grandmother of two, trying along with the rest of a stunned nation to get her head around it all. "And then something like this happens and it's just unbelievable."
In a way, the shooting
"This will hurt the people whose mental health has been compromised in the past," she said. "People who have serious problems in daily living are going to take this tragedy to heart more than others, and they won't be as resilient as the rest of us."
Others more fatalistic, of course, might survey the outlines of yet another dark and calamitous American moment, then quietly fit the pieces of evidence into places inside ourselves where they make most sense. Dinnie McLaughlin, a mystical palm reader from the Peninsula, said, "This shooting won't really change anything about the way I live my life. If I walk into a place that doesn't feel good, I'm going to walk out. I've always felt safe wherever I am and that's not going to change now."
Recent college graduate Celine Greathouse agreed as she waited outside a Santa Clara theater on Friday to see "The Dark Knight Rises," the same film that was playing when the Colorado attack occurred. The 22-year-old said she felt more saddened than scared by the attack
"I feel like it was an isolated event," she said. "I mean, it was scary, but personally it's not going to stop me from going out and doing stuff."
For those of us whose professional lives unfold in common areas, for whom strangers are the status quo, the public nature of this movie-house slaughter will surely resonate in countless different ways. While Eric Torres, a front-desk clerk at a Ramada Inn in Sunnyvale, is shocked by what happened, he had emotionally processed the event by midmorning.
"I feel safe here in the hotel, but maybe that's because I'm from L.A.," he said. "It's all relative; Sunnyvale feels like a safe place compared to where I grew up. In L.A., you sort of expected anything could happen at any time. So that feeling of safety depends on where you're from."
Or on what you're carrying to protect yourself. Larry Williams, a 67-year-old former Marine who runs a family-owned party-rental business in San Jose, said that while the shootings were tragic, life, especially if it's personally ensured by a concealed weapon, goes on.
"I feel safe most times, though there are neighborhoods where I'm scared, so I sometimes carry a .38," Williams said. "If I get call at 2 a.m. and have to go down to the store, I'll take the gun. I'm just taking precautions."
Being armed might well boost your sense-of-security quotient. But even gun-store owner Joe Castello in Willow Glen said that what happened in that theater was so far off anyone's radar that ultimately it's one's attitude, not one's firepower, that determines your level of inner angst.
"Here you had a lunatic and you have no control over that," he said. "If I had to sit here and worry about some lunatic shooting me or stabbing me or blowing me up with a bomb strapped to his butt, how could I live and enjoy my life? My philosophy is just live your life."
And life, as Greathouse pointed out, "is short."
"I just guess it makes me think that we have to be prepared," she said. "Something can happen at any time. It can happen to anyone."
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689. Follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.