We’ve all been through enough these past few days to understand what happens when a community that perceived itself to be safe suddenly finds out it isn’t. It’s as John Wyndham says in his, The Day of the Triffids: “It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that ‘it can’t happen here’ – that one’s own time and place is beyond cataclysm.” That’s what the people of Newtown, Connecticut must have thought, until that awful day.
Admittedly, it was hard to detect what was about to happen. It most often is, when some imbalanced individual decides to break out of societal norms and wreak havoc. But there are other influences that threaten our communities that can only be dealt with through citizens having one another’s backs. If we remain detached when we should be on alert, our communities might never be the same.
Sometimes human beings rise to remarkable heights in their willingness to risk themselves for the greater good. The people of Denmark, faced with a Nazi occupation, were suddenly being commanded to turn over any Jewish people in their towns and villages. The penalty for refusal was obvious, yet in spite of the danger local citizens, outraged at the inhumanity of it, established their own hidden network of underground railroads. With roughly 8,000 Jews in Denmark the challenge was extreme, the consequences dire.
It wasn’t really until after World War Two that the world discovered that almost all 8,000 were successfully smuggled out of the country and guided to Sweden, where the Danish Jews were given sanctuary. It was to serve as one of the bright moments in what was clearly a darkened age.
Nor was it just the Danes or Swedes who defended humanity at the very time is was required. A distance away, and in circumstances completely independent from what was happening in Denmark, the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, in southern France, devoted themselves to rescuing and protecting Jews and other endangered people. Local citizens did so at great cost and threat to themselves. One of them said after the war, “Saving lives became a hobby of the people of Le Chambon.” It’s rare to find such heroism; rarer still when people make a practice of it.
These were remarkable acts in a time when numerous communities provided passive or active support to efforts at rounding up Jews. There was great collusion, of turning a blind eye, a much larger story in which many Europeans sought to protect themselves and their communities by giving up the innocent to the aggressors. Nevertheless, as British philosopher Richard Swinburne so aptly put it, sometimes communities take it upon themselves to exercise “the divine right of insurrection.”
Regardless of the reality that the Jews were of a different lineage than the Danes, the Swedes or the French, they were still viewed as important members of their respective communities. They filled positions in their communities, contributing to its larger benefit. When the time came to make a decision as to whether they stayed together as a people or separated themselves by their natural divisions, citizens knew they had lived together long enough that differences were transcended by belonging. They were a humanity bound together, and the sheer inhumanity of what they were being asked to do was ultimately beneath their nobility of character and outlook. They were communities and they protected their own, occasionally at the expense of life itself.
In reality, what took place in Newtown happens repeatedly around the world. I have been to African villages where entire populations have been wiped out, or women and children were hauled off into slavery and I couldn’t console myself because of the inhumanity of it. And yet those villages refused to give up; they rebuilt and rebuilt again. Every three seconds a child dies in this world. It’s not here among us and we give it little thought. And then suddenly it happens in a Connecticut town and we feel defenseless and speechless. Our humanity materializes when such things strike nearby, but often remains dormant if travesties happen continents away.
The carnage at Newtown reminds us that we are human and that we will survive as a species when we look out for one another. Teacher Victoria Soto heard the gunshots and quickly hid her students in cupboards and closets. When the killer entered the classroom she said she had sent them to the gym. He shot her and moved on. Look at her picture. It is the face of a dedicated teacher who did an amazing thing, and in doing so took citizenship to new heights. When a Newtown happens we learn that we, in fact, do possess a deeper humanity, one capable of great exploits to protect others. A test of our humanity will be how we respond to travesties that affect us personally. But the depth of our souls will be measured by how we defend those with whom we have nothing in common.
No community is truly safe until it builds a more noble humanity into its common life, its shared resources, its lofty dreams. A city without security cannot be a community, and a neighbourhood without citizen cooperation can never be a home. Newtown prompted us to hug our kids. Aspirational citizenship will teach us how to embrace each other in building a secure public space.