When terror is the new normal

December 7, 2015

In the wake of the shootings in Paris, where people had gathered to hear music, have a drink, watch a soccer game; and in San Bernardino, where a training program was to be enlivened by holiday festivities, people are asking: Is any place safe? Mainstream media asks readers: How much do you now weigh the risk of going to a shopping mall, sporting event, movie theater, health clinic? Is weighing that risk the “new normal”? Is this what our lives will be like now?

If you are a woman, you have grown up weighing the risk of engaging in everyday activities that carry a heightened risk of violence simply because you are a woman: getting into your car in a public parking lot, walking alone after dark, having a drink at a party, going on a date, falling in love, ending an intimate relationship. If you are a woman of color, the risk increases dramatically.

We don’t call it “terrorism,” what men have done to create a culture in which women are fearful of random violence–some even in their own homes. But whether it is a random shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic or an isolated assault on a pregnant woman, the purpose is to assert power and control, to restrict movement and freedom. As women, we have internalized the danger so much that it feels “normal”: being alert for red flags, glancing around you, rehearsing possible responses to different scenarios.

In time, the thought that the bus you get on might be blown up by a terrorist will become as normal as the thoughts women have daily–that they might be assaulted by the man who gets off the bus with them. It will cross your mind. You will shrug it off. You will decide you have to take some risks if you are going to live your life with any semblance of freedom.

Women learn early. When I learned to drive, I learned to look on the floor of the back seat of the car before opening the driver’s side door. Someone could be hiding. I was told to always carry coins for a pay phone, in case I wanted my parents to come and get me when I was on a date. I was told never to get on an elevator alone if a man was in the car, and get out if I was alone and a man got in. I had to pretend that violence against women wasn’t something real so that I could be hired as only the second woman to report the news at a daily newspaper, because the need to “protect” women from dangerous situations was the excuse used to keep women out of journalism.

One night, while covering local elections, I repeatedly walked through downtown alone, going from Democratic headquarters to Republican, looking for statements from candidates. The losing Congressional candidate was nowhere to be found. Walking back to the newspaper after midnight, to file my story before the 1 am deadline, I ran into the candidate’s campaign manager. The candidate was in a hotel room. If I came with him, I could get a quote. I went. I wondered, as I rode up the elevator alone with him, if I would be safe. If I was stupid. If getting the quote was worth the risk. I knew the male reporter on the competing newspaper wouldn’t have had any hesitation, not because he was braver, but because he had no reason to feel unsafe.

I was safe that night. In fact, I’ve been fortunate to have escaped sexual and physical violence. Let me describe how fortunate that is:

  • In the United States, one in five girls experience sexual abuse.
  • 20 percent of adolescent girls experience physical or sexual violence in a dating relationship.
  • 20 percent of women have experienced an attempted or completed rape.

I don’t know what the statistical likelihood is today of being the victim of a Paris or a San Bernardino type assault, but I’m pretty sure it in no way approaches one-in-five. But 20 percent is enough for all women to think about it. It’s enough for it to be “normal.”

Different women do different things to feel safer on a daily basis in a world in which they risk violence from intimate partners as well as strangers. Some don’t wear clothing they want to wear. Some go to the restroom in a group. Some pay for taxis rather than take less expensive public transportation. Some stay home rather than go for a hike or go camping or take a trip by themselves. Some try to imagine what would please their partner so that he doesn’t become abusive. Some stay in hurtful relationships because leaving them might be riskier. Some carry a weapon. Some move to a new city and change their names. But all of us consider limiting our movement, our appearance, our behavior. We all consider whether to quiet our voices. We weigh the risks. This is normal. We don’t even notice that we do it. If we don’t do it and we are hurt, we will be asked: What did you do to provoke this?

This is a question no one asks when there is what we call “terrorism.” We don’t ask why someone sat outside at a café or went to school that day, or attended their office Christmas party. In the new normal, perhaps we will.


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