The Halloween terror attack of this past week happened at my 10-year-old son’s school. These are words I never thought I would utter. Terrorism is one of the many threads that make up the fabric of everyday life in New York City. My children read signs on the subway urging them that if they “see something, say something.” We live in the shadow of Ground Zero, where they witness the somber faces of tourists looking into the reflective pools where once stood the Twin Towers. And last Tuesday night, our living room window framed the antenna of the Freedom Tower ablaze in red, white, and blue.
Unlike in the movies, that day hadn’t gotten off to an idyllic start. I was stressed about a Halloween party I was hosting for twelve of my son’s friends. My main worry was how to keep these rambunctious superheroes, ninjas, and vampires from tripping on the stairs as we worked our way down our high-rise, floor-to-floor, collecting mini Musketeers and Smarties. Most of the boys, I knew, would be eating as we moved along, working themselves into a frothy sugar high just in time for the return to my small New York City apartment.
It was unusual for me, but I was on time for school pick-up, even a bit early. The schoolyard was buzzing with excitement as the kids anticipated dressing up and gobbling candy. Moments later, as my son and I waved goodbye to our friends and exited the schoolyard, three middle school girls ran by me, screaming about a gunman. Being a slightly jaded New York City mother, and considering it was Halloween, I thought it was a prank. But the look of horror on those girls’ faces immediately told me otherwise. I grabbed my son’s hand and we ran. I remember the split-second sensation of his hand in mine, of his hand feeling somewhat smaller than usual. Yet even as we escaped into a nearby building, even as I spoke to the 911 operator, I held out hope that I would soon feel foolish because this was, after all, just a Halloween prank. And then we heard the gunshots ring out.
It is important to talk about gun control and fair immigration policies for our country. Law enforcement agencies need to be empowered in order to protect us. But these are mere tools. Without a shift in our mindset that seeks out peace and recognizes the dignity of every human being—yes, from conception to natural death, from every race and religion—these tools will rust and become useless. This peace needs to be discovered first in ourselves. There is no “world peace” without peace in our own individual hearts. Anger that my son’s safe school, nestled in our happy neighborhood, had been turned into a crime scene flooded my mind on Tuesday night. Unchecked, that anger, tinged with fear, could easily overwhelm inner peace and lead to vengeance and retribution.
I keep asking myself how the alleged terror suspect, Sayfullo Saipov, a married man with three children, could mentally and emotionally detach himself from his fellow human beings to “kill as many people as he could,” especially children. That he could not care that the death of those eight victims would have an endless and painful ripple-effect on family, friends—even on those who simply read their names in the news—is unfathomable. Radicalized individuals like Saipov are clearly thirsting for something to hold onto: a community, a belief, which makes them feel worthy. Their zeal seems only to be satisfied by these violent extremes. I’m not sure we will be able to convince them that those outside their religion are worthy of their respect. Possibly it is a matter less of changing their minds and more of thwarting their efforts. Evil has been conquered before by peace-seeking citizens who never lost hope.
And I do see hope in this situation. That day, parents took in children who were not theirs, treating them like their own with hugs and comforting words. Teachers helped keep scared students calm, and those students, in the minutes that turned into hours of lockdown, quietly listened to instructions and held one another’s hands. And I saw my son, fingers clasped tightly in front of his little face, and heard the words, “thy kingdom come.” These people recognized the inherent dignity of those around them, a dignity conferred not by religion or beliefs, but by their humanity alone. Whether they were aware of it or not, God’s mercy and love was flowing through them to their fellow human beings. The terror of the world doesn’t have to enter our hearts. Instead, the peace inside us, the peace of God, can help create the peace of the world.