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What Gets Our Attention, What Makes Us Care

April 25, 2017

Saturday April 8th was a beautiful and balmy day in Miami. That afternoon my wife and I sat in the lovely garden-like outdoor dining area of Merrick Park, a very high end retail center waiting for friends to join us for lunch. Suddenly the tranquil setting was shattered by a woman’s blood curdling screams followed by gunshots all coming from the Equinox Gym on the level just feet above our restaurant’s patio.

One of the gym’s trainers had been fired that morning and overcome by rage had come back with a gun to shoot and kill the gym’s general manager and training manager followed by his own suicide. Our area was almost instantly filled with shoppers fleeing in panic, a phalanx of police squad cars, swat teams and ambulances.

The following Monday on the opposite side of the country in San Bernardino, California an estranged husband walked into his wife’s middle class predominately white grade school to shot and kill her in front of her young students. His hail of bullets also unfortunately killed one of those kids and wounded another who had the misfortune to be just behind her.

Both sets of tragedies received massive news coverage with aerial film footage and interviews on national TV and in the print media for days thereafter because they were riveting violent events we could all identify with.

Then a week after the Equinox murders there were two separate shootings within fifteen minutes of each other in West Park, a suburb of Broward County just to the north of Miami. In the first, a family of three, husband, wife and young daughter were sitting in a parked car that was suddenly surrounded by gunmen who riddled their vehicle with bullets. The pregnant wife was instantly killed and her husband and their little girl were very badly wounded. Fifteen minutes later another man in a nearby area of West Park was also shot to death although police have not been able to link the two shootings.

Unlike the Equinox and San Bernardino shootings the West Park attacks attracted very little media attention. Nothing more than a short inside page newspaper story and a brief local TV spot although they were as equally violent as the Equinox and San Bernardino events. Why the difference? Relatively the same numbers of people were involved. But the victims in West Park were black, shot in a minority neighborhood many might consider unsafe. The Equinox and San Bernardino attacks were in what we and the media expected should have been safe locations, an upscale shopping mall and middle class grade school.

I wondered why there was such massive focus on the first sets of tragedies and so little attention to the last two? Then it hit me. When we’re afraid it could happen to us or our children we pay attention. We care. But when the victims are people we don’t see as connected to us in any way or don’t care about, we view it as just a passing unpleasantness. It’s just a story about others we don’t think of as truly being part of anything we should be concerned with. We pass it off as somehow being their fault, not something that should involve or affect us. Something almost in a different land; a different world.

But West Park and its residents are part of us. We are all part of a greater whole that makes us one nation, one land. When we don’t care about West Park’s people and their children in ways similar to the way we care about ourselves and our kids we begin to lose an important part of our national soul. Little by little we become less than we were, less worthy to claim the mantel of a great nation. We shrink into our own selfishness.

And this is something that truly scares me just as it should scare you. We all have to recognize the threat our self-focus presents and start viewing the dangers that menace our less advantaged neighbors as dangers that equally threaten us. We as a nation have to start doing something about it. We have to come to recognize that human tragedy for some is equally human tragedy for all. It should start with looking at what we all have in common, our children, their futures, and our shared need for security. We have to give up making judgments based on our differences, be they economic status or otherwise.

I recently heard a compelling talk given by Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. In it he proposed that we all have to get closer to each other instead of marginalizing those we want to distance ourselves from based on the politics of fear and anger. We’ve got to be willing to do the uncomfortable things, to make the difficult decisions and choices that will bring us together as a nation. And we have to be hopeful that we can do just that.

We have to start caring.