Like so many others, I watched the videos of the police response in Uvalde, Texas with shock and disappointment. The scene brought me back to the afternoon just months earlier when a shooter attacked Oxford High School just 30 miles north of my home. As President of my local public-school board, and a mental health professional on the county’s crisis response team, I found myself at the intersection of school governance and community response.
Families and individuals from the Oxford community struggled with processing what had happened. Who was to blame and whom they could trust? In the coming days, the juvenile justice system in metropolitan Detroit was overwhelmed with dozens of children arrested for making threats. Uvalde happened just weeks after our crisis response team had handed our work in Oxford back to local more long-term support resources. So, while the image of police officers equipped to respond frozen by indecision and fear just beyond where they could help the children was shocking, it reminded me that we often respond in moments of crisis in ways that feel safe but do not supply security.
I find it helpful to distinguish between safety, which is about avoiding danger, and security, which is about providing protection as we engage with the world. Safety is more of an absolute (and mostly elusive) standard, while security can be responsive to the situation as it changes. I am far from a law enforcement or tactical expert, and I am certain that there will be reports that examine the failures of the tactical response in Uvalde. But my training gives me perspective on human behavior, and the same human forces that interfered with effective response in Uvalde often interfere with efforts to keep ourselves, our families, and our communities secure.
Our brains are wired to respond to threats reactively, this ensures that we can stay safe and not become delayed by the more involved process of thinking and problem solving. Our reactions to danger are to either flee, fight, or freeze. While these instincts serve us well in the moment, in the longer term they can actually interfere. The flee instinct can cause us to ignore threats or avoid signs they are developing. The fight instinct can cause us to focus on finding someone to blame rather than analyzing risk, and the freeze instinct can cause us to default to what is familiar, which can be a distraction from actual risk assessment. Sometimes the commonsense approach can be as popular as it is ineffective.
The illusion of safety is appealing, and when that façade is removed, it can feel overwhelming. We might feel safer denying or avoiding talking about risky topics like suicide or substance use or mental illness, but sometimes our security depends on walking towards and confronting risk rather than fleeing from it. When something painful happens it is natural to search for blame, but our pointed finger often distracts from the actual security steps that we could take to enhance the systems and policies that work. Incidental responses to systemic issues will necessarily fall short. We need systems in our communities that are built upon supporting wellness, and recovery for those who need it before they need rescue and treatment.
In our communities, safety discussions sometimes become focused on whom we feel most safe around, and this focus on whom to exclude or scrutinize too often goes to excluding those who look different or scrutinizing those who come from a different background. Predators are skilled at blending in. Our children have been harmed by those who felt safest because they had the “right look” or the “right resume” or the “right friends.” Security is less about sheltering and more about vigilance, we should focus less on appearances and background and more on behaviors.
Alexithymia is a neurological marker of clinical decline in functioning. It means that a person is unable to recognize their emotions. There are three common markers of alexithymia in the clinical world. Inability to name emotions, externalizing feelings, and difficulty distinguishing between emotions. We need to make sure that we don’t culturally burden ourselves with alexithymia by responding to emotional challenges with problem solving and other externalized solutions. Rather, we should recognize the emotions, name them, and learn to tolerate and cope with those strong emotions. When our children feel strong emotions, they don’t need to be fixed or distracted, we don’t need to find someone to blame. Cultivating a culture that is strong enough to feel strong emotions will make us more resilient and secure.
In research on targeted violence, individuals who become dangerous follow specific behavioral patterns. Direct threats are worrying and should be investigated, but they are an exceedingly rare predictor of actual attacks. The patterns that lead to targeted violence often begin with a personal grievance that gets framed as a moral outrage. When people feel rejected or shamed, those are hard feelings to tolerate. But when the person experiences that as victimhood and turns it into an ideology, they are on a dangerous path. Anger can convert to contempt and then disgust. We should be sure that contempt for anyone is a nonstarter in our communities. Eliminating dehumanizing rhetoric from our platforms and conversations is not only a Torah value, but it will also help us identify the signs that someone may be heading down a dangerous violent path. If public figures speak with disdain towards others, they should be suspect, not embraced or celebrated.
We can make our communities more secure by creating norms of tolerance and emotional wellness. When anger and disdain and contempt stand out as anomalies, we will better be able to target individual supports and scrutinize behaviors for violent potential. Clear standards in our institutions, and a culture of wellness and responsive supports make us stronger. There are other steps that may feel more familiar or even more safe, but ultimately our security depends on us taking the right steps, not just those that feel right.
Menachem Hojda is a licensed clinical social worker in Michigan. He works for Oakland Community Health Network and Fairsky Therapy, and serves on the school board of the Oak Park School District.
Menachem Hojda LMSW