Last Friday the quiet tranquility of Chapel Hill on a warm spring afternoon was pierced by the sirens of emergency vehicles rushing toward a crisis. Through my office window, I saw a parade of fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances drive by in quick succession. Something was clearly going on, more than a fire drill, I thought, but nothing prepared me for the news that there was a shooting at the elementary school only two blocks away.
That was all that we knew at first: there was a shooting at the school. We didn’t know whether kids, teachers, staff, or parents were involved–how many people were hurt, who was the shooter, was he or she still on the loose, and how bad were the injuries? Memories and images from historic mass shootings went through my head, and I tried to steady my mind and keep imagination from running wild. The fact that my child was not at that school was instrumental in me being able to stay calm and focus on getting out of the area. It felt like nothing good could come from staying there, and I had to pick up kids from school across town, so I had better just get out of the neighborhood before it was closed off.
The shooting was so recent that as I was driving away, the TV news trucks passed me as they drove to the scene.
I picked up my carpool and took the kids out for frozen yogurt, as I told them the basics of what happened and scanned the news for updates.
First came the news that an adult woman had been shot multiple times and taken to the hospital, right there in front of the school just before all the kids were to be let out for the day. The shooter was still at large.
Then the news that the shooter had been caught very quickly by the Chapel Hill police, as he tried to flee in his car.
So we drove home, and we all began to worry about the woman who had been shot. Who was she? I felt guilty for wanting to make sure that my friends were safe, because I knew that no matter who was hurt, someone’s family was going to be devastated by this violence. But I had the all-too-human need to check in with my friends and make sure that they were safe and accounted for.
Shortly after 4:00 the TV news announced that the shooting victim had died. The nightmare had escalated.
At swim team practice that evening, parents were wary but calm. We still didn’t know the name of the victim. We did start to hear some details of what had happened. It was clear that the school staff had done a really good job of reacting quickly and professionally, locking the school down to keep the kids safe, and sending out emails and texts to parents immediately to let them know what was happening. The kids were in good hands. And the school principal and nurse had rushed outside to help the shooting victim, even at the risk to their own safety, not knowing where the shooter was.
It seemed that the shooter had known his victim, and this was not a random crime. Now two children would be without a mother, killed by her former partner, presumably their father.
As we waited to learn the identity of the murdered woman, I could feel my mind desperately wanting to rationalize a reason that this woman was not like me. I irrationally craved psychological distance. I imagined that the victim was as different from me as possible. That she did not actually live in the neighborhood but across town. That she was a different race, from a different culture, spoke a different language–was as unlike me and my friends as my mind could spin a story. I knew this was unfair, and inaccurate, wishful thinking and projecting a sense of the “other” that was unhealthy. Though I was conscious of the inanity of these thoughts, I could not control them.
My husband called me over to see the news online that the victim had been identified, and her name was Chahnaz Kebaier, shot by Ali Cherfaoui. I did not know her. I grieved for her children but still felt that drive to put as much distance as possible between my life and hers. I wanted to believe that we came from totally different backgrounds and had nothing in common (therefore trying to tell myself that this could never happened to someone like me).
Then, on Facebook, came a bolt of tragic news was posted by my college sweetheart: across the country in Seattle, one of our mutual friends from college, Justin Ferrari, had been shot and killed “by a stray bullet” as he drove his parents and two children on a holiday weekend outing.
I didn’t know the woman who had been brutally murdered in Chapel Hill, but I did know Justin, this 42-year old father who had been senselessly, randomly killed in Seattle. The concept of “a stray bullet” seemed completely absurd. In my worldview, bullets don’t just get lost, go astray, or show up randomly–someone fires a gun, and it is almost unimaginable to think of someone shooting a deadly projectile without being aware of and responsible for the consequences. I thought of Justin, picturing him as he arrived at college in 1987, sporting a mohawk. Half a lifetime ago I had been his resident counselor his freshman year, helping him move in the first day of school, living on his hall, and over the year, learning to put up with his freshman antics and realizing that underneath his layer of bravado and bluster, he was a good guy.
The next morning as new details were reported in Chapel Hill, I learned that Chahnaz Kebair did live in the neighborhood, and she was a PhD postdoc researcher at UNC. She was a 40-year old mother who worked in academia and lived nearby, not so different from me after all.
Chapel Hill thinks of itself as “The Southern Part of Heaven” and most of the time it is a lovely, idyllic college town, a very nice place to live. But we are not immune to the hellish realities of abuse, domestic disputes, violence and murder. What happens to one of us does affect all of us, and we should always care, whether the victim is “someone like us” or not. Because each victim is special to somebody, their family, their kids, their parents, their friends. We need to live with the realities that violence can touch any family, even “good” ones. Sadly, Chahnaz Kebaier predicted her own death at the hands of her former partner, telling friends, “This man is going to kill me.” She knew she was in danger but was unable to protect herself from the man who was determined to carry out her murder. Without blaming the victim in any way, we have to wonder what else could have been done to protect her from her assailant?
I believe that my town is about as safe today as it was last week. Quite safe, most of the time. But when our “illusion of safety” is shattered, the question arises, what can we learn from tragedies like these to help people like Chahnaz and Justin? How can we as a society figure out how to stop guns from getting into the hands of irrational or dangerous people? How can we recognize and take action when someone seems to be spiraling towards violence, teach young people how to recognize what is safe and unsafe in an intimate relationship, help people safely leave dangerous relationships, and support families to help them heal in the face of tragedy?
My thoughts and prayers are with the families of Chahnaz and Justin and all those who have lost loved ones to violence; and I am also thinking about the elementary school students, parents, teachers and staff who will be working to create a safe environment for the children during the last few days of school, and work through these issues as a community.
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This article was originally posted at DoingRightByOurKids.com