Community vs. Individual Family Reactions to a Child Abduction

A parent’s worst nightmare just happened in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, a tight-knit enclave of Orthodox Jews. An eight-year-old boy got lost walking back from day camp, asked a stranger for directions, and ended up being abducted, killed, and dismembered by that stranger.

Horrific. Abominable. Utterly incomprehensible.

One can’t possibly contemplate a tragedy like this without pausing for a few moments to catch one’s breath, with a very heavy heart.

The big question is, how do parents whose children were spared this awful tragedy react afterward? Of course, the most common reaction, even for those of us parents who watch TV reports of this tragedy from afar, is to put each of our children into a tight, family administered safety cocoon. We never let our children leave the sight of one of us parents or a caregiver under our control.

That’s totally rational, and I don’t fault parents who react this way, but I think a total community reaction in which the community fights back is better. Our problem is that our communities – and I really mean old-fashioned physical communities, a.k.a. neighborhoods – are so weak these days that a strong, coordinated community reaction is usually unfathomable. Thus, the only way to react is individually, family-by-family.

What do I mean by a community reaction, as opposed to an individual family reaction? These horrific attacks on children are perpetrated by isolated individuals. In other words, they are not coordinated in a group. When strong communities take collective responsibility for the safety of their inhabitants, they almost always expose and deter these people.

I’ll give a couple of examples. My first is my own experience as a four-year-old being abducted and stripped of my clothing by a neighbor boy. Fortunately, in that case, I escaped totally unharmed physically, but I want to focus on the community reaction afterward. My parents let me play outside the very next day, totally surrounded by older neighbor kids, and the boy was grounded by his parents for a while. Our neighborhood’s parents, and, ultimately, our older kids, pulled together to fight for the right of me and other little kids to play outside.

Another example is the story of Lyman Place in the South Bronx, led by neighborhood activist Hetty Fox. The South Bronx has been one of the most crime-ridden places in the United States for decades, and in the 1970s, when “the Bronx was burning,” it degenerated into a veritable war zone. To combat this, Fox worked tirelessly then, as she does now, to keep longtime residents and extended families around and engaged, thereby making it a safe place for everyone, kids in particular. She explains the value of longterm residents:

You don’t have to wonder what’s going on with any situation, you have the experience of being able to spot what a situation is immediately because you can see when there’s a stranger who may be wandering around with ill intent just by the way the may carry themselves. . . If you’re a longtime resident you know the difference immediately. A new resident may see things and not know how to interpret them. So, they shy away from saying anything, whereas an older resident might speak up right away, “What are you doing here? You know, you have no business here!” They take an initiative.

As a result of Fox’s efforts, Lyman Places is truly a warm, welcoming, and safe oasis inside one of the poorest, most crime ridden areas in the United States. Every summer for 35 years running, children have played on the street there with no cars, so that all children, even two-year-olds, can feel safe and have fun without their parents hovering over them.

It will be very interesting to see how the boy’s Orthodox Jewish neighbors react to this tragedy. Right now, they’re understandably in total shock. Notes state Assemblyman and Borough Park resident Dov Hikind, “In a neighborhood like ours where our crime rate is almost nonexistent, where a boy disappears and is brutally murdered is beyond comprehension.”

I hope they pull together to fight to retain the safety of their streets, rather than retreat inside individually.

Remember how New York City reacted to 9/11? After the initial shock, the City, backed up by the state and federal governments, fought back against the terrorist threat. Every day, thousands of people still visit iconic tourist destinations like the Statue of Liberty, and thousands more continue to go to work every day in huge skyscrapers there. Knock on wood, the collective City-state-federal response has been effective at rooting out and deterring other possible terrorist attacks.

Just as New York fought back to avoid an empty Statue of Liberty and empty skyscrapers, I hope Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighbors fight back to keep their children on the street. Unfortunately, most neighborhoods waved the white flag long ago.

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