The phone sits in the drink holster, next to the gear stick. I want Jack Dorsey’s dopamine hit as bad as a morning cup of coffee. But my daughters are in the back seat, so even at a red light I resist the impulse, and it passes. We’re on our way to a soccer tournament beyond exurbia. There’s no traffic, and all thoughts of politics slip from my conscious mind.
At a gas-station break, the phone emerges from the holster. A notification from The New York Times announces another synagogue shooting, this time in California. I look at my daughters in the car, with their ponytailed heads leaning against the windows. I walk into the station’s store and mindlessly buy junk food, taking my time and hoping that my fury will subside before I return to the wheel.
My daughters, who can’t see my face, have no inkling about the jolt of news. But I go silent, vacating the conversation, except for the fretful one taking place in my head. My mind turns over the memory of first learning about white supremacy, at age 7.
The bracing images arrived at my home in the form of a solicitation letter from the ACLU, an admittedly luxurious way to encounter American racial terror. The thick card, with pale-blue text, featured a black-and-white picture of a robed Klansman, an apparition sprung to life, sitting on a chair, holding a backwards American flag over his knees. My father was always matter-of-fact about evil’s existence in the world, and he explained that the Ku Klux Klan hated blacks and Jews, which meant people like us.
That week, my parents let me join them to watch a few minutes of a TV miniseries starring Muhammad Ali. The Greatest played a Union soldier who returns home to South Carolina after the Civil War. I don’t remember anything about the plot, which, according to Wikipedia, wends through the span of Reconstruction. But in the nights that followed our viewing, I would lie in bed replaying the film’s scene of a cross burning in the dark, until I would call for my mother. She would soothe me: We live in an urban fortress that the haters wouldn’t dare invade. Her words might not have survived a sociologist’s scrutiny, but they calmed my nerves.
As I remembered her promise, I thought about how I couldn’t credibly issue the same assurances to my own children. The haters had already invaded my family’s spaces. Inspired by crazed theories fomented on social media, an armed man from North Carolina drove to our favorite pizza joint—a place where the girls have gone to birthday parties and team dinners—and fired three shots, before surrendering to the police. This past weekend, a small group of white supremacists disrupted an author’s reading at Politics and Prose, our local bookstore. I watched footage of the young goons parading through the aisle where I browse recent nonfiction, shouting “This land is our land.” They were laying claim to the place where I take work breaks in the middle of the day, where my children have favorite corners for flipping through stacks of potential purchases.
Isolated paroxysms of hatred can be more easily scrubbed from worry. But the shooting in Pittsburgh was followed by the one in Poway, and prudence has dictated new precautions. After the Tree of Life massacre, my synagogue installed banks of metal detectors at every entrance. My kids pass through them on the way to Hebrew school. Communal celebrations require first emptying one’s pockets and a hand probing the tallit bag. Even in the most familiar of settings—the place where we celebrate bat mitzvahs and remember the dead—security officers must very politely assess whether we pose a threat.
Anxiety is the mind’s alert system, a mechanism guarding against the possibility that terrible things will repeat. Anxiety can linger in physical spaces long after the threat recedes, perhaps never really fading. What makes this fact so bitter is that these confines were designed for contemplation and vulnerability, and they now carry an association with harm. The mental toll of an era—of a presidency incapable of mustering opprobrium for neo-Nazis—has woven itself into the quotidian.
That night, after the long drive, we settle into a hotel room. Exhausted kids quickly fall asleep, despite the glow of my phone. I’m unable to escape the endless feed, even though I know that it will make it impossible for my own eyes to close.