By Renee Rasmussen
Renee Rasmussen is a student at The Catholic University of America.
I grew up near Los Angeles and now I live in Washington, D.C. So I have had my fair share of city experiences.
Last year, I was on the Washington metro with a friend when a fight broke out, and we were caught in the middle. I’ve been on a train where two men have threatened to rape a friend sitting next to me. Most recently, I have been screamed at by a stranger as she threatened to shoot me.
I do not write this to victimize myself or to scare anyone, but rather to put into words the reality of the constant fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The main reason the Washington metro system brings out this fear is the fact that, once you pick a train car, you cannot change cars but rather are stuck on that car until the next station. So, when a woman comes onto your train screaming (while smoking what you believe to be a joint), you are stuck. You can’t leave, you can’t move; you simply keep your head down and hope they don’t pick you to harass.
But sometimes, especially when you are sitting in the seat closest to the door (a rookie mistake I admit) they do choose you, and all you can do is hope the train moves fast.
So, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. What do you do now?
In this specific instance, this woman decided to pick me and my two friends to yell at, approach, and threaten. She even touched my arm at one point, after my friend asked her to, “Please back up.” While it was obvious her threats were empty ones, having someone in your face threatening to shoot you is nonetheless a terrifying and intense experience. Luckily, and I can only thank God, this woman dropped her jacket just as the train doors opened at the next stop, and my friends and I were able to get around her and change train cars.
This time, my friends and I were able to get away from the dangerous situation without anyone getting hurt, but who is to say the next time we are so lucky?
From experiences like this, it is easy to come away overly paranoid and jaded, especially when these kinds of encounters are becoming less rare. It can be difficult to align our Catholic pillars of charity and love when we are continuously harassed and threatened. When the homeless become dangerous, sadly usually due to drug addiction, how can we reconcile our Christian values with the fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
While I would love to write about how I see the best in everyone, the truth is these experiences have left me jaded and paranoid. I am quick to judge and quick to assume the worst because the worst has occurred to me and many of my friends.
The homeless question has been on my mind for a while now. Living near LA, I had my fair share of experiences with homeless communities. But someone who has a rough life and is down on their luck is much different than someone who is dependent on drugs and can barely recognize reality.
I don’t say this to sound insensitive, because it is truly heartbreaking to watch these men and women on the trains, and in the cities, as they struggle. But as a young college student, it is impossible to ignore the reality of an interaction with someone who might be dangerous. But is giving in to fear the correct response?
Many people on my train car gave into fear. While the woman was screaming at my friends and me, I turned and made eye contact with a couple riding on the train. They both immediately looked away as though they could ignore the scene unfolding before them by simply pretending it didn’t exist.
Normally, instances like this occur on an empty train; people usually target those alone so no one can help them. In this example, however, the train was quite full, and not a single person stood up to help us or speak up. They just looked away. While someone stepping up and speaking to this woman would have probably escalated the situation, as is shown by the way the woman became aggravated by my friend telling her to back away, the simple fact is that in that moment we were on our own and could not rely on our fellow “neighbors” to help us.
There is something especially terrifying about getting harassed on a train full of people. It’s embarrassing, and extremely isolating, even more so because there were multiple men present and all three of us were college-aged women.
In a time where fear-mongering has become so much more prevalent throughout the media due to the pandemic and political tensions, experiences like this remind me of the immense division all this has caused. However, this phenomenon is not a new one. My generation is not the first to look away when bad things happen to good people, and it will sadly not be the last.
Of course, my generation has the added flare of being immersed in a social media age with the constant threat of “cancel culture,” and many of us are just scared: scared of being the next outcast, or the next victim. We are selfishly afraid for ourselves and what the “cancel culture” will do to us, and instead of standing up to help, we look away.
So, I do not blame my fellow passengers for not standing up to help on the train. They were scared, just like me; but when will we stop being afraid and start taking action?
Then the next question we must ask ourselves is what does taking action look like? How can we stop being afraid and start helping those around us? What does helping those around us entail? Once again, how do we reconcile our Catholic values with the realities of the world around us?
I’m not writing this to tell you the answers, because I honestly do not know how to solve these problems. However, half the battle of winning a war is asking the right questions, and it’s time for Catholics to ask them. No more running, no more looking away; it’s time to stand our ground.