PORTLAND, ORE. — Peace of mind is something I think about every day. It's great to have confidence when stepping out my front door that I will be able to move around the local environment without fear and return home safely.
But peace of mind depends on mutual trust from every citizen that as we walk the streets and conduct our personal affairs we hold the same basic views and values about maintaining a civil society.
Every time a violent crime or terrorist act is perpetrated on unsuspecting victims, when a sniper starts shooting or a bomb explodes, our collective peace of mind is eroded, along with our willingness to trust all the unknown people with whom we share sidewalks, shopping malls, and other public spaces.
Safety precautions and technology may encourage peace of mind but they can't substitute for it. My neighborhood bank branch was robbed a few years ago. Now thick plastic slabs protect every teller's window and surveillance cameras monitor the lobby. If I am gunned down while making a deposit, the videotapes will probably help police apprehend the guilty party and bring him or her to swift justice, but that fact doesn't make me sleep better at night. I would rather have no security cameras and no robbers to worry about in my personal universe.
Forgive my wishful thinking, but you don't have to look far in this world to see how cultural creativity and dynamism evaporate when people are forced to devote most of their time and energy to self-defense.
We have spent more than 200 years trying to build a society that provides everyone with ongoing opportunities to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and it hasn't been easy. A 1915 book entitled "A History of Travel in America" by Seymour Dunbar described the harsh conditions facing early settlers who crossed the eastern mountain ranges and headed into the western wilderness. It explained how the constant danger and anxiety affected their outlook and behavior.
Writes Dunbar, "They walked with a soft and swinging stride, keeping themselves always well poised, for no man ever knew whether his next move would be a leap to the right or to the left, a dive behind a log, a dash ahead or a rush backward over the path he had come...."
I had a frontier moment recently when a white panel truck resembling the suspect vehicle in the Washington, D.C., area shootings rounded a corner and sped toward my house. For an instant I froze, and then just as quickly relaxed, remembering that I live 3,000 miles from the mystery gunman. But I didn't take my eyes off the truck as it drove past.
Peace of mind can't be measured. All I know for sure is that I appreciate every moment I have it. And I am alarmed whenever I get the feeling it may be steadily slipping away.