Saturday, November 4, 2017

What Beijing Traffic Taught Me About Mass Shootings

I have had two trains of thought lately, their tracks criss-crossing my mind.

The first is from one of those jagged and confusing videos that people made with their cell phones as they were running from the Jason Aldean concert in Las Vegas.  A young woman is lying on the asphalt, propped up against a metal fence.  She's been shot in the leg and is bleeding badly.  Some people are tending to her as best they can.  They're crouched down around her, using a shirt to soak up the blood.

Meanwhile, bullets are cutting random and lethal paths all around them.

A police officer wearing a neon vest joins them.  He raises his voice just enough to be heard over the gunfire.  "Do you want me to stay with her?  You can go."

That's what he said.

So calmly.

And so kindly.

It sounded sort of like the way you would offer to help anyone with anything. 

Except he was offering to stay in the line of fire while they ran to safety.

And he was offering to stay with this young woman so that if she died, at least she wouldn't die alone.

There are so many scenes from that night that I've seen in videos or heard about from eyewitnesses.  And somehow that officer in the neon vest has stayed trapped in the net of my subconscious.  I can't let him go.

Kind.  Brave.  Selfless.

This is one train of thought that has careened through my mind all week long.  At some point, it is inevitably joined by another, seemingly unrelated train of thought.  But because these two trains insist on being together, I'm beginning to think they are somehow related.  When one shows up in my mind, it inevitably calls to the other.

The other train of thought is about traffic in Beijing.  When we moved there in 2005 I was amazed by the traffic.  The streets are overcrowded and the cars jockey with each other and bicycles and motorcycles and buses and pedestrians to make headway across town.  Almost no one in Beijing traffic is going to stop and give you the right of way.  Passage is something you fight for.

So the chaos amazed me in Beijing.  But what also amazed me was how few accidents there are.  Given how many vehicles are on the roads, and given how little regard they give to traffic laws, I would have expected to see at least one or two serious accidents on every drive.  But for the most part, people moved through the chaos unscathed.

I began to wonder if it's all as chaotic as it seems.  Or is there perhaps an order to it all, one that's not immediately apparent?

I spent a lot of time in taxi cabs observing the traffic around me.  And I began to see patterns.  I developed a hypothesis that there are some unspoken understandings between Beijing drivers.  They go something like this.

Rule #1: I will continue at roughly this same speed.  If I slow down or speed up, it will be gradual.  My speed will change no more than 10% in 6-8 seconds.

Rule #2: I will make no sudden turns.  I might swerve into your lane but I will do so at a gentle angle.  You will have time to make room for me.  Perhaps you will move into the lane next to you, or you will slow down just a bit to make room for me in front of you.  But everything will happen at peaceful angles.  My angles will be no sharper than 15%.

With just those two understandings - constant speed and gentle angles - Beijing drivers make their way through the web of highways and byways and almost all of them get home safely to their families in the evening. 

For all I know, there are statistics that say that Beijing roads are deadlier than others.  But still I think the two rules above make them safer than they otherwise would be.

Gentle.  Constant.  Peaceful.

Kind.  Brave.  Selfless.

These two trains of thought have swerved together in my mind all week at gentle angles, steady speed.  

I don't know what all of this means.

I do know that those bullets were moving at sharp angles and sudden bursts of speed.

I do know that kind, brave and selfless people are all around us.

I do know that we have the capacity to co-exist peacefully with each other.  Right?  

Couldn't we be constantly kind with each other for a while?  Couldn't we be peacefully selfless?  What about gently brave?

I think we can do all of those things.

And if we can't, I have another idea.

How about if we all just stop shooting each other?