Stephen Kuusisto, essayist and poet, holds an academic chair at Syracuse University. His books include the memoirs “Have a Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey.”
The #1 question I get from strangers who interview me is, “If you’re attacked, will your dog defend you?”
I am a guide dog user, to use the terminology. I travel everywhere in the company of a professionally trained guide dog. It can prevent me from being hit by cars and prevent me from falling down the stairs. She can guide me around sidewalk detours and take evasive action when a child on a skateboard veers towards us.
During her training, she was introduced to sudden, frightening noises – her trainers fired an Olympic starter gun to simulate the sound of a car backfiring. She can do almost anything to keep us safe as a team.
I was thinking about this recently when I first walked into a supermarket after the horrific Buffalo shooting. As I approached the store, I heard two men arguing in the parking lot. They were madly angry. Their rage was radiant. I could smell it in the air. It was the first time in over 30 years of traveling with guide dogs that I felt a dark terror in a public space.
In general, people regard blindness as a terrible state of vulnerability. People imagine that without sight they couldn’t walk the streets or do anything in public.
None of this is true. But the impression still hovers. In turn, I am often told that my very movements in public are an example of bravery. That’s not true either. Blind trips are deliberate and safe, even in sometimes extraordinary circumstances.
There is no doubt that guide dogs are remarkable, especially under pressure. But I repeat: they cannot protect us from public violence.
No one is immune to rabies. But here I will risk sentimentality: the ease of movement in the civic square depends on the existence of a welcoming and even loving society. This is true for everyone. We must operate with the firm belief that the world will receive us – not as a tribute, not as an inspiration, but simply because we believe in circulating love.
The American social contract says that we all have the right to live free from harm, that the job of government is to secure our common liberty. While we keep talking about the second amendment to the Constitution, no one talks about the preamble. It comes before the amendments. It says:
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, to establish justice, to secure internal tranquility, to provide for the common defense, to promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
If our nation has lost the ability or the will to promote general well-being and ensure internal tranquility, then we have lost public space.
My dog can’t protect me from bullets. Unlike the World Trade Center, in a street, in a square, at any point in our public journeys, there is no stairwell she can take me to if gunshots ring out.
I have to imagine my destination in advance wherever I go. I refuse to believe that a place called general wellness is out of reach.
For those strict builders: the preamble came first.