On Monday, February 24, Sandra Wilson of Spring Valley, New York was buried. Wilson, 52, was a security guard at nearby Rockland’s Finkelstein Memorial Library. She was stabbed to death after asking a man to turn down his headphones because the loud music was disturbing other people. The alleged assailant, Gaudin Blanchard, was subdued by other brave patrons until police arrived. Wilson was pronounced dead at Good Samaritan Hospital a short time later.
Blanchard had been arrested back in December for attempted rape at another local hospital, Montifore Nyack. But at the time, local judges were already releasing suspects in anticipation of New York’s controversial Bail Elimination Act, which took effect on January 1. The new law eliminates cash bail for all misdemeanors and some violent crimes. For reasons not entirely clear, prosecutors missed a deadline to charge Blanchard with the attempted rape. He was released in accordance with the new regulations on December 26. He visited the library on Tuesday, February 11. Wilson leaves behind her mother, two children, a grandchild, and a grieving community.
Finklestein is Rockland’s largest library. Founded in 1917, it has quietly served not only the village of Spring Valley, but most of Rockland County’s residents, for more than a century. For those of us born before the Internet, the library was critically important. Every school project from elementary school through high school was researched there. The library kept up with recent technology, moving from VHS to DVDs and was transferring some research materials to a digital format. Finklestein grew larger to meet the needs of the community and added many services such as homework and tax assistance to the long list of cultural programs.
One thing remained constant. Finkelstein, like all libraries, was a sanctuary of sorts.
From childhood on, most of us have been taught a respect that approaches reverence for libraries. Libraries, like houses of worship, are sacred places in their own way—sacred in the sense of something that holds special value, a place where there is an implicit etiquette agreed upon by those who wish to share that space in peace.
This special agreed-upon peace—the actual and not confected “safe space” that the library once was—is now gone in Rockland.
In the coming weeks, our leaders will try to determine a course of action that will prevent future senseless acts of violence. But unlike the debates about this that are likely to come, the actual solutions are not complicated. Increasing security in the library itself through various means is one necessity. Local law enforcement is redoubling its efforts to get the Bail Elimination Act amended or repealed before there is another preventable violent death. None of these will bring Sandra Wilson back to her family, friends, or the community that cherished her.
Killings in schools and places of worship have been splattered across headlines in recent years. Rockland was not unique in that sense. In December, a synagogue in nearby Monsey was invaded by Grafton Thomas, a resident of Greenwood Lake in Orange County. Thomas is alleged to have begun wantonly slashing the congregation of Rabbi Rottenberg’s shul with a machete. No one was killed, but many were injured—some seriously. Congregant Josef Neumann remains in a coma as of this writing.
After the attack, the Orthodox community trained and armed individuals, and the state put in a security camera system. Blanchard is alleged to have pulled his knife less than two months after this attack on Forshay Road. Finkelstein Memorial Library is less than five miles away from the synagogue in Monsey.
A synagogue, a hospital, a library. These are not dark alleys. These are the necessary spaces we need to function as a civil society, and they are under attack.
All of the above share a common denominator. They are sanctuaries. Whether they offer religious solace or secular knowledge, they not only furnish us temporary havens, but such places offer us the tools we need to face the complexity of our lives and become more fully human. We may laugh at college students whining that they need “safe spaces” away from certain ideas on campus but at the same time we don’t seem to be registering the loss of the real safe places that afford important social refuge.
If “libraries are the thin red line between civilisation and barbarism,” as writer Neil Gaiman has said, then so are our prayer halls, schools, and other educational institutions. These bastions continue to fall to the violence of the barbarians who live among us because of our failures and misplaced tolerance.
Undoubtedly we need to attend to secure buildings and attend to all of their security accouterments—we need more than Le Corbusier’s “space and light and order.” There is, above all, a need to restore reverence for these places of light.
Our society’s ever-growing tolerance for violence as a way of life is untenable. New York has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, laws which are clearly useless against those who have a deep-seated desire to do harm. Neither is the sequestration of law-abiding citizens into ever-narrowing confines created by metal detectors and constant surveillance, a real solution. They can provide some security. But they are merely the high-tech equivalents of the walled compounds reminiscent of a type of feudalism we thought we had vanquished.
Laws are boundaries on behavior. The justice reforms in New York, New Jersey, and California have not only removed the jail cell’s time-tested potency to prevent crime, these “reforms” telegraph to potential lawbreakers that even serious aggressions such as rape and assault are not really serious social infractions at all; thus, those who commit them will remain free to commit more.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French diplomat, struggled with the economic inequalities inherent in bail. His analysis in Democracy in America (1835) notes, “A poor man does not always make bail, even in civil matters, and he is forced to await justice in prison . . . a wealthy man, on the contrary, succeeds in escaping imprisonment, even more if he committed a crime, he easily evades the punishment awaiting him.”
The solution was to let the nature of the crime and jurisprudence determine when incarceration is needed. Of course, this is still imperfect, but it was working to ensure public safety more effectively than removing cash bail in all but the most egregious violent crimes. New York’s bail reform took human judgment out of the equation, and with it went the cherishing of public peace.
In New York and other states that have enacted similar reforms, we are living under Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority.” The current justice reforms were drafted by New York’s progressive Democratic majority and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2019 and only have been operative since the new year, but already have produced devastating results. The state judiciary, largely stripped of their power, is now helpless to review and decide these matters on a case-by-case basis.
Progressive mores are often conceived and implemented in sweeping generalizations of the sort we see in Democratic-majority states. Tocqueville clearly was aware that public sentiment could run amok: “Popularity may be united with hostility to the rights of the people, and the secret slave of tyranny may be the professed lover of freedom.”
Tocqueville, like Jefferson before him, saw the threat that an unchecked legislature presented. “The tyranny of the legislature is really the most to be feared, and will continue to be for so many years to come. The tyranny of the executive power will come in its turn, but in a more distant period.” Clearly, when the governor and the legislature work in concert to bypass the judiciary, the problems New York now faces should have come as no surprise. Their lack of foresight comes with a body count.
It is tragically laughable that our colleges and universities congratulate themselves on creating places of pseudo-safety, when the real safe spaces that we had all along, are destroyed by the growing encroachment of our state government. The immediate solution is to restore the power of the judiciary in New York, and restore cash bail for those suspected of serious crimes. In the longer term, there is a need to re-establish schools, libraries, hospitals, and other institutions as reliable refuges that will once again symbolize a healthy civil society.