Monday, April 15, 2013


Threats and Randomness

At this writing, I’m still reeling from the news of the Boston Marathon explosions.  Rumors are flying, and nobody yet knows who did it or why.  I hope that by the time people read this, we’ll know.

Here in Massachusetts, Patriots’ Day -- the day on which the marathon is held -- is a state holiday.  The marathon is a very big deal.  My next door neighbor has run it for years.   Last week my dry cleaner’s daughter mentioned proudly that she would be running in the marathon this year for the first time.  It’s what people here do.  (If you can explain the confluence of distance running with Dunkin’ Donuts, you will have explained much of New England.)  

Just a few months ago, about an hour south of here, a man with multiple guns killed twenty children in an elementary school.  Since then, we’ve had incidents resulting in either lockdowns or evacuations at several community colleges in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  And those didn’t even make the national news, unlike the spate of stabbings and shootings Scott Jaschik’s story covers.  

I don’t remember this happening even a few years ago.  

As a kid, the only disaster preparations I remember in school were fire drills.  A few years ago, I was shocked when TB came home from kindergarten and told me about “lockdown” drills there.  Now we’re talking about doing lockdown drills at the college.  We’ve had a threat assessment team for several years, and we’re increasing our attention to details at a level that I would have considered silly until recently.

Of course, schools and colleges aren’t the only places these things happen.  They happen in movie theaters, and shopping malls, and post offices.  And now in road races.

The strangeness of it is that at the very same time that acts of terror seem to be increasing, garden-variety crime is far lower than it was twenty years ago.  The stuff that’s statistically far likelier to happen to any given person is much less common now than it was.  Atrocities are more common, but individual crimes are not.  And the places where the really attention-getting crimes happen tend not to be places with high crime rates.  I’ve been to Sandy Hook; it’s not a rough neighborhood at all.

That’s why it’s hard not to process these acts as “random.”  They seem out-of-step with a larger trend.  

Of course, “random” is a loaded word.  Sharper observers have noted that when a person of color commits an atrocity, it’s assumed to be political, but when a white guy does it, it’s assumed to be random.  And “randomness” can hide all sorts of issues, whether they be a lack of mental health care, a surfeit of advanced weaponry, or a violated sense of entitlement that’s rooted in something old and complicated.  Where a meteorite lands is random. Atrocities are planned, even if the plans are opaque to us.

But denying the very real sense of randomness isn’t quite right, either.  For people just going about their lives, events like these fall out of the sky.  They’re devastating, and part of the devastation is the sense of helplessness that comes from unpredictability.  It’s one thing to avoid bad neighborhoods at night.  It’s another to avoid shopping malls, post offices, schools, and road races.  Agoraphobia is not a viable option.

On campus, we’ll return to the sad but necessary work of doing what we can reasonably do to keep people safe.  And we’ll just have to accept that at some point, that’s all we can do.  In the meantime, I’ll be thinking about my friends in Boston.

During my first stint in higher ed (2002 - 2006) I don't recall even once thinking, at the sound of a loud bang in the building, "what if that noise is a mass shooter?" What if that noise is a bomb?"

Now I think it all the time. All the time.

Maybe I'm the only one, but if I'm not, this does not speak of great future health for our society.
When I stroll into my children's elementary school to drop off their forgotten lunch box I've agonized about how easy it was for me to walk in and walk to their classroom. All I can think about now is what if I was a dangerous person, and could just walk in?

It's a part of the new normal.
The community collee wher I teach has had armed police officers besides security for the last two years. The officers stay mostly in the commons area. We practice lockdown. We have a phone in our room which connects to the security switchboard. Anyone can push the emergency button and security is on the way without a word being said. The switchboard can listen to what goes on in our room. I think of how different things were even 5 years ago. I don't understand what has happened to our society.
The first line should read:

The community college where....

I tried to type without my glasses.
As a chemistry instructor, many of my most effective and educational demonstrations involve things that go 'boom'.

I am no longer allowed to perform those demonstrations, and I cannot help but feel that my students are being cheated.
Post from offshore, I used to enjoy traveling to Fla for shopping and tourism.

I remember my sister being preoccupied with tornadoes a couple years ago before taking her children to Orlando.

She was supposed to run that marathon, but work schedules prevented her.

Honestly, I am afraid now to go to a large shopping mall or walmart.

the US has become a strange place.
You are young enough to have missed the 1950s when we dove under our desks because the Russians were coming.
What Eli said. We had regular tornado drills, in addition to fire drills, in my elementary school. Given the prevalence of tornadoes where I lived, I have little doubt that these doubled as nuclear war drills. Why? They stopped having them after there actually was a tornado in the area, which was also about the time that Mutually Assured Thermonuclear Destruction was an obvious reality.

However, it is true that the US has become a much meaner place, with paranoid people getting pumped up by national distribution of what used to be local events while others were encouraged to kill fellow Americans in the name of Christ or Patriotism. But I still have no idea how slaughtering school kids has almost become a meme.
"And “randomness” can hide all sorts of issues, whether they be a lack of mental health care, a surfeit of advanced weaponry, or a violated sense of entitlement that’s rooted in something old and complicated. "

Or jihad. Turns out they were muslim caucasians.

No mental health issues, no surfeit of advanced weaponry, no violated sense of entitlement.

I do think it's time to impose some restrictions on pressure cookers. No one needs that much cooking power.
I have no idea why I wasn't reeling but . . . I wasn't. People kill each other. A lot. They do it for the most moronic imaginable reasons. We've been doing it a lot, so it's pretty likely somebody's going to get pissed enough to start doing it to us.

Mostly, though, we do it to each other. Many more that two people died in Boston that day from violence. In Boston. That day.

Other cities, other days, same thing.

People kill each other. We put a lot of energy into encouraging the behavior, so we see a lot of it.

It is funny to watch the conservatives pretend that they think Boston is part of America, the way New York was part of America for like two weeks after 9/11.

The strangeness of it is that at the very same time that acts of terror seem to be increasing, garden-variety crime is far lower than it was twenty years ago.

Glyn Willmoth
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