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.