Sunday, June 12, 2016

Open Up and Lock Down

Last week the family conversation was about rape.  This weekend it was about a massacre.

The kids don’t remember a time when there weren’t regular mass shootings.  They don’t know a world in which that wasn’t true.  I’m old enough to remember when mass shootings were shocking.

I remember being horrified when I learned that The Boy’s elementary school did lockdown drills in case of active shooters. I didn’t object to the drills, but to the fact that they were necessary.  At his age, the only drills I went through were fire drills.  In retrospect, I was part of the generation that came after the “duck and cover” nuclear annihilation drills, but pre-dated the “active shooter” drills.  We didn’t know how lucky we were.

We do lockdowns routinely now on campus. The campus wasn’t originally built or designed for maximum security; it was built and designed for openness.  (In the early days, Brookdale literally didn’t even have walls.  I’m not kidding.)  The whole ethos of higher education prizes autonomy, exploration, and risk-taking.  As well it should. “Open up” and “lock down” imply different ways of being in the world.  Now we have to balance the two.

In the popular imagination, it’s a story of toughness and heroism.  Clearly Identifiable Bad Guy arrives on campus, announcing his intentions; Alert, Well-Armed Good Guy thwarts him and saves the day.  But it’s not like that.  It’s not like that at all.

Read the first-person accounts from Orlando. At first, most of the people in the club didn’t even know they were gunshots; they thought it was part of the music. At the AACC panel last Spring on the Umpqua massacre the previous Fall, the Umpqua president said something similar: most students didn’t initially recognize the sound of gunshots.  

By then, of course, it’s too late. But good luck pre-identifying the Bad Guys.  If you don’t believe me, show up on a college campus during a class change period during the semester, and count the number of people with backpacks or bags. Then talk to me about security.

For that matter, count the number of anxious young men on campus.  You’ll find thousands, nearly all of whom are simply minding their own business, trying to make their way through college and improve their lives.  The Bad Guys don’t identify themselves.

In this case, the target was an LGBTQ club on Latino night.  That detail shouldn’t be omitted. In Sandy Hook, the targets were six-year-olds.  In Charleston, the targets were African-Americans.  At Umpqua, the targets were whomever was on campus that day.  In every case, the killer was an American.  

This is our problem.

The politics of it are complicated, well-worn, and demoralizing.  I don’t blame President Obama for his palpable weariness at having to make statements following massacres.  It has become a genre of speech, which is a statement in itself.  I don’t blame the rest of the world for noticing that this is the only country where this sort of thing happens, again and again and again, and our only answer as a culture is a combination of hand-wringing and bellicosity that repeats itself again and again and again.

As a parent and a human being, I’ll look for hope where I can find it.  I’m old enough to remember when the fact that the nightclub had a gay clientele would have either been hidden, or taken as license to dismiss the story.  That’s not true anymore.  The President of the United States acknowledged the key role of gay nightclubs in a community; that would have been unthinkable when I was growing up.  In its way, that’s progress.

But it’s nowhere near enough.

Community colleges, public libraries, public schools, and public institutions are swimming upstream culturally.  They stand for the public at a time when the private is ascendant.  Some will seize upon each new incident as a chance to accelerate the diminution of public space, in the service of a sort of security-driven cultural agoraphobia.  I think it’s time for us to reaffirm our commitment to opening up.  Yes, do drills; yes, take precautions; it would be irresponsible not to.  But the point of those precautions is to foster the kind of public space that makes community possible.  Don’t let the killers win.