We're a nation of knee-jerk responders

August 30, 2007

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On Tuesday, about 45 miles from where I live, in the small central Illinois town of Pontiac, there was what's known as a "gun scare" in a high school. What that means is there was no actual violence, no one was hurt, and no threats were made.

But a report of guns having entered the school led to 3 1/2 hours of chaos. The school was locked down, police and SWAT were called in (while parents arrived and waited tensely outside the building for their children to be released to them), a search was carried out, and six handguns were found in a student locker.

Three students were subsequently arrested and charged with various weapons-related crimes in connection with the incident. According to the police chief, one student planned to buy the handguns from another student (which were allegedly stolen his parents), then sell them in a Chicago suburb for money and drugs. None of the guns was loaded, and no ammunition was ever inside the school. So there was never an actual threat of gun violence at the school.

This quickly became huge local news for our newspaper (and massive traffic to our web site, which broke a new record for single-day traffic; people love this stuff). As the story broke and people waited for the lockdown to end, there were updates online, adding to the breaking-news excitement factor. We are a nation fascinated with these sorts of crises, and nothing seems to be more fascinating than when such a crisis unfolds in a high school.

The only thing that fascinates us more than a high-school siege, apparently, is the aftermath of such an event. Whenever something bad or threatening or scary happens, our officials and government are quickly looking for all the how-we-can-keep-this-from-happening-ever-again answers. The incident in Pontiac has been followed up in the two ensuing days with a very public police presence, metal detectors greeting students at the door, and a lot of talk from the town and school officials about beefing up security. Also a lot of talk about Tuesday's incident being a "wake-up call."

Today on our web site we have a photo of a police officer running a metal detector over a female high-school student. Very public, very visible, but will it be happening in three months? And, more to the point, should it be? (Side-thought: Has there ever been a female high-school massacre shooter?)

Certainly, if you were some sicko planning to stage a school shooting, you probably wouldn't do it two days after a "gun scare" when the police and press are everywhere and the town is in a frenzy. You would probably wait until things return to normal. Inevitably, they will. And in my opinion, they should. You can't live with a siege mentality forever. The Bush administration may want you to, but I'm sure most Americans don't want or feel the need to. This is not Iraq or Israel.

When something like a gun scare in a small-town high school happens, what are we supposed to do? I guess we do what Pontiac is doing right now: We react in the moment to make ourselves feel better — make ourselves think that we're going to live differently, with more vigilance, and therefore be safer. Well, maybe for a few weeks you'll live that way, but not forever. I don't buy it. You will get sick of living like that.

The simple fact is that you can't stop all bad things from happening, but the media is obsessed with the notion that it is negligence if you don't do your damnedest to try, even if the efforts aren't truthfully worth it given the slim odds of such tragedies like school shootings. Security is fine and good (and more necessary in some schools than others), but I just wonder how far people are willing to go before they tire of it. Is the Pontiac high school, in a community of just 12,000, going to live with metal detectors permanently now? How many incidents should it take before we start screening everyone forever? My opinion: more than one. Especially since there was no intent for violence in this one.

Anecdote. The weekend immediately following 9/11, a friend and I went to a bar. I'd been to this bar many times before, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the bouncers were being hard-asses. The bar had a policy that all jackets must be checked at the door. I was wearing a shirt that happened to have a zipper. It was not a jacket. The bouncer told me I had to check it. I argued, telling him that it wasn't a jacket. "If it has a zipper, it's a jacket," he said to me. I spent the evening at the bar wearing only a white T-shirt.

I had worn that zippered shirt to this bar before. And two weeks later, I wore it again. The bouncers didn't say anything. I guess it was no longer thought of as a "jacket," because 17 days had passed since 9/11.

I guess my point is: We tend to react emotionally in this country and frame it as responsible and reasoned preventative measures. Deep down I think we're just trying to make ourselves feel better.

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2 comments on this post

    You can't blame people for their reactions given what has happened in the last 10 years. Several school incidents, including Columbine and Virgina Tech, have given this country a bit of an uneasy feeling. It's worse when it happens in the first week of the new year.

    They thought you were going to hijack the bar and fly it into a building? They thought you were going to use your jacket to smother the bar-staff? That makes as much sense as me having to put my contact lens case in a clear plastic bag so I can fly on a plane. Clear plastic bags are well known for their bomb-proof qualities. I heard on the news yesterday that the 'committee' that looked into the Virginia Tech massacre have 'concluded' that if the they had had more warning, Virginia Tech could have save d lives. Sheer GENIUS. How long did it take them to come up with that 'insight', and how much were they paid. “If it has a zipper, it’s a jacket,” So he made everyone check those 'jackets' you wear on your legs too? And all those woman that try to call their jackets 'skirts' or 'dresses' had to check them too? So what happens if you are wearing a light summer jacket that has buttons so could pass for a shirt? This is the kind of nonsense that the terrorists want. We are doing their job for them.

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